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

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

Concluding the epic battle when barbarians stopped the Roman Empire cold. Despite the horrors of ancient history, the spaces in between offer spellbinding wonder.

A 2,000 year old Roman face mask excavated at the site where Varus’ legions were defeated in the Teutoburg Forest. Typically used by Roman cavalry, these masks attached to the soldier’s helmet and cheek protectors.

“The forests and morasses of Germany were filled with a hardy race of barbarians, who despised life when it was separated from freedom; and though, on the first attack, they seemed to yield to the weight of the Roman power, they soon, by a signal act of despair, regained their independence, and reminded Augustus of the vicissitude of fortune.”

- Edward Gibbon from The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Last week I wrote about my love of Roman history, describing one of the most consequential battles in the history of warfare: The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. This week I conclude our story by picking up where we left off -- with Roman General Publius Quinctilius Varus and his three legions. After enduring a day of hit-and-run ambushes from German barbarians, Varus and his army licked their wounds and continued their march into the heart of darkness – deep into Germania’s unchartered northern woods.

Varus vs. Arminius

As night fell on the Roman patrol camp following a day of stinging ambushes through the northern German forest, Varus told his staff that they’d do what his trusted ally, Arminius, recommended: push north through the Teutoburg Pass, find the rebel Germans and annihilate them once and for all. In doing so, he declared they would pacify the region, incorporate Germania (the lands between the Rhine and the Elbe Rivers) into the empire, return to their forts along the Rhine, and message “mission accomplished” to their emperor back in Rome.

For the next two days, the two mile column, approximately 18,000 men, snaked deeper and deeper into the Teutoburg Forrest – all while barbarians moved through the trees like shadows, hurling spears and vanishing before any possible counterattack.

Despite their guerilla tactics, historian Tom Holland writes, Varus believed the barbarians could only “hinder but not halt [his] column’s advance.” Like insects from a bog, the Germans “swarmed, and buzzed, and bit” the Roman army as they continued to march. Eventually, Varus hoped to corner these barbarians, grab them by the throat, and destroy them in pitched battle.

And if they couldn’t force these Germans into a single battle, Varus would just keep marching his army through the woods and back to the safety of his forts on the Rhine. Either way, Varus would show Roman military might through the woods of Northern Germania, a place no Roman Army had ventured before.

After three days of sustaining casualties from guerilla ambushes, however, Varus likely began to ask himself, when will this forest end? Will we ever meet the enemy in battle? Do we even know where this trail ends? And finally, where in the hell is Arminius?

A German tribal chieftain and auxiliary Roman cavalry commander, Arminius was Varus’ trusted ally on this campaign. He initially told Varus about a barbarian rebellion in these woods, convincing the general to cross the Rhine with his three legions and end the insurrection.

Just before Varus’ began taking casualties from ambush parties, Arminius had been leading the Roman column into the woods. But the morning before that first ambush, the German rode forward of the column to ostensibly scout the road ahead. He never returned.

Many in Varus’ staff began whispering about their barbarian ally betraying them and that they were all walking into a trap. Varus refused to believe it. As Mark Twain once said, its easier to fool a man than convince him that he has been fooled. As a proud Roman general, patrician, and governor, Varus would rather die than admit a barbarian like Arminius had fooled him.

But that’s exactly what happened. Arminius would not rejoin the Romans; instead, he would kill them -- all of them. Up ahead, he was setting his trap.

Danger Zone

By the third day of stinging barbarian ambushes, Cassius Dio tells us, “a violent downpour and storm developed so that the column was strung out ever further… causing the ground around the tree-roots and the felled trunks to become slippery, making movement very dangerous.”

Drenched with poor traction, the Roman lead soon spotted a small hill ahead on their left, sloping down to the trail. Marching towards that hill, historian Peter Wells writes, “the landscape became increasingly wooded on their left, and on the right extensive dark and menacing marshes stretched as far as the eye could see.”

As the trees and a giant swamp grew tight around them, the Romans realized they were in canalized terrain, meaning no real chance of veering off trail. They had no choice but to go forward.

With the hill at their 9 o’clock, the Roman lead guard called halt. Their trail had ended, heading right into the swamp which by now was along their right and to their front. But they were in luck. To their left was a detour, which they assumed was built to get around the swamp. With no other viable options, they took the detour -- just like Arminius knew they would.

Unbeknownst to the Romans, the barbarians had purposely flooded that trail weeks before and carved a detour trail around the hill. Along the first mile of that detour, the Germans built a five-foot high wall of sod, stakes, and earth just inside the tree line, concealing the wall with leaves and branches. This wall would provide the crouching barbarians with cover and concealment for their ambush.

Besides crafting this detour, Arminius’ barbarians also dug gutters along each side of the detour for a mile, which did two things. First, it narrowed the trail even more, further canalizing the Roman column and packing them tight into a kill zone. Second, the dirt from digging the gutters was used to build their hidden wall along the trail.

Ancient and Modern Warfare

Digging into some of my old Marine Corps doctrinal publications, I’m reminded how little ambush tactics have changed over two millennia of warfare. When Arminius and his barbarians scouted their ambush site weeks before the Romans arrival, they aimed to incorporate the same sort of things a Ukrainian commander would incorporate today. This includes the following:

1. Covered and Concealed Positions from which to strike

2. A Canalized “Kill Zone” to trap the enemy column

3. The Element of Surprise

4. Clear Fields of Fire (for hurling their spears)

5. An Ambush Mentality

I still recall my training instructors in Quantico, Virginia imploring young Marine lieutenants to adopt an ambush mentality. “Through creativity and deception, lure the enemy into your kill zone,” they’d say, “trap him there, impede his ability to maneuver or counterattack, and shock him by concentrating all your fire power at once. Then annihilate him. This is the ambush mentality you and your Marines must have.”

As the Roman column turned onto the detour, they had no idea that just inside the tree line along their left side, hiding behind the thick foliage of their concealed wall, were 10,000 barbarians gripping their spears with a no-shit ambush mentality that would make any gruff Marine Officer smile. As the rain poured and the flanks of the Roman column began slipping into the gutters on either side of the muddy trail, the legionaries squeezed together like sardines to keep their footing.

In such a tight formation, they were in no position to defend themselves and they knew it. With gutters on either side, while sandwiched between a swamp to their right and a forested hill to their left, the Romans soldiered on – but did so with caution.

At this point, battle-hardened Romans likely began feeling butterflies in their stomachs or hairs stand on the back of their necks. Packed together with nowhere to go but forward, some began feeling their amulets, bronze pins, and other religious iconography. More than a few said a prayer to Mars, asking for his protection. As they marched through the claustrophobic terrain, I can see them now -- these legions of Rome -- tired, wet, and crammed into a canalized danger zone, grimacing towards one another with “I don’t like this.”

When the first half of the two mile column had turned onto the detour trail, any look of concern went to full blown terror when a heart-skipping war cry belched out from the trees, drums thundered and horns blared, and all at once, a mile of uniformed men (8,000 strong) turned to their left and saw 10,000 spears blow into them like a tidal wave of knives. Four seconds later, another tidal wave of serrated steel tore through their ranks. Packed together and under endless fire from barbarian spears, slings, and arrows, the Romans could not counterattack. They could do nothing. Thousands of flinging blades shredded human flesh. Centurions blew their whistles to rally their men, screaming to form a shield wall deep in the mud, blood, and gore of dying men. Seconds later, these Centurions were cut down. The barbarian detour had become a kill zone.

As flesh tore and bones cracked, it wasn’t just the soldiers who suffered, but their animals too. Impaled by spears, horses and mules poured blood and went berserk – bucking men and trampling others as they fled the crammed kill zone.

As the massacre took hold, and spears rained down like sharp hale, some Romans fled north in a panic, wadding and swimming through the swamp to escape. Weighed down by their gear and horribly wounded, men and horses began to drown. The few who did manage to swim across the swamp were met on the other side by a thousand angry Germans who speared them like fish before they could escape the bog.

As sharp volleys continued to fall, the shadows in the woods turned to men. Wearing trousers and black war paint across their chests and faces, the barbarians screamed for vengeance. Brandishing their broad swords, axes, cudgels, meat hooks, shovels, and pitchforks, 10,000 barbarians kicked down their wall and stormed into the Roman line like human missiles with their 10,000 blades leading the way.


Around the hill, the back half of Varus’ column heard the muffled screams through the pouring rain and wooded terrain. “Maybe it’s another hit and run ambush?” they thought. Elated that his army was finally engaged with the enemy, Varus and his officers ordered the remaining two legions to surge forward around the hill. At a double time, they steamrolled ahead. “Like a chain-reaction highway crash,” historian Peter Wells writes, “men piled into one another, as the reinforcing Romans packed themselves even tighter into Arminius’ trap.” As a result, German spears, slings, and swords found juicy new targets, and the steel rain came down on Varus entire column. All three legions were now under attack.

Unable to reinforce his forward legions around the hill due to the jam of bodies in the kill zone, Varus’ army ground to a halt. Then he realized he was in a kill zone too. Because from his left side, along the eastern slope of the hill screeched 7,000 spears followed by 7,000 warriors charging through the trees like bulls, colliding into the Romans and hacking through the ranks like butchers.

“The barbarians suddenly surround the Romans on all sides,” wrote Cassius Dio. Trapped and bleeding, Varus entire two-mile column, Peter Wells adds, “disintegrated into chaos.” With nowhere to go, Dio writes, Varus and his staff “nerved themselves for the dreaded but unavoidable act.”

Disgraced by the loss of three eagles, the annihilation of his army, and the knowledge that a primitive barbarian had fooled him, the civilized patrician of Rome, Publius Quinctilius Varus, unsheathed his sword and fell upon it. Then one by one, his staff officers did the same.

“The ambush was total… and the massacre was absolute,” historian Tom Holland writes. Based off ancient sources and modern archeology, historian Peter Wells estimates that in one hour, 5,000 Romans died while another 10,000 were mortally wounded and lay dying. And perhaps most unlucky of all, were the remaining thousand or so Romans taken prisoner. The lucky ones were sold into slavery, vanishing with other bound men into the icy north never to be heard from again. But for most of the prisoners, another fate awaited them – something out of a horror movie.

In the days following the battle, the remaining prisoners of Caesar Augustus’ 17th, 18th, and 19th legions formed a new column. In this column, they carried no weapons and their hands were tied behind their backs. Following the man in front, they stepped towards open clearings in the forest, where barbarians gathered with torches as robed and hooded priests held scepters toward a blackened sky.

When describing the bound Roman officers shuffling to these alters of death for the final seconds of their lives, Tom Holland writes this:

“They would have noticed one barbarian in particular who was presiding supreme over the rituals. His identity, to the officers who had long thought of him as a comrade, would have come, on a day of horrors, as one final, deadly shock. As their throats were slashed open, or they choked at the end of ropes slung over a tree or waited kneeling for their heads to be severed… they would have known that the man who had destroyed both them and the dearest ambitions of Imperator Caesar Augustus was that princely equestrian of the Roman people, Arminius.”

Completed in 1875 after the wars of German unification, the statue of Arminius stands 175 feet high and remains a symbol of German nationalism. With his 21-foot sword held high and his foot resting on a Roman eagle, Arminius faces defiantly towards the Rhine and Roman Gaul (France).


A handful of Romans did somehow manage to escape the kill zone. Hiding in trees or caves of Germania during the day, they fled west at night and eventually reached the safety of their forts along the Rhine. With looks of horror, they told the garrisoned soldiers what happened. Upon hearing the news, a messenger was dispatched to Rome.

Though likely apocryphal, there’s a famous story about Rome’s first emperor, Caesar Augustus, hearing the news in Rome about the annihilation of his three legions, 11-percent of his entire imperial army gone in one day.

For the next five years until his death in 14AD at age 75, the old man was said to have never been the same. Despite his empire’s paved roads and flowing aqueducts stretching nonstop from the Atlantic coast of Spain to the deserts of Palestine and back around the Mediterranean Sea to the sands of Morocco, Augustus could not get over how a horde of stone age men tricked his general and destroyed his army.

For the remainder of his life, it was said that Augustus -- the nephew of Julius Caesar and future god himself -- would wander the halls of his palace and scream into the night, "Varus, give me back my legions!"


From Arminius’ victory until the final sacking of Rome in 476AD (by German barbarians), no Roman army would conquer Germania. “For the next four centuries,” Peter Wells writes, “the Romans, in dealing with the peoples east of the Rhine, had to rely on diplomacy, not military might.”

The Wonders of History

So why am I obsessed with this battle? Why does it ignite me with wonder? I assure you it’s not because I’m a psychopath who loves beheadings and massacres. And as hard as it might be for you to believe me, I truly hate war. (This Wilfred Owen poem explains why.)

Yet, despite the obvious horrors of this ancient battle – and life in the ancient world as a whole – there are moments of spellbinding wonders, or what I like to call “the spaces in between.” The shadows in the woods, the smoke from Roman campfires, the autumn wind rattling dry leaves, the black barbarian war paint, the strange gods they worshipped, the legions’ staggering endurance and courage – all of it fires my soul with wonder. This dark opera between Barbarian and Civilization beyond the frontiers of the Rhine, the Danube, and the Euphrates – beyond the edges of the known world -- will always give me the goosebumps I need.

History stirs our imaginations and transports us to mythical places. In my library tonight, with the candle lit, the whiskey poured, and the curtains drawn, a single reading light will shine upon my open book. Immersed in the words and sitting in my own shadows, I’ll drift away from ordinary life and towards a portal of myth and wonder. I encourage you to do the same, wherever your “Teutoburg Forest” might be.



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