Arminius, the German warlord who crushed the Romans in the Teutoburg Forest

I just finished reading the latest issue of The eagles of Rome, a comic by the splendid Swiss cartoonist Enrico Marini that tells the story of Arminio. Doesn’t it ring a bell? He was the Germanic leader who defeated the troops of the Roman legate Quintilius Varus in the Teutoburg Forest. Defeating is little because he exterminated the almost 30,000 people who formed them, including legionnaires, auxiliaries and civilians, in a catastrophe that is quite reminiscent of another that we have already dealt with here: the disastrous withdrawal of the British from Kabul in 1842. famous phrase of one of the few survivors, “I am the army”in that one, the one that Augustus obsessively repeated every night after receiving the news has gone down in history: “Quintilio Varo, give me back my legions!”. Let’s take a look at the Arminius figure.

Obviously, that is the Latin name, as Cayo Veleyo Patérculo reviewed in his compendium of roman history (Interestingly, this author was also prefect of cavalry and legate in Germania during the mandate of Tiberius). In the case of a querusco (a town that lived in the region between the current German cities of Osnabrück and Hannover), the real one would be another, although we do not know which one; some people suggest Ermanamer but it is not clear at all. The one we do know is that of her father, Segimer, a chief who, after being defeated by Rome, went on to collaborate with her in the Drusus campaign. the oldest (Augustus’s stepson) leaving his son as a hostage.

It was a common custom for some Roman nobles to adopt the offspring of barbarian chieftains and raise them as if they were Romans, not only to ensure that their hometowns would remain in peace but also so that, in the future, when they were returned to their people, be more likely to have their alliance by being Romanized, civilized. Thus, Arminius spent his youth in the capital of his enemies together with his younger brother Flavus, whose real name we also ignore (flavus in latin it is yellow, a probable allusion to the blonde tone of her hair). Both received citizenship, being integrated and trained as equites (ordo equestrianknights, a social class below the senatorial one who fought on horseback).

Flavus, unlike his older brother, always remained loyal to Rome and would not only lose an eye fighting for her in Dalmatia against the Illyrians but would end up fighting his own in the future, as we shall see. Arminius also had the opportunity to gain military experience by leading a body of Cheruscan auxiliaries in the Pannonian wars against the aforementioned Illyrians, when they revolted between 6 and 9 AD By then, he was just over twenty years old, since it is estimated his birth around 17 or 16 BC After that campaign he was assigned to his homeland, in lower Germania, where Publius Quintilius Varus was governor.

Varo, a member of a republican family that had opposed the dictatorial dalliances of Julius Caesar, had recovered the honor of his lineage by faithfully serving Octavio, who rewarded him by giving him the hand of his granddaughter Vipsania Marcela. His career continued in unstoppable ascent, obtaining the consulship (along with Tiberius) in the year 13 BC and being sent as proconsul and propraetor legate to Syria. From there he crushed the Jewish rebellion that began after the death of Herod the big one and amassed a large fortune by dubious methods: «Arrived poor in a rich province and left rich leaving a poor province«, said a maxim of the time.

In AD 9, he traded the torrid airs of the Near East for the gray German skies. His avidity for collection and his inexperience with those people caused discontent to spread soon, which is why it was considered advisable to assign him a native assistant who would advise him properly and guide him when dealing with the tribes. The chosen one was Arminio, with whom he established a close friendship that, however, did not resist the reality of the context. The young querusco distanced himself little by little from the Roman administration as it privileged his own to the detriment of the locals and it became clear that the territory was nothing more than a military domain.

Germania in AD 9 In yellow, the imperial province; the red line is the route of Varo’s expedition/Image: Cristiano64 on Wikimedia Commons

The Germans had remained calm during the insurrection of the Pannonians and Dalmatians, paradoxically motivated by a forced recruitment for the expedition that Tiberius was going to lead against the Marcomanni (a tribe of what is now Bohemia), but in the final phase of the war they began to break out the agitation between the Elbe and the Rhine. The reason? That Varus imposed new taxes and tried to introduce the Roman judicial system. The queruscos, until then contained, revolted encouraged by Arminio, who thus definitively renounced his romanization by placing himself at the head of the uprising. But it wasn’t just them; the young cacique managed to attract other towns to the cause, so that Roman control was compromised.

The fact is that the Pannonia campaign, which had been aggravated by a simultaneous attack by the Getae in Mesia, forced the diversion of large forces there: eight of the eleven legions stationed east of the Rhine left Germania, leaving Varus only three remained (plus another two quartered in Moguntiacum, what is now Mainz, under the command of his nephew Lucio Nonio Asprenas). He still considered them enough for him, along with six cohorts of auxiliaries and three wings of cavalry, to march north to put down a rebellion that Arminius had informed him of. Actually there was no such; It was the plan that the Cheruscus devised to induce the Romans to enter his territory and be able to fall on them.

Because Arminius had achieved something as unusual as bringing together most of the tribes under his command, including some that were ancient enemies of each other: Cherusci, Bructeri, Angrivarii, Marsians, Caucos, Sicambri, etc. The total number of warriors is not clear, since some factions were in favor of the Romans and, in fact, probably did not greatly outnumber their opponents. But it is that they took with them thousands of civilians (relatives, merchants, servants, prostitutes…) and their column stretched several kilometers, which made communication between the units difficult and caused very little mobility, also hampered by the supply carts.

When they entered the Teutoburg Forest in Lower Saxony, a terrain that made progress even more difficult (compounded by the rains, which turned it into a quagmire), Arminius gave the order to attack. This was not massive but concentrated at various points, splitting the column into two parts: he withdrew to a swamp that prevented the legionnaires from adopting a defensive formation and they ended up annihilated; the other came out into a clearing where a fortified camp was desperately set up. Varo, who did not know or could not react adequately, still believed that Arminio’s auxiliaries would come to his aid. It was the next day when they informed him that they were with the enemy, deciding to start a withdrawal that morning; To do this, he ordered the cars to be burned and the wounded left to their fate, trusting in a pity towards them on the part of the Germans that, deep down, he knew there would not be.

Scheme of the ambush on the first day/Image: Cristiano64 on Wikimedia Commons

The legions managed to advance but their opponents had already been reinforced by Arminius’s auxiliaries, so they were forced to stop again and set up another camp. Then came the news that the cavalry had been slaughtered in their attempt to escape. While debating what to do, the Germans completely surrounded the position.

Finally, in the midst of a fierce storm, the legionnaires came out in two groups trying to get away but the mass of warriors that fell on them forced them to adopt the testudo, immobilizing them. There was no way out, then, and some officers committed suicide to avoid being taken prisoner, as this was equivalent to being tortured (amputating limbs, gouging out their eyes and sewing up their mouths, for example), before ending up on the sacrificial altar. Varo was one of those who took his own life, although the exact moment is unknown and some think it was the night before.

The soldiers formed small resistance groups that were progressively annihilated one by one; some legionnaires were able to flee into the trees but were hunted down over the next few days and only a few saved their necks. It is not known how many casualties there were, but archaeological excavations have unearthed some sixteen thousand Roman skeletons plus another thousand Germanic ones. Among them was not that of Varus, whose body was burned except for his head, which Arminius sent to Augustus as a warning. This one, as we said at the beginning, temporarily went crazy.

Situation of Germania after Teutoburg: in green, territory dominated by Rome; in pink, enemy territory; in yellow, territory of Rome’s allies/Image: Cristiano64 on Wikimedia Commons

Four years passed and in AD 13 Germanicus, nephew of Augustus, invaded Germania with a powerful army, burying the dead and regaining control of the region. But he could not capture Arminius, who in the year 15 AD would claim yet another important victory at the Battle of the Long Bridges, crushing the four legions commanded by Aulus Cecina Severus. However, the Roman managed to save part of his forces and join those of Asprenas to close the passage of the Germans to Gaul.

Later, in a counterattack, Germanicus captured Thusnelda, the wife of Arminius, with the collaboration of a pro-Roman faction, which revealed that internal dissensions were beginning among the Germans, duly encouraged by his brother Flavus. Arminio never saw her again and neither did he meet his son Tumélico, born in captivity (he was a gladiator and did not last long), refusing to accept the negotiation proposal.

Arminio says goodbye to Thusnelda (Johannes Gehrts)/Image: public domain in Wikimedia Commons

By then, Augustus was dead and Tiberius ruled, determined to pacify Germania once and for all. The definitive victory came the following year in the battles of Idistaviso and the Angrivarian Wall, in which Germanicus decisively defeated Arminius, causing thousands of casualties and putting an end to de facto to rebellion; he even recovered two of the eagles lost in Teutoburg (the third would be recovered in Claudius’ time).

Of course, it was a relative victory, since the difficulty in effectively dominating a territory in which human and material resources were consumed in excess of the benefits obtained had become clear. So, ironically, Tiberius ordered Germanicus back and established the limethe border, on the Rhine.

And Arminius? He had come out alive from the defeat against Germanicus, smearing his face with blood so that the enemy cavalry would not recognize him and go in pursuit of him. The discord among the Germans, which led some to propose poisoning him to Rome (Tiberius refused; he wanted to win by arms), would lead him to war against the Marcomanni and to have problems with other chiefs, especially with his father-in-law Segestes, who had been who gave his own daughter to the Romans.

It would be his supporters who, suspicious of the power he accumulated, assassinated him in 21 AD The character died but the legend began, which was duly vindicated by nineteenth-century German romanticism for nationalist purposes.


Annals (Tacit)/roman history (Casius Dio)/roman history (Veleyus Paterculus)/history of rome (Sergei Ivanovich Kovalyov)/SPQR. A history of ancient Rome (Mary Beard)/Arminius the Liberator. Myth and ideology (Martin M. Winkler)/Four days in September. The Battle of Teutoburg (Jason R. Abdale)/Wikipedia

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