Barbarians’ True Story: the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, Arminius and Roman Defeat

Here's a look at the true story and what was invented for Netflix’s German-language historical drama Barbarians

Thusnelda in Barbarians
Photo: Netflix

Warning: contains Barbarians spoilers

The story told by Netflix’s Barbarians – the Germanic tribes rising up to take a sizeable chunk out of the invading Roman Empire in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, also known as the Varian Disaster – is a key historical event that took place in 9 CE. 

The battle’s events are related in several historical sources, among them ‘Germania’ by Roman historian Tacitus. The tribes’ victory dealt Rome a heavy blow which is now seen as a turning point in the history of the Roman Empire, which lost up to 20,000 soldiers over the three-to-four-day battle, effectively halting its advance across what is now mainland Europe.  

If you visit the city of Detmold in modern-day Germany, you’ll see a towering, 50-metre high monument of a warrior in a winged helmet, with his sword held aloft. Erected in the 19th century, the statue celebrates ‘Hermann’, the German name for Arminius, the lead character in Netflix’s Barbarians, played by Laurence Rupp. 

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Barbarians Netflix Arminius

A chieftain of the Cherusci tribe, Arminius led the Germanic rebellion against the Romans and is celebrated as a champion of freedom. As reported in this New York Times article, the battle and Arminius have been co-opted as nationalist symbols by members of the Far Right, an association that Barbarians’ creators set out to sever in their attempt to reclaim the events for mainstream German history. 

Not only was Arminius real, but he was also the son of Cherusci leader Segimer, and raised with his brother Flavus in Rome as a ‘noble hostage’ where he was awarded the prestigious status of Roman Knight (as happens in the series). As a child of the Germanic Tribes (Cherusci, Bructeri, Chatti, Marsi, Sicambri and more), Arminius speaks both German and the ancient Latin spoken by the Romans in Barbarians. He’s seen praying to Roman god Mars, but is also familiar with Wodan, Thor and the deities of the Tribes.

Thusnelda and Segestes

Barbarians Netflix Thusnelda

A former ally of Rome, the real Arminius did indeed marry German noblewoman Thusnelda, the daughter of Cherusci lord Segestes, though almost certainly not before the Battle of Teutoburg Forest and likely a few years later. 

Segestes and Arminius’ bad blood in the series also has its basis in history (Arminius married Thusnelda against her father’s wishes, possibly for political point-scoring, though sources report that the marriage was a loving one. At least until – potential season two spoiler – she was kidnapped by/delivered to Rome by her traitorous father while pregnant with Arminius’ son). Segestes is reported to have indeed warned Roman consul Varus that Arminius was planning to ambush his troops, but as in the series, was not believed. 

The Battle of Teutoburg Forest

Barbarians Netflix

The series’ depiction of Arminius’ battle plan – in which he reported a rebellion by the Bructeri Tribe and suggested the Roman troops quash it by diverting through the Teutoburg forest on their way to their winter encampment – is largely as reported by historians. The battle lasted for several days, with multiple ambushes and assaults, events necessarily concertinaed for the Netflix show’s finale. It’s also noted that some of the Germanic tribes that did not initially unite with Arminius joined in the later stages of the battle, just as Hagdan’s is shown doing in the TV series.

Three Roman legions were defeated, thought to total around 22,000 Roman troops, an estimated one eighth of Rome’s total army. 

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The Varian Disaster

Barbarians Netflix Varus

As he does in the show, Varus (he of ‘The Varian Disaster’ fame) is reported to have fallen on his sword at the battle, a Roman custom to avoid capture by one’s enemy in defeat. Sources suggest his body was decapitated and the head eventually sent to Augustus Caesar in Rome.

Afterwards, a chastened Caesar Augustus never again tried to occupy land east of the Rhine river. This Britannica article relates the account of historian Suetonis, which reported that Augustus mourned the defeat for months by not cutting his beard or hair, and was heard to wail “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!”

Invented for the series

Barbarians Netflix Folkwin Wolfspeer

That’s where the historical fact dries up and the invention comes in. In history, Arminius was not the adoptive son of Roman consul Varus, though their dynamic may have an historical counterpart in Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar and his adoptive son Drusus. When the Sicambri Tribe (not the Cherusci led by Thusnelda and Folkwin, as happens in the series) stole a Roman Legion’s eagle standard around 16 BCE, Augustus Caesar sent Drusus to retrieve it, just as Varus sends Arminius to do in Barbarians. The Sicambri’s historical eagle-theft took place long before the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, but according to this Britannica article, the act did provoke Augustus Caesar to intensify Roman oppression and taxation of the Germanic tribes, which in turn provoked them to rebel.

The character of Folkwin Wolfspeer – Thusnelda’s lover and the father of her unborn child by the end of the series – is not taken from history. Neither is Thusnelda’s younger brother Ansgar, the little boy who suffers a serious head injury in Barbarians’ opening episode. The real Thusnelda did have a brother, Segimundus, who became a priest, but the storyline involving Ansgar and the tribe’s seer/wise-woman appears to be an invention. 

A great deal of what we see on screen in Barbarians is based in historical fact, with some obvious invention and fudging of the timelines. Barbarians is first and foremost entertainment, and by no means a documentary. The historical sources cited above are of course, subject to interpretation and mustn’t be considered unequivocal. We’re clearly not historians, just TV fans interested to find out a little more about the show’s background! If you can add more detail on the series’ historical detail, don’t hesitate to help out in the comments.

Barbarians is out now on Netflix

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