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Arminius and the Battle of Teutoburg Forest

Arminius (b. circa 18 BC, d. circa 21 AD, assumed to be the Latinized form of Hermann) was the chief of the Germanic Cherusci tribe during the later stages of Augustus' reign. Prior to the great revolt which pushed Rome permanently out of the Germanic interior, and after the conquests of Drusus and Tiberius, Arminius served as a Roman auxiliary (c. 1 to 6 AD), apparently with much success. Some have painted a picture of a young Germanic warrior with the ultimate goal of freeing the tribes by learning Roman military ways, but his service and that of his fellow Cherusci warriors, actually exemplifies the completeness in which the Romans had spread their influence throughout Germania (as well as identifying the early stages of the barbarization of the Roman Legions). Though at this stage, Germania Magna was not an official province, and was still unsettled per Roman victory conditions, the slow process of Romanization had begun in earnest. Arminius, it seems, even earned Roman citizenship as well as equestrian status, perhaps in part, as a peace settlement.

During the revolt in Pannonia, which forced Tiberius' withdrawal from Germania, and his replacement by Publius Quinctilius Varus, conditions seem to have deteriorated considerably. Varus, it seems, (one must consider the conflicting reports by Dio Cassius, Tacitus, Florus and Paterculus regarding the political climate and the battle itself) was probably given the task of completing the subjugation of Germania and implementing Roman provincial standards by Augustus. Regular taxation, undoubtedly a condition that the Germanics were unaccustomed to, as well as other 'excesses' seem to have turned the tribes against their Roman occupiers.

Arminius returned to the Cherusci as early as 7 AD, and likely began preparing for a massive revolt soon after his arrival. Inter-tribal warfare and lack of unity was something that would plague the Germanics for centuries, but in this one instance, the tribes were uniquely brought together in their zeal to throw off the Roman yolk. Everything was not completely in unison, however. Arminius' rival, Segestes, actually his own father-in-law, reportedly betrayed the plans of revolt to Varus, but these reports were unheeded. Perhaps writing off the idea as political infighting for personal gain, or trusting Arminius due to his service as a Roman auxilia, and equestrian, Varus ignored the warnings, with predictable results. In 9 AD, the situation had come to a head and reports of a growing uprising in northern Germania (perhaps the Chauci) began to reach Varus. Encouraged by promises of allied assistance from tribal leaders like Arminius, Varus set out northward for the Chauci.

In late summer of 9 AD, Varus marched in loose formation with the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth legions, and did so through what they thought was friendly territory. According to Cassius Dio, " They had with them many wagons and many beasts of burden as in time of peace; moreover, not a few women and children and a large retinue of servants were following them. one reason for their advancing in scattered groups." As the Romans approached a particular hilly and forested area (and likely fortified in advance) known as the Kalkriese, Arminius and fellow allied chieftans 'begged to be excused from further attendance, in order, as they claimed, to assemble their allied forces, after which they would quietly come to his aid.' Unbeknownst to Varus, regional tribes had already put the ambush in motion by killing or capturing legionary detachments that had been working on various projects throughout the region.

Over a period of 4 storm filled and rain drenched days, the Germanics launched a series of blistering attacks on the disorganized and unprepared Roman columns. All three legions and accompanying cavalry were so scattered and beaten in the surprise attacks that communication and cooperation between the two were non-existent. The cavalry attempted a breakout and escape but was cut down before they could. The infantry continued to fight, with little success in hopes of reaching safety. By the 4th day, the cause was lost and Varus committed suicide rather than submit to capture (and the shame). All three legionary standards (eagles) were captured by the Germans and the survivors, of which there were very few, scattered in various directions to safety. Conflicting ancient source material tells differing tales, but some officers joined Varus in suicide while others surrendered. The battle itself was little more than an overwhelming massacre.

In the aftermath, quick reaction from other Roman generals in the region may have prevented a jubilant Germanic invasion across the Rhine. Lucius Nonius Asprenas moved his legions to forts along the River and Tiberius brought his up from the Danube. Despite their quick reaction, there was little to be done immediately. Augustus, 72 years old at the time of the Varus disaster lamented the loss of his 3 legions until the time of his death. According to Suetonius, "He was so greatly affected that for several months in succession he cut neither his beard nor his hair, and sometimes he could dash his head against a door, crying "Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!" Though punitive campaigns under Germanicus, later conducted during the reign of Tiberius, would eventually return the lost eagles, the Germanic victory forever signaled the end of Roman expansion into Germania. In fact, the 3 legions lost were never replaced, at least not the legionary numbers XVII, XVIII and XVIIII. For a considerable period of time, the active legionary roster was cut to 25 rather than 28.

Germanicus' campaigns were more important for the morale of the troops and the people of Rome, than in any true military capacity. Recovering the lost standards, finding the field of bones that littered the site of the ambush, and performing the ritual burials granted a form of closure to the events. However, what was perhaps the most important action, was that Germanicus' effectively played one tribe against another, re-creating the old Germanic status quo of inter-tribal warfare. Despite their unification to resist Roman occupation, the tribes had no real interest in a single king or country concept. While their borders would remain mostly secure from without, thanks to the invasions of Drusus, Tiberius and Germanicus, Germania also presented little threat to Rome until the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161 - 180 AD). In fact, the loss of 3 legions precipitated a complete change in imperial foriegn policy. Nearing the end of his long life, Augustus adopted a policy of border security, rather than expansion, which lasted largely unaltered throughout the remainder of Roman history. Aside from the invasion of Britain under Claudius, and the numerous campaigns of Trajan, the borders of the Empire were largely unchanged from Augustus on.

Arminius, despite his great victory, would eventually succumb during the tribal warfare and political machinations that followed. In 21 AD he was killed by members of his own extended family. The name Arminius, however, or especially Hermann, would go on to become a symbol of German unity in later generations and is still celebrated as a savior of independence. Of additional historic importance, the battle of Teutoburg Forest not kept Germania free of Roman rule, but allowed the course of history as we know it today. Without that battle, Germania may have been Romanized much like Gaul and a great deal of ancient Germanic culture lost with it.

Without Teutoburg, perhaps the massive invasions of later tribes never would've happened. The Anglo-Saxons may have spread Latin to Britain rather than the early form of English, or perhaps the migration would never have happened at all, leaving Britain ripe for a Celtic resurgence. The Franks may never have migrated to Gaul, the Huns, Goths and others may have been stopped, or never invaded interior Roman lands in the manner that they eventually did. The contribution of Arminius to Germanic, and western civilization history is truly immeasurable.

Did you know?

The battle established the Rhine as the boundary between Romans and Germans in Germania inferior. The Romans never got any further north.


Arminius and the Battle of Teutoburg Forest - Related Topic: Roman Legion


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