Teutoburg Forest and Varus’ Lost Legions
It was fall, 9 AD, in what is now Lower Saxony in Germany. Today it’s a civilized land, then it was Germania, a recently conquered barbarian province of Rome on the far side of the Rhine. It had been 40 years since Augustus Caesar had defeated Antony and Cleopatra in the battle of Actium, and Rome had enjoyed 40 years of expansion and victory. Lucius Varus was a young Roman Legionary in the 17th Legion, one of three legions under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus, his uncle. Lucius had never seen combat before, but this might be it. Some Germanic tribes were in rebellion against their new Roman rulers. The Romans were marching into the Teutoburg forest, three legions strong, over 15,000 crack Roman legionaries, with thousands of auxiliary troops including a body of Roman cavalry. The narrow track they were marching on was very muddy. It was raining, raining very hard. The legionaries had to march in narrow file down the muddy track, and soon were stretched out for miles. Lucius wasn’t worried , because he trusted his uncle Varus, an able leader and administrator. Better, they were being guided on their way by a trusted German tribal leader, Arminius. General Varus was so confident that he hadn’t even sent any cavalry ahead to see if the road was clear. What could go wrong?
As my esteemed readers have likely guessed by now, this doesn’t sound good. 15,000 troops spread along a narrow forest path in the rain. With thousands of camp followers interspersed throughout the column. Did I mention that Roman bows didn’t work in the rain, their sinew bowstrings expanded when wet making them limp and useless? And the mostly wood and leather Roman shields were almost useless as well. At some point Arminius announced he was going to take a quick mushroom hunting expedition, and he and his entourage road off into the gloomy wet forest. More than one Roman eyebrow went up at that I’m sure, even legionary Lucius himself might have begun to wonder just how many German warriors could hide in a forest this size. History doesn’t record what general Varus thought as his trusted guide rode away.
Well, Lucius didn’t have long to wonder just how many Germanic warriors could hide in the forest. Turns out it was a lot, thousands and thousands, maybe ten thousand or more. Arminius in fact had planned the ambush from the beginning, the whole rebellion was a ruse designed to lure the Romans into a trap. And trapped they were, the Germanic warriors attacked the column of Romans from both sides without warning. The Romans weren’t in battle formation, and even when they tried, Arminius had grown up in Rome and knew how the Romans fought and how to counteract them. The fighting was terrible, and the Romans by far got the worst of it. By nightfall they had been able to set up a fortified camp, surrounded by thousands of victorious Germanic tribesmen. Lucius was still alive, as was General Varus. Roman legions had fought their way out of worse places. And the morning they did, with dreadful losses. The rains continued, their bows and shield remained useless. Then the Romans tried to escape through another forest, again with Germanic warriors attacking them from all sides. They set up another fortified camp, but the situation was dire.
So they improvised, and made a desperate night march to escape. And walked into another trap set by Arminius. A fortified leather and wooden wall 100 yards wide was in front of them , a lake to their left, an unclimbable hill to their right. A reconstructed section of the wall is illustrated above. Germanic armies were before and behind them, there was no escape. The Romans tried to storm the wall with their last best warriors. It failed. The Roman second in command fled with the cavalry, but they were quickly overtaken and killed by Germanic riders. Germanic warriors closed in on the trapped and disintegrating Roman legions. Many of the Roman officers including General Varus fell on their swords or died fighting, the ones that were captured regretted they hadn’t fallen on their swords, what the Germans did to them was far worse. Most of the Roman camp followers and soldiers were killed, a small number were enslaved. Including Lucius and some of his friends. All sources agree the Roman defeat was total, the entire army was killed or captured. When Emperor Augustus was told the news it is reported he pounded his head against the walls of his palace shouting: Quintili Vare, legiones redde! (‘Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!’).
And thus ended 40 years of Roman expansion. The Germans destroyed the few Roman cities and forts in Germania, what Romans could escape south of the Rhine did. The battle standards of three legions had been captured, the shame of the loss was so great that the legions were never reconstituted, an unprecedented occurrence. The Romans did get revenge though. In 14-16 AD huge Roman armies invaded Germania and crushed Arminius’ forces in several battles. They captured his pregnant wife, destroyed his coalition, and recaptured two of the lost standards. They found piles of bleached bones at the Teutonburg Forest battle site, and buried them with honours. This was the end of any threat posed by Arminius, his attempt to unite the German tribes was broken, and soon he was murdered by jealous rivals. In 41 AD another Roman campaign was conducted, and the third standard was recovered.
And the last chapter in this story takes place around 50 AD. The Chatti, one of Arminius’ former coalition of Germanic tribes, started raiding Roman lands. Bad idea. The Romans raised two armies, invaded Germania, trapped the Chatti tribe between them, and annihilated them. And what did they find when they overran the Chatti forces? Lucius and his friends, captured and enslaved by the Germans in the Battle of Teutonburg forest forty years earlier! Apparently both the rescuers and the rescued were incredibly surprised by this. Never in their wildest dreams did the victorious Romans expect to find survivors from Varus’ lost legions. The Romans had been held has slaves for forty years, they never expected to be rescued. It’s a pretty good bet that Lucius and his friends experienced almost unimaginable joy, they must have thought they were dreaming at first.
Have a good Memorial Day everyone.
(The above image is from Wikipedia and is used legally in accordance with their stated guidelines. The story above is accurate in the big details, but many particulars of the events chronicled are still unknown. So while I write above with certainty, in fact some of the above is simply the best modern speculation based on fragmented history and modern archaeological findings. I also used poetic license in two cases. Lucius the individual is fictional, though the Romans did indeed discover and free some captured legionaries from Varus’ lost legions forty years after the fact. And Arminius was believed to have left the Romans the night before their march began.)