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Rome’s Greatest Defeat

When Germanic warriors annihilated three Roman legions in Teutoburg Forest in AD 9, the tremors were felt across the empire. Julian Humphrys explores the disaster

Imperial Rome’s greatest defeat

Rome was in a state of shock. It was AD 9 and word had just reached the city that three veteran legions under Quintilius Varus, representing more than a tenth of the entire imperial army, had been wiped out by an alliance of Germanic tribes.


The defeat was so unexpected and so comprehensive that the entire empire seemed in danger. According to the Roman historian Suetonius, Emperor Augustus was so shaken by the news that he stood banging his head against the walls of his palace, repeatedly shouting: “Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!”

Years earlier, as the first century BC approached its end, Augustus had decided that Germania needed to be brought under Roman control. He may well have hoped to create a buffer by extending Roman rule from the Rhine to the Elbe.

A series of campaigns, first under Drusus and then his brother, the future Emperor Tiberius, saw the defeat of the Germanic tribes east of the Rhine and the extension of Roman influence across much of Germania Magna, as the Romans called the region. The next step would be to ‘Romanise’ these lands, and Augustus had just the man for the job: Quintilius Varus, the husband of his great-niece.

Varus had been governor of Africa and then Syria, where he had earned a reputation as a successful administrator and able diplomat, and he had done a good job keeping a number of client rulers in line. In AD 7, he was made governor of the new German province and given command of the XVII, XVIII and XIX infantry legions, together with cavalry and auxiliary units, to control it.

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About BBC History Revealed Magazine

In this month’s issue… Who killed JFK? We know Lee Harvey Oswald pulled a trigger, but was he a lone gunman or part of a larger conspiracy? Plus: Elizabeth’s I love rival; the Irish Potato Famine; Picasso’s most prolific year; the medieval knight who’s travels made him more famous than Marco Polo; the Top 10 art controversies and the legend of the Bermuda Triangle.