There were no Roman survivors of the AD 9 Varus Disaster.
Were there any Roman survivors at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest?
The story of the AD 9 Varus Disaster (Clades Variana), or Battle of the Teutoburg, is a compelling one. Under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus, the historical sources tell us, three Roman legions – usually identified as the 17th, 18th, and 19th legions, although no historical source makes this explicit – were led into an extended ambush in the dark and dangerous Teutoburg Forest in Germania, and never walked out again. The ambush was masterminded by Arminius, the chieftain of the Cherusci tribe & former Roman auxiliary commander, who used his insider knowledge of the tactical workings of the Roman army to exploit their weaknesses.
The battle lasted for several days, with the Roman army managing to maintain combat cohesion through most of the running battle. They even managed to construct makeshift marching camps in which they sheltered overnight, still hopeful of outrunning the Germans or fighting their way out of the ambush zone and reaching safe Roman territory. It was only on the final day of the battle, with their ranks sufficiently thinned and the remaining soldiers physically exhausted beyond the point of resistance, that the Roman army was finally overwhelmed by the Germanic force and destroyed. At this stage, according to the historian Cassius Dio, the Roman soldiers gave up their last hopes of survival after hearing of the death (likely suicide) of Varus (Cassius Dio, Roman History 56.22.1):
When news of this had spread, none of the rest, even if he had any strength left, defended himself any longer. Some imitated their leader, and others, casting aside their arms, allowed anybody who pleased to slay them; for to flee was impossible, however much one might desire to do so. Every man, therefore, and every horse was cut down without fear of resistance.
The battle was one of the most iconic and damaging defeats that the Roman army ever suffered, and has been seen as one of the turning points of European history. The impression given by many historical interpretations of the battle is that none of the Roman soldiers caught in the ambush survived. This position has been re-enforced by dramatic reconstructions of the battle, such as the recent Netflix series Barbaren (Barbarians), which also often fail to properly illustrate the extended nature of the ambush, and the dogged resistance of the Roman army through several days of attack. But while the legions caught up in the battle did sustain very heavy casualties, there were Roman survivors at the end of the ambush.
Some Roman soldiers were captured alive by Arminius’ force. The fate of many Roman captive soldiers seems to have been bleak – and short. Several of the historical sources recount that some were subjected to torture and ritual execution – particularly, according to Florus, those who asked for mercy on legal grounds (Epitome II.30.36). Tacitus recounts the use of gibbets and torture-pits on other captured prisoners (Annals 1.61). In many ways, these captured soldiers can also be considered casualties of the battle itself, with their deaths coming soon after the actual attack.
However, other captive soldiers were sold into Germanic slavery, and lived much longer – some for decades after the battle. A small number crop up, almost out of nowhere, in a brief account by Tacitus of a Roman expedition to Germania to deal with a Chatti raiding band early in the reign of Claudius. The Roman troops overwhelmed the Chatti, & at the same time, were able to liberate a small number of Roman soldiers captured during the ambush at the Teutoburg (Tacitus, Annals 12.27):
The exultation of the men was heightened by the fact that, after forty years, they had redeemed from slavery a few survivors of the Varian disaster.
Little is known of their life in captivity, nor what happened to them after their liberation. The passage of time since the battle means that few of them could have been less than 60 years old, a decent age in the Roman world – certainly an unexpected age for Roman slaves in Germanic captivity.
Other Roman soldiers were able to flee the battlefield without being captured, or were able to escape soon after being taken, making their way safely back to Roman territory – where, presumably, their testimony formed the basis of the narrative accounts of the battle which survive in the ancient historical sources. None of the surviving sources document a successful escape of soldiers from the ambush, although Velleius Paterculus (Roman History II.119.4) describes an unsuccessful attempt made by some of the cavalry.
The successful escape by some soldiers is recorded by Tacitus, in his narrative of the Germanic campaigns of Germanicus in AD 15, conducted to avenge the Teutoburg. During the campaign, Germanicus diverted his army to the site of the Teutoburg ambush, to pay ritual tribute to Varus and his men, and to bury any exposed remains. Tacitus describes how some of the soldiers who escape the ambush returned to the battle site with Germanicus and guided him around, particularly the area where the final actions of the battle took place (Annals 1.61):
Survivors of the disaster, who had escaped the battle or their chains, told how here the legates fell, there the eagles were taken, where the first wound was dealt upon Varus, and where he found death by the suicidal stroke of his own unhappy hand. They spoke of the tribunal from which Arminius made his harangue, all the gibbets and torture-pits for the prisoners, and the arrogance with which he insulted the standards and eagles.
The fact that these survivors were able to conduct Germanicus around the area where the late stages of the battle had been played out suggests that they had not escaped from the battle in the early stages, during the first days of the attack when the Roman army maintained combat cohesion, but had been involved until the very end.
Undeniably, the Roman casualties in the Varus Disaster were high. The numbers of the legions presumed to be involved in the battle were permanently retired (and are not even mentioned in any of the surviving sources), suggesting that either there were not enough men left to maintain the units, or that they were unwilling to serve in such now-inauspicious units. However, while the number of Roman survivors was undoubtedly low, there were some who lived long after the battle, some evading or escaping captivity entirely, others spending decades in slavery.
For this reason, it can be stated that the claim that there were no Roman survivors of the AD 9 Varus Disaster is false. However, the survivors likely represented only a tiny proportion of the soldiers who had marched in to the ambush.
- J.R. Abdale, Four Days in September: The Battle of Teutoburg (2nd edition, 2016).
- M. Murdoch, Rome’s Greatest Defeat (2006).
- V.E. Pagán, “Beyond Teutoburg: transgression and transformation in Tacitus Annales 1.61-62”, Classical Philology 94.3 (1999), pp. 302-320.