Part 1 of a Series
The Teutoburg Forest lies in northwestern Germany east of the Rhine River. It is an area of dense deciduous forest and rugged terrain ranging from 1,000-1,500 feet in elevation. In September of 9 AD, it was the scene of a massacre of three Roman legions—nearly 22,000 men including their cavalry. Many historians agree that the Teutoburg massacre was the greatest defeat ever inflicted upon the Roman Army—resulting in the near annihilation of ten percent of its 30 Legion force in just three days at the hands just six small, loosely allied Germanic tribes.
The renowned Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus (56-117 AD), who had never actually been in Germania, described it as having a horrid climate and consisting of treacherous forests and stinking bogs. He saw the more than 50 independent Germanic tribes as an ethnic unit of noble savages who preserved a culture much more egalitarian than Rome, where leadership was more informal and based on merit rather than inherited authority. He noted that the Germans governed themselves by councils and judges and gave especially high values to loyalty and family. They also had an unusual fondness for battle, and their folklore celebrated courage and honor in battle. Perhaps because of the Teutoburg disaster, he noted that they were extremely crafty. Otherwise, prior to the Teutoburg slaughter, the fierce and stubbornly independent warrior bands of the Germanic tribes were thought no match for the well organized and disciplined Roman legions.
Prior to the Teutoburg disaster, Roman legions easily defeated Germanic resistance to Roman rule. Around 6 AD, the first Roman Emperor Augustus (63 BC-14 AD) decided to consolidate and expand Roman control of Germanic tribal lands east of the Rhine River. This task he gave to Publius Quinctilius Varus, the husband of his grand-niece, Vipsania. Varus was not a soldier; he was a lawyer and administrator. His family was of aristocratic heritage but had declined in importance because of financial and political reverses. Nevertheless, with his connections to Augustus, he began to rise quickly in Roman government. In 8-7 BC, he governed the province of Africa. In late 7 BC, he was given four Roman legions to govern the province of Syria, which included Judea. There he gained a reputation for harsh rule, greed, and high taxes. The Jewish historian Josephus recounts his quick reaction in putting down the revolt following the death of Rome’s client King, Herod the Great in 4 BC. After occupying Jerusalem, he crucified 2,000 Jewish rebels, further advancing his reputation for ruthless cruelty and exacerbating Jewish resentment of Roman rule. A few years later, Varus returned to Rome. By 7 AD, he commanded three Roman legions (the 17th, 18th, and 19th), three cavalry cohorts, and six foreign auxiliary cohorts headquartered near Mainz on the Rhine River and charged with consolidating and expanding Roman control east of the Rhine.
Varus quickly began implementing the same high taxes and harsh authoritarian rule that characterized his governing of Syria and Judea. The Germans at first pretended to accept his rule. They remembered the easy Roman defeat of the Cherusci tribe by Tiberius in 6 AD and considered resistance to superior Roman numbers, weapons, and discipline futile for the small bands of part-time warriors that could be raised against the awesome might of Rome.
After the Roman Republic had been replaced by the Roman Empire, however, Roman rule had become more and more dependent on foreign mercenaries—35 percent under Augustus and surpassing 50 percent under Nero. The auxiliary cohorts and cavalry were predominantly non-citizens. These mercenaries came especially from the Celtic and Germanic peoples of Western, Central, and Northern Europe.One of these was a 25-year-old chieftain of the Cherusci tribe, who had distinguished himself during the extensive Roman campaign in the Balkans and had became commander of a cavalry unit—probably a cohort of up to 500 men. He was called Arminius, probably a Latin rendering of the Germanic name, Hermann, and was the son of Segimer, the ruling chieftain of the Cherusci.
Vellerius Paterculus (20 BC-30 AD), a Roman officer and historian, who wrote a report of the Battle of Teutoburg based on first-hand accounts, and who personally knew many of the personalities involved, described Arminius in these words:
“Thereupon appeared a young man of noble birth, brave in action and alert in mind, possessing intelligence quite beyond the ordinary barbarian, namely Arminius… and he showed in his countenance and in his eyes the fire of the mind within. He had been associated with us constantly on private campaigns, and had even attained the dignity of noble rank.”
Arminius had also been made a Roman citizen, an envied honor by which even the Apostle Paul claimed a legal right to be heard by Roman courts and civil authorities. In addition, because of his outstanding military record in the Roman Army, his high-level connections among the Cherusci, and his astute intellect, Arminius won the confidence of Varus and his officers. In fact, Arminius may have commanded one of Varus’s auxiliary cavalry cohorts consisting mainly of Germanic mercenaries.
Arminius, however, harbored a strong resentment of Roman rule and the cultural degradation and harsh treatment endured by the Cherusci and other Germanic tribes. Therefore, he secretly made an alliance combining the forces of the Cherusci, Chatti, Marsi, Bructeri, Chausi, and Sicambri to overthrow Roman rule east of the Rhine. (Later in history, these small tribes would be absorbed into the Franks, Saxons, and Alemanni.) Arminius had a secret plan based on Varus’s personal and military weaknesses and the meager experience in forest environments and warfare of most Roman troops. The Romans feared the vast Germanic forests, but the Germans knew the Teutoburg Forest well.
But no sensible and experienced Roman commander would try to march three legions with cavalry and baggage trains, a force of 22,000 soldiers and civilian followers, through a vast tract of rugged, dense forest lands. How would Arminius cause Varus to order such a difficult and dangerous movement of men, horses, and wagons? To be continued.