History of Germany
Home Up Charlemagne

Teutoberg Forest


Holy Roman Empire




A Look at the History of Germany

Written by Rick Archer
May 2014


Rick Archer's Note: 

Many of you will be surprised to learn Germany did not become a nation until 1871.  By that time, the United States was already 100 years old.  The reasons are so complicated that only a thorough retelling of the story will make any sense.

However, we can share one reason immediately... it all dates back to the Roman Empire.

Although this is an over-simplification, basically when Spain, France, and England did eventually gain their freedom from Roman domination, there was always one main tribe in the territory that had worked closely with Romans to keep order.  By aligning their fortunes with the Roman governors, when the Romans did finally leave, the main tribe was ready to step into the vacuum and take over the reins of power.

At the time of the Roman Empire, Germany was populated by countless barbarian tribes that valued their freedom fiercely.  Unlike Spain, France, and England, the Roman Empire was never able to conquer Germany... or Germania as the Romans called it.  Rome came very close, but something very strange stopped Rome in its tracks.

There was no leader in Germany when the Romans left.  This is because Germania was the only province ever to forcibly evict Rome against its will.  Once Rome was gone, there was no central leader to take their place.

Instead, there were many leaders and many tribes, none of whom had the strength or the inclination to take on the other tribes.  Each tribe was left alone to become strong within its own domain.   

Without any central authority to say otherwise, Germany was completely divided right from the start, a situation that was to last for 2,000 years.  As a result, the German territory was free to take a radically different course to nationhood than its neighboring territories. 

Put on your seat belts. This is quite a story. 


Rome is

Massacred at

Teutoberg Forest



  "That Which Does Not Kill You Makes You Stronger"
- Friedrich Nietzsche, German Philosopher

This map of the mighty Roman Empire says it all.  Rome conquered a vast amount of territory.  That included most of what we now call Europe.  Rome conquered Spain.  Rome conquered France.  Rome conquered Britannia.  Rome conquered Eastern Europe and all lands south of the Danube. 

Now name the country didn't Rome conquer. 

Germania, as the Romans called it, and which, considering its origin and name in its original language, should be called Teutonia, is the only country in Europe and maybe the universe that was never subjugated by Rome.

It is still the same aboriginal and indigenous nation which has preserved its independence, its name, and its language from its origin to this day.   Tacitus, Roman Historian

Thanks to the miracle of European geography, Germany had its borders protected by the Alps, by the Danube, and by the Rhine.

These barriers were not impossible to cross, but to do so invited great danger.  Without a convenient escape route, German counter-attacks threatened to trap any invader.  Furthermore, the bitter cold of the German winter often forced invaders to leave for safety on the other side of the river before establishing a permanent foothold.  These barriers were a real advantage.

The Romans never succeeded in subjugating the barbarians of Germania.  And it was not for lack of trying either.  In fact, one time Rome did come very close. It is a great story we will get to.

The concept of "Germany" as a distinct region in central Europe can be traced to Roman commander Julius Caesar.  In his treatise Gallia, Caesar referred to the unconquered area east of the Rhine as Germania, thus distinguishing it from Gaul (France) 

Caesar was well aware of Germania.  During Caesar's conquest of Gaul it became necessary to secure the eastern border of the new provinces against marauding Germanic tribes. The tribes felt safe on the eastern side of the Rhine River, trusting the river as a natural border which offered cover from retaliatory attack after their opportunistic raids into the Frankish provinces.

Caesar decided to confront them. He decided to build a bridge to demonstrate Rome's ability to bring the fight at any time to the Germanic tribes.  This bridge showed that Julius Caesar, and Rome, could go anywhere, if only for a few days...

With 40,000 soldiers at his disposal, it took 10 days for Caesar to build the first Rhine bridge in an area near the Moselle River. Caesar crossed with his troops over to the eastern site and burned some villages.  However he found his main enemy, the tribes of the Sugambri and Suebi, had moved eastward.

The tribes had come together and were now prepared to meet Caesar's army in battle.  When Caesar heard of this, he quickly left the region and took the bridge down behind him.  He had remained in the area for only 18 days.  Truth be told, Caesar didn't want any part of Germania.  All he wanted was to warn the Germanic tribes to stay out of Gaul.  Caesar concluded that Germania was a dangerous place best left alone.

The arrogance of Rome never permitted it to back away from a challenge.  The German frontier held a powerful attraction for Augustus, the next Emperor after Caesar's death in 44 BC. 

Augustus had nothing but contempt for Germania.  He viewed the Germanic people as barbarians, little more than illiterate, uncultured, dirty savages.  Augustus could see these people liked to fight, but concluded they didn't have the brains to organize their warriors into realistic fighting threats.  They used primitive weapons and primitive fighting tactics. 

Augustus could not see what Caesar was worried about.  He saw this frontier and all the lands east as ripe for the picking.  Once Germania had been subdued at the Rhine, Augustus would not stop there.  He would push on into the open lands beyond and bring to Germania the full power of Roman armies.

Augustus Caesar sent Drusus, his gifted stepson, to attack Germania.  Drusus was likely just as talented a military leader as Julius Caesar had been himself. Drusus became the only Roman to ever achieve any success against Germania.  He led a series of highly effective raids deep into German territory.

The reason the name of Drusus is not well known is due to his untimely death at age 29.  The death of Drusus in 9 BC - he died of fever one month after falling off his horse - deprived Rome of its greatest military leader as well as its likely next emperor.

The death of Drusus was a turning point in history.  Had Drusus lived, the history of both Rome and Germany might have been quite different.  However, the incalculable loss of Drusus was not readily apparent at the time.  Before his death, Drusus had deeply weakened many of the various German tribes.  Rome seemed to be in control now. 

After the death of Drusus, for the next 20 years, Rome was the de facto ruler of much German territory. Rome attempted to pacify German tribes more through trade and diplomacy than war.  After signing peace treaties, Rome established commercial ties and attempted to extend Roman law into Germany. 

Rome made two mistakes.  First, thanks to Varus, the aggressive new governor, the German tribes were heavily taxed and treated as second-class citizens in their own lands.  Varus ruled with a heavy hand, alienating people who weren't completely defeated, but rather willing to give peace a try.

These were people accustomed to being their own master. For a people that had known nothing but freedom, taxation and obeisance to an unpopular ruler was a bitter pill to swallow.

Rome needed manpower. It began to add German warriors to its legions.  In addition to arming these men with modern iron weapons, the Romans taught them Roman strategy and battle technique.  This mistake would come back to haunt Rome.

The Romans were holding portions of it (Germania), not entire regions, but merely such districts as happened to have been subdued, so that no record has been made of the fact.  Their soldiers were wintering there and cities were being founded.

The barbarians were slowly adapting themselves to Roman ways, were becoming accustomed to markets, and were meeting in peaceful assemblages.

They had not, however, forgotten their ancestral habits, their native manners, their old life of independence, or the power derived from arms. 

Cassius Dio, Roman Consul and historian

Arminius Betrays Rome

Arminius was a 28-year old Germanic aristocrat from the Cheruscans, a Germanic tribe.  Arminius had been presented to the Romans as a boy.  He was part hostage and part tribute from a German tribal leader.

Arminius was taken to Rome and raised as a Roman.  He was given a Roman military education and rank.  After Arminius voluntarily became a Roman citizen, he was assumed to be completely indoctrinated into Roman ways.  

When Arminius returned to the Roman outpost on the Rhine, he became a trusted advisor to Varus, the Roman commander. 

Arminius was assigned command of an "auxiliary" army of Germans supposedly loyal to Rome.  Rome did not have the manpower to guard its farthest outposts strictly with Roman soldiers.  Instead they used troops drawn from local tribes.  Because he was a trusted Roman citizen and because he spoke fluent German, Arminius was put in charge of the German auxiliary in the Rhine region. 

The German men were fierce, brave warriors, but they were men who did not take orders well, especially from outsiders.  However, they would listen to Arminius.  Varus, the Roman commander, valued Arminius highly because he kept the wild barbarian soldiers in line. 

At this point, the Roman Empire had established limited control of the territories just east of the Rhine. Arminius learned that Rome was now secretly preparing to extend its hegemony eastward to the Weser and Elbe rivers.  This expansion would violate treaties Rome had made with the German tribes. 

This did not sit well with Arminius.  This young man had a mind of his own. This expansion into independent areas of Germania would subjugate free men.  Alarmed at this threat, he began plotting to unite various Germanic tribes to thwart these efforts.

As a leader of the Germanic auxiliary forces, Arminius had been serving Rome in a military capacity for a long time. It was his job to maintain frequent contact with the chieftains of the various Germanic tribes in the region.  In his capacity as an ambassador of sorts, Arminius had the opportunity to quietly warn the various tribal leaders what Rome was up to.

In so doing, Arminius discovered that Roman dominance and brutality over the past 20 years had created great resentment. There was a strong desire to rebel. Assured they would rise if given the chance, Arminius began making plans for betrayal.

Arminius had been trained in the Roman art of warfare.  He knew that his warriors would have little chance in an open battle against the disciplined and well-equipped legionaries.  Therefore, instead he set a trap.  Arminius devised one of the best warfare tricks since the Trojan Horse caused the fall of Troy.

First Arminius had to lure Varus away from the Rhine River where most of the Roman occupiers were stationed.  Arminius told Varus of an alleged rebellion in a remote forest area 60 miles east of the Rhine.  By drawing Varus deep into the forest, this would deny Varus any possible reinforcements.  

Next Arminius made guides available to Varus to help find the rebels.  These guides were actually meant to lure Varus into the deep forest trap.

However, the ambush nearly didn't get off the ground. 

One of Arminius' relatives loyal to Rome got wind of the plot and actually confided to Varus what Arminius was planning to do.

Amazingly, Varus assumed the relative was trying to fool him and allow the rebellion to continue unchecked.  After all, Arminius was a trusted aide and constant companion to Varus.  Why would Arminius want to betray him?

In fact, Varus believed in Arminius so much that he actually sent the young man and his cavalry ahead of his army to help scout for any danger.  This stroke of luck allowed Arminius to actually ride ahead.  Now he himself was able to pick the perfect spot to make the trap a complete surprise.

Meanwhile the Romans struggled mightily with all sorts of obstacles.   As omens go, one would have to conclude that the Fates were clearly not with them this day. 

The mountains had an uneven surface broken by ravines.  In the dense forest, the trees grew so close together that finding a path through them was impossible.  Hence, the Romans had no choice but cut down trees, build a road, and even make bridges over some of the ravines.

Varus was taking no chances.  Arminius had convinced him these rebels were a serious threat.  He had brought 20,000 men with him.  They had many wagons and many beasts of burden.  In addition, women and children and a large retinue of servants were following them.  The advance was slow and chaotic.

Meanwhile a violent wind and rain came up that separated the armies still further.  The ground became slippery around the roots and logs, made walking very treacherous for everyone.  The wagons bogged down in the muddy dirt roads.  Even the treetops were their enemy that day. The tops of trees kept breaking off and falling down, causing much confusion and fear below.

The Roman army followed the German scouts into a narrow valley with steep, densely wooded hills on either side.  This area was known as Teutoberg Forest. 

Suddenly, out of nowhere, the Romans found themselves surrounded on all sides by screaming barbarians charging through the dense woods.  The shock of this overwhelming surprise caught them completely off guard. 

At first the Germans hurled their spears from a distance.  Noting how poorly the Romans organized their defense, the attackers approached closer and began hand to hand combat.

The Romans were the most disciplined fighters in ancient history, but their strength was preparation.  This was definitely not their kind of battle.  However, these were elite Roman soldiers.  Even under the most adverse conditions, they put up a hell of a fight. 

The battle stretched over three days!   The fact that the battle lasted that long was testament to Roman fighting ability because this was surely a lost cause from the moment it started. 

The Romans were forced to fight in a continuous chilling rain.  This affected visibility, soaked the ground, and the cold sapped their endurance.

Once the slowly moving baggage wagons got stuck in the mud, there was no escape.  This prevented any sort of fast withdrawal out of this adverse setting.  The Romans were continually worn down.  After each attack, the Germanic units pulled back into the protective forest.  While at first the Roman army had withdrawn into shield walls in an orderly fashion, over time gaps in their ranks gave the barbarians the openings they needed. 

Soon a general panic set in where everyone was only trying to save their own life.  The final blow came when Varus chose to fall on his sword. He committed suicide rather than allow himself to be captured, tortured and humiliated.  Seeing the general fall, several leaders followed his example and did the same. 

Now leaderless, the soldiers became disorganized.  This made them vulnerable to attackers coming from every direction.  It was 'man against man', the German's favorite style of fighting.  Finally the Romans gave up.  They simply stopped fighting.

Arminius's tribe the Cherusci and their allies the Marsi, Chatti, Bructeri, Chauci, and Sicambri had managed to eliminate Varus's entire army which totaled over 20,000 men.  This battle was a slaughter, the Roman equivalent of Custer's Last Stand.

Varus and his commanders were dead.  This had been an army unexcelled in bravery, the very first of Roman armies in discipline, energy and experience in the field. 

However, through the negligence of its general, the perfidy of the enemy, and the unkindness of fortune, the army was exterminated almost to a man by the very enemy whom it had always slaughtered like cattle in the past.

After the news [of Varus' death] spread, none of the rest defended himself any longer even if he had any strength left. 

Some imitated their leader.  Others, casting aside their arms, allowed any who pleased to slay them; for to flee was impossible, however much one might desire to do so.

The battle was a complete massacre.  There was no escape.  Every man, therefore, and every horse was cut down without fear of resistance.  No man was spared; the women were taken into slavery.

- Velleius Paterculus, 30 AD

Without a doubt, Teutoberg Forest was the worst defeat ever suffered by the Roman Empire.  Even more amazing, this stunning loss took place at the height of Roman dominance in the world.  In this battle, Rome lost 17% of its fighting force.  

The Importance of Teutoburg Forest

The consequences of this battle were profound.  The victory of the Germanic tribes over the Romans in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest (9 AD) completely changed the course of world history.

The most shocking development wasn't just that Roman had been beaten, but just how badly the Romans were beaten. In a flash, three of Rome's best legions were not just defeated, but rather annihilated.  One-sixth of the entire armed forces of the Roman Empire had been destroyed.

The world's perception of Roman invincibility took on a new light.  Maybe the Romans could be beaten after all... this defeat gave hope to subjugated people in other lands who also dreamt of rebellion.

Another major consequence was the everlasting freedom of Germania.  This loss was so profound that Germania, home of the uncivilized, ignorant barbarians, the land Augustus wrote off as 'easy pickings', would be off-limits from henceforth.

What a blow.  In this shocking defeat, 30 years of investment in taming this wild land had gone up in smoke.  For 30 years the Romans had been arduously exploring this land.  Rome had won over Germanic tribes as allies or had subdued them, they had built roads, they had established a province administration, and they had founded cities.  Now it was all gone. 

Over 50,000 men had been employed for three decades in an effort to civilize Germania and to make it part of the Roman empire.  These men had been paid for their work, equipped, accommodated and provisioned by the Roman state - yet now over 20,000 of them had been killed within a few days.

The result of all these endeavors was destroyed at a single blow. The annihilation was indeed complete not only in loss of men, but in morale as well. 

The defeat was so bitter prevented any further desire for annexation by the Roman Empire.  There would be a Roman raid five years later designed to punish the tribes responsible for the ambush, but never again did Rome have any stomach to cross the Rhine in any major campaign. 

Think of America's Revolutionary War (1775-1783).  It took the Colonies nine years to win complete freedom from England.  Think of Russia's 300 years of subjugation to the Mongol Empire.  After 30 years of struggle, out of the blue it took Germany only 3 days to get rid of its worst enemy.  How remarkable is that?

Even worse, Rome had empowered its worst enemy. Germania was a province no more, but rather a free and extremely hostile territory. Like Arminius, many Germanic people had been serving the Romans at war; these warriors had been trained and armed.  Unchecked, these barbarians could become a dangerous threat to Rome in a counter-attack.

The Romans began to tremble.  They feared Germanic raids on their province Gaul or even Italy itself.  Fortunately, the much-feared attack never materialized.  

Step One came five years ago when Rome sent an army across the Rhine to fetch its lost eagles and burn a few villages.  This incursion was mostly a face-saving mission to regain some lost pride.  It was hardly a full-scale invasion. 

Step Two came when Tiberius, Roman emperor after Augustus, decided against an additional campaign for AD 17.  Tiberius had seen the Germans in battle first-hand.  He saw no point in provoking them, so he decreed the frontier with Germania would stand at the Rhine River.

This led to Step Three.  Now Rome got lucky.  With the threat of Rome gone, Arminius wasn't needed any more by his people.  Arminius was assassinated in 21 AD, murdered by opponents within his own tribe who felt he was becoming too powerful.  That was ironic; Julius Caesar was murdered on the Ides of March for exactly the same reason. 

Unable to unite under a common leader, the divided German tribes were no longer a threat.  Rome would be spared, at least for now.  However the damage was done.  Germania was free to grow into a powerful enemy. 

Under Drusus, Rome would have likely conquered Germania.  But thanks to his fall from a horse, Rome missed its chance. 

That which does not kill you makes you stronger.  The Germans would live free to rise again.

Over the centuries stories of this battle have been passed on from generation to generation.

The Germans are justifiably proud to be the only country ever to stand up to the mighty Roman Empire and beat it.  Even more impressive, they did it at the peak of Roman power.  The Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD is considered by many to be the start of German nationhood. 

On the other hand, the loss of Arminius was crippling.  Arminius was the only leader for the next 2,000 years who had the power to unite the German people.  His murder would delay the actual creation of a German state until 1871. 



After Teutoberg Forest

After Germanic tribes wiped out three full legions in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD, the Romans never seriously attempted to cross the Rhine or the Danube again for the next 100 years.

The mighty Roman Empire was more embarrassed than it was crippled. This defeat had reduced the number of Roman legions to 25, but the total of legions would soon be increased.  For the next 300 years the number always be a little above or below 30. The army had about 300,000 soldiers in the 1st century, and under 400,000 in the 2nd century.

Despite Rome's bitter defeat in the German forest, its conquests continued for another century till it reached its peak in 117 AD.  Emperor Trajan, a man considered one of Rome's finest emperors, made a daring conquest of Dacia (Hungary, Romania). Since this new province possessed many valuable gold mines, the victory greatly enriched the empire.

However, Trajan had broken the Rule. The new province's exposed position to the north of the Danube made it susceptible to attack on three sides. It was later abandoned by Emperor Aurelian.

After Trajan's death in 117 AD, the Roman Empire began its long downward slide towards destruction.

Invasion of the Barbarians

The German Migration Period, also known as the period of the Barbarian invasions, was marked by profound changes both within the Roman Empire and beyond its "barbarian frontier". The migrants who came first were Germanic tribes such as the Goths, Vandals, Celts, Angles, Saxons, Lombards, Suebi, Frisii and Franks; they were later pushed westwards by the Huns, Avars, Slavs, Bulgars and Alans.

During the decline of Rome, the Germanic tribes constantly tested the will of the Romans in Gaul (France) and Helvetia (Switzerland).

Rome was no longer on attack.  It was strictly "hold on to what they had".  The Romans tried as hard as they could to push back.  The Battle of Strasbourg was fought in AD 357 between the Roman army under Deputy Emperor Julian and the Alamanni tribal confederation led by King Chnodomar.

Julian's force, the imperial escort army of Gaul, was small but of high quality. Although outnumbered by a substantial margin, Julian's army won a complete victory after a hard-fought struggle. With small casualties of their own, the Romans drove the Alamanni beyond the river Rhine and inflicted heavy losses. The battle was won by the skill of the Roman infantry, with the cavalry initially performing poorly.

The battle was the climax of Julian's campaigns to evict barbarian marauders from Gaul and to restore the Roman defensive line of fortifications along the Rhine.

These defenses had been largely destroyed during the Roman civil war of 350-353. In the years following his victory at Strasbourg, Julian was able to repair and garrison the Rhine forts and impose tributary status on the Germanic tribes beyond the border. 

But the respite was only temporary.  The barbarians kept coming in wave after wave.  Historians have postulated several explanations for the appearance of "barbarians" on the Roman frontier: weather, crops, population pressure.  However, the favorite theory is "domino effect".

Wherever the Romans weakened, barbarians moved into the vacuum.  Behind them were other barbarian tribes.  The Huns fell upon the Goths who, in turn, pushed other Germanic tribes before them.  Entire barbarian tribes (or nations) flooded into Roman provinces,

French and Italian scholars have tended to view this as a catastrophic event: the destruction of a civilization and the beginning of a "Dark Age" which set Europe back a millennium.

In contrast, German and English historians have tended to see it as the replacement of a "tired, effete and decadent Mediterranean civilization" with a "more virile, martial, Nordic one".  Rather than "invasion", German and Slavic scholars use the term "migration".

The Romans learned to pick their poison.  Some barbarians the Romans kept out, while others such as the Salian Franks they made pacts with.  The Salian Franks were a subgroup of the early Franks who first appear in the historical records in the 3rd century AD.  At that time, they lived north of the Rhine delta and therefore north of the lines of Roman Gaul which ran along the Rhine. They were characterized as warlike Germanic people and pirates, but also as "cooperative" like the Laeti, a tribe allied with the Romans.

Shortly thereafter, the Salian Franks became the first Germanic tribe from beyond the lines to settle permanently on Roman land. After moving into Batavia, a border island in the Rhine, in 358, they came to some form of agreement with the Romans who allowed them to settle south of the Rhine in Toxandria (Dutch and Belgian provinces).

The Alamanni confederation were first established in the Black Forest region. Originating from the river Main region further North, the Alamanni tribes moved into Helvetia (Switzerland). 

This had formerly been part of the Roman Germania province, but was evacuated by the Romans in the mid-3rd century.   Now the Romans had to come back and plug this giant hole in their defensive line. 

Over time, "Alamannia" would become another name for German-speaking Switzerland.


The Fall of the Roman Empire

In the constant struggle with its bitter enemy Rome, Germania would have the last laugh. 

Oddly enough, what little we know about early Germany is due to the Romans and their talented historians.  Fortunately, since Rome kept close tabs on its northern enemy, the start of German history begins with treatises such as Caesar's Gallia

By AD 100, the time of Tacitus' Germania, Germanic tribes had completely settled along the Roman frontier at the Rhine and the Danube. They occupied all the territory of modern Germany.

Once Tiberius set the Rhine and Danube as the northern borders of the Roman Empire, the Germanic people were left largely unopposed for the next four centuries. The area we now call Germany remained relatively safe from further invasion behind the borders of the Rhine and Danube.

During the Migration Period which coincided with the decline of the Roman Empire, the Germanic tribes expanded southward and established kingdoms throughout much of Europe. 

The Franks were a confederation of Germanic tribes occupying land in the Lower and Middle Rhine in the 3rd century. Some Franks raided Roman territory, while other Frank tribes joined the Roman troops in what was called Gaul. 

Over the preceding 4 centuries, the barbarians had become stronger while the Romans had become weaker.  Too many orgies, too many slaves, a series of incompetent emperors and much corruption had weakened the Roman spirit.  Rome was wealthy, but Rome was soft.  They didn't do the fighting any more. Instead they hired people to do their fighting for them.

Around 370 AD, a group known as the Visigoths united themselves to challenge Roman dominance.  Their success in attacking Roman lands led Rome to seek a treaty with them.  Indeed, Rome hired the Visigoths to fight battles for them.  

The Visigoths became Roman mercenaries.  Now the Visigoths began to fight for Rome rather than against it. 

Alaric, the man who would later become King of the Visigoths, began rising through the ranks.  Alaric participated in the Battle of the Frigidus in 394 AD.  Half the Visigoths present died fighting for the Romans.  Alaric was convinced that the Romans sought to weaken the Goths by making them bear the brunt of warfare.

Once Alaric rose to power, he found the Romans were treacherous in their dealings.  Tired of fighting battles for the Romans, in 408 AD Alaric turned against Rome and invaded Italy.  What Alaric really wanted was land on which his people could settle and an accepted place within the empire

The Roman authorities would not give him this land.  Needing to keep his army well rewarded, Alaric decided to try blackmail.  He marched on Rome and besieged it until the Roman senate paid him to go away.  In 409 he attacked Rome again and again was bought off.

In 410, with the authorities still refusing his demands for land, Alaric led his warriors against Rome once more.  This time he skipped the blackmail and went ahead and sacked Rome.

It was a shocking defeat.  This was the first time the Rome had been sacked in 800 years.  It revealed the Western Roman Empire's increasing vulnerability and military weakness  

Rome would hang on a bit longer, but it would never be the same again

The Roman Forum in ruins thanks to fires during the Sack of Rome

Teutoberg Forest


Holy Roman Empire



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