Rain had soaked the ground, mud and rotting leaves swamped the path, mist lingered around the tall forbidding trees. The exhausted roman troops struggled up slopes that were slippery and down into marshes that stalled the wagons. The narrow path was full of legionaries, interspersed with civilians, slaves and mules pulling wagons. Rain panged off the armour of the troops. The rebellion that the legion had gone to crush seemed a million miles away from the cold wet exertion that Publius Quinctilius Varus’ men were now struggling through. The forest became dark as the tree canopies closed in around them. Sounds could be heard coming from the tree-line; along with strange shadows. A flock of birds screeched and flew away. The ground around the Romans started to elevate as the convoy trudged into a narrow ditch. Shouting could be heard up ahead, suddenly a thrown speared buried itself in the back of a civilian’s torso. More spears were raining down on the convoy, legionaries struggled to assess where they were coming from as the injured from the volley fell to the ground. The shadows in the tree line weren’t shadows at all they were Germanic tribesman – they were everywhere. Tribal war horns from the misty forest rang out all around the Romans. In the narrow strait, the roman soldiers had no chance of forming a battle line. The whole line of the convoy, nearly six miles of it, was now under attack. It was an ambush – the Roman’s had marched right into it.
It was a battle the Romans of Germania were not expecting. The 17th, 18th and 19th Legions, battle-hardened and well equipped were marching back to winter quarters after a long campaign in the tribal lands. News of a rebellion in the area of Minden had reached the ears of Varus from a fellow Roman officer; the Germanic born Arminius. Arminius suggested a change of course from the westerly route Varus had taken into an unknown area to the north to crush the rebellion. It was to be a quick detour, crush the rebellion and return to Gaul, west of the Rhine, to safety. Varus agreed and marched confidently to battle and to victory. Varus had been betrayed. There was no rebellion, Arminius had laid a trap for Varus so that he could claim victory over the Romans and claim the kingship of his German tribe. Varus knew none of this, he marched with confidence, knowing full well the Roman army was invincible against the barbarian. But the tribesmen knew the area where they fought and had set up the ambush with one single purpose; to completely destroy the Romans. They had built defensive walls on the sides of elevated ridges overlooking the trail so they could throw spears at the hapless Romans. They had planned when to attack, at exactly the moment when the Roman line had become stretched to its weakest. The first day had seen the destruction of the Roman cavalry and as the unrelenting attacks continued, the Romans became more and more tired until panic set in and they routed. Varus committed suicide before he could be captured. His men were sacrificed to the Germanic warrior gods of the woods, their bones displayed on spikes to mark the mass grave of the empire’s finest troops. The legionary eagles, the religious standards that all Roman legions carried into battle had been captured casting shame on the Roman people. Rome’s defeat was complete.
Only a handful of Romans made it out of the forest and across the Rhine into friendly territory. The tales they told shook the empire. It was said Emperor Augustus spent days banging his head against walls crying “Varus give me back my legions!”. The defeat had destroyed between 10 to 12 percent of the entire Roman military in three days. The Roman’s would never threaten so far into German territory again.