The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, described as the Varian Disaster by Roman historians, took place in the Teutoburg Forest in 9 CE, when an alliance of Germanic tribes ambushed and destroyed three Roman legions and their auxiliaries, led by Publius Quinctilius Varus. The alliance was led by Arminius, a Germanic officer of Varus’s auxilia. Arminius had acquired Roman citizenship and had received a Roman military education, which enabled him to deceive the Roman commander methodically and anticipate the Roman army’s tactical responses.
Despite several successful campaigns and raids by the Romans in the years after the battle, they never again attempted to conquer the Germanic territories east of the Rhine river. The victory of the Germanic tribes against Rome’s legions in the Teutoburg Forest would have far-reaching effects on the subsequent history of both the ancient Germanic peoples and the Roman Empire. Contemporary and modern historians have generally regarded Arminius’ victory over Varus as “Rome’s greatest defeat“, making it one of the rarest things in history, a truly decisive battle, and as “a turning-point in world history”.
After his return from Rome, Arminius became a trusted advisor to Varus, but in secret he forged an alliance of Germanic tribes that had traditionally been enemies. These included the Cherusci, Marsi, Chatti, Bructeri, Chauci, Sicambri, and remaining elements of the Suebi, who had been defeated by Caesar in the Battle of Vosges. These five were some of the fifty Germanic tribes at the time. Using the collective outrage over Varus’ tyrannous insolence and wanton cruelty to the conquered, Arminius was able to unite the disorganized tribes who had submitted in sullen hatred to the Roman dominion, and maintain said alliance until the most opportune moment to strike.
Between 6 and 9 CE, the Romans were forced to move eight of eleven legions present in Germania east of the Rhine River to crush a rebellion in the Balkans, leaving Varus with only three legions to face the Germans. This represented the perfect opportunity for Arminius to defeat Varus.
While Varus was on his way from his summer camp west of the Weser River to winter headquarters near the Rhine, he heard reports of a local rebellion, reports which had been fabricated by Arminius.
Varus decided to quell this uprising immediately, expediting his response by taking a detour through territory that was unfamiliar to the Romans. Arminius, who accompanied him, directed him along a route that would facilitate an ambush. Another Cheruscan nobleman, Segestes, unwilling father-in-law to Arminius, warned Varus the night before the Roman forces departed, allegedly suggesting that Varus should apprehend Arminius, along with other Germanic leaders whom he identified as participants in the planned uprising. His warning, however, was dismissed as stemming from the personal feud between Segestes and Arminius. Arminius then left under the pretext of drumming up Germanic forces to support the Roman campaign. Once free from prying eyes, he immediately led his troops in a series of attacks on the surrounding Roman garrisons.
Roman casualties have been estimated at 15,000–20,000 dead, and many of the officers were said to have taken their own lives by falling on their swords in the approved manner. Tacitus wrote that many officers were sacrificed by the Germanic forces as part of their indigenous religious ceremonies, cooked in pots and their bones used for rituals. Others were ransomed, and some common soldiers appear to have been enslaved.
Upon hearing of the defeat, the Emperor Augustus, according to the Roman historian Suetonius in The Twelve Caesars, was so shaken that he stood butting his head against the walls of his palace, repeatedly shouting:
Quintili Vare, legiones redde! (Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!)