The losses at Cannae and Teutoburg forest, which was worse for Rome?

Roman legions are well renowned today as some of the most premier fighting forces in all of history. The discipline that it takes to fight as such a cohesive unit was unparallel during the supremacy of ancient Rome. What will strike most historians as they look back over the history of the many military triumphs of the Romans is not the times when the Romans won, but instead when they lost. This article will look to highlight two of the most important losses in the history of the Rome, the loss at Cannae and Teutoburg forest, to distinguish which loss carried the most consequences for Rome.

Hannibal Baraca

First, we must establish some context surrounding each of the battles. The loss at Cannae came at a time when Rome was far less dominant than it would become in the next hundred years. The loss occurred in 216 BC and was a battle of the second Punic war with Carthage. This wasn’t the first loss of this war for Rome either, they came into this battle fresh off two other losses to Carthage. These losses were dealt to Rome by none other than Hannibal Baraca, a military commander of such stature that he was able to cross the Italian alps during the winter with elephants in toe. His skill as a commander was what kept the Romans guessing and is the deciding factor at the battle of Cannae. The Romans wanted to keep pressure on Hannibal as he was outside of familiar territory meaning his resources were limited. Roman consuls Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Gaius Terentius Varro amassed a force of over 80,000 troops to Hannibal’s 40,000, tipping the balance of power heavily in Rome’s favor. On paper it was a done deal, the Romans would trounce Hannibal’s and his men due to sheer manpower. But Hannibal was no fool, he recognized the advantage the Romans held and instead decided to rearrange his troops in such a manner that the Romans played into his hands. By deliberately putting his weaker mercenaries in the middle of this ranks Hannibal was able to bait the Romans into stacking their heavy infantry into the middle of their ranks. Hannibal was looking to exploit the Roman maniple system; this system replaced the traditional phalanx system that was a clear weakness of the Romans in previous conflicts. The difference between the two was simple, the phalanx operated by having men stacked up behind one another in lone lines. This mean that any attacks from the front would face shields and spears pointed outward toward them with each man backing up the man in front. The obvious weakness to this formation was that when fighting on a hill of when the enemy got behind the phalanxes were far too slow to turn around, meaning they were completely vulnerable. The maniple system however was far more effective. It had units set up in a checkerboard formation which intentionally left gaps between each unit, thus allowing more room for maneuverability than the phalanx.

Phalanx Vs. Maniple

Hannibal knew that this was a clear strength of the Romans, hence his placing of the weakest troops in the middle, they had played into his hands by packing the troops so tightly in the center. When the battle commenced Hannibal marched his weak center against the strong Roman center while simultaneously instructing his superior Numidian Cavalry units to flank around the side and rear of the Romans. Initially the Romans were winning, they held a clear advantage in terms of infantry and Hannibal’s center was merely biding its time before it was totally vanquished. But in their haste to annihilate the Carthaginian center, the Romans had abandoned convention and let their troops squeeze in tightly together, they had little to no room for maneuverability. This meant that while they were winning in the center, they were pushing themselves further into a gordian knot. If they had simply held their ground and kept their discipline of formation, they would have routed the center and been able to turn around for what hit them next. At this point the battle was over, Hannibal had the Romans where he wanted them and was able to deploy his pincer like movement. Quickly the Numidian cavalry engulfed the romans from all sides, the men were packed so tightly that some records indicate that most couldn’t raise their arms to swing their swords. It was an unaltered slaughter of the highest degree, men standing like statues as spears and swords pierced their throats. It is estimated that of the 80,000 strong Roman force 70,000 died that day, with the remaining being captured and a small group managing to escape. Of that small group there was one Scipio Africanus, the man who in the end would triumph over Hannibal but today was sent running with his tail between his legs. To be routed from the field like this was a massive embarrassment to a Roman, so for Scipio to come back the way he did in the next few years was an impressive feat. Hannibal now stood at the helm of the most powerful army in the world, he had just destroyed the dominant Roman force again and was poised to finally take Rome for Carthage, and yet he didn’t. Historians have debated why Hannibal did not march on Rome at this point, for if he had it would have fallen easily. A Numidian cavalry commander Marahbal urged Hannibal to seize this opportunity, when he refused Livy states that he said “Of a truth the gods have not bestowed all things upon the same person. You know how to conquer, Hannibal; but you do not know how to make use of your victory.”

Now that Cannae has been covered, we turn to Teutoburg forest. Once the loss has been analyzed we can then determine which was worse for Rome. The context of this battle varies incredibly to Cannae. This battle took place in 9 AD at the tail end of the reign of Augustus Caesar, it also took place hundreds of years after the Marian reforms. These reforms occurred in 107 BC and enforced several changes upon the Roman forces, Marius introduced the standardized legionary as well as dictating that the commander of each legion oversaw supplying the army. This made Rome into an even more efficient military machine, Marius also promised land grants to all the soldiers who served their full term which created a sense of commitment among the soldiers to their cause. So, by the time Teutoburg rolled around the Roman legions were conquering much of the known world, the Pax Romana was in flight. The battle took place because of the incompetence of the Roman commander Varus, who was easily led into a trap by Arminius a Germanic born Roman soldier who gained the trust of the Romans through years of service. Arminius however was loyal to his Germanic tribes and so was actively working to betray Varus during his campaign in Germania. Varus also made the mistake of dividing his legions, he sent multiple legions to different Germanic tribes across modern Germany. These legions were under the impression that they were to protect each of the tribes and govern them, what they did not know was that they were doomed. Arminius had organized for Varus to split his forces so that these legions could be destroyed easily. Varus did not know that his legions were being sent to their deaths and so when Arminius informed him that there was an uprising to the north, he was happy to march there and quell it. Yet again however Varus played into the hands of Arminius, it wasn’t long before Arminius instructed Varus to march through a forest that he claimed was a shortcut. Varus had been warned of Arminius’s treachery but decided that the claims had been made due to jealously of the man, he still trusted Arminius despites the signs to the contrary. Once Arminius had steered the Romans into an area that was perfect for an ambush, he informed Varus that he planned to leave and gather some reinforcements from friendly Germanic tribes nearby. Once out of sight of the Romans and with the legions right where he wanted them, Arminius joined up with his Germanic forces and attacked.

Varus had his troops marching in a thin line, possibly 15 kilometers long, and was attempting to force march them through a swamp when the first Germanic spears rained down on the Romans. Varus handled this situation so poorly that he did not even send scouts to check for an ambush in the narrow swamp. The weather was also against the Romans, terrible storms made the conditions even harsher as the Romans struggled to cross the marsh and set up a makeshift fortification. The legions desperately tried to escape; further casualties were suffered as a result of these attempets the following day. It was clear that they would not escape during the day, a night march was their only hope. This was indeed a sound strategy from Varus, but again Arminius deployed a trap, the legions were forced to march through another narrow passage constricted by a hill. This allowed Germanic forces to attack from cover, this was the final straw, the legions commanders abandoned their men only to be ridden down by Germanic forces. Varus also killed himself in the heat of battle, furthering the dismay of the troops. The battle was a rout, and the Germanic forces inflicted a total of between 15,000-20,000 losses on the Romans. This loss was followed by more surrenders at Roman encampments east of the Rhine, the army lead by Arminus was able to easily sidestep the defensive tactics of the Romans. Only one fort managed to hold out, with its commander eventually fleeing with his men to meet up with Tiberius and his reinforcements. Had this group not held out as it did, Roman Gaul may have fallen into the hands of Arminius.  

The loss at Teutoburg and the loss at Cannae were both resounding defeats for Rome. Both had their own implications; however, I would conclude that Cannae was a worse defeat for the Romans. While Teutoburg came at a time when Roman power was begging to materialize itself across the globe, it was not a true threat to the empire to lose this battle. Indeed, it was an embarrassment, as the military abilities of Varus were laughable at best, however this is all that it should be considered, an embarrassment. The city of Rome faced no real threat from Arminius and his army. They were a force to be reckoned with alright and they would ensure that Germania was kept from the grasp of Rome until the ascension of the great Marcus Areuelius many years later, but that is the extent of this loss. The Germans did not threaten to derail Rome, this loss was a speedbump for the empire. The force in Teutoburg was obliterated and the occupied territory in Germania was lost, but this could never have destroyed the might of Rome. Cannae, however, is a different issue. The loss here was not down to the idiotic instructions of one man as It was in Teutoburg. This loss came at the hands of the great Hannibal, a man who should be viewed in the same vein as Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. Hannibal met the Romans in open combat and stripped them of their advantages through cunning. Varus played into the hands of Arminius who knew well that the fool would do so. Hannibal had to think of a way to defeat a superior force with a weaker army, and that he did, time and time again. This is the man who marched his troops over the alps during winter to face the Romans, he could have derailed history that day. Had Hannibal turned and marched on Rome, the eternal city would have become a footnote in the history of the great Carthage. The loss at Cannae provided an immediate threat, one almost too real for the Romans to comprehend. For scale, consider the fact that Cannae is a mere 3 days walk from Rome, Hannibal and his forces could have marched on a weakened Rome in 3 days. While Teutoburg is at least a 12 day walk from Rome, both stats of course take modern roads into accounts, if we were to adjust for the harsh conditions that would have faced the Germanic forces walking south to Rome its safe to assume it may take them a month to reach Rome. So, the capital faced no real danger from Germania, but with Hannibal they faced annihilation. Therefore, I believe that Cannae was a worse defeat for Rome that Teutoburg.