Battle of Teutoburg Forest Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Roman Empire’s defeat in the Teutoburg forest caused it to shift to a defensive stance after three Roman legions were ambushed on the German frontier.

Summary of Event

After the Battle of Actium in 31 b.c.e. and the subsequent Roman conquest of Egypt, which secured his hold on the Roman world, Octavian (hailed by the senate in 27 b.c.e. as Augustus) reduced the Roman army to almost half its former strength, leaving only twenty-eight legions in service. This was the period of the famous Pax Romana, which some historians see as a period of national fatigue and inertia, the inevitable result of more than a century of incessant civil war, rather than as a time of good will. Augustus Quinctilius Varus, Publius Arminius Tiberius

Because it was difficult to maintain equilibrium on the northern frontier, Augustus’s policy called for an expansion into Germanic territory. By 6 c.e., the region north of the Main River between the Rhine and the Elbe was a Roman province administered by Publius Quinctilius Varus, a general chosen by Augustus and married to the emperor’s grandniece. Varus appears to have been more an administrator than a soldier, a view hinted at by the Latin historian Velleius Paterculus and one that may have been shared by Arminius, who saw an opportunity to overthrow Roman imperial rule before it was firmly established in German territory. Certainly, Varus did not understand the German temperament or sufficiently appreciate its warlike nature. In 9 c.e., three legions under Varus were defeated in the Teutoburg forest by Arminius, a chieftain of the Cherusci, a small Germanic tribe, in a battle that marked a watershed in the history of the Roman Empire. From that time onward, the open secret of Roman policy in the territory beyond the Rhine was to divide, not conquer. Rome had changed from an offensive to a defensive position vis-à-vis the Germanic peoples.

Varus’s Roman legions meet with defeat in the Teutoburg Forest.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

The frontier problem was related to one of the major defects in the Roman imperial system, namely the nature of the imperial succession. Because the principle of succession by heredity was not firmly established during the early years of the Roman Empire, the ambiguity of the succession process played into the hands of strong leaders in the army, men who had little reason to be loyal to a Roman tradition that, in many cases, they did not even know. Although it was many years before a barbarian general ascended the imperial throne, the victory of Arminius signaled the growing political function of the Roman barbarized army.

Arminius was a Roman-trained soldier and, at the time of his victory over Varus, the leader of only a faction of the Cherusci. Varus’s appointment as governor was an unfortunate choice. He tactlessly treated the high-spirited Germans as inferior and tried to Romanize them against their will. This policy roused resentment in the Cherusci and led to Varus’s disastrous defeat. Enticed by the report of an uprising, Varus led the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth legions out of summer quarters into the Teutoburg forest, probably located in the Lippe Valley. There, the army was ambushed and massacred, and Varus himself committed suicide. The episode can hardly be classified as a battle, for the Germans had the odds in their favor as they fell on the Roman columns encumbered by their baggage train in wooded country. The Roman cavalry attempted to escape but did not succeed.

Velleius Paterculus, in a translation by F. W. Shipley, describes the result. Hemmed in by forests and marshes and ambuscades, the column was exterminated almost to a man by the very enemy whom it had always slaughtered like cattle, whose life or death had depended solely on the wrath or the pity of the Romans. The general had more courage to die than to fight, for following the example of his father and grandfather, Varus ran himself through with his sword.

After the rout of Varus, the Germans swept on to capture Roman forts east of the Rhine. Lucius Asprenas, Varus’s legate, led two legions to Mainz, but the enemy did not attempt to cross there. Having just succeeded in quelling a major revolt in Pannonia after three years of difficult fighting, the Roman general (and future emperor) Tiberius was forced to postpone a triumphal celebration in Rome to hurry to the Rhine, where the garrison was raised to eight legions. To bring the forces to this level, two Roman legions were withdrawn from the province of Raetia (modern Austria) and four were taken from Spain and Illyricum (the eastern Adriatic coast).


Although the Rhine defenses were thus strengthened, the three lost legions were not replaced in the Roman army, so that its total strength was reduced to twenty-five legions. Any thought of further expansion beyond the Elbe was abandoned. Even before the disaster in the Teutoburg forest, slaves were being pressed into military service, a practice that revealed a serious shortage of Roman manpower.

Augustus, who was seventy-two years old at the time, was shocked by Varus’s defeat. According to the Roman biographer and historian Suetonius, for several months Augustus cut neither his beard nor his hair, the traditional Roman sign of mourning, and sometimes would bash his head against a door, crying: “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions.”

The major impact of the defeat, however, was to shift Roman policy to a defensive posture on the German frontier, which became fixed under Augustus’s successor, Tiberius. In this sense, the defeat in Teutoburg forest was a pivotal point in European history, allowing the Germanic tribes to remain outside Roman influence.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Drummond, Stephen K., and Lynn Nelson. The Western Frontiers of Imperial Rome. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1994. An expansive description of the ebb and flow of Rome’s borders which illustrates the long-range impact of the event in the Teutoburg forest.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grant, Michael. The Twelve Caesars. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975. Written by an outstanding historian of Rome, this work contains a section on Augustus that provides a concise summary of the event and its impact.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">May, Elmer C., Gerald Stadler, and John F. Votaw. Ancient and Medieval Warfare. Wayne, N.J.: Avery Publishing Group, 1984. Prepared for the Department of History of the United States Military Academy at West Point, this volume helps the student understand the nature of warfare on the Roman frontier.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Newark, Tim. The Barbarians. Poole, Dorset, England: Blandford Press, 1985. An illustrated study that discusses Germanic tactics and weapons during their contests with the imperial legions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scarre, Christopher. Chronicle of the Roman Emperors. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1995. This account of imperial Roman history provides a brief but excellent survey of the disastrous battle and its impact on Roman frontier policy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schlüter, W. “The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest: Archaeological Research at Kalkriese near Osnabrück.” In Roman Germany: Studies in Cultural Interaction, edited by J. D. Creighton and R. J. A. Wilson. Providence, R.I.: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 1999. An examination of the site at which the battle is believed to have taken place.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Suetonius, Gaius. The Twelve Caesars. Translated by Robert Graves. Revised, with an introduction by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin, 2003. The section on “Augustus” in this illustrated version of Graves’s translation memorably describes the emperor’s reaction to the destruction of the frontier legions.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Arminiums; Augustus; Julius Caesar; Tiberius. Teutoburg Forest, Battle of (9 c.e.)

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