"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
Now name the country didn't Rome conquer.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
barbarians were slowly adapting themselves to Roman
ways, were becoming accustomed to markets, and were
meeting in peaceful assemblages.
not, however, forgotten their ancestral habits, their
native manners, their old life of independence, or the
power derived from arms.
Roman Consul and historian
Arminius was a 28-year old Germanic aristocrat from the Cheruscans,
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
When Arminius returned to the Roman outpost on the Rhine, he became a trusted
advisor to Varus, the Roman commander.
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
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.
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
One of Arminius' relatives loyal to Rome got wind of the
plot and actually confided to Varus what Arminius was
planning to do.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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