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The Battle of Teutoburg Forest

The Battle

The Battle of Teutoburg Forest is an ancient battlefield that has been excavated and studied to enhance our understanding of the massacre. Four main sources are used to interpret the battle, with Cassius Dio being the most reliable. His account is cross-referenced with other sources and the archaeological record to gain a better understanding of the battle.


The Teutoburg Forest is a unique ancient battlefield that has been excavated, providing greater insight into the massacre that occurred there. Although many archaeological findings rely on written sources for interpretation, the texts still hold significant importance. Historical accounts agree that the Romans conquered Germania and attempted to make it a province, with subsequent campaigns and taxation causing resistance among the population. The governor of Germania, Publius Quinctilius Varus, failed to anticipate the rebellion and dispersed Roman troops, according to Cassius Dio.

Varus did not keep his legions together, as was proper in a hostile country, but distributed many of the soldiers to helpless communities, which asked for them for the alleged purpose of guarding various points, arresting robbers, or escorting provision trains.

Varus faced a problem. Dio and Paterculus disagree on whether all legions were destroyed or only three. The solution is that Varus regrouped his army upon hearing news of a far-away tribe's revolt. He didn't want to march with a weak force. This reveals Varus to be a more capable general than previously thought.


All sources agree that Arminius, a member of the Cheruscan tribe and previously a loyal supporter of Rome, was the Germanic leader. Arminius' father Segimer also played a role. The rebels must have made their preparation during the late summer. Not all Germanic leaders agreed with Arminius' policy. His plan was betrayed to Varus, with Segestes identified as the traitor. Varus' response is unclear, with some sources indicating that he refused to listen while others suggest he summoned Arminius to appear before his tribunal. The accounts of Paterculus and Dio are generally considered more reliable than that of Florus, who is seen as attempting to emphasize Varus' overconfidence.

Paterculus and Dio suggest that Varus refused to listen, while Florus suggests that Varus summoned Arminius to appear before his tribunal, but this is less reliable.

Varus Begins His Journey

Varus, a Roman consul, led 22,000 troops to their winter encampment where they were ambushed by Arminius and his Germanic tribes. Arminius's army was smaller than the three Roman legions, but he was a shrewd strategist who hid his forces in the forest. The Romans were caught off guard and defenseless against the Germanic army. The Germanic leader who led the rebellion against Rome was Arminius, a member of the Cheruscan tribe. Arminius had been a loyal supporter of Rome and even held the prestigious equestrian rank. Dio and Paterculus noted that Arminius' father, Segimer, also played a role in the rebellion. The rebels likely made preparations during the late summer.

Dio states,

Then there came an uprising, first on the part of those who lived at a distance from him, deliberately so arranged, in order that Varus should march against them and so be more easily overpowered while proceeding through what was supposed to be friendly country.

Dio did not mention the tribe responsible for the revolt, but it is probable that the Chauci, who resided on the North Sea coast, were the culprits. This is evidenced by the recovery of a Roman eagle standard among them in 41. It is implied by Tacitus that Varus' headquarters were at the farthest border of the Bructeri, meaning that he was heading northwest when he was ambushed at Kalkriese. The rebellion of the Chauci is a possibility, but not certain.

The mountains had an uneven surface broken by ravines, and the trees grew close together and very high. Hence the Romans, even before the enemy assailed them, were having a hard time of it felling trees, building roads, and bridging places that required it.

Dio, like other ancient authors, was fixated on the "edges of the earth," a hostile environment where the most fierce and savage barbarians lived. Forests were mentioned to emphasize that the Roman legions faced a formidable enemy. However, there is evidence that the Romans were building roads and bridges before the enemy attacked them as they were making Germania a real province. It is possible that Varus' men needed to bridge places, cut trees, and build roads to move from Minden to the west towards the river Hase. The area between Minden and Kalkriese was marshy, but the Romans still managed to cross it.

First Day

According to Dio's source, there is a reference to "the fourth day" of an event that involved Arminius, but unfortunately, the first day of this event is not specified. However, we can infer that the fourth day is in reference to the day that Arminius and his co-conspirators left the main force by counting backwards. It is possible that the first few days of the event were relatively uneventful, and therefore not as significant to be mentioned in Dio's source. Alternatively, it could be that the first day was not relevant to the rest of the story, and was therefore excluded from the account. Despite the ambiguity surrounding the first day, the reference to "the fourth day" provides us with valuable insight into the chronology of events, and allows us to piece together a more complete picture of what happened during this event involving Arminius.

They begged to be excused from further attendance, in order, as they claimed, to assemble their allied forces, after which they would quietly come to his aid. Then they took charge of their troops, which were already in waiting somewhere, and after the men in each community had put to death the detachments of [Roman] soldiers [in their towns], they came upon Varus in the midst of forests by this time almost impenetrable.
March from Minden to west.

Germanic leaders had requested Roman soldiers to assist with small tasks. These soldiers first discovered the change in attitude of the Germanic tribes. The destruction of forts and guard posts may have led to Florus' remark that Varus' camp was sized, which contradicts other authors and findings at the Kalkriese. It is possible that Florus misunderstood a remark about the capture of guard posts. Unaware of these events, the Roman main force built a road and camped near the brook called Hunte, close to modern Bohmte, as mentioned by Tacitus.

Varus' first camp with its wide circumference and the measurements of its central space clearly indicated the handiwork of three legions.

Arminius failed to attack the fortress due to the superiority of the Roman heavy infantry. The Germanic warriors, who had javelins, spears, and shields, were weaker than the legionaries. Only a third of them used swords, and they lacked the armor, helmets, and shields that protected the Romans. Although both sides had javelins, every Roman carried a sword, making them difficult to defeat. Only an ambush could defeat these professional soldiers. Sources indicate that Varus trusted Arminius completely, and the Romans were caught off guard. The Roman’s were not preparing for battle, but traveling with their families and possessions on a routine march. This made them vulnerable to attack. Their forces were scattered and unprepared for a surprise assault. Dio states how unprepared they were on the second day.

They had with them many wagons and many beasts of burden as in time of peace; moreover, not a few women and children and a large retinue of servants were following them - one more reason for their advancing in scattered groups.

Second Day

The army moved slowly through the Kalkriese narrows, during what may have been a rainy day. They had to pass through the narrows between the great bog in the north and the hill in the south. Then, they moved northwest along the Hase to the Chauci. Arminius' men had fortified the hill with a wall, which has been excavated. The Roman army was cut in two, with the head of the column marching northwest along the Hase.

At first they hurled their volleys from a distance; then, as no one defended himself and many were wounded, they approached closer to them. For the Romans were not proceeding in any regular order, but were mixed in helter-skelter with the wagons and the unarmed, and so, being unable to form readily anywhere in a body, and being fewer at every point than their assailants, they suffered greatly and could offer no resistance at all.

Although it is impossible to reconstruct the exact course of the attack, we can perhaps increase our understanding a bit by taking into account the typical marching order of a Roman army, as it is described by Flavius Josephus.

Distribution of Roman finds between the great bog and the hill.

The army was organized into several groups. The vanguard consisted of archers and auxiliaries acting as scouts, supported by 120 horsemen and one legion (about 5,000 men). Pioneers were responsible for building a camp at the end of each day and improving the road. The first part of the train included the baggage of the general and staff officers, followed by the general and his bodyguard, and the cavalry of the other two legions (240 horsemen). The second part of the train consisted of mules carrying the artillery, followed by staff officers and army standards (known as 'eagles'). The main force was composed of two legions (about 10,000 men). The third part of the train was the baggage of the soldiers, while the rear guard was made up of mixed troops.

Arminius targeted Varus, who had only 240 horsemen as protection. This would have split the enemy army in two, destroyed their center of command, and demoralized the Romans. Others would attack the Roman soldiers from the rear with arrows and javelins. The Roman soldiers, however, were professionals and not easily defeated. After the first attack, the soldiers would regroup, and the first legion would try to join forces with the other two or head northwest and disappear in the bogs. Varus did not die on the first day of the battle, and the Roman soldiers survived on a narrow strip of land. They headed southwest towards Haltern on the Lippe and Xanten on the Rhine. The Germans successfully defended their position on the Kalkriese hill slope, killing many legionaries as they continued along the wall. The southern group of the Roman army either moved southwest towards the Lippe without significant losses or were wiped out to the west of the Kalkriese narrows. Surviving soldiers with knowledge of the battles in the Lippe valley were later discovered.

Second day in the evening

According to historians Cassius Dio and Tacitus, much of the Roman army was able to keep fighting after the first attack.

after securing a suitable place, so far as that was possible on a wooded mountain. Afterwards they either burned or abandoned most of their wagons and everything else that was not absolutely necessary to them.

Dio explicitly states that this camp was on the site of the first attack. The words "after securing a suitable place" may suggest that it was a distance from the Kalkriese narrows, as the Romans had to disengage from their enemies. The "wooded mountain" may have been in the direction of modern Osnabrück, where the Romans would have had to cross the Wiehengebirge hills. Tacitus also mentions this

The partially fallen rampart and the shallow fosse suggested the inference that it was a shattered remnant of the army which had there taken up a position.

One possible crossing point for the Wiehengebirge is near Engter.

Third Day

Cassius Dio recounts that the Romans made some progress on the third day after burning their wagons.

and even reached open country, though they did not get off without loss. Upon setting out from there they plunged into the woods again, where they defended themselves against their assailants, but suffered their heaviest losses while doing so. For since they had to form their lines in a narrow space, in order that the cavalry and infantry together might run down the enemy, they collided frequently with one another and with the trees.

Dio tells us that the Roman army was traveling towards the Lippe river. The Lippe is to the west of Osnabrück, so it's likely that the army was in the nearby plain. To get to their destination, the army had to go through the Teutoburg Forest. This forest was very difficult to cross because it had thick undergrowth and rough terrain. This made it hard for the Roman soldiers to travel quickly. Additionally, the Germanic tribes who lived in the area may have set traps or attacked the Romans. Despite these challenges, the army made it through the forest and continued on their journey.

Vala Numonius, lieutenant of Varus, [...] set a fearful example in that he left the infantry unprotected by the cavalry and in flight tried to reach the Rhine with his squadrons of horse. But fortune avenged his act, for he did not survive those whom he had abandoned, but died in the act of deserting them.

In the afternoon, soldiers climbed the Teutoburg Forest and were ambushed, resulting in many casualties. Arminius' army grew as some previously undecided people joined. The Romans may have had a camp in an area similar to Kalkriese, but there is no record.

Fourth Day

The remaining Roman soldiers likely traveled to the Ems valley, using a road constructed by a former governor of Germania. This road, called pontes longi, was built between the Ems and Lippe rivers and passed through swamps. Despite being familiar with the road, the Roman soldiers were still surrounded by more and more Germanic warriors.

They were still advancing when the fourth day dawned, and again a heavy downpour and violent wind assailed them, preventing them from going forward and even from standing securely, and moreover depriving them of the use of their weapons. For they could not handle their bows or their javelins with any success, nor, for that matter, their shields, which were thoroughly soaked. Their opponents, on the other hand, being for the most part lightly equipped, and able to approach and retire freely, suffered less from the storm.

The situation was really bad. Varus and his officers killed themselves. According to Dio, this happened on the fourth day in the Ems valley, which is east of the modern city of Münster. Tacitus tells us that a few years later, a Roman commander named Caecina had a dream about Varus in the same area. Arminius remembered the defeat of the legions while chasing Caecina. Tacitus' Annals tell us that Varus died in the Ems valley.

And so the Roman army now on the spot, six years after the disaster, in grief and anger, began to bury the bones of the three legions, not a soldier knowing whether he was interring the relics of a relative or a stranger, but looking on all as kinsfolk and of their own blood, while their wrath rose higher than ever against the foe. In raising the barrow Cæsar laid the first sod, rendering thus a most welcome honour to the dead, and sharing also in the sorrow of those present. This Tiberius did not approve, either interpreting unfavourably every act of Germanicus, or because he thought that the spectacle of the slain and unburied made the army slow to fight and more afraid of the enemy, and that a general invested with the augurate and its very ancient ceremonies ought not to have polluted himself with funeral rites.

Fall of the Roman Army

The Roman army was falling apart after Varus' example. Some surrendered, others tried to escape. Different sources report varying information, likely due to the fact that these accounts were based on eyewitnesses who were no longer part of the regular army. Paterculus, who knew almost everyone involved, reports that an officer named Ceionus suggested surrender, and Caldus Caelius committed suicide. Florus mentions that one victor mutilated a legal pleader and that one standard-bearer escaped with an eagle, which he buried. Tacitus mentions that captives were crucified and buried alive, the eagle standards were desecrated, and Arminius had addressed his men from a small hill. Dio wrote about a massacre among the Romans, but a gap in his text leaves it unclear what he meant. After the battle, Paterculus and Dio describe the siege of the Aliso fortress, which was the only one not captured by Germanic warriors. The settlement was likely near the Lippe, possibly Haltern or Oberaden. Some survivors of the Kalkriese battle were able to reach this fortress for safety.


Survivors of the Roman army that had been under attack since passing through the Kalkriese narrows reached the Lippe valley. Some were captured and either sacrificed to Germanic gods or enslaved. Some of the captives were later ransomed and returned to the Roman world. Cassius Dio and Velleius Paterculus state that there was one fortress in Germania that remained in Roman hands.

The valor of Lucius Caedicius, prefect of the camp, deserves praise, and of those who, pent up with him at Aliso, were besieged by an immense force of Germans. For, overcoming all their difficulties which want rendered unendurable and the forces of the enemy almost insurmountable, following a design that was carefully considered, and using a vigilance that was ever on the alert, they watched their chance, and with the sword won their way back to their friends.

Dio provides a detailed account of the battle (source), but doesn't mention the name of the fortress. The fortress was likely a large stronghold with a prefect and was situated in the valley of the Lippe. The name "Aliso" suggests that it's the same fortress as the one built by Drusus near the river "Elison" at Oberaden. However, this was abandoned in 8 BCE. It's possible that "Aliso" is not the same as "Elison," and the fortress may be Haltern, which matches Dio's and Paterculus' descriptions. The evacuation was rushed, with at least twenty-four soldiers buried in one of the potter's pits, weapons stored away, coins buried in hoards, and much pottery remaining intact.

Rome's presence on the banks of the Rhine.

Tacitus also mentions Aliso in another context, stating that a tomb existed for soldiers of Varus' legions. If this tomb does not refer to the one built on the main battlefield, it suggests that survivors of the Teutoburg Forest battle were killed during the escape from Aliso. This proves that survivors of the Kalkriese ambush and the disintegration of the Roman army arrived in the Lippe valley after possibly being in the Ems valley east of Münster.

Soldiers from Germania had already reached the Rhine, spreading news of a terrible event upstream. General Lucius Nonius Asprenas sent his legions to occupy the fortresses of Cologne and Xanten, preventing Germanic tribes from invading Gaul. General Tiberius marched from the Danube to the Rhineland with his legions, XX Valeria Victrix and XXI Rapax, preparing for renewed war. In Rome, people were scared, so Emperor Augustus ordered night watch throughout the city.

He was so greatly affected that for several months in succession he cut neither his beard nor his hair, and sometimes he could dash his head against a door, crying "Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!”

Arminius formed a new tribal coalition during winter after Varus' death. The Germanic warriors identified Varus' body and sent his head to king Maroboduus, hoping he would join the insurrection, but he refused. Tiberius punished the Germanic tribes in three campaigns from 9-11 and celebrated a triumph in 12. He decided not to occupy the land east of the Rhine, a decision he made earlier in 8 BCE. During his reign, Tiberius maintained this policy, but still stationed eight legions to guard the Rhine.

The Germania Superior army was based along the Middle Rhine, with XIII Gemina at Windisch, II Augusta at Strasbourg, XIV Gemina and XVI Gallica at Mainz.

The Germania Inferior army was stationed along the Lower Rhine: I Germanica at Bonn, XX Valeria Victrix at Neuss, and V Alaudae and XXI Rapax at Xanten.

Germanicus, the son of Tiberius' brother Drusus, commanded both armies.

In autumn 14, the army of Germania Inferior invaded "free" Germania, possibly due to soldiers being restless after the death of Augustus and the accession of Tiberius. Germanicus led the invasion to distract them.

Part of the cavalry, and some of the auxiliary cohorts led the van; then came the First Legion, and, with the baggage in the center, the men of the Twenty-First closed up the left, those of the Fifth, the right flank. The Twentieth Legion secured the rear, and, next, were the rest of the allies.

Germanicus understood the need to cover his flanks, something Varus had not done. The army reached the Marsi and Bructeri, moving south and north of the Lippe valley which was no longer of interest to them. However, the Romans had occupied part of this zone as Germanic warriors besieged a fortress in the Lippe valley according to Tacitus. In the spring, Germanicus led the army of Germania Superior against the Chatti and destroyed a settlement. He also freed the pro-Roman Germanic leader Segestes, captured Arminius' wife Thusnelda and reached the Upper Weser. Meanwhile, Caecina ordered the army of Germania Inferior to attack the Marsi, which stopped other tribes like the Cherusci from helping the Chatti.

In the summer, Caecina attacked the Bructeri again. Germanicus led his army to the country of the Batavians, then sailed to the Frisians and Chauci, who surrendered. From there, he marched to the Teutoburg Forest where he buried the dead. A burial also took place at the Kalkriese, and Germanicus' army fought a skirmish against Arminius. The army then returned, while Arminius pursued Caecina's army. Caecina dreamt of Varus and Arminius compared the situation to the last hours of Varus.

In 16 AD, Germanicus built a large fleet near Nijmegen. Before the naval expedition could start, Germanic warriors attacked a Roman fortress and destroyed a tomb of Roman soldiers. Germanicus restored order and occupied the area between the Rhine and Aliso. The navy sailed through the canal of Drusus and marched to the east, where it defeated Arminius' army at Idistaviso. Germanicus sent part of his army back to show the Roman strength. A victory monument was built in Nijmegen. Emperor Tiberius chose to leave the Germanic tribes alone. Roman legions sometimes invaded Germania, but the west bank of the Rhine was safe for more than two centuries.



  • Heather, P. (2009). Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe. Oxford University Press.

  • Wells, P.S. (2012). The Battle That Stopped Rome. W. W. Norton & Company.

Annotated Bibliography

Heather, P. (2009). Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe. Oxford University Press.

This book provides an in-depth analysis of the relationship between Rome and the barbarian tribes, including the Germanic tribes and their leader Arminius. It explores the political, social, and economic factors that contributed to the fall of the Western Roman Empire, as well as the birth of Europe as we know it today. The author draws on a wide range of primary sources, including archaeological evidence and historical texts, to provide a solid overview of this period in history.

Wells, P.S. (2012). The Battle That Stopped Rome. W. W. Norton & Company.

This book focuses specifically on the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, exploring the events leading up to the battle and the impact it had on Roman history. The author provides a detailed account of the battle itself, drawing on both primary and secondary sources to paint a vivid picture of the conflict. He also discusses the long-term consequences of the battle, including its impact on Roman military strategy and the rise of Germanic tribes in Europe.

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