Thousands of Romans killed in the dense German woodland: What if the Teutoburg Disaster Didn’t Happen

The Teutoburg Forest on a foggy and rainy day. Nikater - GFDL

“What if” history questions can be a divisive. Some view them as an exercise in futility, a place where no serious historians should go. Others see them as a great way to explore the actual impact of certain events, helpful in determining which events and outcomes truly hold the most weight when it comes to changing history.

The Roman disaster at Teutoburg forest was a terrible defeat, with thousands of Romans killed in the dense German woodland and many soldiers subsequently enslaved. It’s a misconception that the defeat kicked the Romans out of Germania permanently. They actually led a series of punitive expeditions with mixed results in ensuing decades and the instigator of the ambush, Arminius, was eventually assassinated.

Despite further raids, Rome did not pursue Germania the same way as they did Gaul. The Rhine River was an easy place to fall back on; it provided a strong defense and one of the shortest barriers the Romans could hope for on their western European front. The Romans would face more problems from the Germans, however, and the fall of the West was further hastened by barbarian invasions through the Rhine, among other areas.

Yet what if the Romans had sniffed out the ambush? What if they not only avoided the trap but killed Arminius and gave the waiting army an ambush of their own? This is a far stretch to hypothesize that Varus could successfully trap or decisively defeat an army in heavily forested and hostile territory, but it’s worth considering as a possible alternative.

Such a resounding defeat of an army of Germans hostile to Rome would have combined with the execution of a German traitor who was serving with the Romans to send a powerful message to the whole area. Not only would many of the warriors against Rome be killed, but their defeat would silence those thinking about revolting. Arminius rallied a great many men to his cause before and after Teutoburg, and without him, the support would not have been the same.

Perhaps Rome would have decisively conquered Germania, as they had done before in Gaul. Many think that Germania was so poor that it would cost more to conquer it than could have been gained in plunder and tributes. While this certainly may be true, it is not a guarantee that the Romans would have withdrawn had they won at Teutoburg.

Map showing the defeat of Varus in the Teutoburg Forest. Image Credit.
Map showing the defeat of Varus in the Teutoburg Forest. Cristiano64 – CC BY-SA 3.0

The Roman conquest of Britain was tremendously expensive, and it was a laborious process to win over the scattered tribes. Germania had fierce warriors and difficult terrain, but a lot more was possible with this region. Iron, copper, and salt were all potential resources in the area, as well as a steady supply of slaves as the Romans pushed east. Rome was a land of farmers at its core, and Germania, with its many river systems, offered plenty of land for agricultural development.

The defensibility of the Rhine is the biggest argument as to why nothing would change. Though circumstances were different in Britain, the Romans chose to build Hadrian’s Wall in the north, rather than attempt to pacify the area now known as Scotland. The Rhine wasn’t perfect everywhere, but large stretches proved to be amazing natural barriers. The farther east you go, the wider the front gets until you get to the massive, often indefensible plains of Russia.

Germania would add a sizable and sensible chunk of territory to the empire in purely geographical terms.
Germania would add a sizable and sensible chunk of territory to the empire in purely geographical terms. D. Bachmann – CC BY-SA 3.0

While it is true that the Romans did have success in Germania after Teutoburg and still decided to move behind the Rhine, it could have been different. With the possible pacification of the nearer tribes, the Romans could have had a base to expand on the east of the Rhine. From there they had the Elbe River – no small obstacle.

The Elbe could have given the Romans room to move east and defend from there. It empties just before the Jutland Peninsula and east of the Netherlands, which actually became fairly Romanized.

Perhaps a better river would have been the Vistula River much further to the east in modern-day Poland, running from the Carpathian Mountains of Roman Dacia and flowing through modern Krakow and Warsaw.

Autumn in Teutoburg Forest. Photo Credit.
Autumn in Teutoburg Forest. Nikater – GFDL

The Carpathians are not as bold as the Alps, and have a few passes and lowland areas, but given the wealth of the Dacian region, perhaps some larger and more fortified population centers would occupy those areas. A problem area may have been the direct route southwest into modern Bucharest, but the desire to stretch up the Black Sea coast could have seen a solid presence here.

This would make the Roman Eastern European frontier a much more solid line instead of the winding thread running down and across the Alps. Germania is hardly far from Italy, compared to many of Rome’s other territories and would have better centralized Roman power. The Jutland Peninsula would still be there, as well as Ireland and Scotland, but really the only serious trouble would have come from internal revolts, which we’ll get to later.

The East was still wealthy, but the West would have the raw resources – bearing in mind that salt was imported from the North Atlantic quite often in Roman times – and manpower as the blend of Roman, Gallic and Germanic cultures would have produced a large agrarian population with an imposing battlefield presence. The military life of the legion would be appealing enough for a lot of the population and there would be less of a problem of foreign degradation of the armies if Germania was sufficiently Romanized.

Reconstruction of the improvised fortifications prepared by the Germanic tribes for the final phase of the Varus battle near Kalkriese. Photo Credit.
Reconstruction of the improvised fortifications prepared by the Germanic tribes for the final phase of the Varus battle near Kalkriese. Markus Schweiß – CC BY-SA 3.0

Lack of manpower was a problem when defending such vast frontiers, but taking Germania and as far as the Vistula would narrow the frontier and provide a total population gain of about 5 million, enough of fighting age to significantly bolster the legions’ potential manpower.

However, things may not have been so simple.

I have assumed that, under ideal circumstances, things could have normalized reasonably quickly with a decision to retreat to the Rhine despite a Teutoburg victory. Even with all of Germany conquered and Romanized, there would still be the possibility of rebellions and invasions. The previously mentioned Romanized area of the Netherlands did actually revolt against the Romans at one point.

Unfortunate campaign of Germanicus, unknown artist, circa 1900.
The unfortunate campaign of Germanicus, unknown artist, circa 1900.

Unless the Romans wanted to face the harsh environments of Scandinavia – and they had absolutely no reason to – the population there could have presented difficulties. If the Roman empire persisted through to the great warming period starting around the 900’s, then they would have faced the exploding Viking population. On top of that, the Picts of Scotland would still provide problems unless the Romans had the confidence and determination to take all of Britain and Ireland.

Finally, the massive invasion of Huns would have been quite difficult to stop, regardless of any power bases and fortified lines. Infighting, civil wars, and revolts were sure to continue. Gaul and surrounding regions proved to be powerful enough to stand on their own during the crises of the third century, a unified Gaul and Germania might pummel Italy down and just breed a system of Gallo-Germanic claims to the throne. A complete reversal of the outcome of Teutoburg forest could have made Rome so powerful that history might be entirely different today. Alternatively, it could have done no more that save the lives of the Roman soldiers present in Teutoburg forest on that fateful day.

Regardless of the answer you might reach, the question is certainly worth asking.

By William McLaughlin for War History Online