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Into the Woods of Wonder - 1/2 (Thinking about the Roman Empire)

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

In 9AD, three Roman legions entered the Teutoburg Forest of Germany and were never seen again. This is their story and why it gives me chills.

“The fabled forests of Germany were the subject of many tall tales. They were said to be the haunt of strange monsters, and to stretch so interminably that a man could walk for two months and still not leave them behind.”

- Tom Holland, from Rubicon

The internet went berserk last week when women started posting about how often the men in their lives think about the Roman Empire. I watched one TikTok video, where a woman is shocked to learn that her boyfriend thinks about the Roman Empire once per week -- as if that’s a lot. As for me, I think about the Roman Empire more than just about anything else. I think about the emperors, generals, legions, barbarians, gods, gladiators, and architectural feats. I write about them, read about them, text about them, talk about them, and dream about them. My wife even has a special sigh every time I say words like “Gaul” or “Vercingetorix.” Which is daily.

My life is better because of Roman history and the wonder it provides me. In this age of anger, amusement, and ease, our lives seem to rarely elevate into a higher spiritual plane. The wonders of ancient Rome elevate me to this higher plane. For the rest of my life, I will read and write about Romans and barbarians. Why? Because it makes me feel good.

This week, I’m writing about my favorite episode of Roman history, one that elevates me to that ethereal plane of wonder. This week, I’m writing about the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.

Warning: I’m going for broke on this one and romanticizing the hell out of an otherwise horrific event. Thankfully, it’s never “too soon” to romanticize events from the ancient world. And as my favorite historian Tom Holland wrote this week, “the empire of the Caesars -- unlike more recent empires -- is removed in time enough from us to be protected by a certain statute of limitations.” In short, we’re free to celebrate its wonders, while acknowledging its savagery.

Chuck Krulak, USMC

I still remember the banquet dinner. It was the winter of 1999 and the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Charles Krulak, stood up to speak to senior midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Standing at the podium, imperious in his dress blues with thirty years of medals clanging from his chest, Krulak told us a story -- a dark and sinister story. He said in 9AD, three Roman Legions marched into the mists of a German forest and were never seen again. Ambushed by barbarians, 18,000 Romans were annihilated, their eagle standards captured, and their commander’s head lodged on a spike.

I can’t recall his lesson or point, but boy do I remember getting chills thinking about those barbarians hiding deep in the woods, ready to pounce three Roman legions. Who were these barbarians, I thought. Where was this forest? And why am I so captivated by it?

As I read about the battle, I began to imagine it, and then inhabit it. The words of the past, written two thousand years ago by Tacitus and Cassius Dio, hit my brain, then my heart, and finally, my soul. Floating with wonder, I drifted back to that dark forest of 9AD. The mud in my toes, the rain in my face, and the steel in my grip. I felt like I was there.

So come back with me now. Back to the time, the place, and the men General Krulak first told me about.

Germania – Lands East of the Rhine

“Nothing lies beyond it except for cold, and hostile peoples, and the frozen waves of an ice-bound sea.”

- Ovid, 1st Century Roman Poet

Map from Peter Wells' "The Battle that Stopped Rome."

Germania. That’s what Romans called the lands east of the Rhine River and south to the Danube. How far north and east Germania went, however, no one really knew. According to Tom Holland, many Roman soldiers along the Rhine thought they could walk east for two months and never leave the forest. Writing in the 1st Century, Tacitus tells us that that a great ocean girds Germania to the north and east, “embracing broad peninsulas and unexplored islands, where certain tribes and kingdoms are newly known to us.” Germania, he writes, “either bristles with forests or reeks with swamps” and has no cities or large settlements. In short, he concludes, Germania is cold, wet, and bleak. Yet, its people he insists, are tall, strong, and brave.

German barbarians “wear the skins of wild beasts,” he writes, embodying “hardy frames, close-knit limbs, fierce countenances and vigorous courage.” To ensure that “vigor is unimpaired,” he says young German men marry late in life and “let their hair and beard grow," only cutting it "after they have slain a foe.”

In 16 BC, eleven years after Caesar Augustus became Rome’s first emperor and seventy-one years after his uncle Julius Caesar first crossed the Rhine, many of these young German warriors could finally get a haircut and shave because in that year, a confederacy of tribes crossed the Rhine and began raiding Roman Gaul (modern day France and Belgium). In Gaul, the Germans soon pursued a fleeing cavalry unit and then slammed head-first into Rome’s Fifth Legion. Surprisingly, the Germans defeated the legion, captured their sacred eagle, and withdrew back across the Rhine to their sanctuary in Germania.

Each Legion carried the "Aquila" (or eagle) standard into battle.

Following the legion’s defeat, Augustus tightened his fist and promised to bring these Germans to heel. Traveling north with his Praetorian Guard from Rome over the Alps, he directed improvements to his imperial defenses along the Rhine frontier, constructing six military bases with barracks, palisades, and guard towers along the river, where he stationed 60,000 troops. Their mission was two-fold. First, stop all German incursions into Gaul. Second, adopt an active defensive posture, which means crossing the Rhine to “pacify” the Germans, and then, as always, tax the hell out of them. For the next 25 years, that’s exactly what Augustus’ legions did, while also recruiting German warriors as auxiliaries, and when necessary, burning villages and executing dissidents. The Romans were the kings of the carrot and stick approach to empire. Their carrot was bringing civilization to savages, their stick was killing anyone who resisted.

And civilization they brought. “Canals had been scored across watery flatlands; roads cleared through the forests; [and] pontoons laid out over bogs,” writes Tom Holland. As Rome’s legions swarmed across Germania for two-and-a-half decades of Augustus’ new “defensive” policy, the Romans also built forts inside Germania along the Lippe River. They even began deforesting areas to build settlements -- Germany’s first cities. As Rome brought civilization, Holland says Roman officers “wooed and recruited” German Chieftains as Auxiliary commanders. One was a young Chieftain of the Cherusci tribe named Arminius.

“Battle-hardened, quick-witted, with an intelligence well in advance of the normal barbarian,” one Roman officer wrote, Arminius was an interesting German. Born in Germania as the son of a Chieftain allied with Rome, he was educated in Rome and served for years as a Roman auxiliary cavalry commander. As a result, he understood Roman tactics, attitudes, and above all, their insatiable appetite for conquest. He also knew the Augustus appointed Governor of Germany, Publius Quinctilius Varus, who’d previously made a name for himself crushing Jewish revolts as Governor of Syria.

Due to Arminius’ Roman education and faithful service, Varus trusted him. So in 9AD, when Arminius told the governor and his staff about a revolt brewing in northern Germany, Varus eyes brightened. He would crush this rebellion, make an example of the rebels, and once and for all, bring a pacified Germania into the empire as an imperial province. Late that summer, Varus ordered three legions to prepare for a swift campaign into Germania. Varus would lead the excursion and reap the glories of his victory from Augustus.

The Dark Forrest

“It takes courage to advance into a forbidden realm of shadow.” - Roman Poet

After crossing the Rhine on pontoon bridges, Varus’ legions traveled just as any large infantry unit travels today: in a column. Like a long snake, a column is the fastest way for infantry to move, but it’s not a battlefield formation; consequently, a column is vulnerable to attack.

The 15,000 men of Varus’ three legions were all infantryman and formed the bulk of his 18,000-man force. Behind his legions rode a baggage train of slaves and mules pulling wagons. At the front and rear of his column were his cavalry: the eyes and ears of his army. Much of this cavalry were German auxiliaries led by Arminius who knew the terrain and served as capable guides for Varus’ campaign. As the giant column pushed east with nine men across, it stretched into a 2.25-mile armored serpent, ready to strike any insolent German tribe.

Man for man, the deadliest venom of this serpent lay in the legions themselves. Protected by helmets, breast plates, greaves, and curving rectangular shields, legionaries carried javelins and the pointed, double-edged, 20-inch blade of their Gladius swords. Over the centuries, this sword stabbed and slashed millions on the battlefield, enabling the Roman solider to become history’s most proficient close quarters killing machine. The individual soldier, however, wasn’t what made Rome’s army special; it was the collective discipline, training, and endurance of the combined 5,000-man force that made a legion so hard to beat.

Roman legions, Holland writes, were “schooled in endurance. Its soldiers had been trained, no matter what, to eviscerate a foe, advance, and then, covered in blood, to eviscerate again.” Historians widely agree that the character of the Roman legions was to never give up, to fight to the absolute end. And if they were defeated, the Senate or Emperor would send even more legions, until finally they had defeated and incorporated that foe into their empire. “Step by measured step, obedient to the blast of the war-trumpet, no matter what the danger,” Holland writes, “barbarians had little chance of victory against the legions.”

Each Roman soldier served a 25-year enlistment and was forbidden to marry. Most at this time weren’t even Italian; they were from Gaul, Spain, Africa, Syria, and other corners of the empire. And most weren’t citizens either. Unless Italian, citizenship during this time was something you earned. Upon the completion of his enlistment – if he lived that long – a legionary would finally become a Roman citizen, which ensured his children would be citizens too. But until then, he’d carry loads, build forts, sack cities, trek continents, and kill men at distances so close and intimate that he could see their dying eyes and smell their final breath.

After crossing the Rhine, Varus’ legions marched east in Germania along the Lippe River. Riding at the column’s head, Arminius eventually turned the army north into “regions where Rome’s military engineers had rarely ventured,” adds Holland. As the long column wound north at 3 miles per hour, Arminius messaged to Varus that he and his auxiliaries would ride miles ahead of the column to scout up the trail and locate any enemy lurking in the woods. As Arminius and his men galloped off, separating themselves from the column, Varus and his three legions continued their march north into the forest where the trail turned narrow and the shadows grew dark.

As the army marched, an early autumn blew cold air down the column while a steady drizzle pelted their helmets. Unbothered, the legions marched into the weather, slogging one foot in front of the other. Anyone who’s served in the infantry knows how much this sucks. Cold, wet, and tired with seventy pounds on your back, all you can do is suck it up and just keeping stepping. Every now and again, the column will slow at the front, causing the column to become a human accordion with men banging into one another, muttering profanities, and hoping for another break so they can drop their gear and doze off for a few minutes until rolling up from the mud and stepping again. Stepping, dozing, cussing… the endless cycle of a grunt on campaign.

As they advanced north, legionaries were likely thinking about one thing: the rear. Oh “the rear,” that beautiful place of comfort and ease. Talking in the ranks, the men would speak of returning to their forts on the Rhine, where hot meals, warm baths, dry bedding, and local women awaited them. When this chatter inevitably reached its apex, the junior officers stepped in; specifically, the Roman centurion.

Centurion Lucius Vorenus from HBO series, "Rome"

Five thousand man Legions consisted of ten cohorts (think small battalions) of about 480 soldiers each. Within each cohort were six centuries (think large platoons) of about 80 men. Each century was commanded by a centurion. Unlike the patrician and equestrian classes of men who commanded legions and cohorts, centurions came from the ranks. Only through their merits, were soldiers promoted to centurion. Marked by their horizontal plumed helmet and 3-foot vine staff, a hard wooden rod used to direct troops and beat them when deemed necessary, few figures in history embody rigid discipline more than the Roman centurion.

Listening to his troops chatter about the rear, a centurion would have certainly corrected them. Just as junior officers do today, they’d remind their men not to “go internal” and keep their focus on the external, i.e. what’s happening around you. When you hear, "don't go internal," it means don't feel sorry for yourself; in fact, it means don't even think about yourself. It means keeping your antenna up, senses out, and your intuition sharp. Because out there in the woods, lurking behind the trees are men who want to kill you.

A day or so after Arminius and his men galloped ahead of the column, the centurions and men in the column’s middle would have heard a commotion towards the front. Due to the thick trees and rain, they couldn’t see anything, but they could hear roars, screams, and see staff officers galloping past them, yelling “make way!” Soon the column would stop, and its flanks would turn outward towards the trees, shields up in a defensive position.

Kneeling behind their shields, men would whisper speculations about the commotion up ahead. On this day, in forest of northern Germania in 9AD, nearly all would agree that it’s a small ambush, typical of the Germans’ “hit and run” tactics.

“The shape of the mountains in this region was irregular, their slopes deeply cleft by ravines, while the trees grew closely together to a great height,” wrote Cassius Dio almost two thousand years ago about the forest these legions were marching through. Germans ambushes capitalized on this type of terrain. By falling trees across narrow trails, barbarians could isolate and halt sections of the Roman column. Catching the column’s first few hundred men after a bend in the trail or behind an obstacle, the Germans could isolate and hit three centuries instead of three legions. Within seconds, they could focus their firepower on this relatively small area of isolated men, killing dozens of them with spears.

The German spear, according to historian Peter Wells, weighed 1.5 pounds, and when thrown traveled 55 feet per second, generating 70-foot pounds of energy onto a sharpened metal tip. If you’re a Roman in that lead column, imagine looking to your left and having less than a second to put up your shield against 500 bladed darts buzzing into your ranks at 40 mph. And then realizing they’re coming from both sides of the column!

“Shields up!” you hear your centurion scream. Hitting the mud, you level your shield in front of your crouching shaking body, with your entire century forming a shield wall. Staring into the rain and murk, all you can see are shadows and the trees. A second later from those shadows come 500 more spears blasting into your ranks. Boom, like a wrecking ball, a spear penetrates your shield, knocking you back creating lanes for the the next volley of spears to decimate your ranks. Four seconds later, two more crash into your now crumbling shield. Then another 500 dart into you and your comrades. Within twenty seconds thousands of spears have gored through your ranks of two hundred men. Helmets and body armor help against broad swords, but not against swarms of serrated steel darting into your unit at 40 mph.

Blasting through helmets and breast plates, the spears puncture soldiers around you. Blasting through unprotected faces, necks, and groins, the spears annihilate your friends (your brothers) who you’ve lived with for years in forts and on campaign. As bugles blast, centuries from behind your legion scream past you in battle formation through the trees on either side of the trail. But they find nothing but shadows. The enemy is gone.

Refusing to stand and fight, Peter Wells writes in The Battle That Stopped Rome, the Germans knew “a simple fact that indigenous peoples have known for thousands of years…. Lighter-armed native warriors, with superior knowledge of the landscape and greater maneuverability, can defeat heavily armed imperial armies.”

Unable to fight shadows in pitched battle, you and what’s left of your century reform your ranks. With multiple spears stuck in your shield, you discard it and grab the shield of your friend who is sitting with his back against the tree bleeding to death from a stomach wound. You tell him goodbye, and you continue to march north, falling back as centuries not caught in the ambush now lead the column. An hour later, those men come under attack. An hour after that the enemy hits the column’s rear. Nobody is safe. Yet, you march on, carrying the wounded on wagons and leaving the dead behind.

Through the rain, the mud, and ambushes, Varus column continued to slog ahead deeper and deeper into the woods until finally, the 2 mile column of bleeding men finds open ground. At this point, the Roman column forms a perimeter rectangle. After the engineers’ mark boundaries, you and the men left in your century – plus the men in the 180 centuries of Varus’ army -- pull out your spades and dig a perimeter trench, pilling the dirt high behind it. You build berms, walls, obstacles, booby traps and even guard towers.

After a couple hours, Varus’ three legions build a temporary patrol base for 18,000 men. Tents are struck and a night’s watch chosen. The men can finally rest, nurse their wounds, eat some chow, and above all, sleep… with nightmares to follow.

As night settles in, Varus meets with his staff inside his HQ tent inside the patrol base. The German governor has a decision to make. Staring at a sketch map that isn’t entirely accurate, he wishes he had Arminius with him. He needs his trusted guide to tell him where the enemy resides. But he has no idea where Arminius is or if he’s even alive. The summer is gone, autumn is here, and winter is coming. Varus needs to pacify this region, crush the rebellion, and return to his bases along the Rhine, announcing “mission accomplished” to his emperor. As a result, Varus goes all in. He declares that he and his legions will push further and further into the woods through a section of the map called the “Teutoburg Pass.”


In the sequel to this story, we’ll finally enter the Teutoburg forest, where Arminius and 17,000 barbarians are waiting in the shadows for Varus and his three legions.

Just thinking about the battle to come gives me chills. Till next time Barbarians, keep the wonder.


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