Thursday, June 9, 2011

Massacre at the Teutoburg Forest

Rome’s greatest defeat came in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, which I would rather label the Massacre or Ambush at Teutoburg Forest. To me, a battle results from a conscious decision on the part of two commanders to engage one another. There was no decision like that in this case because the Romans were not in a position to defend themselves.

The attack took place in 9 A.D. against the legions XVII, XVIII, and XIX of Sextus Quinctilius Varus who had been commander of Germania since 7 A.D. Normally stationed near the Weser River, Varus heard of revolts around the Rhine so he traveled west to investigate.  All three legions were wiped out, and when the seventy-two year Caesar Augustus was told of the debacle, he screamed for Varus to return his eagles.

Part of the intrigue of the story centers around Arminius, son of the leader of the German tribe Cherusci, who was given to the Romans as a hostage in 11 B.C. He was raised in Rome, eventually being elevated to a Knight. Arminius (in Germany he's called Hermann) was assigned to the legions of Varus as a trusted advisor, but in secret he plotted with the German tribes to attack the Roman legions.

Before we get to the massacre, we’ll need to talk about the Geography. The following satellite view positions the Teutoburg forest in Northern Germany.

It sits 130 miles east of Amsterdam, 70 miles west of Hannover, and 130 miles northeast of Cologne.

View 2 below shows a close up of the main area of conflict.

Key reference points include the cities of Engter and Venne, along with Kalkriese Hill, which was directly involved in the action. The majority of excavated Roman remains from the battle were found in the boxed area shown.

View 3 is a closeup of the area north of Kalkriese Hill.

As noted in the photo, there are modern towers which allow visitors to survey the battlefield and there is one spot marked as the site of the ambush. There is also a museum there. One of the important things to notice in this view is the relationship between Kalkriese Hill and the Great Bog. The Roman Army became trapped in the narrow corridor (estimated at 200 yards wide) between the hill and the bog. This proved to be a tactical advantage for the Germans. To make the trap complete, they dug a trench in the road so the Roman Army was blocked from three sides.

Lastly, we have view 4 which depicts the movements of the Roman Army during the battle.
I want to emphasize that my description of the course of the battle is based on the documents I reviewed and is, by necessity, conjectural. The antiquarian writers, most notably Dio, cannot be trusted. Descriptive data is sparse and the writers have agendas so one does not know where the truth lies. Lack of details does not change the major facts of the battle or its significance, however.

The battle opened with the Roman Army marching west into the Teutoburg Forest. Descriptions have the Roman force stretched out as much as nine miles in a narrow column. This seems logical since axe men would have been cutting down trees and the resulting roadway would have been narrow. When the army reached a point northeast of Osnabruck they were ambushed. Dio says that Arminius asked to be excused to check on auxiliaries but instead met up with the Germans to set up the attack.

The Romans were ambushed at 1, in the midst of a heavy rainstorm, and lost scores of men because they could not deploy adequately against the German archers. By the end of the first day, they had regained their footing and built a fortified camp where they spent the first night. Assailed again in the morning they were able to break out to the southeast and reached 2, a point north of the Wiehen Hills and northwest of Ostercappeln. It’s unclear whether they spent the night there, but that is a possibility. The next day the army resumed its trek to the northwest, still in heavy rain, arriving at 3, an area north of the Kalkriese Hill, where the final massacre took place. Trapped in the narrow corridor between the Kalkriese Hill and the Great Bog, the rest of the army was destroyed.

Three legions were wiped out with an equivalent number of auxiliaries totaling some 20,000. Most of the Roman commanders including Varus committed suicide once they realized there was no escape.

From a tactical standpoint there is no way the Roman Army could have survived this “perfect storm” of tactical obstacles. To reiterate.

1) ambushed in unfamiliar territory
2) unable to efficiently form into battle because of the disposition of the caravan
3) trapped in wooded terrain
4) double crossed by allies who could communicate vital intelligence to the enemy.
5) driving rainstorm during the entire assault

Would Caesar have survived this?

Varus was criticized as being more of a politician than a military leader but he must have had many good men under him. At the time of his death, he would have been the forth ranked man in Rome after Augustus, Tiberius, and Germanicus.

Footnotes -- The legion numbers 17-19 were never used again by the Roman Army because of the ill luck and disgrace of Varus' men. Two of the eagles were recovered in 15-16 A.D, while the third was not retrieved until 42 A.D.


Anonymous said...

Great Post and pics Mike

Ray Rousell said...

Fascinating article!

BigLee said...

Excellent post, very interesting indeed.

Doc Smith said...

Great post Mike and thanks to Paul for pointing us to your excellent blog. I had no idea that the Romans managed to survive the first ambush and actually build a fortified camp. Its a bit of a mystery as to why they tried to resume their march Northwest instead of retreating back the way they came, unless, of course, the way was blocked by the Germans. Pity there aren't any decent ancient records of what happened.


Paul´s Bods said...

I´ve visited the site a couple of be honest it hasn´t the feel of a battleground and the topography, even taking into account of the changes since, doesn´t strike me as an ambush site. There is a lot of controversy about this site...the coinage found etc and that osnabruck gets a lot of european money (10 million euros a year)due to it being there.
Several other Universities (hamburg /sachsen) have produced papers making osnabrucks claims seem very doubtfull.
Wether this was 100% the site of the battle is still not 100% proven...the archeological finds are to say the least...minimal. As docsmith mentions there are a lot of unanswered questions, perticually thoses where the logic of the romans actions is very questionable. One thing that would really help in the siting of the battle would be the finding of Aliso...find that and then if this site lies between it and Xanten /Haltern...then just maybe.
The terrain?, it would hardly of been a hinderance to the roman army...they were trained to move fluidly, making a break in thier lines to swallow up obstacles like trees etc and effectivly overcome them. Even in small tactical units they could fight effectively...the command structure allowed this.
The one real doubt in my mind is the numbers involved.
Roman legions typically left anything up to a third of thier people in a secure base,by secure this would have been within friendly territory, ie over the border. This would reduce the numbers to 12,000 plus baggage.
Even then this is a formidable fighting force...especially considering the legions involved...all veterans.
Any attacking force...even against a disorganised one...would need a mild superiority of numbers..or at the very least equivilant...which means the locals would have to have been some 12-15000...the population densities of the areas, even taking in areas much farther away would not have supported such a force (hunter gatherers, as is reported by roman historians of the time, "there is no power base to destroy therefore they are undefeatable")
This leads me to assume that the roman numbers at the actual battle were much smaller, legion strength maybe and that subsequent actions mopped up the legions at haltern, Aliso and other unmentioned smaller bases. This would then allow the forces available to the locals (given the population density problem) to concentrate a much more overwhelming (although not the 10000 plus necessary)force to deal with much smaller bundles of romans.
I have met Sir T.Clunn, and on asking him as to wether he was definately sure about the site being the battlefield seeing as there was a paltry amount of physical evidence connected to such a large battle...he was uncertain in his answer.
It ´s...however it was fought out, in my mind the most important battle in stopped any roman exspansionism westwards...laeving the empire with a nagging problem, which when later combined with it´s problems of the eastern borders, led ultimately to it´s collapse
A nice article, an excellent blog and thanks to Paul for linking it from his blog.

PS...I´d love to discuss this a lot more. If you want I can find the other university reports questioning the viability of the version that osnabruck gives.

Anonymous said...

Some good points there Paul.

I tend to put the defeat down to the poor leadership from the top, rather than the tactics used by the army.

I would also suggest the area was more wooded back then and this was an area that the Romans did not know about, which must have added to their woes.

Paul´s Bods said...

The terrain may have been a factor..but then again not. The romans fought over more difficult terrain when fighting the dacians.
Ok...they had a hard time in Dacia...but after a while they similar fashion to the swamping of the german interior by germanicus.
The leadership....also could have been a contributing factor but this problem had also been "ironed" out after the marian reforms...the individual units were more independant of action and tactics. The centurions would have quickly (being veterans) realised what was happening and taken local control..wether in groups of centuries or cohorts etc.
It was after all thier function in the legion..along with the legates.
I still think that the number of 18000 is very disputable....that is one massive force...3 complete legions!!!! It would have taken not only stupid commanders and dreadfull terrain but a massive amount of locals to have overrun that. After the initial shock..which may have lasted but an hour or so, the romans would have re-organised and gone on the offensive...the sheer amount of people available to them would have allowed it. If...the locals had of kept up a sustained attack..not allowing the element of shock and awe to subside they would have needed many many 1000´s more than the romans (local population density!?) to achieve this.
My reasoning here is the 20min to 30 min fight rule. After 20 mins of hand to hand fighting anyone becomes tired from a mixture of physical exertion and fear. They would have had to be "swopped" out...a tactic the romans used constantly. Ok..the locals my have learnt this (arminius) but they would then need reserves...many 1000´s of reserves to attack 18000 romans.
Not only that...attackers need at least (even in a suprise attack) a superiority of 2 -1.. The sheer numbers necessary lead me to think that the roman forces were much smaller..scattered in bases/camps etc and the "main assualt" on varus and a couple of thousand happened over 3 days but the legions were wiped out piecmeal over a much longer period.

'wulf said...

P's Bods, I liked the points you raise in your 1st post, I tend to agree with the probably lower estimate of fighting boots on the battle ground (shy of actual muster rolls, the estimate of numbers of combatants of historical battles ahs always been notoriously subjective to the bias' of the 'reporters'), but, having been a medieval recreationalist (and lifetime avid consumer of historical information) for all my adult life, I have fought in battles (...woods battles were my favorite!), in full armor (about 50#), with sword (3#) and shield (12#), for far longer periods before needing to pull back to rest- and that was in a re-enforcing position just behind the front ranks, not the rear echelons. Also, much time in battle is spent in maneuver and holding, it's not all a constant uninterrupted charge and counter charge (ie. not like in the movies!), especially in a woods battle, so I have to disagree with your '20 minutes' rule- especially if your life depended on it! Additionally, I'd like to point out that the 'terrain' we see today has been logged out and farmed over for nearly 2 millennia since the battle took place. Back then it was virgin territory, probably mostly as shaped by the retreating glaciers (site appears to be on the edge of the ice cap), so the ground was probably much more contorted than today and the forest was 'old growth', thus huge hardwood trees, with lots of deadfalls, vines, bramble patches, etc.. As to the 2-1 ambush ratio, it sounds like your stuck in a 20th century American military mindset, where even a ridiculously low casualty rate is not acceptable to the voters back home, and not looking at this from the perspective of a Teutonic warrior of the day, to whom a glorious death in battle, taking as many more enemies lives as possible, was the penultimate purpose in life (same reason the pagan Vikings and later Scandinavian armies were so effective against the forces of christian Europe). This also brings up the point that a large portion of the Legions were reluctant conscript recruits, mostly from warm Mediterranean climes (the Auxilleries , opposing passionately motivated men, trained from youth to be warriors, who were fighting to save their family and homes from the invader... No, a well set ambush has always been one of the best ways for a smaller force to wipe out a larger, better equipped one (as happened so often in Viet Nam). You also seem to forget that the Roman armies were geared for set battles of mass maneuver, not for the guerilla warfare they would encounter in the rough terrain of a northern European old growth forest, just like the British and Hessian troops of King George III discovered in the dense old growth woods of the American back country during the Revolution. You cannot consider history from the mindset of the modern world, you have to free from the present subjective and, objectively as possible, put yourself in their situation back then. Oh, yeah, and, btw, don't forget, us moderns would be looked upon as extremely weak and soft by our forbears, especially by the warrior tribes of northern Europe! When pondering the nature of past events, one has to set the mind free from the comfort of present subjectivity and, as objectively as possible, put yourself into the situational mindset of the past, otherwise it's just a modern fantsy... :)

'wulf said...

Ooops! That was supposed to read: "...climes (the auxiliaries, being mostly recruited from Teutonic tribes themselves, would probably have been more effective in such a battle than the Legions, but I doubt they were providing the full 'support' they could have to help the snobbish Legions), , opposing..." :)

'wulf said...

...aaand, sorry, didn't mean to be redundant about the subjective/objective at the end there, I was distracted and basically repeated myself... DOH! lol!

RubyLula said...

I'm doing my coursework on this, but with more of a focus on how further expansion was affected as a result. Could anyone help out with regards to what the political reaction was afterwards? Struggling just a tad :)

Mike Anderson said...


I posted a sequel to the battle on July 9, 2011 called The Teutoburg Massacre - End Game which discusses how Rome viewed the defeat. That will help you.

mtman2 said...

Spread out over 9 miles is not how Legionares are effective esp in a dense forest and swamps. They got stopped+stomped = FACT~!

mtman2 said...

Spread out over 9 miles is not how Legionares are effective esp in a dense forest and swamps. They got stopped+stomped = FACT~!