Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Decisive Battles: Teutoburgerwald, 9


Welcome back to "Decisive Battles". Sorry, I caulked off a bit in the summer and missed a bunch of the biggies: Hattin, the Armada, Gettysburg and Vicksburg for July; Adrianople, Manzikert, the fall of Technochtitlan and Stalingrad for August. I guess they'll have to wait until next year. But I'm interested again now that the school year is here, and this is one that has always fascinated me:

Teutoburgerwald (Teutoburg Forest) Date: 9-12 September (?) AD 9
Forces Engaged:
Imperial Roman: Army of Lower Germany (Germania Inferior); three legions (probably the 17th, 18th and 19th) approx. 15,000 - 18,000 Roman regulars, three “units” of cavalry, probably the “equites legionis” attached to the legions of early Imperial times, about 1,500 regulars, along with an unknown but probably small number of local allies as well as a significant number of noncombatant straphangers. Best guess: between 20,000 and 25,000 in all.
German: The fighting tails of Arminius and Segimer of the “Cherusci” tribe (I put the name in quotes because we don't actually know what these people called themselves; "Cherusci" is what the Romans, their enemies, called them!) as well as warriors from two other tribes for sure: the Bructeri and the Marsi. A fourth large warlike tribe, the Chauci, are believed to have been involved but nothing can be proven. Perhaps as few as 15-20,000, perhaps as many as 30,000.Situation: Any good imperialist will tell you that the most dangerous time for imperial troops is that neither-here-nor-there period between the initial conquest and the, if you will excuse the term, Final Solution, the extinction of any thoughts of independence and the creation of a thoroughly colonized province.

The initial conquest of Roman Germany began in the last decade of the second century BC. The Romans, at the time the up-and-coming Hard Men from the Med, were pushing north into what was then tribal Gaul. Marius, the muleteer, whipped some Germanic ass in 101 and 102 BC, but was kept busy until Caesar’s time with closer, more Gaulish deviltry. It wasn’t until 58 BC that Julius himself slugged it out with the Rhine tribes and even invaded the transRhine plains in order to fight them there so the Romans wouldn’t have to fight them here (in Cisalpine Gaul, that is…)But the imperium found then, as we are finding today, that decimating the “home-bred hordes” is easier said than done. Rome spent much of the next fifty years fighting Germans along the Rhine. During this period the entire area east of the great river was in a process of transformation including large-scale Germanic tribal migrations.

By this time the Romans and the Germans were roughly evenly matched militarily. The Germans were more numerous, but the Roman tactical organization made German successes costly and unproductive and German failures disastrous. Increasingly professional Roman regulars gained steadily on their parttime enemies to where by the new millenium the Romans were comfortably able to defeat any German field force at will. The defeat at Teutoburgerwald says nothing about the relative capabilities of the two military systems - any fool can get massacred on the march by someone he thinks is his ally!

Still, the German tribes could still occasionally play a blinder: in the winter of 17/16, the governor of Gallia Belgica, Marcus Lollius, was defeated by the Sugambri, and the Legio V “Alaudae” lost its eagle. The situation remained fluid until the four years between 12 and 9 BC.At that time the emperor sent his adoptive son Drusus to the north to “pacify the region and create a more stable frontier.”

Drusus and the 30,000 troops of the German Army Group (Legio XVII, Legio XVIII, Legio XIX, Legio V Alaudae (“The Larks”) and Legio I Germanica) went through the German tribes like a dose of fucking salts.

Drusus & Co. started by teeing off on the Sugambri, near the Lower Rhine. The legions then made an amphibious assault on the territories of the Frisians and the Chauci and forced their surrender. The next year, Drusus again invaded the country east of the Rhine and effectively completed the “pacification” of the granary of the Lippe valley. For the next two years (10 BC and 9 BC) it was the Chatti’s turn: Drusus and two legions put some serious caligae in their breechclout all the way across central Germany to the river Elbe.

But. On his way back home Drusus fell from his horse and died at twenty-nine years old. Well. Sod THAT for a game of soldiers..!

Drusus and his army had harrowed Germany – I’m sure the Germans of the day felt like our friends the Taliban in the hills of central Asia; when they stood still they got screwed, and when they ran they got kicked in the ass. But the Germans were on their home ground. And they found that they had what the Romans didn’t: time, and the patience to wait for an opportunity.Between 9 BC and 9 AD Roman and German traded slaps. The poor damn Sugambri were attacked, whipped and "extraordinarily renditioned" to the west bank of the Rhine where “they became known as the Cugerni and lived in farms near Xanten.” Not all was quiet on the Western Front, though: the Roman commander L. Domitius Ahenobarbus had to suppress an “uprising” in Germany in 4 AD. But by the winter of 5/6 AD, the only “free Germany” between the Elbe, Rhine and Danube was the kingdom of the Marcomanni in Bohemia. Emperor Augustus’ adopted son Tiberius was sent with a monster army – eight legions, over 45,000 regulars – to crush this nest of rebels. But a rebellion in Pannonia occupied the Romans for three years.
“Meanwhile, the army of Germania Inferior was commanded by Publius Quinctilius Varus, one of the most important senators of his age and a personal friend of Augustus. He had to make a normal province of the the country between the Lower Rhine and Lower Elbe, and had some success. Then, everything suddenly went wrong. In September 9, Varus and three legions were ambushed in the marshes of the Teutoburg Forest and massacred.” (Lendering, 2006)
The Engagement: The problem with the actual fight in the Teutoburg is that our sources are hopeless. The Germans of the Imperial era, a preliterate tribal culture since annihilated by other tribal invaders from the East, left nothing but wild war stories. The Romans DID leave written records, of which four are useful. But each is in some way compromised, as is typical of ancient histories.

1. Velleius Paterculus wrote within the lifetime of the battle, knew many people that had perished, had visited the country several times, and was able to interview survivors; he’s a great resource whose only issues are a fawning love for Tiberius and an almost pathologic loathing of the incompetence of Varus. The only problem for us is that he says almost nothing about the battle itself!
2. L. Cornelius Tacitus is by far the best stylist but was writing in the reign of Hadrian more than one hundred years later (c. 117-138 AD). He is believed to have taken his account primarily from “The History of the Germanic Wars” by Pliny the Elder, who had liberated survivors and must have debriefed them;
3. P. Annius Florus, who, frankly, can’t write for shit, but hates Augustus (which saves him from the typical Roman literary emperor-worship), has two unique, apparently valid anecdotes and seems to have used a source written between 17 and 40 AD, when the memory of the battle was still fresh and truth could not easily be manipulated;
4. Cassius Dio is the latest written source (early Third Century AD). He was a rotten stylist but a careful historian. His histories, where they can be checked against contemporary sources, are consistently accurate. But he, like most of Romans of his time, knew a) little about soldiers and soldiering and b) almost nothing true about Germany.

The one terrific thing going for accounts of this battle is that we know where it was, at least where part of it was.

EXACTLY where it was. And the site has been excavated and the finds examined by military archaeologists. We can say this about almost no other engagement in ancient times outside of sieges.

What the ancient sources all seem to agree on is that:

1. A battle took place in 9 AD, probably in September. It took place near a place called in Latin “saltus Teutoburgiensis”. The second element is indeed a Germanic word (teut means people, burg means fortress). The first element, saltus, is usually translated as 'forest', but can also mean "narrows".
2. A coalition of German tribes led by two men we know only by their Latinized names, Arminius and Segimer, ambushed and destroyed a Roman army while on the march; three entire regular army units, their auxiliaries and their camp followers were destroyed over the course of several days.
3. General Publius Quinctilius Varus had committed suicide along with many other senior officers. The remaining officers had been tortured to death; the only survivors were common soldiers. Some seem to have managed to reach Roman outposts close by, some, who surrendered, were recaptured or ransomed years later after living as slaves in German villages.

The excavation that has yielded so much information about this battle is in a place called the Kalkriese, east of the town of Bramsche. The story of the Kalkriese and the excavations in the area since the 1980’s are a fascinating tale in itself, but this link at (here cited as Lendering, 2006) explains it better than I can.

Suffice to say that the Kalkriese is an outstanding ambush site:
“To the south was the Kalkriese hill. Although it is only 157 meters high, it is hard to pass along its northern slope, because a traveler has to cross many deep brooks and rivulets. To the north of the Kalkriese is a large wetland, which stretches north for a large distance. Between the great bog and the hill is a more or less accessible zone of about 1 kilometer wide…The most accessible part of this zone has a width of only 220 meters. This site could well have been called "narrows" or saltus. In fact, this also indicated by a nearby topographical name: at the eastern entrance of the narrows is a town that is still called Engter, which means "narrows". The excavations at the Oberesch also told a lot about the nature of the battle. In the south, a turf wall of at least 700 meters long was discovered, extending from east to west along the northern slope of the Kalkriese hill. Once, it was a 1½ meters high, with a wooden fence on top and on several places fortified with limestone. On several places were gates.” (Lendering, 2006)

Lendering (2006) hypothesizes that Army of Lower Germany was attacked marching west across the Kalkriese from a camp near the present village of Bohmte.

Here I disagree with the interpretation of Lendering (2006): he describes the distribution of the archaeological finds in a west-opening “Y” shape and says this means “the Y-shaped distribution of the finds suggests that the Roman army was cut in two, when the head of the column was already marching to the northwest and the Hase."

He develops an series of elaborate tactical and nontactical movements to account for the "Y"-shaped debris field, including several units marching and countermarching, or advancing and then retreating, or being cut off. I would instead agree with Cassius Dio:it was just fucking chaos and bloody disaster.
“At first they (the German tribal warriors) hurled their volleys from a distance; then, as no one defended himself and many were wounded, they approached closer to them. For the Romans were not proceeding in any regular order, but were mixed in helter-skelter with the wagons and the unarmed, and so, being unable to form readily anywhere in a body, and being fewer at every point than their assailants, they suffered greatly and could offer no resistance at all.” [Cassius Dio, Roman History 56.20.4-5]

Here is where I think that Lendering (2006), as a civilian, overestimates the effect of military training and discipline. I suspect that his mental image is of the hardbitten Roman professional, all whipleather and garum, fighting and dying hard to the end. But I would suggest that the chaotic mass of artifacts and the fan-shaped distribution implies rather that at some point the Roman regulars lost cohesion. The movement to the west was probably a shambles; cavalry (being faster) separating from infantry, infantry from auxilia, soldiers from civilians. A few cohors or centuria may have moved tactically but they were probably subsumed in a rout of wounded, dying, terrified civilians and demoralized soldiers fleeing a seemingly unforeseeable, sudden and terrible enemy.Whatever happened on that rainy day on the Kalkriese one thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine years ago, the increasingly broken and devastated remnants of Varus’ command were hunted across north central Germany for the next three days. Varus himself and his officers killed themselves somewhere in the Ems valley as their army died around them. Finally, a handful of survivors made the fortress of Aliso, probably a settlement near the Lippe, perhaps Haltern or Oberaden. This stronghold held out under siege of the victorious Germans and was evacuated safely though with some further deaths among the survivors of the Teutoburg disaster. Imagine the irritation of being killed after thinking you had made it to safety! What a rotten screwing THAT would be…

For our history, we are left with the haunting image of the old emperor, Augustus, wandering the echoing corridors of his imperial palace grieving for his dead soldiers;
“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!"
[Suetonius, Augustus 23.4;
tr. J. Gavorse]
Outcome: Grand tactical German victory, but with geopolitical consequences.

Impact: In the short run, the Roman Empire was strong enough to absorb this defeat and remained the political hegemon for many centuries thereafter. The loss of Varus’ army did not even shake loose the Roman hold on the Rhine itself and the near-Rhine area: Augustus sent Tiberius into TransRhine Germany to campaign every year for the next three years. Tiberius adopted son Germanicus had an even more spectacular campaign against the Germans between 14 AD and 16 AD, culminating in the reoccupation of the Lippe Valley and most of northwest Germany.

In the long run, it's a very different story. Before Teutoburgerwald the Roman imperium was aggressive, expansive; in 9 AD Augustus was confidently continuing the magpie aquisitiveness of his Republican and Imperial Julian forebears, pushing into Germany was well as the Upper Rhine and the Danuvian plain.

After Teutoburgerwald, no. No more advancing the frontier past the Rhine: in fact, the transRhine posts were abandoned after 16 AD and the German tribes left to fight among themselves. Arminius was killed in one of these brawls, and the German tribal lands remained a sort of Roman “Northwest Frontier”, the scene of intrigue, diplomatic skullduggery and punitive expeditions for the next two centuries.But a fully Romanized Germany would have had several, I believe, major impacts on history.

First, a frontier at the Elbe, and not the Rhine, would have given the Empire a strategic depth it lacked to help repel the waves of nomads that drove in off the steppes beginning in the Fourth Century AD. Romanized Germans would have provided sturdy legionnaires to garrison that frontier, and denied groups like the Huns, Goths, Alans and Visigoths the forward marshalling area they used to catapult into Roman Gaul and Italy.

Second, the defeat at the Kalkriese began the turn away from the kind of self-confidence that had made Rome the rough imperial beast of its day. The Empire began to turn inward, to ossify and stratify and lose the creativity that had made it so hard to stop.

And for us in the U.S., no Roman Germany means no Saxons. Means a Celto-Roman Britain Means, very probably, a Spanish or French colony on the east coast of North America…

And perhaps the wierdest connection I've encountered is between Teutoburgerwald and the geneics of HIV...

Touchline Tattles: Perhaps no engagement of Roman times has had as much written about it as Teutoburgerwald unless it is the “mysterious disappearance” of Legio IX Hispana. For, let’s face it, who can resist the story of the doomed legion and the barbarians and death in the haunting, dark forests of a rainy September so many years ago. A hell of a lot of the fiction is junk, but the original story of MAJ Tony Clunn’s search for the lost soldiers and the Kalkriese is a winner - worth a look f you can find it!


Ael said...

Germany has thick soil and was heavily wooded.
As I (dimly) recall, roman style agriculture didn't work particularly well in those conditions.

I don't know how much of a prize Germany would have been, given the effort required.

sheerahkahn said...

I like this, Chief, right up my alley.

FDChief said...

ael: You and Tiberius would have had an agreeable discussion about frontiers over a cup of Falernian - he had a very similar opinion, and is on record saying that Germany was too distant and too poor to be worth the expense of conquering.

I tend to agree with you both: it probably would have been difficult and probably not worth the effort in the 1st Century AD, and for the Empire to have expemded all that blood and treasure to assit in forestalling the invasions of three hundred years later...that just doesn't pencil.

But imperial decisions aren't always made so rationally, and without the shock of Arminius' victory Augustus, and even Tiberius, might have continued their Drang Nach Nordosten out of sheer inertia!

And a Romanized Germany would certainly have changed much of European - and American - history.

rangeragainstwar said...


It's awfully hard to ambush an Army but that seems to be the case here. This tells a lot about the leadership and SOP's of those Legions. Possibly hubris
led them to traverse such terrain with no thought of the consequences.

Your explanation of the debris is logical and could be applied to the Battle of Little Big Horn and other running massacre-type battles.

Very nice analysis.


pluto said...

I saw a decent history on this battle on PBS a while back that was based in part on the book you mention, a further analysis of the battlefield, and some additional documents coming to light.

The current theory is that the legions were marching through the forest in a rainstorm led by scouts from a tribe they thought was friendly.

The initial ambush cost the Romans heavily in leaders and people who had any knowledge of where they were and where safety could be found. The troops retreated but couldn't form an effective line in the rugged terrain and were constantly being hit from unexpected angles by larger forces who really knew the terrain.

The show suggested that the battle lasted three days with the Romans forming a very weak fortified camp with very little food and being overwhelmed after starvation and sniping attacks had taken their toll.

As usual, the Chief's analysis of the battle is top notch. The biggest surprise for me is that the Romans may well have outnumbered their attackers.

It would have been a rare group of Germans to be willing to attack ANY Roman force without a decent advantage in numbers at this stage of the war. That speaks to either inspired leadership or really burning hatred.

mike said...

Good post Chief.

BTW, some Germans call him Hermann - or the first century equivalent which would have been 'Irmin' from whence the Romans could have derived Arminius.

My vote, Chief, for your next installment would be the Battle of Hattin. Strange that the modern day Arabs celebrate Saladin as a hero when they so hate the Kurds.

FDChief said...

Jim: appreciate the props. Varus doesn't seem to have been the military dolt he's portrayed, but his "nose" for an enemy seems to have been REALLY poor. Seems he trusted Arminius WAY more than he should have. And NO army should have lollygagged through even a pacified conquest that way. I've known a couple of GOs like that: good enough tactical ommanders, but cocky and overconfident to a fault...

Pluto: I saw that show, too. I would comment that September isn't typically real rainy in northcentral Germany. The Lendering (2006) article on makes a good point about the stories about forests and rain. Most of these come from Cassius Dio, who was a) the furthest removed in time from the events, when details like weather and terrain would have been unlikely to be remembered, and b) REALLY ignorant of German natural history. To him, Germany was barbaricum, and tht meant rain and fog and trackless forests...

I suspect that the Germans might have been canny enough to use whatever bad weather they could to neutralize the Romans' technical and (wen they could form) tactical advantages, tho, so the "rain" scenario might not be that farfetched.

And Arminius seems to have been a reeeeal charismatic guy. Among the things that seem to testify to this, the German revolt fell apart after his death.

mike: I do wnt to do Hattin, it's a pretty crucial fight in Middle Eastern history. I'm trying to do these battles by the month they occurred in, so Hattin may have to wait until next July.

Tomorrow I want to touch briefly on a fight that Jim talked about over at RAW: Antietem.