Disaster at Teutoburg Forest – The Worst Defeat Of the Roman Armies, Ever!


The Battle of Teutoburg Forest was one of the worst defeats suffered by the Roman army in its entire existence not in terms of men lost, though many were, but in terms of setting limits to Roman expansion and dispelling the reputation of the power of the Roman army. The Romans were at the height of imperialism and had gained a large amount of territory under Emperor Augustus. Some of these territories were hard won but the Romans usually persevered in a territory until it was conquered until they met disaster in the Teutoburg Forest.

The beautiful Teutoburg Forest today
The beautiful Teutoburg Forest today

The Teutoburg forest in Germany is a mountainous region covered by a dense forest located just southwest of modern Hanover. The German tribes who lived in the area were quite mobile and often times did not stay long enough in any one place to cultivate crops and were able to load their possessions on wagons and go very quickly. Despite the nomadic lifestyle the area around Teutoburg held a large population of many different tribes most of whom were hostile to Rome.

Much of the area of Germany had been pacified a few years before by Tiberius who would later be the successor to Augustus. Tiberius had made a lot of progress in the area essentially conquering tribes and reconquering them if they revolted. Tiberius fought it Germany until 6 CE when he was called to end a revolt in Illyria and Quintilius Varus took his place in Germany and was known for a degree of cruelty and treating subjected nations as slaves of the empire. Varus was a confident man and would prove to be a very trusting man as well.

Varus initially had a great sense of security as he immediately went into German territory and spread out his legions in order to bring Roman law to where it was needed. The sense of security was likely because the tribes in the area had suffered many defeats in living memory and knew that they likely could not successfully revolt, though the hatred was still there. The other factor giving Varus a sense of power and security was his close advisor Arminius who was from this area but had been raised in Rome as a hostage. Once Arminius was in Germany with Varus he began to contact German tribes to set up an attack.

While heading back to the winter fort near the safer Rhine River, Varus was told of rebellion to the East, deeper in German territory. Arminius had advised Varus of this uprising which was likely fabricated and Arminius also proposed a quick route to get to the rebelling area which conveniently led through areas of dense forests and multiple valleys. Varus took three legions along with an equal amount of auxiliaries with an estimated total around 30-35,000 soldiers with a significant number of camp followers.

Statue believed to be of Arminius
Statue believed to be of Arminius

Varus marched eastward with his forces however the terrain forced the column to stretch for miles and become disjointed. Varus also neglected to stop to reform the column of march and with the dense forest, rolling hills and increasing fog and rain, the soldiers could hardly see what was going on with any part of the army other than their immediate surroundings. Arminius slipped away into the woods with all the allies who were loyal to him. While Varus and the rest of the legion were realizing that he was gone, Arminius was busy sending multiple contingents of Germans into position along the Roman line of march and sending word to all tribes that a Roman army was primed for destruction.

The Romans were in a very poor position and at their weakest. They have been marching for days in a long, disjointed column. They were likely tired and not in full battle dress. They had been fighting through the thick forest for most of the journey. With the heavy fog and rain turning into a downpour, Arminius attacked.

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