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Overview on the Gallic Wars

The Roman defeat in the Teutoburg forest 


Date: 9 C.E.

Location: Near present day Detmold, Germany

Outcome: Major defeat for the Roman Empire

Principal Commanders: Germanic: Arminius; Roman: Publius Quinctilius Varus

Overview:  One of the most decisive battles, Teutoburger Wald was a major defeat for the Roman Empire ending their expansion in Northern Europe. Probably the greatest disaster suffered by the Romans was the defeat in the Teutoburg forest when the former proconsul of Africa, Publius Quinctilius Varus, together with three legions (XVII, XVIII, and XIX), six cohorts and three squadrons of cavalry (alae) were practically slaughtered. 

According to Cassius Dio, the reason for this battle was that after Varus became the governor of Germania province (7 C.E.), he made the mistake of giving orders and asking for tribute from some Germanic tribes as if they had been subdued. In this situation, the Germans did not respond immediately and Varus was at first received peacefully by them, a thing which inspired trust in him; it seemed that these tribes would accept the Roman domination without a war. The Germans waited for a time before fighting back. 

After awhile, some Germanic tribes, located at a long distance from the place where Varus had his army, began to rise in rebellion. Varus was obliged to take action against these tribes. The Cherusci had promised to help support him with men, but they did not accompany him from the beginning because they had told Varus they needed to gather soldiers. In fact, however, the Cherusci were already gathering troops to begin a fight against the governor. 

Varus left to take measures against the tribes that had risen in rebellion. In the convoy which left together with the soldiers were also animals, women, children and servants. This convoy was not well organized. Varus' troops eventually found themselves in the middle of a very dense forest. Being in a marshy and narrow field, and due to rain and wind, disorder and confusion in the ranks grew. 

Because the Romans appeared vulnerable in these conditions, the Germans came closer and attacked. The German attack on the Roman convoy continued for three days. The Germans had an advantage because they were not carrying heavy arms and they could therefore move more easily than their adversaries. The rain and wind continued and by the third day Varus' army was incapable of going any further or retreating to safety. Roman casualties were very heavy. 

In this desperate situation, with the end being very close, Publius Quinctilius Varus took his own life by throwing himself on his sword. Also, a few other important officers killed themselves. In this battle, about 20,000 soldiers were massacred. Varus' head was sent to Augustus and now the independence of these territories was assured.

According to Suetonius (Aug. 23), Augustus, when he found out what had happened, cried: "Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!" After this battle the Romans took the decision that never again would any other legion be named the XVII, the XVIII or the XIX. 

The Romans, for all their efforts to conquer Germany between 12 B.C.E. and 16 C.E., met with only limited success. The Germans held their ground tenaciously and Roman leadership varied in quality. Although the Romans were able to avenge their defeat, they would not consolidate their rule in most of Germany or establish the Elbe as their outermost European frontier.

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