The Battle of Teutoburg Forest
It happened this month, exactly two thousand years ago. The Battle of Teutoburg Forest was fought in the beginning of September in the year 9 AD, during the reign of Caesar Augustus (born 63 BC, ruled as princeps 27 BC - 19 AD), and it would go down in history as the greatest defeat suffered during the relatively peaceful, prosperous golden age of the early Roman Empire (the Pax Romana). The battle went on for three or four days and wikipedia gives September 9-11 as likely dates.
At the time, Roman troops stationed in Germany east of the Rhine were under the command of Publius Quintilius Varus (46 BC - 9 AD) who had previously served a term as consul and governor of Syria. They included 3 legions, 6 auxillary cohorts of non-Roman allies, and 3 wings of cavalry.
The Romans knew the man behind the ambush as Arminius (18/17 BC - 21 AD) but today he's also called "Hermann the German." He was a chieftain of the Cherusci, a Germanic tribe eventually absorbed into the Saxon nation, who had received a Roman military education and had been granted Roman citizenship and equestrian rank. Before the rebellion, Varus looked at Arminius as a trusted ally, and thus Arminius was able to lead the Roman army into his trap. He also managed to put together a coalition of five tribes to fight the Romans -- perhaps with an eye towards further unifying the Germanic peoples in the future and establishing a personal hegemony.
The army headed into Teutoburg Forest on the way to put down an uprising reported by Arminius. As the Romans spread themselves thin, trudging along a narrow, difficult forest trail, the Germans attacked -- first taking pot shots from a distance, but then advancing ever closer as it became clear that the Romans were in distress. The next day, Varus attempted to lead his troops to the refuge of the nearest Roman garrison, but they ended up caught in a disadvantageous spot between a fortified hill -- occupied by the Germans -- and a great swamp.
Roman historians recount how the army of around 20,000 was destroyed down almost to the last man. When it became clear there was no escape, Varus and his commanders fell on their swords. Only a scant handful of Roman soldiers managed to escape the bloodbath by fleeing into the forest -- all the rest were either killed or perhaps taken as slaves. After defeating Varus, Arminius' men pillaged the Roman garrisons and settlements east of the Rhine.
When news of this massive defeat reached Rome, it greatly affected the aged emperor's mental and emotional stability. According to trashy imperial biographer Suetonius (c.70 - c.130), Augustus banged his head against the walls of his palace and cried out "Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!" In the aftermath of this loss, the decision was made to abandon plans to subjugate the peoples east of the Rhine and the river was established as a part of the Empire's border.
Recovering the Eagles
When they wiped out Varus' army, the Germanic tribesmen also captured the three legions' eagle-bearing standards, which were religious objects held sacred under the Roman national cult. Thus, once memory of the defeat faded a bit, the Romans attached some importance and a great deal of national pride to their recovery.
After Augustus' death, his stepson Tiberius (born 42 BC, ruled 14-37 AD) suceeded him as emperor, and Tiberius' nephew Germanicus (16/15 BC - 19 AD) was made military commander in charge of Germany. Germanicus scored a number of victories east of the Rhine, weakening the coalition Arminius mounted against the Romans and retrieving two of the lost eagles. Tacitus (c.56-c.117), who made Germanicus the hero of his Annals, tells us that Germanicus also came across the site of Varus' defeat where he found blanched bones lying in the field and skulls nailed to trees. His troops set about burying the Roman dead. The final eagle wasn't recovered until 41 AD, during the reign of the Emperor Claudius (born 10 BC, ruled 41-54 AD).
Germanicus's honorific surname, which means "victor over the Germans," wasn't awarded to him because of his German campaign; he actually inherited the name from his father who was granted it posthumously in 9 BC. In 19 AD, only a few years after he was recalled from Germany, Germanicus suddenly died in Antioch under mysterious circumstances. The governor of Syria was to be tried for his murder (until he died suddenly, ostensibly by his own hand), but Tacitus suggests that Tiberius might have ordered his nephew assassinated due to concerns over his growing popularity with the army and the people of Rome. Meanwhile, in 21 AD Arminius was assassinated by his fellow tribesmen.
Another interesting fact is that the Emperor Caligula (born 12 AD, ruled 37-41 AD) had the month of September renamed "Germanicus" after his late father, the illustrious general. The new name didn't stick.
Teutoburg forest lies in western Germany on the border between Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia. Here, outside the town of Detmold, an 80 ft. bronze statue in the likeness of Hermann was completed in 1875. At the time he was celebrated as a symbol of German nationalism. Last month, Der Spiegel noted that this would be the 2000th anniversary of Hermann's victory over the Romans, but also that no one was planning any big celebrations since the idea of German warrior culture is tainted by its association with the Third Reich. For some reason there is also a statue of Hermann in the small town of New Ulm, Minnesota.
Meanwhile, the actual site of Varus' last stand was uncovered in the late '80s/early '90s, at a spot called Kalkriese hill 70 km north of Detmold's Hermann monument. Archaeologists have found evidence that the Germans stripped the fallen soldiers of valuables (nobody was left to fight them, so they could take their time!) as well as evidence consistent with Tacitus' account of the burial carried out by Germanicus' troops years later.
Link: Smithsonian Magazine "The Ambush that Changed History"
Images: Photo of Teutoburg Forest taken from Hermannsdenkmal posted on wikipedia by user Arminia and under GNU license; map of Western Roman Empire at the time of Augustus found at rbedrosian.com; photo of Hermannsdenkmal taken by David Crossland and found on Der Spiegel; photo of Roman cavalary mask uncovered at Kalkriese found on wikipedia.