3 – Publius Quinctilius Varus – Battle of Teutoburg Forest (9 AD)
Varus attempted to outdo the idiocy displayed by Flaminius over 200 years previously when he too walked into an ambush. The Romans had first encountered Germanic tribes in 102 BC and fought them on many occasions over the next few centuries. By 4 AD, General Tiberius (later to become Emperor), subjugated some Germanic tribes and the Romans enjoyed further successes a couple of years later. In 6 AD, Varus was given command of the Roman force.
He was respected by the Senate and feared by the people because of his ruthlessness when dealing with insurgents. Varus took command of the XVII, XVIII and XIX Legions on the Rhine. At Teutoburg Forest, the Germanic tribes were commanded by Arminius who was once the Roman general’s trusted advisor but united the tribes in secret. Arminius created a fake report about a local rebellion when Varus was on his way to his winter camp near the Rhine after setting out from his summer camp near the Weser River.
Varus chose to quell the uprising immediately and began marching through unfamiliar territory. As they entered Teutoburg Forest, a violent storm had arisen, and the army was forced to spread out in a long, thin line where they trekked through muddy terrain. Varus also made the mistake of not sending out any scouting missions before they tried to navigate the forest. Arminius used this opportunity to slip away and get the tribes ready for their deadly ambush.
The confused Romans came under attack as the Germanic tribes fired javelins down on their prey. The Romans survived the first onslaught and set up a fortified position in the forest but the next day, the Germans relentlessly pursued their foe and continued with their guerilla-style tactics. The Romans tried to escape the following morning, but Arminius had set another trap. His men felled trees and ensured there was only one path for the enemy to take which led to a dead end. When Varus and his exhausted men walked into the trap, the Germans rushed towards them and destroyed the Romans.
The Romans lost at least 20,000 men while Varus committed suicide once he realized all was lost. Teutoburg Forest changed the course of history. Had the Romans not been annihilated in his fashion, they may have been able to defeat the Germanic tribes. It halted Roman expansion and created a frontier in the center of Europe that lasted for 400 years.