Have you ever heard about the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest? Odds are, you haven’t. This battle, which took place near to the site of present-day German city of Osnabruck, has been largely forgotten or ignored by most of the English-speaking world. However, had this battle turned out differently, we would probably not be speaking English today.
In September of the year 9 CE, the Roman governor of Germania, Varus, received intelligence from one of his squadron leaders that some German tribes were plotting rebellion. The man who provided this information was Arminius, the son of a Germanic tribal chieftain who had spent his childhood in Rome as a hostage. Despite his parentage, Arminius became a trusted member of the Roman army, and served as a liaison between the Romans and Germans.
It turns out that Varus was wrong to trust Arminius, because he had been plotting with the German tribes to attack Varus’ legions. Varus trusted his soldier’s information, and was subsequently right into the ambush Arminius had set.
As Varus headed out with 15,000 soldiers to tackle the supposed rebellion, Arminius’ German warriors hid in wait in the forest that lay along the Roman’s narrow path. As soon as the Romans passed by, the Germans attacked them with lances and lead missiles from above. This attack surprised the Romans, and likely prevented them from forming their typical battle formations. But the worst was yet to come for Varus’ troops.
As the Romans moved forward, they encountered a carefully prepared defensive rampart that had been built by the Germans. The Romans were completely exposed, but the Germans had some protection, as well as an element of surprise.
An intense battle ensued at this location, and the Romans were completely routed. At least 12,000 Roman legionnaires were slaughtered. Varus is said to have fallen on his own sword when he saw that he would be defeated. The battle was so gruesome (some Roman soldiers had their heads nailed to trees) that the Emperor decided to halt further Roman expansion in the area. The Romans established a border at the German frontier that would last for 400 years, and future emperors were reluctant to fight the Germanic tribes from that point forward.
This battle is important because, had the Romans won, it is likely that they would have completed their pacification of the Germanic tribes. Had this happened, Germany would have come under Roman rule, which might have altered the course of history considerably. Romance languages would have replaced Roman ones, as they did in France, so English (a Germanic language) might never have evolved in England. The German state would probably have never been formed, or at least would have formed much later. This would have affected the Reformation, so the development of Protestantism would have been different, if it happened at all. It is possible that World War I might also have never occurred, since the actions of Germany were crucial to its start.
It is incredible to think that the actions of a group of German tribesmen changed the course of history to such an extent, but the evidence seems to suggest that it did. Had Arminius not decided to betray his adopted people, the world would be much different place, and you would probably be reading this is in a Latin-based language.