Teutoburg Forest (5)

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 (XVIIXVIIIXIX) were annihilated.

The battle

The Teutoburg Forest is one of the few ancient battlefields that has been excavated. Of course, several siege walls and fortifications have been discovered (e.g., at Nineveh, Paphos, Numantia, Alesia, Velsen, Masada), but Kalkriese is one of the few places where archaeologists have discovered the site of an open battle. This has greatly increased our understanding of the massacre in the Teutoburg Forest. Nevertheless, the written sources are still important, not in the least because the interpretation of many archaeological finds ultimately rests upon texts.

Map of Rome's possessions across the Rhine

As we have already seen, we have four sources. Tacitus describes the battlefield, but not the battle itself; Florus excerpts an older source but is not of great value; Velleius Paterculus describes the campaign that resulted in the disaster and gives several details, but does not tell much about the battle itself. Cassius Dio is the only one that offers an overview of the battle, and we will use him as our guide through the battle, noting where his story is confirmed or falsified by other authors or the archaeological record.


To start with, we should notice that Florus, Cassius Dio and Paterculus agree that Germania had already been conquered by Drusus, and that the Romans, at a later stage, tried to change the conquered territories into a real province. Paterculus describes the campaigns in which Tiberius traversed through the country. His successor as governor of Germania, Publius Quinctilius Varus, imposed regular taxes, as is recorded by the same three authors. Although the archaeological record cannot confirm this, it does not contradict it either, and - more importantly - does corroborate that the Romans had settled their legions on the east bank of the Rhine (e.g. at Haltern).

Florus, Cassius Dio and Paterculus suggest that the taxes provoked resistance among a population that was at first willing to accept Roman rule. They agree that Varus did not see the gathering storm, and Dio adds that the governor of Germania sent Roman troops to various places, instead of concentrating them on one place:

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.note

There is a problem here. Dio says that the legions were no longer kept together, whereas Paterculus states that three of them were destroyed together. The likely solution is that Varus, on hearing the first news about the revolt of a far-away tribe, regrouped his army. He was not intending to march to the north with a weak force, which shows that he was a more capable general than is sometimes assumed.


All sources agree that the Germanic leader was Arminius, a member of the Cheruscan tribe and until then a loyal supporter of Rome, honored with the equestrian rank. Dio and Paterculus add that Arminius' father Segimer also played a role. The rebels (or freedom fighters, depending on one's perspective) must have made their preparation during the late summer.

Not all Germanic leaders agreed with Arminius' policy. All authors state that his plan was betrayed to Varus. Dio does not mention the name of the traitor, but Paterculus, Tacitus and Florus agree that it was Segestes. What happened next is not clear. According to Paterculus and Dio, Varus refused to listen, and instead rebuked the man that could have saved him. On the other hand, Florus says that Varus summoned Arminius to appear before his tribunal. Perhaps we can ignore this, because Paterculus and Dio are usually better informed than Florus, who is especially trying to stress Varus' overconfidence.

Varus Sets Out

Dio tells that

Then there came an uprising, first on the part of those who lived at a distance from him, deliberately so arranged, in order that Varus should march against them and so be more easily overpowered while proceeding through what was supposed to be friendly country.note

Dio does not say which tribe revolted, but we can make an educated guess. In 41, one of the Roman eagle standards was recovered among the Chauci, a tribe living on the shores of the North Sea. Accepting that Varus' headquarters were at "the furthest frontier of the Bructeri" (which is more or less implied by Tacitus, who tells that later, the Roman commander Germanicus marched in the footsteps of Varus), Varus must indeed have been marching to the northwest when he was ambushed at Kalkriese. A rebellion of the Chauci is certainly possible, although by no means proven.

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.note

Mountains, ravines, trees: this sounds very spectacular, but we can ignore this information. As we have already noticed, like every ancient author, Dio was obsessed with the edges of the earth, where an unfriendly environment created the most ferocious and savage barbarians. Mentioning forests was simply a way of saying that the Roman legions were challenged by a formidable enemy. It comes as no surprise that part of the country near Kalkriese was in fact under cultivation.

On the other hand, there is no reason to doubt that the Romans were building roads and bridging places before the enemy assailed them. After all, they were making a real province of Germania and the construction of a road through the bogs on the planes of northern Germania would have been necessary anyhow. We can imagine that Varus' men were moving from, say, modern Minden (where Roman objects were excavated near Barkhausen) to the west, where they wanted to reach the river Hase. Following its course, they would reach the Ems - where his army could receive supplies from the fleet - and the Chauci. The area between Minden and Kalkriese was marshy, so it is certainly possible that the Romans needed to bridge places, cut trees, and build roads (pontes longi).

Day One

One of the traces of Dio's source is a remark that something happened "on the fourth day". He does not indicate the first day, but counting backwards, it must have been the day on which Arminius and his fellow-conspirators left the main force.

They begged to be excused from further attendance, in order, as they claimed, to assemble their allied forces, after which they would quietly come to his aid. Then they took charge of their troops, which were already in waiting somewhere, and after the men in each community had put to death the detachments of [Roman] soldiers [in their towns], they came upon Varus in the midst of forests by this time almost impenetrable.note
The march from Minden to the west

We already noticed that the Germanic leaders had asked Varus for Roman soldiers to assist them with all kinds of small tasks. These people were the first to discover that the attitude of the Germanic tribes had changed. Maybe the destruction of their forts and guard posts is behind Florus' strange remark that Varus' camp was sized. No other author summarizes the battle in this way and the finds at the Kalkriese seem to contradict it. Perhaps, however, Florus misunderstood a remark about the capture of guard posts.

Unaware of these events, the Roman main force proceeded to the west, still building a road, until it reached a brook called Hunte. Near modern Bohmte, the soldiers must have built the camp that is mentioned by Tacitus:

Varus' first camp with its wide circumference and the measurements of its central space clearly indicated the handiwork of three legions.note

Reconstruction of a Germanic warrior

Arminius could not attack this fortress. The Roman heavy infantry was stronger than the Germanic warriors, which were equipped with javelins, spears and shields. Perhaps only about a third used a sword. Legionaries, on the other hand, wore armor and helmets, and were protected by larger and better shields. The Romans also had javelins, and every single one of them carried a sword. These professional soldiers could only be defeated if they were ambushed, and there is no reason to doubt what our sources say: that Varus trusted Arminius completely and the Romans were not on their guard. Dio shows how unprepared they proceeded on the second day:

They had with them many wagons and many beasts of burden as in time 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.note

Day Two

The army must have proceeded to the Kalkriese narrows at a leisurely pace. Dio says that it was raining. Rainfall belongs to the standard-clichés about the edges of the earth, so we should be careful, but it may be true.

The soldiers now had to proceed through the narrows between the great bog in the north and the hill in the south. After they had passed the saltus, the army would move to the northwest and continue along the Hase to the Chauci.

Distribution of Roman finds between the great bog and the hill

Arminius' men had fortified the hill with the wall that has been excavated. As we have already seen, the distribution of the finds suggests that the Roman army was cut in two, when the head of the column was already marching to the northwest and the Hase.

Kalkriese: reconstruction of the narrow corridor between bog and hill
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.note

Although it is impossible to reconstruct the exact course of the attack, we can perhaps increase our understanding a bit by taking into account the typical marching order of a Roman army, as it is described by Flavius Josephus.note

  1. Archers and auxiliaries, acting as scouts.
  2. The advance-guard: one legion (about 5000 men), supported by 120 horsemen.
  3. Pioneers, who were to build a camp at the end of the day and improve the road.
  4. The first part of the train: the baggage of the general and the staff officers.
  5. The general and his bodyguard.
  6. The cavalry of the other two legions (240 horsemen).
  7. The second part of the train: mules with the artillery.
  8. The staff officers and the army standards ('eagles').
  9. The main force: two legions (about 10,000 men).
  10. The third part of the train: the baggage of the soldiers.
  11. The rear guard: mixed troops.
Reconstruction of a legionary

The obvious point to strike is #5, the general. Although Varus was escorted by bodyguards and followed by 240 horsemen, there were no other combatants in his neighborhood. If Arminius' men would succeed, they had cut the enemy army in two and destroyed the center of command. This would be a great advantage to them, and a blow to the Roman morale, especially when the eagles were captured. While Arminius' men charged at Varus, others would shower the two legions in the rear with arrows and javelins. The archaeological finds at Kalkriese do not contradict this reconstruction of the first attack, but we have written evidence (Dio and Tacitus) that Varus did not die on the first day of the battle.

The next phase - again: this reconstruction is hypothetical - would be a regrouping of the Roman army. Although the first attack must have been a great surprise, these soldiers were professionals, who were not defeated at the first blow, not even when they were fighting on difficult ground. The first legion would return from the northwest and try to join forces with the (remains of the) other two. Alternatively, the soldiers of the first legion, believing that they were the only survivors, continued to the northwest, and disappeared in the bogs.

The surviving Roman soldiers had to maneuver on a strip of land of only 220 meters wide, but the northern part was out of reach of the Germanic spears. The legionaries now must have understood that they could no longer proceed to the northwest, but had to take the easier road to the southwest, to Haltern on the Lippe and Xanten on the Rhine.

As it turned out, they were not able to destroy the Germanic position on the slope of the Kalkriese hill. The archaeological record suggests that there were fights at the wall, and the Romans were repulsed. The legionaries had to continue along the wall, and the Germanic warriors could easily kill many of them. We have already seen, the distribution of finds suggests that after the Roman army had been cut in two, the southern group was either annihilated to the west of the Kalkriese narrows, or recuperated and proceeded without archaeologically traceable losses to the southwest, in the direction of the Lippe. There is evidence that there were survivors who knew about fights in the Lippe valley.