September 9 to 11 of the year 9 AD is often attributed in modern sources as the date for the legendary Battle of Teutoburg, more commonly known as the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest – except the battle lasted for four days, not three, and it was fought in a forest only on the first two days of the engagement. But how accurate is this date? Very rarely do the primary sources provide precise dates for historical events. In fact, if you take the pains to read through all of the ancient documents that mention and describe this important battle, you will be struck by something puzzling and shocking – no ancient source mentions when exactly the battle took place.
So, if that is the case, then why is it commonly perpetuated that the Battle of Teutoburg was fought specifically from September 9 to 11?
The oldest reference to the Battle of Teutoburg taking place on September 9th to the 11th is dated to the 19th Century. Found within an issue of Appleton’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art is an article entitled “Decisive Battles of History”, dated to January 7, 1871. Within this article, the un-named author provides a list of battles of historical importance, with some being provided longer descriptions than others. The Battle of Teutoburg is placed upon that list, and of it, the article mentions the following: “The battle of Teutoburg, on the 9th, 10th and 11th of September, 9 B. C., between the Germans, led by Hermann, and the Romans, under Varus” (“Decisive Battles of History”. Appleton’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art, Volume 5, Issue 93 (January 7, 1871). New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1871. Page 20). Where the author of this article managed to obtain these dates is unknown, since, as mentioned before, no primary source gives exact dates for the battle.
These dates were repeated in A Popular History of Germany, Volume 1, written by Wilhelm Zimmerman and published in 1878. In a chapter devoted exclusively to this battle, Zimmermann writes “The battle took place on the 9th, 10th, and 11th days of September” (William Zimmermann, A Popular History of Germany, from the Earliest Period to the Present Day, Volume 1. Translated by Hugh Craig. New York, Henry J. Johnson, 1878. Page 57). Again, Zimmermann provides no sources for this information.
These dates seem to have been forgotten until the 1990s, when the battlefield was discovered and a thorough archaeological survey could be made of the site. Among the items found was the skeleton of a mule and around its neck was a bell that had been stuffed with straw…straw that had presumably been collected from nearby, in order to keep the bell from ringing. It was this find that enabled forensic analysts to give an approximate date of the battle.
In my own book about this battle Four Days in September: The Battle of Teutoburg, I state the following…
“It is common knowledge among ancient and military historians that the battle took place in the year 9 AD, but during what time of year? At the excavation of the site, the skeleton of a mule was found with a bell around its neck. The bell had been stuffed with straw, presumably to keep it from making noise. Forensic analysis of the straw showed that it had been cut in late summer or early fall, placing the battle in late September (Peter S. Wells, The Battle that Stopped Rome (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2003), 55). So, not only did the battle’s date have a year, but also a month – September of 9 AD. The battle is popularly conceived as being begun on September 9, 9 AD, but this is a date that seems to be chosen at random. Forensic evidence places the battle at late summer/early fall, which would make it fall somewhere in late September, not early September” (Jason R. Abdale, Four Days in September: The Battle of Teutoburg, Second Edition. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2016. Page 128.
- “Decisive Battles of History”. Appleton’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art, Volume 5, Issue 93 (January 7, 1871). New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1871.
- Abdale, Jason R. Four Days in September: The Battle of Teutoburg, Second Edition. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2016.
- Wells, Peter S. The Battle that Stopped Rome: Emperor Augustus, Arminius, and the Slaughter of the Legions in the Teutoburg Forest. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2003.
- Zimmermann, William. A Popular History of Germany, from the Earliest Period to the Present Day, Volume 1. Translated by Hugh Craig. New York, Henry J. Johnson, 1878.