The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest

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Podcast Transcript

Today in Western Europe, there is a line that divides speakers of Germanic languages and speakers of Romance languages. While that line has shifted over time, its existence can be traced back to a battle that took place over 2000 years ago. 

That battle rocked the Roman Empire to its core, and finally set limits for how big the empire could grow. 

Learn more about the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest and how its impact can still be seen today, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

One of the common themes that keep popping up in various episodes of this show is how the modern world is still influenced by things that happened in the distant past. 

It is only through the lens of time that we can figure out what events were big and what events were both big and significant. 

A good example would be the Battle of Cannae that I previously did an episode on. Hannibal and the Carthaginians wiped out an enormous Roman army in a battle that caused Rome to suffer an existential crisis. In the big scheme of things, however, even though that battle is still studied by military commanders today, it didn’t end up deciding the war. 

It was big, but it wasn’t significant.

The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest is another very important moment in Roman history. As with the Battle of Cannae, it was a big moment, but unlike Cannae, it also had a lasting impact. 

To understand how the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest came about, we first have to understand how Rome got to this point. 

By the time Augustus became the first emperor, Rome controlled everything around the Mediterranean, save for parts of North Africa around modern-day Algeria and Morocco

In Europe, they controlled almost all of the Iberian Peninsula save for the North, all of Gaul, and Greece

There were, and forever would be, two areas that Rome couldn’t conquer: Parthia in the east, and Germany in the north. 

While conquering Parthia was a Roman dream, it was far away. Germany was not far from Rome, and they shared a long border with it. 

Germany wasn’t a unified country. It was a collection of tribes that more often than not quarreled with each other. The Romans had been fighting with German tribes for a century, but things had picked up starting in about 16 BC. 

The de facto border between the Roman Empire and the German lands was the Rhine River.  Most of the Roman campaigns during this period were in what is today Western Germany, east of the Rhine. 

The Romans were able to control the tribes near the border. They would tax them, and they would hold the children of tribal leaders as hostages. By hostage, this means they were taken to Rome, raised by a Roman family, and given a Roman education. 

This is where the first character enters the story. A German by the name of Arminius, or as he is known in German, Hermann. Yes, Hermann the German. 

Arminius was the son of Segimerus, the chief of the Cherusci Tribe.

His father had to give him up as a tribute to Rome, and Arminius was sent to Rome to be raised. 

From all external appearances, Arminius was an excellent Roman. He learned Latin, became a Roman citizen, received a military education, joined the army, and was named an eques, which was the Roman equivalent of being a knight. 

He knew the Roman military system inside and out, but he never forgot the fact that he was German. 

Nor did the Romans forget this fact.

In the year 4, he was given command of a unit made up of his fellow Cherusci tribesmen that fought in the Balkans

In the year 7, he was sent up to Germany to serve under the commander and governor for the region, Publius Quinctilius Varus. 

Varus had a pretty accomplished career. He had been the Governor of both Africa and Syria. He gained notoriety for ruthlessly quashing a rebellion in Judea. He famously crucified 2,000 Jewish rebels. 

When the future Emperor Tiberius declared the lands to the East of the Rhine pacified, Augustus declared it the new Roman Province of Germania. 

In the year 7, Augustus appointed Varus the first governor of Germania.

Just as Varus was taking over in Germania, and Armenius was sent to serve under him, eight legions were sent from Germania down to the Balkans where it was felt they were more needed suppressing what was known as the Great Illyrian Revolt. 

In fact, about half of all the legions in the Roman world were sent there. 

This left Varus with just three legions in Germania, the XVII, XVIII, and XIX,  which consisted of a total of 15,000 to 20,000 men. 

Arminius’s job under Varus was to serve as a representative to the German tribes. Because Arminius knew their language and customs and was also a Roman soldier, it was felt that he could serve as the perfect go-between. 

However, Arminius wasn’t just serving as a Roman representative. While he was visiting the various tribes, he was actually creating an alliance. 

All the while, he became one of Varus’s top advisors on German affairs. He was earning the trust of Varus while he was organizing all of the Germanic tribes to work together to fight the Romans. 

He was working on a plan which would once and for all get the Romans out of Germany.

In September of the year 9, Varus was going to be moving his legions from their summer headquarters to their winter camp near the Rhine River. 

In the middle of the march to their winter camp, Arminius came to Varus with news of an emergency that required his attention. He said there was a rebellion amongst German tribes. 

Varus decided to reroute all three of his legions to get to the rebellious area as soon as possible. That route took him and his three legions through an area that the Romans weren’t familiar with. A place called the Teutoburg Forest. 

One of the leaders of the Cherusci, a man named Segestes, warned Varus about Arminius’s plan before they set out, and suggested that he arrest Arminius and all the other tribal chiefs. 

However, Varus simply didn’t believe that such a thing was possible, so he ignored his advice of Segestes. 

Arminius from his training knew that Romans were not equipped to fight in wooded terrain. A Roman legion was designed to fight as a unit in open spaces where they could maneuver and fight as a cohesive unit. It was standard Roman tactics not to fight in forests. 

Inside the forest, the Germans were waiting for them, ready to spring their trap. 

The Romans were not marching in formation and they were interspersed with camp followers, who would usually walk behind the soldiers. Varus had also not sent any reconnaissance ahead, so they had no clue what they were walking into. 

The path was narrow and muddy, so the Romans couldn’t organize to fight as a unit even if they wanted to.

The Germans were still outnumbered, but they had the element of surprise and were able to mass their forces and pick off the Romans who were stretched out along the trail. 

The battle lasted for three days. The Germans had the high ground for almost all of the fight. 

The Germans had also built fortifications at key points along the route where they knew the Romans might be able to reassemble to mount a counterattack.

Even when some Roman units were able to escape, most of them were cut down by other German tribes waiting outside the forest. 

On the third day, Publius Quinctilius Varus killed himself, taking the honorable Roman death in defeat. When word spread among the remaining Romans, morale collapsed. 

Those that weren’t killed in battle were sacrificed in Germanic pagan ceremonies or were enslaved. 

The end result was the complete annihilation of three Roman legions. The entirety of Rome’s military presence in Germany.  Estimates place the number of Roman deaths between 15,000 to 20,000. It was the equivalent of 10% of the entire Roman military.

After the battle, the Germans went on a rampage destroying every vestige of Rome they could find including all the forts and cities. The Romans that were left all fled to a position across the Rhine River. 

The news hit Rome like a ton of bricks. Rome hadn’t suffered a defeat of this magnitude in over 200 years. All of the fighting over the last several decades to establish a presence in Germany had been completely undone in just three days. 

Augustus himself was haunted by the loss of his legions for the rest of his life. The historian Suetonius reported that Augustus walked around his palace hitting his head against the wall and shouting “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!”

The XVII, XVIII, and XIX legions were never reconstituted again in Roman history because of the shame they brought from their defeat.

After Augustus died just a few years later, the new emperor Tiberius sent his nephew Germanicus back to exact revenge. He did manage to secure several major victories, and actually recovered 2 of the 3 lost eagle standards from the legions. 

Six years after the battle, when the first Romans returned to the site, they found a horror show of bones and barbarian altars where survivors were killed. Germanicus ordered all of the Roman remains to be buried. 

However, once the Romans got the eagles back and felt honor had been satisfied, they withdrew to the Rhine. It wasn’t seen as being worth the cost to try and conquer Germany anymore. 

The third eagle was recovered 30 years later during the reign of the emperor Claudius. 

The Romans put the blame for the defeat squarely on the shoulders of Varus. Arminius, despite his betrayal, was actually thought of highly by the Romans. He was respected as an enemy who managed to defeat three legions and fought for his people. 

Eventually, the Romans just accepted the Rhine and Danube rivers as the limit of their empire, at least to the north. They built a series of defensive fortifications called limes which served their border with Germany. 

This isn’t to say that the Romans never crossed into Germany or raised the idea of trying to conquer it again, but it was never seriously attempted as it was during the reign of Augustus. 

This border resulted in a very hard boundary between the Roman world and the Germanic world. A division that can still be seen in the language boundary in Europe today. There is a line that runs through Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy where you predominantly see speakers of Germanic languages such as Dutch or German on one side, and speakers of Romance languages on the other. 

After 2000 years of history, this line has obviously moved as countries and kingdoms rose and moved, but in general, that division still exists. 

Arminius became a symbol of German nationalism starting in the 16th century with Martin Luther who saw Arminius’ fight against the Romans as similar to his fight against Roman Catholicism.

Arminius rose to further prominence during German unification in the 19th century, and of course it became a symbol under Nazi rule as well. 

Despite the importance of the battle, over time the exact location of  Teutoburg Forest was lost.  After two millennia forests can come and go and eventually no one was sure exactly where exactly the battle took place. 

The site was rediscovered in 1987 by an amateur British archeologist with a metal detector who was searching for coins on his day off while stationed in Germany in the military. He found coins dating back no later than the reign of Augustus. 

A team of professional archeologists began searching that year. They found an amazing collection of Roman items along a corridor that was 24 kilometers long and 1.6 kilometers wide. 

Today the site is located near the village of Kalkriese in the state of Lower Saxony, and there is a museum with artifacts found at the dig site. 

The Battle of Teutoburg Forest was one of the most important battles in European history. Its impact shaped not only the ancient map of Europe but echoes of it can still be seen in the modern world as well. 


The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

I have a couple of Boostagrams for you today. They both came from listener Dave Jones. 

He sent a 2112 sat boost for the episode on IQ. He wrote 

Great episode. I knew about the eugenics use of the IQ test during the progressive era, but not the newer versions. This was really good info.

He also sent another 2112 sat boost for the episode on Terra Nullius. He wrote 

I wonder if anyone has ever flown a drone over the North Sentinel island to get an idea of what daily life looks like. It seems very much a “prime directive” style thing.

I have seen a video of a helicopter that flew over the island, and one guy was shooting arrows at the helicopter. I’m not sure how long you could sit a drone at one spot, but I’m sure there have to be some researchers who at least know the basics of how many people live on the island and where their settlement is. 

But, yeah, it is basically like the Prime directive. There are similar uncontacted tribes in the world, mostly in Brazil, and I think that will be the subject of a future episode. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read the show.