The Teutoburg Massacre AD 9

In The Iron Hand of Mars, Falco goes to a forest in Germany where he stumbles across the remains of a large massacre of Roman Legionaries.

” ‘The three legions who were massacred in the forest by Arminius!’ Helveticus raged. ‘There was a fight – dear gods, there was – but there are no bodies because Germanicus came afterwards and buried them.’
He held up his find. It was a silver coin. It carried the special mint mark which P. Quinctilius Varus had used on his soldier’s pay.
Not many of those ever circulated in Rome.” (source)

Arminius (18 BC? – AD 19), Chief of the Cherusci (a Teutonic tribe) spent six years in the Roman army (AD 1-6), learning the Roman arts of war and policy. Arminius gained Roman citizenship, and returned home to Germany in AD 7. There he discovered his people being oppressed by the Roman Governor P. Quinctilius Varus and started a rebellion against Rome.

According the Roman historian Dio, Arminius and his father Segemerus lulled Varus into a false sense of security by agreeing to his demands, making him think that the Cherusci tribes across the Rhine would be compliant to Roman conquest. This lured Varus away from the Rhine, deeper into Cherusci territory; furthermore he dispersed his troops by sending them to help defend villages from neighbouring tribal attack, as requested by the leaders of the villages (who were secretly aiding Arminius!). Such was the deception, that when Segestes (a compatriot and father-in-law of Arminius who was opposed to the revolt all along) tried to warn Varus of the plans, he did not believe him and accused Segestes of spreading slanders about Arminius because of the on-going feud between them (Arminus had eloped with Segestes’ daughter Thusnelda). A small uprising deep in Cherusci territory made Varus lead his troops straight into the trap! In his false sense of security, Varus not only took his troops through deep forest, but also the camp followers, wagons and even woman and children. The troops were thinly scattered in a long line amongst the wagons and non-combatants. Dio records that the Cherusci leaders escorted Varus for part of the way, then excused themselves, no doubt to meet up with their own army as prearranged. Thus, as the rain fell down, the path through the forest became more slippery, the already slow wagons got bogged down in the mud, spreading out further the fighting troops, and Varus fell directly into Arminius’ trap.

The decisive battle was fought over three days in Teutoburg Forest, a mountain range in the north-west of Germany (now approximately 70 miles [115km] across from Osnabrück to Padoborn). The precise location of Varus’ final stand is believed to be at Kalkriese (near Osnabrück), where in the mid 1980s a British soldier discovered large numbers of bronze coins and lead slingshot “bullets”. Further archaeological excavations have revealed fragments of armour, numerous coins which all pre-date AD 9 and are stamped “VAR” (for “VARUS”) as the issuer, and even the face mask from a legionary helmet. Over 3000 items were discovered, along with (even more gruesomely) human remains, which supports the theory that Kalkriese is the spot of the massacre.

Copper coin (as) of Augustus with the stamp of VAR (Varus)
Minted in approximately 8-3 BC in Lugudunum (Lyon).
Source: Kalkriese – Location of the Varus Battle (Student Project), University of Osnabrück

By the end of the battle three Roman legions were massacred by Arminius’ tribes. Estimates of the actual numbers of men involved vary from 20,000 to 25,000, which are devastating numbers even if you take the conservative estimate! This defeat led to Rome losing all its possessions east of the Rhine, making the river the most north-easterly border of the Empire (however, Rome also decided that it simply wasn’t worth the risk to troops and there wasn’t much there anyway that they couldn’t get by other means!). Towards the end of the battle, upon seeing that his army was going to be completely destroyed, and fearing capture or slaughter, Varus committed suicide by falling upon his sword.

According to Tacitus, another Roman historian, in AD 15 Germanicus (15 BC – AD 19), the nephew and adopted son of Emperor Tiberius, defeated Arminius in battle (but did not kill him), but was recalled back to Rome, before he could capitalise on his victory. However, Tacitus says later that Arminius dies without being conclusively beaten in battle, which is supported by the fact that later on the Romans manipulated German politics via third parties instead of direct military action, which would not have been necessary had the Romans completely defeated the German alliance (“Cheruscian Federation”). So Germanicus’ victory over the Cherusci may not have been as complete or victorious as Tacitus would like us to believe, however, some honour was gained by Germanicus capturing back two of the three Eagles of the legions, for which according to Suetonius, the Roman biographer, Emperor Augustus cried out for frequently:

“Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!” (source)

Few Roman armies dared to cross over the Rhine after this, except in response to German raids, not for conquest. In the time of Claudius, one army discovered that the burial mound built by Germanicus had been destroyed by the Germans, so they reburied the scattered remains and rebuilt the mound. As for Arminius, internal feuds among the tribes, following the expulsion of the Romans, led to members of Arminius’ family killing him themselves.

In 1875, a statue of Arminius was erected near the place where he defeated Varus. He is hailed a hero by German Nationalists, who call him Hermann, for freeing Germany from Roman tyranny.


With special acknowledgement and thanks to Thiudareiks Flavius at Clades Variana: The Varus Film Project.

Cassius Dio The Roman History – The Reign of Augustus (Trans. Ian Scott-Kilvert, 1987) Penguin Classics (1987)

Davis, Lindsey. The Iron Hand of MarsArrow, , (1992)

Suetonius The Twelve Caesars (Trans. Robert Graves, 1957. Revised – Michael Grant, 1979) Penguin Classics (1989)

Tacitus The Histories (Trans. W. H. Fyfe, 1912. Revised – D. S. Levene, 1997) Oxford University Press (1997)

Kalkriese – Location of the Varus Battle (a student project written in German — The Google Translator tools may be useful, or an abstract in English is available).

University of Osnabrück Kalkriese Excavations (including map) (also in German).