Saturday, 3 January 2015

Battle of Teutoburg Forest

There are battles that are a turning point in a nation or people’s history; the Battle of Hastings turned England from Saxon to Norman, Gettysburg turned the American Civil War the way of the Union army, and Waterloo did much to shape modern Europe. The Battle of Teutoburg Forest is the Germanic version, though outside of Germany or the books of historians it is pretty much unknown.

Two thousand years ago the Roman Empire was in control of most of Western Europe. Gaul was subdued and the attention of the Emperor Augustus shifted to Germania. At the time, circa 16BC, the River Rhine was the dividing line between the Teutonic barbarians and the Roman territories.Just as with Gaul the area was controlled by local tribes, which in addition to fighting amongst themselves were not averse to crossing the Rhine to raid Roman possessions.

Part of the Teutoburg Forest - Are Kolberg - CC-BY-SA-3.0
Augustus sought to strengthen the border and to control the troublesome tribes, as such he sent Drusus, his adopted son, to take charge. In charge of five Roman Legions; Legions XVII, XVIII, XIX, V Alaudae and I Germania, Drusus spent 7 years successfully fighting his way towards the Elbe. Tribe after tribe came under Roman control; Usipetes, Tencteri; Chatti; Marcomanni; Sugambri; Cherusci and Suebi were all suppressed. By 6AD Tiberius, Drusus’ brother, had ensured that the majority of Germania was under control and paying allegiance to Rome.

In 7AD the Roman Governor Publius Quinctilius Varus was appointed as administrator for Germania. Varus was a favoured distant relative by marriage of the Emperor Augustus, and had undertaken similar roles in Syria and Gaul. Both previous appointments had made Varus a wealthy man through the oppression and exploitation of the territories, something he was not going to stop just because he was in a new region of the Empire.

One of Varus’ most trusted advisors was Arminius from the Cherusci tribe. Arminius had been taken to Rome at the age of 19, and lived there from 1AD to 6AD, where he had retrieved an education in Roman warfare, and achieving Citizenship with the rank of Equestrian. On arrival Arminius saw the oppression of the Germanic tribes and secretly sought to bring together an alliance of the Cherusci, Marsi, Chatti and Bructeri people. Traditional enemies were united in outrage at the financial burdens put upon them by the Empire.

Much of what we know about the battle comes from the work of the Roman historian Dio Cassius. In 9AD reports fabricated by Arminius arrived with Varus telling of rebellion beyond the Rhine. Varus marched with three Legions (Legio XVII, XVIII & XIX), six cohorts of non-Roman auxiliary troops and three squadrons of cavalry, these latter forces lacked battlefield experience.

Troop Movements in Teutoburg Forest - Cristiano64 - CC-BY-SA-3.0
As the march continued into Cherusci territory, Arminius requested Varus send troops to protect the Cherusci villages from attack from the rebels, a request that was granted by Varus. This displays the false sense of security that Varus was under; in addition Varus did not follow normal military protocol as he marched his forces through unfamiliar territory. The Roman troops did not march in combat formation but were strung out in a long line integrated amongst the wagons and camp followers, including the women and children. Nor were advance reconnaissance parties sent out to look for danger. It was at this point that Arminius and his father Segemerus left the march on the pretext of raising a Germanic force to assist.

It was also at this point the Varus could have saved himself and his troops. Another Cherusci chief, Segestes, Arminius’ father-in-law, warned Varus of the revolt, and the plans of Arminius. Varus though dismissed the allegations as a continuation of a personal feud between Arminius and Segestes.

The weather also took a turn for the worse, a violent storm lashed down, causing the line of march to stretch even further. Dio estimates that the Roman forces stretched for between 15 and 20 kilometres, along the mountain paths of the Teutoburg Forest. It was at this point that Arminius commenced the Germanic attack and a battle that would last three days.

Arminius with his superior numbers of local tribesmen and lighter armoured troops attacked the line. Using his knowledge of Roman techniques Arminius, defended the Roman counterattacks and continued to pick off the spread out Roman forces. Despite heavy losses the Romans managed to set up a secure fortified night camp.

The next morning though failed to give the Romans any respite and in breaking out of their camp in a rush for open ground saw them once again decimated by the locals. Losses continued throughout the day as the Romans retreated, a night march saw the remaining Roman forces at the foot of Kalkriese Hill and exactly where Arminius wanted them to be.

Battle of Teutoburg Forest - after a painting by Friedrich Gunkel - PD-life-70
The Romans were trapped between a swamp and a hill, and the road ahead was trapped by a ditch and wall, from behind which the Germanic forces continued to pick off the Roman forces. A desperate attempt to storm the wall failed, and the Germanic forces stormed down upon the devastated Roman forces. The Roman cavalry fled the battlefield but were pursued by the Germanic cavalry and annihilated. Roman historians highlight the actions of Roman officers; Eggius died a hero’s death leading his doomed troops, Vala, the second-in-command, fled with the cavalry and was killed, whilst Ceionus undertook a shameful surrender. Fearing capture or slaughter, Varus committed suicide by falling on his own sword, as he perceived the utter destruction of his army.

With victory Arminius did not stop to celebrate victory but sent his forces across the country destroying the Roman forts and garrisons that existed east of the Rhine. One Roman fort held out for several weeks before the garrison, and some survivors of the battle at Teutoburg Forest, broke out and made for the Rhine. At the Rhine they found help with the two remaining Legions in Germania, under the command of Lucius Nonius Asprenas, Varus’ nephew. Asprenas decided to hold the river and stopped the sweep of the Germanic forces.

Estimates for the number of Roman’s killed in the three day battle peak at 25,000, and resulted in the permanent loss of the three Legions that had accompanied Varus. The Legion numbers were never used again after the defeat, and were confined to history. Alongside Varus, other senior Roman officers fell on their own swords. Tacitus wrote that whilst other officers were ransomed, many more were sacrificed in pagan rituals, whist ordinary soldiers were enslaved. The news of the defeat, when it reached Rome, appears to have sent the Emperor Augustus insane, with symptoms of a nervous breakdown.

Following the defeat at Teutoburg, a seven year war ensued, a war that confirmed the Rhine as the boundary between Rome and the Teutonic tribes for the next four hundred years.

In 14AD Tiberius had become Emperor and had dispatched his nephew Germanicus to re-conquer the lost territory. One third of all available Roman troops, some 70,000 men, and a naval fleet were put under the command of Germanicus. Initial success in battle, including the capture of Arminius’ wife Thusnelda, was quickly followed by successive defeats. By 16AD Tiberius decided to cease all operations against the German tribes, instead withdrawing the troops to the Rhine and entrenching them once again.

Whilst the Roman historian Tacitus depicts Germanicus as having achieved great victories, including one unsubstantiated against Arminius’ forces, the only notable successes were the retrieval of two of the lost standards. The loss of any army’s standard has always been perceived as the greatest dishonour and their retrieval helped to regain some of the Roman army’s loss of face. One of Germanicus’ officers, Lucius Stertinus recovered the Eagle of the XIX Legion in 15AD from the Bructeri. The following year after the Battle of the Weser River, the hiding place of the second standard was revealed by the leader of the Marsi to Germanicus. It took a further twenty five years for the final Eagle to be recovered from the Chauci.

Arminius only survived a further ten years after the death of Varus, and in 19AD following tribal rivalries, he was assassinated by members of his own family. Despite initial success in unifying Germanic tribes, other tribes, such as the Marcomanni, refused to join and remained neutral in the ensuing war. Arminius also failed to gain independence for Germania as a whole.

The final significant note in relation to the battle came in 50AD. A band of Chatti raided across the Rhine, they were chased by Roman forces and allies under Lucius Pomponius. A small battle ensued and following the defeat of the Chatti, soldiers from Varus’ legions were discovered and liberated from 40 years of slavery.

The defeat was one of the worst in Roman history. In sheer numbers it rates after the 50,000 to 70,000 killed by Hannibal at the Battle of Cannae in 216BC or the Battle of Arausio where 80,000 soldiers were killed by the Cimbri and Teutones. It says much for the superior strategy of Arminius, superior numbers and the false sense of security that Varus had, that the Roman losses amounted to so much in comparison to the Germanic ones. More importantly though than the pure numbers was the affect it had on the Empire as it brought an end to the glory period of expansion, and effectively ended any possible hope of conquering the whole of Germania.

Since the 18th Century the Battle of Teutoburg Forest has become a symbol of German nationalism and unification, with Arminius used as a symbol of freedom.

Copyright - First Published 5th December 2007

No comments:

Post a Comment