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Battle of the Teutoburg Forest

History -- Military history -- List of battles

In the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest (9 AD) an alliance of Germanic tribes led by Arminius (also known in German as Hermann), the son of Segimerus of the Cherusci, ambushed and wiped out a Roman army.

The battle established the Rhine as the boundary between Romans and Germans. The Romans never got any further north.

The Roman force was led by Publius Quinctilius Varus, a noble from an old family, who had become the governor of Germania in 7 AD. The battle is thus more well known as the Varusschlacht in German (battle of Varus). His force was made up of three legions (XVII, XVIII, and XIX), six cohorts and three squadrons of allied cavalry.

Varus had sought tribute from certain tribes. The tribes bided their time and initially received Varus peacefully. Later, some distant tribes began to rise in rebellion. Varus organised a force to take punitive action against these tribes, for which he had been promised aid from the Cherusci.

The Roman force appears to have been poorly organised during the march, and as they passed into a forest they found the track narrow and marshy; a violent storm had also arisen. In passing through the forest the Roman forces had lost their structure, and they were ambushed by the Germans repeatedly over two or three days. Finally the remaining Romans stood their ground, and as the rains continued in the ensuing assault the Romans were slaughtered. Around 20,000 Roman soldiers died, Varus is said to have taken his own life.

The shock of the slaughter brought an end to Roman attempts to extend their territories eastward from the Rhine across Germany. These attempts had dragged on since around 20 BC with variable success.

Due to the actual nature of the battle and the lack of Roman survivors it has long been realised that contemporary reports are almost all hearsay. For Roman historians to say "Lucius Eggius gave as honorable an example of valor as Ceionius gave of baseness" or "Numonius Vala... [was] guilty of abominable treachery" is unverifiable.

The legacy of the Germanic victory was resurrected in the 19th century as a symbol of German nationalism and pride. In 1875, the Hermannsdenkmal, a statue paid for largely out of private funds, was erected in Detmold to commemorate the battle; similar statues also exist outside of Germany in German-founded communities including one in New Ulm, Minnesota.

Research by Major Tony Clunn, a British amateur archaeologist, led to the discovery of what is believed to be the actual site of the battle at Kalkriese, at the fringes of the Wiehengebirge[?] hills north of Osnabrück in the state of Lower Saxony. This is some 50 km away from Detmold, south of Osnabrück, where the statue was erected. Since nobody knew for almost 2,000 years where the battle really took place and the only source of information about it was the Germania writing of Gaius Cornelius Tacitus, which located the battle in the saltus Teutoburgiensis, it was simply assumed that the battle had to be somewhere in what is today called the Teutoburg Forest, and Detmold was chosen for the location of the statue.

While the initial excarvations were done by the archeological team of the Kulturhistorisches Museum Osnabrück under the lead of Prof. Wolfgang Schlüter, after the dimensions of the project became apparent, a new foundation was created to organize future excarvations, erect and run a new museum on the site, and centralize publicity work and documentation.

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