Author: Dick Cheney
Original Thread: Significance of Teutoburg Forest

[History] Significance of Teutoburg Forest
Iím just going to come out and say it, but Teutoburg Forest has got to be one of the most overemphasized battles in human history (right up there with Thermopylae). The popular myth of course, is that Germanic Tribes (led by Arminius) banded together and soundly defeated three Roman Legions (led by Quinctilius Varus) at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest -during the height of Roman power no less-, thus permanently ending Roman plans for the colonization of greater Germania.

According to wikipedia, The Battle of Teutoburg Forest is comparable to Romeís greatest defeat, ďa turning point in world-history,Ē and one of the most decisive battles ever recorded:

In reality however, the significance of Teutoburg Forest -including our interpretations of its aftermath and role in thwarting Romeís expansion plans- must be balanced with the following questions:

  1. Did Arminius and the Germanic Tribes decisively turnback the Roman Army from Germania?
  2. Did the loss of three Roman Legions put an end to the supposed Roman conquest of Germania?
  3. And did the defeat at Teurtoburg lead to a decisive end of Roman dominance and influence over central Europe?

Quick overview of the battle (though not essential for discussion):

Spoiler Alert, click show to read: 

Narrative: Arminius (a former auxiliary officer) betrayed the Romans and executed a perfectly -and meticulously- designed trap. Most tellingly, ambush and wooded terrain prevented the Roman army from forming organized lines, thus allowing the Germans to swarm in on isolated pockets of panicking legionnaires. Low visibility, climate, and rain also didnít help. Many backup legions (who otherwise might have participated) were also tied down in the ongoing Illyricum revolts.

In all, the 17th, 18th, and 19th legions (20,000 men total) were completely wiped out, Varus committed suicide, and a grief-stricken Augustus is said to have remarked; ďVarus, give me back my legions!Ē

#1 Did the Germanic Tribes (under Arminius) decisively defeat the Roman Army presence in Germania?

Short answer: no.

Itís easy to overstate the significance of Teutoburg Forrest because three whole legions were wiped out and never replaced. However, even with the massacre of 20,000 legionaries and temporary blow to army morale, the Roman military presence around Germania actually increased as a result of Teutoburg Forrest (up to 8 legions beginning with Tiberius) and incidentally led to the revenge campaigns of Germanicus Caesar, a true destroyer general and genocidal killer.

Campaigns of Germanicus Julius Caesar

The cruelty and depth of the Roman response should not be underestimated. In addition to capturing Arminiusís wife, enslaving the local population, and wiping out entire villages and farmland around the Lippe valley, Germanicus managed to goad Arminius into decisive battle, and defeat him at Weser River and the Agrivarian Wall. He even recaptured 2 of the 3 lost eagle standards form the 17th, 18th, and 19th legions. The totality of Romeís revenge was thus complete, and what remained of Arminius extremely fickle coalition mostly fled across the Elbe. More important than regaining territory, Romeís honor was restored, and in the years after Weser, Arminius himself would be disposed of by his own men, largely in attempt to appease the Romans.

#2 Did the loss at Teutoburg put an end to the supposed Roman conquest of Germania?

Again, this one is mostly false.

While itís true major military incursions into Germania ended with the recall of Germanicus (and would not be seen again until the Marcomannic Wars), itís also true that Germanicus had mostly pacified Germania up to the Lippe and North Sea, it was thus up to Tiberius to decide what to do next.

Rather than continue to push forward to the Elbe, Tiberius choose to withdraw. The reasons for this decision were possibly twofold:

  1. Fear of Germanicus's growing reputation in Rome and the possibility of being usurped.
  2. A cost vs. benefit decision that said the economic benefits of conquering Germania were not worth the effort.

In the end, many historians agree that Tiberius made the right decision based on the second reason. Germania, unlike Gaul, had few urban centers and little to no roads and infrastructure -which were needed to establish a reliable tax base. The German economy (according to Caesar and Tacitus) was also not significantly devoted to trade and agriculture, but instead to animal husbandry, raiding, piracy, and plunder. The Germans -according to archaeological grave sites- also significantly lacked in quality iron production and were dependent on Roman imports. In all, -right or wrongly- the Germanic tribes were mostly seen as uncivilized barbarians by their Roman counterparts and separate from the iron-working Celts in Gaul. Assimilating them and establishing Rome rule in the empty forests of Germania then was not worth the effort and may been the historical calculus for all future Emperors going forward.

#3 Did the defeat at Teurtorburg lead to a decisive end of Roman dominance and influence over central Europe?

This one should also be seen as mostly false. The narrative is that Arminius was a unifier and liberator for the German people, yet even after he was disposed of by rival chieftains, the Germanic tribes went back to fighting among themselves, which they were accustomed to do and the Romans happily encouraged. In addition, the Romans would construct the Limes Germanicus, the largest series of frontier fortifications ever constructed (after only the Great Wall of China). The Romans would use the Limes and the Rhine/Danube legions (usually 1/3 of the Roman Army) to literally dominate all major affairs in Magna Germania, including trade, border control, migration, agriculture, war, and regional politics. For the next two hundred years the west bank of the Rhine (along with Gaul) would actually remain relatively safe from German migration and influence, which may have been the principle aim of conquering Germania and wiping out the Germanic Tribes had the Romans done so anyway.