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Category Archives: Wars

The History of the Messenian Wars

by November 12, 2019

By Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Messenian Wars, which took place between Sparta and Messenia in the 8th century BC, were very crucial in the rise of Spartan society. Victory in the Messenian Wars was important in the history of Sparta, and by extension, in the history of Ancient Greece as a whole.
Background to the Messinian Wars
The Spartans were a Dorian tribe who invaded Greece from the southern Balkans. They conquered much of the Peloponnesian from the native Achaeans (1100 BC), and some Dorians settled in what became Messenia. There, they created a small kingdom and later adopted the culture of the native Achaeans. Over time, tensions developed between the Spartans and the Messenians; this was born out of a rivalry for resources as well as cultural differences. While the Spartans in Laconia may have resented the Messenian elite, who they believed betrayed their Dorian origins, many historians suggest that the actual cause of the war was the Spartans’ desperate need for more fertile land.
Ancient Messenia

Ancient Messenia

The Outbreak of Messenian War
The immediate casus belli was the theft of some cattle by a Messenian Olympic champion. This led to reprisal raids by the Spartans, during which several Laconians were killed, sparking an all-out war. The dating of the war is not known for certain, but it is thought to have begun in 743/742 BC and lasted until roughly 722 BC.
The Spartan King Alcmenes led an army of heavy infantry into Messenian territory in order to launch a surprise attack on Ampheia, an important Messenian city. Alcemes ordered his men to march by night on the city and they caught the defenders completely by surprise. The Spartans massacred the men and enslaved the children and the women.
Vase painting

Spartan Hoplites from a vase-painting

Euphaes, the king of Messenia, placed all able-bodied men under arms. He was aware that the Spartans were superior infantrymen, so he decided to rely on a strategy of field defenses. The war largely consisted of raids and counter raids during the campaign season. In 739 BC the two armies fought an inconclusive battle in a ravine not far from the capital of Euphaes.
The following campaigning season saw another pitched battle; this time the Spartans and the Messenians clashed near the destroyed city of Ampheia. The two armies were led by their respective kings, consisted mostly of heavy infantry, and also had some light skirmishers and archers. There is some controversy as to whether or not the Laconians adopted the phalanx tactics. If so, it was possibly that this was the first time that a Greek army had adopted the strategy.
Whatever the case, the fight was brutal and bloody and it lasted all day long. There was no quarter shown by either side. By evening the Spartans emerged victorious and the Messenians were in full retreat. Their king decided to return to his strategy of fixed defense and he ordered a stronghold to be built on Mount Ithome, which is over 2,400 feet high (800 meters) and located just above the capital of Messenia. It appears that King Eupales died soon after, as did his archenemy, Alchemnes.
The ruins

The ruins of Messene

War of Attrition
The Messenians were able to resist the Spartans and maintain their independence. However, they were hard pressed and every summer the Laconians would raid their land, which must have caused economic collapse and food shortages.
The Messenians sent an embassy to obtain advice from the Oracle at the Delphi, and they were ordered to sacrifice a virgin to the gods to secure their favor. According to some accounts, the Messenian sacrificed the daughter of a noble, Aristodemus. After this the fortunes of the Messenians improved, and they had a number of minor successes against the Spartans. It seems Aristodemus, the father of the girl sacrificed, was made the new Messenian king; he went on the attack, driving the Spartans completely out of his kingdom. The Messenians engaged the Spartans in a set-piece battle for the first time since their defeat at Ampheia.
Consulting the Oracle by John William Waterhouse, showing eight priestesses in a temple of prophecy

Consulting the Oracle by John William Waterhouse, showing eight priestesses in a temple of prophecy

The Last Phase of the Messenian War
The Messenian War had by now entered its second decade. Sparta was exhausted and was not sure of how it should proceed. It was not in their nature to give up. They emulated the Messenians and sent a delegation to the Oracle of Delphi. The delegation from Laconia was given advice by the oracle, which they followed, however what exactly they were told has not been passed down to us. Sparta possibly adopted a new tactic; they appear to have besieged the Messenian stronghold on Mount Ithome. This led to the collapse of the Messenians and their king took his own life.
Aftermath of the Messenian War
Many of the Messenians were killed, enslaved or went into exile when Sparta annexed nearly all of Messenia. The Laconians reduced the remaining Messenians to the status of helots, a form of slave. They worked the land of their Spartan masters, who had absolute power over them. The conquest of Messenia meant that Sparta grew richer and stronger, and it allowed the Spartan elite to become a class of professional warriors. The capture of Messenia allowed the Laconians to develop their unique constitution and peculiar institutions, such as the agoge, where boys trained to be warriors.
Marble statue of a Spartan king

Marble statue of a Spartan king

However, the Messenians continued to resist, and they rose in a revolt known as the 2nd Messinian War, which was suppressed. Nonetheless, unrest continued. The constant threat of rebellion and the need to repress the helots meant that Sparta became a very militarized society. Sparta would not have developed as it had, if they had not been victorious in the Messenian War.
The Messenians were eventually to regain their freedom and independence in the 3rd Messenian War in the 4th century BC.

References
Pawlak, M., 2010. Boundary Dispute between Sparta and Messene. Classica & Christiana, 5(2), pp.465-478.
Pausania (1998) Description of Greece. London: Penguin

Battle of Actium (31 BC)

by November 5, 2019

By Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The battle of Actium was one of the most important naval battles in all of history. The victory resulted in the fall of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra and the elevation of Augustus to the position of absolute ruler of the Roman Empire. Indeed, this battle determined the direction and the fate of the Roman Empire for over five centuries.
The Background to the Battle of Actium
Rome was engulfed by civil war for decades and was fought over by a series of generals, such as Marius, Sulla, Pompey, and Julius Caesar. Following the assassination of Caesar (49 BC), a political alliance known as the Second Triumvirate brought a measure of stability between his heir Octavian, Mark Anthony, and Lepidus. The Roman world and spheres of influence were divided between Octavian and Mark Anthony. The heir of Caesar controlled the Roman West and Anthony the East. Cleopatra, the ruler of Egypt, became the lover of Mark Anthony and so the two effectively ruled the Eastern Mediterranean.

‘The Battle of Actium, 2 September 31 BC’ (1672) By Laureys a Castro

A war between Octavian and Mark Anthony became inevitable when Caesar’s adopted son side-lined Lepidus, contrary to an earlier agreement. Many in Rome suspected that Mark Anthony wanted to rule the East as a separate state but nonetheless a significant party in Rome supported Anthony, as they were anxious about the ambitions of Octavian. The spark that caused the final war of the Roman Republic was Mark Anthony’s divorce of Octavia, the sister of Octavian.
Prelude to Battle of Actium
Mark Anthony moved quickly; he assembled a huge navy at Ephesus (modern Turkey) and also moved a large army into the Balkans. Many of these ships were sent by Cleopatra who later joined her partner. Anthony knew that speed was essential. He sailed his armada to the Ionian Sea and his ships found harbor in Actium, a rocky promontory. With his fleet sheltered in the bay and a large land army also assembled at Actium (now Preveza, Greece), Mark Anthony was preparing to invade Italy and to march on Rome.

Coin of Anthony and Cleopatra

Meanwhile, Octavian skillfully won support in Rome by portraying Anthony as the pawn of Cleopatra. Octavian appointed his friend Agrippa to the position of admiral to his fleet. He was a brilliant strategist and had gathered his ships in the Ionian Sea. He then attempted to blockade Cleopatra and Octavia at Actium, which made Cleopatra and her Egyptian contingent nervous; they wanted to sail back to Alexandria. Octavian learned of this and was going to let Mark Anthony and his Egyptian Queen escape, however, Agrippa urged him to attack. This forced Mark Anthony to give battle.
The Sea Battle of Actium
The two fleets met outside the Gulf of Actium on a still and beautiful morning on the 2nd of September, 31 BC. Cleopatra and her partner had over 300 ships, many of which were massive galleys complete with towers, full of archers and marines. Octavian, on the other hand, had about 250 warships, which were often smaller. Many were galleys, known as Liburnians, that had long been used by Illyrian pirates and were well suited to the waters of the Ionian Sea. Anthony’s ships had more men and were larger, but they were slow and cumbersome. One of Anthony’s general defected to the enemy and told Octavian of his battle plans. Moreover, there was a disagreement between Anthony’s and Cleopatra’s contingents.
A Liburnian galley- from the 1st century AD

A Liburnian galley- from the 1st century AD

When the battle commenced Agrippa cleverly used the ballista and other missile weapons on his ships. He would launch hit and run attacks against the smaller vessels. Eventually, Anthony was forced to leave the protection of Actium Bay and sought to engage with Octavian’s fleet. This led to an all-day battle. During the fighting, the ships were used rather like platforms from which archers and marines fought each other. They would often board the enemy ships and engage in brutal hand to hand combat.
Sometimes ballistae would sink a ship, but this was not common. Many more were set on fire during the fighting by flaming projectiles. Most of the larger galleys were equipped with rams (rostra) and ships would ram into other vessels to damage or sink them. Agrippa had invented a grappling hook that was fired from a ballista, which allowed ships to be boarded more effectively and gave Octavian’s fleet a real advantage. Thousands were killed or drowned as the battle raged.

A ballistae

There are two main theories as to how the Battle of Actium developed. Many argue that Anthony was winning the battle at this stage, however, the Egyptian contingent, apparently under orders, decided to sail for Alexandria. It had not really taken part in the battle. When the Egyptians began to sail away, it caused Anthony to panic and this led to the loss of many ships. There are others who argue that Anthony was defeated in the sea battle and he fought a rear-guard action to allow his beloved Cleopatra to escape to her kingdom.
Whatever the reason, by the evening of the 2nd of September, Mark Antony’s navy was in full retreat. Octavian did not follow him as he was saving sailors and soldiers from sinking ships and the sea. The following day the heir of Julius Caesar seized the camp of Anthony and the majority of his enemy’s army surrendered to him without a fight.
The Aftermath of the Battle of Actium
Cleopatra's Death

The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald Arthur, 1892. (Public Domain).

Mark Anthony and Cleopatra made it safely back to Egypt. Cleopatra tried to sign a separate peace with Octavian, but he refused; he wanted to parade her in his Triumph. Anthony and Cleopatra’s allies began to abandon them and soon they realized that their position was hopeless. Mark Anthony and Cleopatra both committed suicide rather than be taken alive.
Octavian became the first Roman Emperor. His victory at Actium was the death-knell of the Roman Republic.
References
Lange, C. H. (2011). The battle of Actium: a reconsideration. The classical quarterly, 61(2), 608-623.

The Battle of Nisibis: Parthia VS Rome

by August 23, 2019

By Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Battle of Nisibis (217 AD) was the last battle between the Roman and the Parthian Empire. They had battled each other regularly for almost three centuries. This two-day battle was a particularly brutal and bloody one.
Parthian horse archer

Parthian horse archer

The Background to the Battle of Nisibis
Caracalla was one of the bloodiest tyrants ever to rule Rome. He murdered his own brother and massacred the inhabitants of Alexandria. He was possibly mad and believed himself to be a second Alexander the Great. In 216 AD Parthia was convulsed by a civil war between King Atrabanus V and his brother. Caracalla decided to take advantage of this, to seize more territories. He first cunningly offered to marry the daughter of Artabanus V, but the Parthian monarch rejected his proposal.
Caracalla used this refusal as a pretext to invade Parthian lands, in the process he broke a peace treaty between the two states. He invaded what is now Northern Iraq and devastated it and committed many atrocities before he retreated back into Roman territory, for winter. Caracalla had become increasingly unpredictable and his inner circle feared him greatly. The Prefect of the Praetorian Guard Macrinus killed the crazed tyrant and seized the throne in April 217.
Caracalla

A bust of the Emperor Caracalla

The Battle of Nisibis
Artabanus and the Parthians were enraged by Caracalla’s outrageous behavior. The Parthians invaded Roman territory. As the new emperor Macrinus had no military experience, he sought a diplomatic solution. The Parthian monarch and his men, however, wanted revenge. It should be noted that they did not know that Caracalla was already dead and that there was a new Emperor.
The two armies met in the Armenian Highlands, near the city of Nisibis, in what is now Eastern Turkey. Macrinus’ army was mainly infantry based while the Parthians were overwhelmingly cavalry. The Romans had legionnaires, archers and skirmishers, largely javelin throwers. The Parthians had heavily armored horsemen, known as cataphracts, precursors to medieval knights, and javelin throwers riding camels.
The Romans were positioned on sloping ground. The heavily armored troops were lined up in a defensive line, while the cavalry and light troops guarded their flanks.
Bust of Macrinus

Bust of Macrinus

On the first day, Artabanus reminded them of the recent atrocities committed by the Romans and then ordered them to attack. The camels, cavalry and light troops of the Parthians advanced and made some gains, inflicting heavy casualties on the Romans light troops, mainly Auxiliaries.
Macrinus’ forward units retreated but as they did, they left crow’s feet behind them. These were pointed steel devices which the Parthians camels and horses stood on. This led to terrible injuries and many riders were killed after being thrown from their saddles. The Parthians were not deterred. Their famous mounted archers fired volley upon volley of arrows on the Roman lines. This continued until dark; the death toll was very high and the moans of the dying could be heard throughout the night.
The morning of the second day, the battle opened up with the Parthians camel-back javelin throwers inflicting heavy casualties on the Romans. By the late morning, the heavy cavalry of the Parthians attacked the mainline of the Romans. However, at close quarters the heavy Roman infantry was able to beat back the attackers. Macrinus’ army had no relief as the Parthians, furious at the crimes committed by Caracalla, were in a frenzy. They wanted Roman blood.
A modern re-enactor dressed as a   Cataphract

A modern re-enactor dressed as a Cataphract

Seeing that a frontal assault was getting him nowhere, Artabanus ordered an attack on the flanks. This heavy cavalry almost succeeded in pushing back the flanks of the Romans. However, Macrinus’ men extended their line and Moorish javelin throwers helped to inflict heavy casualties on the Parthian cataphracts and camel-riders. This saved the Romans from being encircled and potentially annihilated.
By the end of the second day, there were dead men, horses, and camels all over the battlefield. They were piled so high that in places the Parthian cavalrymen could not move.
The Roman Emperor was desperate, his men had sustained heavy casualties and he believed that his army might not be able to withstand a third day of near-suicidal enemy attacks.
A diplomatic compromise to The Battle of Nisibis
Macrinus was a shrewd political operator and he came up with an ingenious plan to save his forces. He sent a delegation to Artabus and explained that Caracalla was now dead and that he was fighting the man who had killed him. Therefore, Macrinus stated that Artabus had no more reason to fight and that he had already been avenged. Artabus had lost many men and many of his cavalry had become restless, as they were far from home.
Coin of Artabus IV

Coin of Artabus IV

He demanded that Macrinus cede a province to the Parthians. However, the Roman Emperor was a better diplomat than soldier and was able to secure an end to the war simply by paying a huge sum of gold. The Parthians soon withdrew to their own lands, and they are widely seen as the victors in the battle.
Aftermath of The Battle of Nisibis
Macrinus was defeated in battle and executed by a distant relative of Caracalla in 218 AD. His young son was also murdered by the new Emperor, Elagabalus.
Artabus V is often regarded as the victor of Nisibis. However, he soon faced a major revolt by the Sassanians in what is now Iran. The Sassanians, under Ardashir, defeated Artabus V. Ardashir went on to take over the Parthian Empire and is considered to be the founder of the Sassanian Empire.
The Battle of Nisibis was to prove the last battle between Rome and Parthia. However, the Romans were to fight a new and more formidable enemy: the Sassanians.

The Machine Gun of Ancient Greece

by August 16, 2019

By DHWTY, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The polybolos (which may be translated literally as ‘multiple thrower’) was a type of weapon used in the ancient world. The polybolos has been described as a sort of ballista / catapult that was capable of firing several projectiles before needing to be reloaded. That’s why it’s sometimes referred to as an ancient machine gun.
Polybolos: Improving on the Catapult
Whilst the catapult was likely to have been used since the 9th century BC (based on a relief from Nimrud), it was during the 4th century BC that the catapult began gaining popularity throughout the Mediterranean. In the Greek world, early catapults were large bows that relied on winches to draw the weapon back for firing. It may have been during the time of Philip II of Macedon (the father of Alexander the Great) that tight bundles of sinew / rope that functioned as ‘springs’ were used to replace the bow arms of the catapult. These catapults relied on torsion to fire their projectiles, and could either be used to fire arrows, like their predecessors, or be modified so that heavier projectiles, such as stones, could be hurled at enemy defenses.
Catapult

Engraving of thirteenth-century catapult for throwing Greek fire. (Public Domain)

The polybolos was a further improvement on the catapult technology that existed at that point of time. The polybolos is commonly believed to have been invented during the 3rd century BC by Dionysius of Alexandria, a Greek engineer who was working at the arsenal of Rhodes. During that time, the Rhodians had a particular interest in artillery, and were keeping abreast with the latest developments in this aspect of warfare. This was aided by their close relation with Ptolemaic Alexandria. It was at Rhodes that Philo of Byzantium, a Greek engineer and writer on mechanics, encountered and inspected a catapult made by Dionysius of Alexandria. This is recorded in Philo’s Belopoeica (a treatise on artillery), and our knowledge of the polybolos is derived from this piece of writing.
Polybolos

An automatic catapult, perhaps what a polybolos could have looked like

Features of the Polybolos Catapult
Unlike the standard catapults / ballistae of the day, the polybolos could fire multiple projectiles before it needed to be reloaded. There were flat-linked chains on each side of the polybolos, which ran over pentagonal prisms at each end of the chain’s loop. It has been speculated that these prisms worked as inverted gears. By having a soldier turn the windlass attached to the rear prism, bolts could be locked, loaded and fired automatically. These projectiles were fed into the polybolos via a magazine that was attached to a rotating tray. This gave the polybolos a higher rate of fire than other ancient artillery pieces. For instance, a modern reconstruction of this weapon was found to have a firing rate of at least three times that of a standard scorpion (another artillery piece used by the Roman army).
Parts of a polybolos.

Parts of a polybolos.

Using the Polybolos Catapult to Attack
The polybolos was used mainly against enemy personnel, rather than against defensive structures such as walls or towers. One of the reasons contributing to this is the fact that the polybolos was able to lock on to a target. This, however, may also be a disadvantage of the weapon. An ancient writer is recorded to have complained that the polybolos was too accurate. The lack of dispersion in the shot pattern meant that using this piece of equipment to kill human units was an overkill.
A 19th century reconstruction of a polybolos by a German engineer by the name of Erwin Schramm, for example, was reported to have been so accurate that the second bolt fired from the weapon was able to hit its target, and in the process, split the first bolt.
Schramm’s reconstruction of a polybolos, in the Saalburg, Germany

Schramm’s reconstruction of a polybolos, in the Saalburg, Germany

The Battle of Adrianople

by August 14, 2019

By Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Battle of Adrianople (378 AD) was one of the most important battles in ancient history. It was one of Rome’s greatest defeats and left an Emperor missing, presumed dead… it was the beginning of the end of an empire.
Roman Infantryman

Re-enactor dressed as a 4th-century Roman infantryman.

Background to the Battle of Adrianople
The Roman Empire was already greatly weakened by the death of the Emperor Julius, the Apostate in Persia. When Valentinian became Emperor, he was able to stabilize the situation. He then appointed his brother, Valens (328-378), to be the ruler of the Roman East, despite the fact that was not an able soldier. Indeed, he once nearly resigned in a panic during a revolt! Valentinian died of a stroke in 375 AD and left the Western Empire to his son Gratian. It was at this moment that a crisis developed on the Danuban frontier.
The Coming of the Huns
The Goths had established kingdoms from the Black Sea to the Baltic. One day they were attacked by strange warriors on horseback, reputedly born of witches. These were the fearsome Huns. The Goths, in terror, fled before the fierce nomads and such was their fear that they were forced to seek refuge with their sometimes enemy, the Romans. The Goths and allied tribes at the Danube frontier, begged the Romans for refuge. Valens could not exactly refuse because he was fighting the Persians in the east and so had only a few troops in the Balkans.
Huns in battle

Huns in battle with the Alans. An 1870s engraving after a drawing by Johann Nepomuk Geiger (1805–1880).

Reluctantly, he agreed, and the Goths were permitted entry into Imperial territory.
It was expected that they would become farmers and serve in the military. However, things soon went very wrong. The Goths began to starve, and they became so desperate that they rose in a rebellion led by their leader Fritigern. They defeated a small Roman force and began to plunder the Balkan provinces of the Roman Empire.

Prelude to the Battle of Adrianople
Valens was campaigning against the Persian king Shapur and he could not deal with the crisis for two years. After reaching an agreement with the Persians, he finally turned his attentions to the Goths. He was offered assistance by his young nephew and Western Emperor, Gratian, who had recently won a minor victory over the Alemanni. Valens collected a large army and marched to confront the Goths without his nephew. Gratian urged his uncle to wait until he could join his army, but Valens was reluctant to do this. He had probably grown jealous of Gratian and wanted to win some glory on the battlefield for himself. So Valens forced his men to march to the Goths, where they were currently raiding in Thrace (modern Bulgaria).
Gold coin of Valens

Gold coin of Valens

The Battle of Adrianople
By the time the Romans encountered the Goths they were exhausted, but Valens was determined to fight them nonetheless. For two years they had plundered and killed Romans citizens and he wanted them to pay.
The Battle took place on the 9 August 378. While the two armies were approximately of equal size, about 15,000 to 20,000 each, the Goths had slightly more cavalry, who were very experienced. Valens, whose army was made up of archers, infantry and light and heavy cavalry, decided to attack even though he did not have numerical superiority. This was in part because he did not have good intelligence. His scouts told him that he had more men than Fritigern. This was incorrect as the Roman scouts had failed to find the bulk of the Gothic cavalry who were a short distance away, probably foraging for supplies. This was a catastrophic intelligence failure and was to prove very costly.
Valens

A marble bust of Roman emperor Valens, r. 364-378 CE. (Capitoline Museums, Rome)

The Goths circled their wagons and created a defensive position, a tactic that was often used by German tribes. The Roman Emperor, confident of victory, rashly ordered his weary men to attack the circled wagons of the Goths and called his shield-archers to advance, but they were easily repulsed.
Then Valens ordered his heavy infantry to attack the circled wagons of the Goths. They were making some headway when the tide of the battle changed. The Gothic cavalry suddenly reappeared and they attacked the Roman heavy infantry in the rear. This caused panic among the Roman troops and the heavy infantry was nearly annihilated.
Gothic Soldiers

Gothic Soldiers

This was a grave setback for Valens but it should not have been fatal. Unfortunately, he was not an experienced commander and it appears that he failed to respond properly to the deteriorating situation. The Roman infantry began to panic and started to run, even though the Goths were not near them. Soon the entire Roman army was in a panic running from the battlefield. The Germans followed, easily caught up with the heavily armored infantry and then massacred them. Up to two-thirds of the Roman army was annihilated.
It was at this moment that Valens fled the field of battle and was apparently killed. His body was never found. When the young Emperor Gratian heard the news, he broke down and wept.
The aftermath of the battle of Adrianople
The Goths had won a total victory and they now controlled the Balkans. However, they could not take any major towns and cities because they did not have siege works. Gratian appointed Theodosius as Emperor and he was able to neutralize the Goths by turning them into allies.
Coin of Emperor Theodosius I

Coin of Emperor Theodosius I

However, the Romans were greatly weakened and the Germans were, in reality, not allies but an independent force in the Empire. The Goths undermined the Romans significantly and destabilized the Empire. In 410, under the leadership of Alaric, they even sacked Rome itself.
It’s clear that the Battle of Adrianople was, in many ways, the beginning of the end of the Western Roman Empire.

Give Me My Eagles Back, Give Me My Regiments Back Again!

by July 12, 2019

By Benjamin Welton, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Painting of the battle of Teutoburg

Varusschlacht by Otto Albert Koch

The great British novelist, poet, and World War I veteran Robert Graves created one of the most agonizing scenes in fiction when, in his 1934 novel I, Claudius, he portrays a grieving Emperor Augustus crying to the ghost of his general Publius Quinctilius Varus:
“Varus, Varus / Give me my three Eagles back! / Lord Augustus tore his bedclothes, / Blankets , sheet and counterpane. / “Varus, Varus, General Varus, / Give my Regiments back again!”
In the ballad that Emperor Claudius recalls so well, Augustus mourns the loss of the Nineteenth, Twenty-Fifth, and Twenty-Sixth Regiments and their battle standards. These fine soldiers, who were some of the best representatives of Rome’s martial spirit and ironclad discipline, were the victims of an incredibly successful German ambush that occurred in A.D. 9. The leader of the German tribesmen, Arminius, became a hero, while the Roman war machine became suddenly vulnerable.
Finally, after years of unchecked conquest, the mighty Roman Empire met an enemy (the ancient Germanic tribesman) and a field of battle (the Teutoburg Forest) that it could not vanquish without great loss.
Over a thousand years later, the German victory at Teutoburg Forest was resurrected as a rallying cry for German nationalists during the age when the fragmented German states were under threat from a new foreign emperor. Instead of Augustus and his legions, the new Pan-German warriors invoked Teutoburg Forest in order to battle Napoleon and his Grande Armée.
Teutoburg Forest, Germany

The Hermann Monument in the Teutoburg Forest

The seeds of the battle began well before the creation of the Roman Empire. During his conquest of nearby Gaul, which was inhabited by warlike Celts, Julius Caesar undertook an ethnographic study that doubled as a political justification of his personal military adventures entitled The Gallic War (Commentarii de Bello Gallico, or Commentaries on the Gallic War). In that chronicle, Caesar takes time to study the Germanic tribes, such as the Suebi, who lived across the Rhine River in what Caesar’s Latin troops knew as Germania.
It is said that they have a hundred cantons, from each of which they draw one thousand armed men yearly for the purpose of war outside their borders. The remainder, who have stayed at home, support themselves and the absent warriors; and again, in turn, are under arms the following year, while the others remain at home. By this means neither husbandry nor the theory and practice of war is interrupted.
The Germans, according to Caesar, were efficient in war and were far braver than their Celtic neighbors. They were also nomadic hunters who lived in independent tribes headed by chieftains. They loved freedom and cherished strength. They were also wild, uncouth, and utterly barbaric. Reading The Gallic War, one gets the idea that Caesar believed that he could conquer Germania, but was in no hurry to do so. After all, Caesar’s conquest of Gaul and incursion into Britannia (which was undertaken in order to suppress a pan-Celtic revolt led by politically powerful druids) got him what he wanted–land, a thoroughly loyal army, and a chance to claim Rome as his own.
By A.D. 9, the Roman Republic was no more. Thanks to Caesar’s popular dictatorship, the Roman Empire replaced the oligarchic power of the Senate after Caesar’s murder near the Theatre of Pompey. Under Augustus, the first emperor, Roman power was consolidated in Gaul, Spain, and Pannonia, while Egypt was brought under the Roman yoke. First century Romans also believed that Germania was all but conquered. The Rhine was relatively peaceful and some Germanic tribes were trading with Rome and even sending their sons to the Emperor Augustus as soldiers and mercenaries.
There was, however, one major problem. The Romans knew very little about the interior of Germania. Germanic rebels, like the Cherusci prince Arminius, who had spent many years in the Roman military, knew they could exploit this ignorance given the right circumstances.

Battlefield of Arminius and Varus, 9 AD

Near the end of the summer fighting season in September A.D. 9, Varus, whom history has remembered as a better civil servant than a general, led approximately 15,000 veteran legionnaires from their summer camps along the Weser River back to their permanent barracks on the Rhine in order to be closer to a reported tribal uprising. For Varus, a veteran administrator who formerly oversaw the Roman province of Syria (which included modern day Lebanon), Germania probably did not seem as difficult to master as the frequently rebellious Middle East.
On the first day, Varus’s legions were being guided through the German wilderness by several Germanic tribal fighters loyal to Arminius. A mercenary who spoke Latin and who had previously been awarded by the Roman military for his valor on the battlefield, Arminius was a member of Rome’s knight class and was even a Roman citizen. In short, he did not look like a potential traitor to Roman eyes.
Unbeknownst to Varus and his men, Arminius sought to become the chief of his tribe. To do so, Arminius designed a way to defeat the Romans and gain the respect of his fellow Cherusci warriors. Using a false rebellion as his cover, Arminius talked Varus into leading his army into unfamiliar territory, where an ambush would be waiting. Despite warnings from a rival Germanic chief, Varus pressed on under the belief that he and his men were indestructible.
As the march progressed, Arminius intentionally extended the Roman line by leading them through treacherous country that required bridge and road building. At some point, the Roman-German group had to fight Mother Nature as heavy storms created oceans of mud that slowed the meandering train down even further. Making matters worse was the fact that German warriors were sporadically attacking the legionnaires with spears and arrows. Whether or not these skirmishes caused heavy casualties is unknown, but it’s certain that they caused anxiety among the already exhausted Romans.
Photo of Forest

A road in the Teutoburg Forest

On the second day, Varus made the decision to head for the Roman base at Haltern. The very next day, Varus’s men entered into an area known as the Great Bog, a wide, deep marsh that was buttressed by Kalkriese Hill to the south. In such a position, the weary and frightened Romans were unable to successfully move to the open ground that they favored. With the Romans pinned down, somewhere around 18,000 Germanic warriors began attacking from all sides, leaving the Romans with no room to escape.
Realizing just how dire the situation really was, Varus decided to fall upon his sword. His fellow officers followed suit. The now leaderless Romans were slaughtered. Only a few survivors managed to flee into the woods and later to the Roman camps along the Rhine. What they told their brethren was so shocking, that, according to Smithsonian magazine writer Fergus M. Bordewich, many believed that the defeat was due to “supernatural causes” brought about by a statute of the goddess Victory who “had ominously reversed direction.”
In the aftermath, Arminius was given power over a Germanic coalition that continued to harass the Roman camps in Germania until the general Germanicus Julius Caesar, after several punitive expeditions, managed to defeat Arminius’s army in several battles near the Weser River. Under Germanicus, the Romans recaptured two of the eagles lost at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest.
Germanicus

The Roman commander Germanicus was the opponent of Arminius in 14–16 CE

Later, during the reign Emperor Claudius, the third eagle standard was recovered from the Chauci tribe by Publius Gabinius in A.D. 42. As for Arminius, after containing the Roman threat and defeating a rival chief named Maroboduus, he became the most powerful chieftain in all of Germania. Many believed that he was too powerful, and his death in A.D. 21 was possibly the result of a poisoning.
The Roman defeat at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest essentially established the Rhine as Rome’s furthest boundary in the West. Later politicians and generals would claim that Germania was not worth Rome’s time. It was too sparsely populated and too wild, they claimed. They were right, but unlike Rome, the Germanic tribes never promised to stop assaulting the empire.
Eventually, in the fifth century A.D., the Western Roman Empire fell due to a relentless wave of Germanic invasions. By that point, the Battle of Teutoburg Forest had become legendary among the Germanic soldiers.
A much later generation of German nationalists would call upon the battle again during the Napoleonic Wars and the various struggles to unify Germany during the 19th century, and as a result statutes dedicated to Arminius (also known as Hermann) were erected, while Arminius/Hermann fraternities sprang up in Germany and among German immigrants living in the U.S.
For Romans like the historian Suetonius, the battle “nearly wrecked the empire” and caused a crisis of confidence. Doubt seeped into every part of the imperial government. None felt the pain of anxiety quite like Emperor Augustus, who, according to Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars (which would be later echoed by Graves’s I, Claudius), would bang his head against the palace walls and cry Quintili Vare, legions redde! (“Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!”).