Roman Empire: Battle of the Teutoburg Forest

Battle of the Teutoburg Forest
Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. Public Domain

The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest was fought in September 9 AD during the Roman-Germanic Wars (113 BC-439 AD).

Armies & Commanders

Germanic Tribes

  • Arminius
  • approx. 10,000-12,000 men

Roman Empire

  • Publius Quinctilius Varus
  • 20,000-36,000 men


In 6 AD, Publius Quinctilius Varus was assigned to oversee the consolidation of the new province of Germania. Though an experienced administrator, Varus quickly developed a reputation for arrogance and cruelty. By pursuing policies of heavy taxation and showing disrespect for Germanic culture, he caused many of the Germanic tribes that were allied to Rome to reconsider their position as well as drove neutral tribes to open rebellion. During the summer of 9 AD, Varus and his legions worked to put down various small rebellions along the frontier.

In these campaigns, Varus led three legions (XVII, XVIII, and XIX), six independent cohorts, and three squadrons of cavalry. A formidable army, it was further supplemented by allied German troops including those of the Cherusci tribe led by Arminius. A close advisor of Varus, Arminius had spent time in Rome as a hostage during which he had been educated in the theories and practice of Roman warfare. Aware that Varus' policies were causing unrest, Arminius secretly worked to unite many of the Germanic tribes against the Romans.

As fall approached, Varus began moving the army from the Weser River towards its winter quarters along the Rhine. En route, he received reports of uprisings which required his attention. These were fabricated by Arminius who may have suggested that Varus move through the unfamiliar Teutoburg Forest to accelerate the march. Before moving out, a rival Cheruscan nobleman, Segestes, told Varus that Arminius was plotting against him. Varus dismissed this warning as the manifestation of a personal feud between the two Cheruscans. Prior to the army moving out, Arminius departed under the pretext of rallying more allies.

Death in the Woods

Advancing, the Roman army was strung out in a marching formation with camp followers interspersed. Reports also indicate that Varus neglected to send out scouting parties to prevent an ambush. As the army entered the Teutoburg Forest, a storm broke and a heavy rain began. This, along with poor roads and rough terrain, stretched the Roman column to between nine to twelve miles long. With the Romans struggling through the forest, the first Germanic attacks began. Conducting hit and run strikes, Arminius' men picked away at the strung out enemy.

Aware that the wooded terrain prevented the Romans from forming for battle, the Germanic warriors worked to gain local superiority against isolated groups of legionaries. Taking losses through the day, the Romans constructed a fortified camp for the night. Pushing forward in the morning, they continued to suffer badly before reaching open country. Seeking relief, Varus began moving towards the Roman base at Halstern which was 60 miles to the southwest. This required re-entering wooded country. Enduring the heavy rain and continued attacks, the Romans pushed on through the night in an effort to escape.

The next day, the Romans were faced with a trap prepared by the tribes near Kalkriese Hill. Here the road was constricted by a large bog to the north and the wooded hill to the south. In preparation for meeting the Romans, the Germanic tribesmen had built ditches and walls blocking the road. With few choices remaining, the Romans began a series of assaults against the walls. These were repulsed and in the course of the fighting Numonius Vala fled with the Roman cavalry. With Varus' men reeling, the Germanic tribes swarmed over the walls and attacked.

Slamming into the mass of Roman soldiers, the Germanic tribesmen overwhelmed the enemy and began a mass slaughter. With his army disintegrating, Varus committed suicide rather than be captured. His example was followed by many of his higher ranking officers.

Aftermath of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest

While exact numbers are not known, it is estimated that between 15,000-20,000 Roman soldiers were killed in the fighting with additional Romans taken prisoner or enslaved. Germanic losses are not known with any certainty. The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest saw the complete destruction of three Roman legions and badly angered Emperor Augustus. Stunned by the defeat, Rome began preparing for new campaigns into Germania which began in 14 AD. These ultimately recaptured the standards of the three legions defeated in the forest. Despite these victories, the battle effectively halted Roman expansion at the Rhine.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "Roman Empire: Battle of the Teutoburg Forest." ThoughtCo, Oct. 18, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, October 18). Roman Empire: Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Roman Empire: Battle of the Teutoburg Forest." ThoughtCo. (accessed September 25, 2022).