“The Romans were holding portions of it (Germania) — not entire regions, but merely such districts as happened to have been subdued, so that no record has been made of the fact — and soldiers of theirs were wintering there and cities were being founded. The barbarians were adapting themselves to Roman ways, were becoming accustomed to hold markets, and were meeting in peaceful assemblages. They had not, however, forgotten their ancestral habits, their native manners, their old life of independence, or the power derived from arms.”
~~ Cassius Dio ~~
On the 9th September A.D. 9, occurred a battle that would change the course of world history and stop the world`s greatest super power dead in it`s tracks, never to recover from the catastrophic defeat of it`s arms in the dark, impenetrable Teutoburg Forest, Germany.
The Roman Imperium was inexorably stretching outwards the wings of it`s eagle towards the lands of eastern Europe and deep into the tribal heartlands of the Barbaricum beyond the Rhine. They were patient in the careful nurturing of Roman culture among the occupied German tribes they had overrun in the Legions race to the River Elbe, which would be the temporary holding point before another forward push.
But a new governor, Quintilius Varus had arrived on the scene who required Romanisation of the locals to be speeded up, and as the informative words of the Roman historian Cassius Dio shows, this was his first big mistake…………..
“Besides issuing orders to them as if they were actually slaves of the Romans, he exacted money as he would from subject nations. To this they were in no mood to submit, for the leaders longed for their former ascendancy and the masses preferred their accustomed condition to foreign domination. Now they did not openly revolt since they saw there were many Roman troops near the Rhine and many within their own borders; instead, they received Varus, pretending they would do all he demanded of them, and thus they drew him far away from the Rhine into the land of the Cherusci, toward the Visurgis, and there by behaving in a most peaceful and friendly manner led him to believe that they would live submissively without the presence of soldiers.”
Like his powerful and influential patrons in Rome, Varus thought occupying Germany would be easy; he may have had a reputation as a good administrator, but he was not a soldier; and so to send this pen pusher into an on-going war zone was a huge blunder by the emperor Augustus which would have an incalculable future cost to the prestige of Rome.
The German frontier held a deep emotional allure for Augustus, who saw it`s inhabitants as little more than illiterate, dirty, uncultured, savage scum, and viewed all the lands east of the nominal borders of the Imperium as ripe for the picking. Once Germany had been occupied and subdued he would not stop there, but push on into the open lands beyond and bring all within the power of Roman armies.
“Consequently (Varus) did not keep his legions together, as was proper in a hostile country, but distributed many of the soldiers to helpless communities, which asked for them for the alleged purpose of guarding various points, arresting robbers, or escorting provision trains. Among those deepest in the conspiracy and leaders of the plot and of the war were Arminius and Segimerus, who were his constant companions and often shared his mess. He accordingly became confident, and expecting no harm, not only refused to believe all those who suspected what was going on and advised him to be on his guard, but actually rebuked them for being needlessly excited and slandering his friends.”
Arminius was a 25 year old prince from the Cherusci tribe and spoke Latin and was familiar with Roman military tactics; he was the kind of man Rome relied upon in the Barbaricum for his advice and inside information. His motives are obscure, but most historians think he harboured a long held ambition to be king of his tribe; all of this was hidden from the Romans who had rewarded his valour on the battlefield with citizenship and the rank of knight. On that fateful September day he and his cavalry were deputed to ride ahead of the unsuspecting legions and rally his own tribesmen to dampen down the mounting rebellion against Varus`s heavy handed behaviour.
He was leading Varus and his 3 Legions and Auxiliaries comprising around 20,000 men, into a specially prepared, fortified killing-zone from which there would be no escape. Along obscure, damp, dark and misty pathways he led the legions and their idiot commander to their deaths, as the nearest legionary base was now some 60 miles to the southwest and out of reach if immediate help were needed. But Varus was cock-sure of himself and his German allies; the power of his office was backed up by the dread name and reputation of the most destructive and murderous fighting machine in history – what could possibly go wrong?
“The mountains had an uneven surface broken by ravines, and the trees grew close together and very high. Hence, the Romans even before the enemy assailed them, were having a hard time of it felling trees, building roads, and bridging places that required it. They had with them many wagons and many beasts of burden as in times of peace; moreover, not a few women and children and a large retinue of servants were following them — one more reason for their advancing in scattered groups. Meanwhile a violent wind and rain came up that separated them still further, while the ground, that had become slippery around the roots and logs, made walking very treacherous for them, and the tops of the trees kept breaking off and falling down, causing much confusion. While the Romans were in such difficulties, the barbarians suddenly surrounded them on all sides at once, coming through the densest thickets, as they were acquainted with the paths. At first they hurled their volleys from a distance; then, as no one defended himself and many were wounded, they approached closer to them. For the Romans were not proceeding in any regular order, but were mixed in helter-skelter with the wagons and the unarmed, and so, being unable to form readily anywhere in a body, and being fewer at every point than their assailants, they suffered greatly and could offer no resistance at all.”
In open country, the superbly drilled and disciplined Roman legions would probably have prevailed despite being greatly outnumbered; Roman armies had more than once destroyed enemies ten times their number in open battle; but this was a dense, compact forested site without the option of manoeuvre for survival. They were all dead meat. Varus understood there was no escape, and rather than face the humiliation of surrender, torture and a certain very painful death, he chose suicide. Most of his commanders followed suit leaving their troops leaderless on the killing field.
“An army unexcelled in bravery, the first of Roman armies in discipline, in energy, and in experience in the field, through the negligence of it`s general, the perfidy of the enemy, and the unkindness of fortune……..was exterminated almost to a man by the very enemy whom it had always slaughtered like cattle..”
~~ Velleius Paterculus, A.D.30 ~~
Varus and his commanders were dead……………….
“When news of this had spread, none of the rest, even if he had any strength left, defended himself any longer. Some imitated their leader, and others, casting aside their arms, allowed any who pleased to slay them; for to flee was impossible, however much one might desire to do so. Every man, therefore, and every horse was cut down without fear of resistance.”
Only a handful of survivors managed to escape into the forest and make their way to safety. The historian Suetonius writing a century after the battle described it as the defeat “that nearly wrecked the empire.” Roman writers were baffled by the disaster, unable to wrap their heads (so full of innate Roman superiority and arrogance) around an event that seemed to have had supernatural causes; how else could anyone explain away such a monumental defeat of Roman arms by a bunch of dirt scraping savages.
Although Romans blamed the imbecilic Varus, or the treachery of Arminius, in truth, local societies were much more complex, informed, dynamic, adaptable, socially and militarily more organised than Rome thought.
More than 10 percent of the imperial field army had been wiped out – it`s mythical invincibility shattered and carried to the four corners of the world. Rome would never again venture across the Rhine and attempt any further conquests as it hunkered down in a centuries long face-off against the untamed forces which lay beyond the Imperium. Latin culture would survive the demise of the empire, but it would be preserved and infused with the cultural dynamism of the Germanic Goths who would overrun and inject a tired, old world on it`s last legs with a new, invigorating energy which would refresh and launch a new European mixed heritage into a different future and ultimately change the world into it`s own image.
This is the lasting legacy of one of the greatest and most decisive battles in history; the world we now live in can be traced back to that day in 9 A.D. when a new future was unknowingly born.