What was the impact of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest on the Roman Empire?

A German painting of the Battle of Teutoburg Wood

The Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 A. D was one of the most important in the classical world. The battle which saw a confederation of German tribes destroy three legions that changed the course of Roman history and altered the character of Europe. The battle was not only one of the greatest defeats ever inflicted on Rome but it had momentous consequences. After it, Roman Emperors were very unwilling to expand the Empire, especially in Northern Europe.

The battle was to establish a frontier between the Roman World and the Germanic World that was to last until the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Perhaps the most important consequences of the Battle of Teutoburg forest is that it left most of Germania, the homeland of the German tribes free from Roman influence and these tribes were ultimately able to overrun much of the Roman World in the 5th century.

Background

A re-creation of the encampment of Varus

In 4 BCE, the future Roman general Tiberius entered Germania and subjugated large areas east of the River Rhine. The German tribes could not put aside their differences and the Romans were able to subdue them or force them into unfavorable alliances[1]. The king of the Marcomanni, one of the large Suebi tribeS defied the Romans. However, the, Macromanni too were defeated by the Romans. The tribe fled rather than submit and they entered into a confederation with many smaller tribes in east.

By 6 BCE much of modern west Germany was in the hands of the Romans and they had organized it into two provinces. Publius Quinctilius Varus, a nobleman was made governor of the new province of Germania. At the time, Tiberius was called away to deal with a major rebellion in the Balkans. In this war, the Marcomanni played a prominent part. Tiberius took four years to subdue the rebellion and the Marcomanni remained unsubdued. The revolt did not end until 10 A.D. and up to half of the Roman army was engaged in this war[2]. This meant that Varus only had five legions under his command in Germania. At the time, Germain was restive and the various tribes were in constant dispute.

At this time a German nobleman, from the Cherusci tribe who had been sent to Rome as a hostage, was returned to Germania. Arminius was believed to be loyal by Romans [3]. He was a very charismatic leader and was at home in two worlds- the German and the Roman world. Arminus was on the surface loyal to Varus and Rome but in reality, he was determined to betray the Romans and expel them from Germania. Arminius secretly forged an alliance with dozens of German tribes in what was a remarkable piece of diplomacy because many of the tribes hated their neighbors as much as the Roman invaders. Arminius was able to use Varus treatment of the various tribes in order to persuade them to come together and to fight for their freedom. According to the Roman Historian Tacitus, the Germans were obsessed with ideas of liberty and they rarely even obeyed their leaders[4].

Arminius used the common religion of the Germans to create a united army and he achieved all of this without the knowledge of Varus. Indeed, the leader of the German tribes had become a trusted advisor to the Roman governor. Arminius persuaded the Germans to bide their time and he ordered them to prepare for the right moment to attack. He decided that the best time to attack the Romans was as they made their way from their summer camp to their winter headquarters. The German tribes spent many months in secret laying a vast trap for the legions of Varus near the Weser River [5].

The Battle

The Teutoberg Forest

As Varus and his legions were on their way to the winter camps, Arminius spread a false rumor that there had been a rebellion in the area. Varus acted precisely as Arminius had expected and he accompanied him and his army as they set out to crush the rebellion. It has been claimed that Varus was warned not to trust Arminius by other Germans but he refused to believe them and regarded Arminius as a friend and ally [6]. As the Romans marched to the site of the rebels’ camp Arminius excused himself. Then he met up with members of his tribe and planned to attack the Romans and soon he was joined by other tribes. The Germans under Arminius attacked the legions at Kalkriese Hill in Osnabrück county, Lower Saxony [7].

According to Tacitus who has left a graphic account of the battle, the Romans were not prepared and they were not in battle formation and there were many camp followers interspersed among them. The Roman legions with Varus were not experienced and had not fought the Germans before [8]. The best legions had been posted in the Balkans to deal with the rebellion, there. Arminius ordered his army to attack the Romans as they were marching. Unfortunately, for the Romans, the battle began in a downpour and the wet conditions favored the Germans. The Romans fought their way out of this trap and fell back to a hill[9].

The Germans had expected this and Arminius had earlier ordered that trenches be dug that would prevent the Romans from retreating. Varus and his men were trapped. The Germans attacked the Romans from an earthen wall that has also been pre-prepared[10]. After several assaults, the legion fell into disarray and the Germans were able to slaughter the Romans. Varus was later apprehended and killed by some German cavalrymen and many Roman officers committed suicide rather than be captured. Many ordinary soldiers seem to have become slaves [11]. In a moving account, Tacitus describes the aftermath of the scene of the battlefield some years later ‘near lay fragments of weapons and limbs of horses, and also human heads, prominently nailed to trunks of trees. In the adjacent groves were the barbarous altars, on which they had immolated tribunes and first-rank centurions’ [12].


Romans driven from Germania

In the aftermath of the disaster in the Teutoburg Forest, the Romans lost most of their territory, East of the River Rhine. One legion was able to make it back to the Rhine and from her was able to defend the Roman borders[13]. Another legion was trapped in Germany in a fortress. It was besieged for several months but was able to break through and reach Roman territory. By the following year, the Romans had been completely expelled from all Germany east of the Rhine[14]. The defeat at Teutoburg Forest led to a panic in Rome and Augustus, the emperor at the time, seemed to have suffered some sort of breakdown. He was seen according to Suetonius, screaming and banging on the walls, calling on the ghost of Varus to give him back his legions[15]. Arminius tried to forge a great alliance with the Marcomanni who had established a strong kingdom in the modern Czech Republic [16]. This failed and there was no great German invasion of the Roman Empire.

The Roman general Germanicus was given command of an army that was ordered to avenge the defeat at Teutoburg Forest and the legions did manage to inflict many defeats on the German tribes and they even managed to defeat Arminius. He was later to be assassinated by a rival. Tiberius ordered Germanicus not to establish a Roman province in the areas that he conquered and eventually he ordered him to return to Rome. No Roman army was to repeat the campaign of Germanicus and there was no further attempt to conquer Germania[17]. After Teutoburg Forest, it seems that the Romans believed that the resources and legions needed to control the area was too great and not worth the risk. The Romans established a series of Limes or defensive walls with watchtowers along their border with Germany and they abandoned any attempt to conquer Germania [18]. The battle of Teutoburg Forest had changed the Roman attitude to Germania and it had shown them that the Germans, unlike other peoples, were warlike and that they would be difficult to conquer and even more difficult to control. The Roman Imperial policy was based on the calculation that every province had to contribute to the Empire and not be a drain on its resources. Rome after the defeat and massacre of the legions of Varus was convinced that Germania would never be completely subdued. Thereafter the Romans although they retain some German territory such as Germania Superior, they decided never to undertake its conquest again.[19]

An end to constant expansion

bust of Augustus

The aftermath of Teutoburg Wood was a turning point in the history of the Roman Empire. In the previous century, the Romans had acquired territory after territory [20]. After the defeat of Varus, this was to end. This was partly because of practical reasons the defeat weakened the Roman army and Augustus was so concerned that he even countenanced arming slaves [21]. It took a considerable amount of time to replace the legions and to train them. It must be remembered at the same time that Augustus had been increasingly concerned about the lack of suitable recruits for the army for some years. However, even this does not explain why the Romans did not expand their Empire at the same rate. it seems that after the Battle of Teutoburg Wood, there was a change in the outlook of the Romans[22]. They became increasingly reluctant to expand their Empire and put their legions at risk.

This was a change from the Republican period when even after disastrous defeats the Romans remained committed to expansion. The new mood among the Romans can be seen in a remark that Tacitus attributed to Augustus. He warned his successors not to expand the Empire. Teutoburg Forest seems to have shown Augustus, the first emperor that his empire had its limits and his successors did mostly heed he advice [23]. There were some conquests after Teutoburg Forest but they were extremely limited when compared to the Republican era. In the hundreds of years that remained, the Roman Empire was only able to add Britain and Dacia (Romania) to her Empire[24].


Conclusion

The Romans recognized that the Battle of Teutoburg Forest was a devastating defeat and one of the most significant suffered by Rome. Few could have understood that the battle was of great historic importance. The battle was to lead to the end of any serious attempt to conquer Germania. There were to be no further invasions of Germania after the punitive expedition of Germanicus and the Romans were content to simply keep the Germans out of the Empire. It seems that even if Varus had not been defeated by Arminius it seems likely that they would have lost it to another rebellion. This had a profound impact on the Roman elite and it demonstrated to them that there was a limit to their power. They simply did not have the resources to conquer all the known world and that they came to accept that there was a limit to their empire. This ironically may have been a positive for the Romans, because it helped to usher in a period of peace and prosperity. If the Romans had been able to secure Germania they would have been able to secure their borders much more effectively. From the mid-second century, the Germans periodically menaced the frontiers of the Roman Empire. If Varus had not been defeated the Germans could have become loyal citizens such as the Franks and the Celts. Instead, the Germans would prove to be mortal enemies of the Empire for centuries and greatly contribute to the fall of the Empire.

References

  1. Dornberg, John. "Battle of the Teutoburg Forest." Archaeology 45, no. 5 (1992): 26-32. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41766157
  2. Dornberg, p. 29
  3. Dornberg, p 27
  4. Tacitus, Argicola and Germania, 5 3
  5. Dornberg, p. 33
  6. Tacitus.1 43
  7. Burns, Mike. "Saga of the Lost Roman Legions." Archaeology 58, no. 6 (2005): 48. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41781422
  8. Tacitus. 1 45
  9. Wells, Peter S. The Battle that stopped Rome. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 2003, p. 187
  10. Tacitus, Annals, 1. 57
  11. Tacitus, Annals, 1. 59
  12. Tacitus. 1.62
  13. Tacitus. 1 56
  14. Wells, p 188
  15. Suetonius. The Twelve Caesars. 1 8
  16. Tacitus. 1 67
  17. Wells, p. 190
  18. Wells, p. 192
  19. Goodman, Martin, The Roman World, 44 BC-AD 180 ( London: Routledge, 1997), p. 134
  20. Goodman, p. 137
  21. Suetonius, 1. 13
  22. Wells, p 201
  23. Tacitus. 1. 4
  24. Goodman, p. 156, 178