What [the ancient Germans] had, by way of advantage over the Romans, was the young Arminius, only twenty-five, the leader of the Cherusci, who ‘showed in his countenance and in his eyes the fire of the mind within’.
“The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9AD” fresco on a school wall by H. Knackfuss (1890). Norddeutsches Schulmuseum, Friesland.
Arminius was the chief of the Germanic Cherusci tribe during the later stages of Augustus’ reign. 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, led by Arminius. They fought in many times, but one of the most known and important battle was the one which took place on the Teutoburg Forest.
In late summer of 9 AD, Varus, who
was probably given the task of completing the subjugation of Germania and implementing Roman provincial standards by Augustus, 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.