In AD 9, a warlord known as Arminius led an army of Germanic warriors belonging to the Cherusci tribe. They were armed to the teeth, carrying wooden spears with fire-hardened tips for throwing and stabbing. Some of them also held long iron slashing swords. A few wore armour of mail, but most were stripped to the waist, pumped up with adrenaline. They gathered in the gloom of the Teutoburger Wald – a vast region of ancient forest in what are today the German states of Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia.
Arminius and his men shadowed three Roman legions marching through the brushwood and ferns. Some of the younger warriors had let their hair and beards grow – swearing only to cut them when they dipped their weapons in the blood of their Roman enemies. When Arminius finally unleashed his forces on the Romans, the battle was brutal and without mercy. The three Roman legions were wiped from the face of the earth, and as news of the massacre spread, the classical world was rocked to its foundations.
Nearly two thousand years later, this devastating display of primitive energy would have a strange afterlife – as the dark inspiration for Germany’s more modern warlords. In 1875, Kaiser Wilhelm I, the man who oversaw the annihilation of the French Army at the Battle of Sedan and founded the German Second Reich, sat in a pavilion near to the city of Detmold. The site was chosen because it was believed to be close to the original battlefield fought over by Germans and Romans in AD 9. The Kaiser watched as actors dressed as ancient warriors re-enacted the bloody events of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.
The Kaiser’s ceremony culminated in the unveiling of a giant statue of Arminius, towering on its pedestal more than 150 feet over the surrounding landscape, sword raised heroically above the scene of the German people’s first great victory. Wilhelm I, proclaimed contemporary poets, was the ‘new Arminius’, strong enough to lead a recently unified Germany into a new age of independence and military triumph. The people once dismissed as savage barbarians would now dominate a modern Europe shaped by their energy and force of will.
Leap forward again by another 63 years, and a new kind of Germanic warlord would enter the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. Fired up with the bitter struggle of his rise to supreme power, the founder of the German Third Reich let rip with his true feelings. ‘They regard me as an uneducated barbarian,’ declared Adolf Hitler. ‘Yes, we are barbarians! We want to be barbarians! It is an honourable title. We shall rejuvenate the world! This world is near its end. It is our mission to cause unrest.’
Having finally become chief of his people, Hitler commissioned a series of heroic tapestries to be hung in the Reich Chancellery. They were to depict great German victories – and the first of these was that won in the Teutoburger Wald. Arminius was, for Hitler, the ‘first architect of our liberty’. But who was he really? And what made him a hero to both the Kaiser and Hitler?
The real Arminius
Arminius was no half-naked savage. He was in his late 20s when he took up arms against Rome, but until that point he had enjoyed the game played by most sons of high-status Germanic families living on the frontier of the Roman Empire. When the Romans came calling, looking for native tribesmen to add to their armies to fight as auxiliaries, Arminius – as a prominent member of the Cherusci tribe – was happy to supply such warriors and command them in battle on behalf of the Romans.
In return, Arminius was fast-tracked as a member of the provincial Roman ruling elite. He was made a member of the ordo equester – a Roman knight – and learned the ways of the Romans. He spoke Latin and he and his men were fully trained in the Roman method of war. He no doubt wore the armour and carried the weapons typical of a Roman battlefield commander. It was a highly useful education and one that was a risky gamble for the Romans who taught him. Adolf Hitler was acutely aware of Arminius’ early career, and saw it as a warning for his own Nazi colonial administration.
‘To teach a nation the handling of arms is to give it a virile education,’ Hitler explained over a private dinner on 16 May 1942. ‘If the Romans had not recruited Germans in their armies, the latter would never have had the opportunity of becoming soldiers and, eventually, of annihilating their former instructors. The most striking example is that of Arminius, who became commander of the Third Roman Legion. The Romans instructed the Third in the arts of war, and Arminius afterwards used it to defeat his instructors.’
On the point of Arminius commanding the Third Legion, Hitler’s history is a little shaky. There is no evidence to tell us what unit he commanded, and he was most likely put in charge of auxiliary troops, not a regular legion. But the main point is clear, and Hitler uses the example to justify the fact that he would never arm a subject nation.
That the Romans thought the gamble worth taking is a token of the high regard in which they held the Germans as a fighting people. Julius Caesar had come up against them during his conquest of Celtic France in the 1st century BC and he considered them far superior as warriors to the Gauls, whom he believed had grown soft from civilised living. For the Germans, frequent raiding was a way of life. ‘No discredit attaches to plundering-raids outside the tribal frontiers,’ observed Caesar, ‘the Germans say that they serve to keep the young men in training and prevent them from getting lazy.’
Caesar believed it was the very primitive nature of the Germanic lifestyle that made them such formidable warriors: ‘Their diet, daily exercise, and the freedom from restraint that they enjoy – for from childhood they do not know what compulsion or discipline is, and do nothing against their inclinations – combine to make them strong and tall as giants. They inure themselves, in spite of the very cold climate in which they live, to wear no clothing but skins – and these so scanty that a large part of the body is uncovered – and to bathe in rivers.’
That a lack of civilisation could actually be a virtue was an idea taken up by other Roman writers irritated by the decadence of their own culture. Much later, it was also a strong theme among 19th-century German philosophers and historians, who saw a need for barbaric energy as an antidote to their own decadent times.
When the Roman historian Tacitus came to write his history of the German tribes in AD 98, he could see a purpose in German simplicity: ‘In every home the children go naked and dirty, and develop that strength of limb and tall stature which excite our admiration. Every mother feeds her child at the breast and does not depute the task to maids or nurses. The young master is not distinguished from the slave by any pampering in his upbringing.’
In a continuation of his Germanic primitive theme, Tacitus describes their tribal warriors as poorly armed with mainly wooden spears and shields. Few wore armour and their horses were of poor quality. ‘Generally speaking,’ he wrote, ‘their strength lies in infantry rather than cavalry… The best men are chosen from the whole body of young warriors and placed with cavalry in front of the main battle-line… To throw away one’s shield is the supreme disgrace, and the man who has thus dishonoured himself is debarred from attendance at sacrifice or assembly. Many such survivors from the battlefield have ended their shame by hanging themselves.’
Such was the reputation of the Germanic warriors that Arminius recruited for the Romans. The Imperial war machine was keen to see this raw material shaped into disciplined, well-armed soldiers who could fight alongside its legions. In reward for the service of his men and himself as their battlefield commander, Arminius could expect to enjoy the very best of Roman civilisation. It is likely that he lived in a Roman-style villa, wore Roman-style clothes, enjoyed the pleasures of the Roman bath-house, and drank wine delivered from around the Mediterranean. It could be a very good life for a barbarian who toed the Roman line.
This was how the Romans extended their empire. Having subdued a people through a display of brutally efficient warfare, they then held out a hand of friendship, offering former tribal leaders the chance to be incorporated as provincial governors of their own people, enjoying a degree of independence in return for paying tribute to the Emperor in Rome. As a young man in his 20s, Arminius appears to have enjoyed this relationship with the Romans who came to the Rhine frontier. But then the situation changed.
Writing two centuries later, the historian Cassius Dio, the main surviving chronicler of the events of AD 9, explained that Roman influence over that part of western Germania, to the north-east of the Rhine, was proceeding well. Bodies of Roman troops wintered there, and the Germanic barbarians were coming to terms with the benefits of Roman civilisation, including the establishment of markets throughout the region. ‘So long as they were unlearning their customs little by little, by indirect means,’ he wrote, ‘they did not object to the change in their manner of life, and were unconsciously altering their disposition.’
By the time the Roman general and politician Publius Quinctilius Varus was appointed governor of the region in AD 6, it looked as though it should be business as usual. But Varus brought a personal history of bad government with him. He came from ruling Syria with a reputation for corruption. As Velleius Paterculus, another Roman chronicler, put it: ‘going a poor man into that rich province, he became a rich man, and left it a poor province.’ Immediately, Varus took command of the Roman army in the region and used it to extort higher taxes from the Germanic tribes. He treated the Germans as slaves and their tribal leaders felt humiliated.
Arminius was 27 at this time. Just two years earlier, it appears he had been appointed a prince or chieftain of his tribe – the Cherusci. He may have inherited this rank from his father Segimer, who was also termed a prince of his people, but Arminius certainly possessed leadership qualities of his own. Paterculus generously described his character: ‘brave in action, quick in apprehension, and of activity of mind far beyond the state of barbarism, showing in his eyes and countenance the ardour of his feelings.’ The Romans had been impressed enough by him to grant him citizenship and leadership of auxiliary troops. But now Arminius was torn in his allegiance. Clearly, he had thrived under Roman patronage, but he was a leader of his own people, too, and they were now suffering under the tyranny of Varus.
Arminius began to plot against Varus and discussed the possibility of military action against the Roman governor. This information was picked up by Segestes, another senior member of the Cherusci tribe, and passed directly to Varus. Segestes hated Arminius – Arminius had eloped with his daughter and married her. But Varus ignored the advice, perhaps not trusting the source. Arminius entered an alliance with another fellow tribesman, Segimerus, and together they devised a strategy for taking on Varus and his legions. They decided against an open rebellion as the Roman forces on the Rhine were too powerful. Instead, they contrived to invite Varus to enter Germania.
Into the unknown
On the promise of a meeting with Germanic tribal leaders, Varus left the security of the Rhine frontier behind him and advanced into Germania towards the River Weser. He was accompanied by three legions (numbers XVII, XVIII, and XIX) plus six cohorts of auxiliaries and three units of cavalry: a highly potent force possibly numbering 20,000 men. At their core were the Roman veterans, professional soldiers trained in an array of fighting skills based on those learned by gladiators. They owed their allegiance completely to the empire and whatever governor happened to be heading them. The foreign troops that made up the auxiliaries were generally raised in one region of the empire but then deployed in another, so that their local loyalties would not clash with their orders. Thus, the auxiliaries deployed on this mission could have been Gallic or British in origin. That said, in reality, it appears likely that a good number of local men would also have been employed. There is no reference, for example, to Arminius serving anywhere other than in the Rhine region.
In AD 9, as Varus advanced deeper into hostile territory, the German tribesmen lulled him into a false sense of security. They reassured him of their subjection to the point where Varus split his force, sending units on various missions, chasing outlaws and escorting supply columns. At this point, Arminius and Segimerus appear still to have been riding with Varus, dining in his mess tent, and maintaining their apparent loyalty. The conflict that then broke out may thus appear in part as a mutiny, with Arminius and his fellow senior tribesmen suddenly disappearing with their own Romanised soldiers to join up with the Cherusci tribesmen.
With the Romans deep in enemy territory, the Cherusci finally played their cards. The tribesmen rebelled and Varus marched to confront them. As he did so, Arminius and Segimerus made their excuses and left his column. Isolated clusters of Roman soldiers quartered in German villages were slaughtered by their hosts. A main tribal force closed on Varus and his legions as they stumbled across rough ground beneath the canopy of the forest. The tangle of undergrowth and tree roots, combined with boggy ground, broke up the Roman fighting formations. They tried to clear the forest, hacking away at the trees to make pathways – and that was when the tribesmen struck. Strung out in the gloomy wilderness, the Roman army was attacked piecemeal. Probing Germanic raids darted out from the forest, flinging a storm of spears, then retreating swiftly. The efficacy of the legions was hampered further by the presence of their supply lines, which were mixed in with them. Wagons containing women, children, and servants made easy targets for the raiders, and got in the way of the soldiers.
A storm broke over the hapless legions, thunder echoing around the dark forest. Heavy rain drenched the ground, making it even more difficult to pass through the dense undergrowth, as legionaries slipped on the mossy sides of fallen trunks. Lightning struck the tops of trees and brought them crashing down. The Germans closed in, hunting down groups of soldiers mixed up with civilians desperate to escape the horror. After a day of these hit-and-run raids, Varus called a halt and ordered his men to form a fortified camp – but it was difficult to make one of any strength in the sodden forest. Supply wagons were abandoned or burned.
The next day, the Roman legions pressed on, searching for open ground, where they could deploy their men in better order and launch a counter-attack against Arminius and his tribesmen. But the clearings they found failed to give them the opportunity to break the relentless assault and they were forced back into the narrow paths of the forest to face more ambushes. This dreadful process continued for two more days. They endured more heavy rain and high winds, which rendered Roman archers useless. The German tribesmen were less affected, travelling light and hurling spears at close range. As the Roman legions slowly disintegrated, the numbers of Arminius’ horde increased, as more and more tribesmen were attracted by the prospect of easy targets and generous amounts of loot.
By the fourth day, Varus and his senior officers realised their situation was hopeless. They were surrounded and would soon be overwhelmed. Rather than face capture, they decided to take their own lives in the traditional Roman manner. Varus fell on his sword. Once this news spread through the remnants of the three legions, other soldiers took their own lives. Some threw down their swords in the hope of mercy, but were instantly slaughtered. Very few prisoners were taken.
Arminius had won a tremendous victory. Three entire Roman legions had been wiped out, with few losses to his own people. He followed up the victory by seizing Roman garrisons throughout the region, but decided not to cross the Rhine and invade Roman territory in Gaul. He knew the Roman war machine too well to risk this. Latin historians termed the defeat Clades Variana: ‘the Varian slaughter’. Paterculus could only think of one other defeat of the same magnitude: ‘This most dreadful calamity… none more grievous ever befell the Romans in a foreign country, since the destruction of Crassus in Parthia’ – a reference to the infamous Roman defeat at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC (see MHM Aug/Sept 2022).
The head of Varus was cut off by the Germans and sent to Emperor Augustus in Rome. He was appalled. Three whole legions lost to a bunch of half-naked barbarians. The defeat so shook him that he abandoned any further attempt to conquer the land beyond the Rhine. Indeed, Augustus was said to be so tormented by the loss that he wandered through his palace shrieking, ‘Varus, give me back my legions!’
The numbers of the Legions lost – XVII, XVIII, and XIX – were never used again. More Roman legions were sent to hold the frontier, but that was it. The Germans were free. Arminius himself was allowed to enjoy his victory, ruling over his people until his death in AD 21. In the eyes of numerous generations of German historians, Arminius had truly become, as Adolf Hitler described him, ‘the first architect of our liberty’.
Tim Newark is the author of numerous books about military history, and was the editor of Military Illustrated magazine for 17 years.
All images: Wikimedia Commons, unless otherwise stated