Battle in the Teutoburg Forest (Latin Saltus Teutoburgiensis): the defeat of the Roman commander Publius Quintilius Varus against the Germanic tribesmen of the Cheruscian leader Arminius in 9 CE. In this battle, three legions (XVII, XVIII, XIX) were annihilated.
Written sources: some first conclusions
As we have seen above, there are four sources for the battle in the Teutoburg Forest, which contain important information:
- Velleius Paterculus knew many people that had perished, had visited the country several times, and was able to interview survivors;
- Tacitus used the History of the Germanic Wars by Pliny the Elder, who had liberated survivors and must have debriefed them;
- Florus seems to have used a source written between 17 and 40, when the memory of the battle was still fresh and truth could not easily be manipulated;
- the source of Cassius Dio is unknown, but it is his general practice to use contemporary sources and summarize them carefully.
Of course there are discrepancies and errors. This is only to be expected. General Publius Quinctilius Varus had committed suicide and the officers had been tortured to death; the only survivors were common soldiers, brave men but lacking the overall perspective of the commanders. The discrepancies reflect their different positions during the chaotic battle, and are in fact proof that our authors are not simply repeating imperial propaganda.
On the other hand, no ancient author could resist the temptation to add some color to his story. The story of a military defeat in a faraway country was inevitably adorned with descriptions of large forests, sacred groves and holy trees, because the Greek and Roman authors were obsessed with the forests on the edges of the earth. An accurate description of the battle's topography is therefore not to be expected. Another reason is that the soldiers did not really know what was going on and cannot have informed people like Velleius Paterculus and Pliny the Elder about the precise whereabouts of the Teutoburg Forest - if it was a forest at all.
Yet, the following information from our sources can be accepted as more or less correct.
- The battle took place in 9, probably in September. It took place near a place called saltus Teutoburgiensis. The second element is indeed a Germanic word (teut means people, burg means fortress). The first element, saltus, is usually translated as "forest", but can also mean "narrows".note[Saltus as "narrows": e.g. Livy 36.17, and Livy, Periochae 22.8, 49.13, and 67.8.]
- There were large marshes, and the rivers Ems and Lippe originated in the neighborhood of the battlefield.
- Three legions were destroyed. Tacitus mentions that the Nineteenth Legion lost its standard and an inscription refers to an officer from the Eighteenth who was missing in action. Both legions disappear from our record after 9. The third legion must have been the Seventeenth, but it must be stressed that the existence of this unit is in fact an (extremely likely) hypothesis.
- Three units of cavalry were also destroyed. This is only mentioned by Velleius Paterculus, but there is no reason to doubt it.
- The Germanic leaders were Arminius and Segimer. They were successful because Varus trusted them and did not believe Segestes' report that they were preparing a rebellion.
- Several Germanic tribes were involved, but we can only be certain about the Cherusci, the Bructeri and Marsi. The presence of the first tribe can be deduced from the fact that Arminius and Segimer belonged to this ethnic group; the Bructeri must have joined in the war because a military standard was found in their country.
- According to Cassius Dio, a standard was found among the Chauci in 40/41.note[Cassius Dio, Roman History, 60.8.7.] This would suggest that this tribe was also present in the Teutoburg Forest, but unfortunately, most manuscripts of Dio give another name (Maurousios - clearly an error) and the Kauchoi are mentioned in only one manuscript, which is now lost but was known to the sixteenth-century scholar Johann Löwenklau. The presence of the Chauci is plausible, but not really proven.
Three authors (Paterculus, Florus, Dio) agree that the cause of the Germanic revolt was the fact that the Roman governor Varus had imposed tribute.