Episode 34 – Red Cliffs versus Teutoburg Forest

Today, we will follow two significant battles of the ancient world, Red Cliffs, a naval battle fought on the Yangtze River between rival Chinese forces and the Battle of Teutoburg Forest where one of our previous combatants, Armenius, led a conglomeration of rebel armies to crush three legions of Romans, causing Emperor Augustus, who we just heard from a few episodes ago to cry, “Give me Back My Legions!”

Potential Red Cliffs Site
Potential Red Cliffs Site

Few people outside of China have ever heard of the Battle of Red Cliffs, but within the country, it is one of the most famous battles ever fought. There is actually a movie about it which broke the movie Titanic’s box office record in Asia when it was released in 2008. 

When the Battle of Red Cliffs was fought in 208 CE, the exact date is not known, it was towards the end of the Han dynasty which had ruled China for almost 400 years. It was also held about twelve years before the beginning of the bloodiest period in Chinese history, the Three Kingdoms period. The exact location of this battle has also been debated for millennium. The best guess is that it occurred near the city of Guangzhou, near the area known as the Red Cliffs. There are many other possibilities, but as with many things from the distant past, we may never really know.

At the time of the battle, the figurehead leader of China was Xian, who would be the 14th and last Han emperor. The real head of the faction in the north was the warlord Cao Cao, who was the de facto ruler of the country. In the south of China, he had two rivals, Liu Bei and Sun Quan. Behind Quan was a brilliant strategist, Zhou Yu. 

The target of Cao Cao’s invasion force, which had been numbered to be around 230,000, was a region of the mid-Yangtze river. He felt that he needed to take this area if his goal to reunify the country under Han rule was to be successful.

Before we get into the battle itself, we need to familiarize ourselves with the Yangtze. It basically dissects China and is the longest river in Asia and the third longest in the world coming in at 3,964 miles or 6,380 kilometers. Throughout ancient Chinese history, the river was the dividing line for many of the rival dynasties as the Yangtze was difficult to cross. 

Cao Cao was moving from the north towards the river, trouncing armies of the Jing. He boasted that he had 800,000 men at his disposal, but that is highly likely to be a grand overestimate. In October of 208, the Battle of Changban saw Han’s gain a clear victory over the forces led by Liu Bei who was able to escape capture narrowly.  

Crossing over the Yangtze to the safety of Sun Quan’s armies, Liu Bei decided to join forces to try to put a stop to Cao Cao’s army. Knowing that he would have to try to cross the river with lots of boats, they believed that a bottleneck might occur giving them their best chance to win the day.

A small skirmish occurred between the two forces on land, upstream from the final battle. Cao Cao’s troops were by now ravaged by disease and exhausted by the long trek they were forced to march to get to their position. They both separated to begin preparing for battle. Very little is known about the details of the conflict, but what is known is that Cao Cao’s men captured a fleet of ships and had them chained together. Some say it was to gain stability on the fast-moving river, others claim it was to prevent seasickness. The Han soldiers were great fighting on land but were out of their element when fighting on water. Their opponents though were experienced in river warfare which gave them an advantage although, the numbers were most certainly against them. It has been estimated that the forces of Liu Bei and Sun Quan had only 50,000 men with which to fight with. 

With a stable flotilla and a massive load of confidence, Cao Cao sent his troops forward. Huang Gai, a general under Sun Quan, sent a note to the Han general claiming that he wanted to sue for peace and was heading over to meet him in the middle of the Yangtze. It was a ruse and a deadly one. Huang Gai had his boats filled with kindling wood and other flammable materials. When they reached a mid-point in their path to Cao Cao’s flotilla, the ships were lit on fire heading straight toward the Han. 

The southern army then maneuvered their ships towards their enemies and let loose with fire arrows further damaging and, in many cases, sinking the Han armada. The rout was on. 

Cao Cao’s army was now in full retreat along the Huarong road. Unfortunately for them, the road was muddy from the heavy rains that had hit them previously. Liu Bei and Sun Quan’s army pursued and smashed into the disorganized Han army. They might have completely destroyed the enemy except that the crossing over the Yangtze proved hard on them as well. 

We have no historical record of the number of casualties on either side except that the Han’s lost a very significant amount of men. Many, as you will hear of in a lot of battles over the centuries to come, died of disease and famine. Over the years of researching wars in history, it seems that more died because of the issues as mentioned earlier than in actual battle.

The aftermath of the Battle of Red Cliffs was to solidify the split between north and south of China, leading to many more wars and countless loss of life for the coming centuries.

Now on to the putting it into perspective segment. 

Around the time of the Battle of Red Cliffs the classic age of the Maya Civilization begins, Brahmanism evolved into Hinduism, and Septimius Severus has a successful 18-year reign as emperor of the Roman Empire.

Battle of Teutoburg Forest
Battle of Teutoburg Forest

Our next contestant occurred in the year 9 of the common era, the Battle of Teutoburg Forest or as it is known in German, Schlacht im Teutoburger Wald. As we learned in episode 15, this fight was between Germanic tribes led by Arminius versus three Roman legions led by Publius Quinctilius Varus. 

Five years before the battle, the Roman army was pretty much considered invincible in the Rhine region under the leadership of General Tiberius. Yes, that Tiberius, the one who would be the second Emperor of Rome after Augustus. They were able to make there way around the area, trying to pacify and control the semi-nomadic peoples of Germania. 

Germany was never going to be easily conquered as the had no large cities like Gaul did. The people were also much more warlike than their neighbors. Still, the Roman army had made a number of the Germanic tribe’s allies. They did this by pitting one against the other, aiding the allied groups in their fight against their enemies. Often times, children of the leaders of the tribes would be sent to Rome to be trained in their ways. This was the case with Arminius.

The Roman army was formidable because of their superb training. Their fighting policy was to make sure that no man would fight for more than 15 minutes with fresh replacements rotating in and out of the front line. This was a war machine unlike any other in the ancient world. 

The problem that arose before the Battle of Teutoburg Forest was with the administration of Varus. The following quote from the book Battles that Changed History sums things up best, “A conquered or occupied region only stays that way if the inhabitant’s consent to remain pacified. So long as the tribes were allied to Rome; some were hostile but cowed by the threat of force or by example that had been made of others that opposed Rome; some were neutral so long as Roman interference was minimal.”

What Varus did was to increase taxation, lack of respect for the German culture and a sense of arrogance that began to irritate his local allies, especially Arminius. Another problem with the occupying forces was that it was greatly diminished around 6 CE because of what was known as the Great Illyrian Revolt. Tiberius was forced to take eight legions out of the Germanic region and send them to an area around what is modern-day Albania. This significantly weakened the Roman’s, and their supposed allies knew it. 

Varus had at his disposal three legions, all of whom were manned by well-trained veterans, numbering about 15-18,000 with 10,000 camp followers. They were preparing to head toward winter quarters with Arminius preparing the route. At his direction, behind Varus’s back, the German had small rebellions begin to break out around the region, causing the Roman’s to head off in the direction of them through a heavily forested region known at the Teutoburg Forest.

Despite rumors that Arminius was a traitor, Varus refused to believe it and even allowed his aide to go on ahead of the army supposedly to scout the terrain. What Arminius really did was to gather his forces of a large number of Germanic Tribes in the forest to harass and destroy the Roman Army.

There is something known as asymmetric warfare whereby a weaker enemy uses battle techniques that take negates the advantages of the superior force. The Romans superiority was for the large part due to its cohesive manner of fighting. They stuck together in what was known as a mandible in tight formation. The problem faced in the forest was that this type of formation was impossible to maintain. To top it off, the weather had turned bad, heavy rain and wind made the march towards winter quarters tough.

Instead of an all-out attack on the Roman, the Germans, numbering anywhere from 12,000 to 25,000 began to attack using hit-and-run tactics. Slowly but surely, the spread-out Romans began to lose more and more men. Communications between the now split up legions were no longer possible as any messenger sent out would be killed. Confusion reigned supreme as some groups, would break off from the road to try to make it out of the forest on their own, but they were just surrounded and destroyed. 

Varus then ordered his men to stop and build a fortified encampment. This was something else that the Romans were very good at. They could build a fort in short order, a fort that was difficult to attack successfully. More and more stragglers began to make it into the fortress, bringing with them stories of horror and death. As their supplies began to dwindle, it became apparent that what was a fortification against attack had turned instead into a prison. 

The Germans decided that the time was right to launch an all-out attack. Wave after wave of attackers began to overwhelm the Romans. A group of cavalrymen tried to break out of the fort but were cut down. The slaughter was almost complete. Varus committed suicide by falling on his sword rather than be taken, prisoner. His head was sent to Emperor Augustus as a token of the defeat. 

The Battle of Teutoburg Forest put an end to the expansion of Rome into the Germanic lands. It has been suggested that the Saxon’s who were based there might never have migrated to England, the people of the region would not have had any Roman influence into their culture, and those who thrived in Germania were the same tribes that would eventually invade Rome four centuries later and bring down the empire. It was one of the worst defeats in Roman history and possibly in world history.

Now on to the scoring.

The first fifteen points are awarded based on the number of people involved in the battle. Whichever number you use when it comes to the Battle of Red Cliffs, 800,000 or 230,000, it was a far greater number than the estimates at Teutoburg Forest of 40,000. For this reason, the Chinese conflict gets 15 points and the Roman loss, five.

The next twenty points are based on how the battle affected the rest of the world in their time. The Battle of Red Cliffs halted the invasion of Cao Cao and the northern Han into the south of China. This makes it a local fight, not influencing anything outside their country. The Battle of Teutoburg Forest, on the other hand, affected a vast region of Germania as well as Rome itself. Although other expeditionary and punitive invasions were tried in the following years, the region would never come under Roman control. I give 20 points to the German battle and 10 to the Chinese conflict.

Next up is the twenty-five points for the battle’s effect on world history. While the Red Cliffs naval clash effectively split China in half for a long time, it did not impact world history that much. As I mentioned earlier, the effect of Teutoburg Forest was to reverberate for a long time, even to the present day. Twenty-five points to the forest, 10 to the Yangtze River fight.

Finally, we come to the big prize, how the battle affected their country for the better. If you were a southern Chinese resident, Red Cliffs was definitively beneficial, not so much for the north. It also led to many more conflicts over the centuries which cost countless lives. It also made the country weaker, allowing invaders from the north, like the Mongols to take control of the country.

With Teutoburg Forest, it was a mixed bag for the Romans as it defined their northern border which led to greater stability. The Germans, of course, benefited the most, never allowing the Romans to dominate them, keeping their culture and heritage intact. For these reasons, I’m giving the Roman conflict forty points with Red Cliffs getting 20.

The final score is 90 to 55 for the Battle of Teutoburg Forest which moves on to the second round to face the winner of the battle between the D-Day Invasion and the Battle of Britain.

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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