History Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for historians and history buffs. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Emperor Augustus ordered his army to subdue the Germanic tribes in what is modern Germany. This was promptly achieved and by 6 AD the Romans controlled Germany up to the river Elba.

The Romans were however betrayed and defeated in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, in 9 AD. Afterwards, they abandoned the region and established the limes on the Rhine and Danube rivers.

The Roman Empire outlasted this defeat for half a millennium: why there was no further attempt at conquering the region?

share|improve this question
German biologist Josef Reichholf (he has written about the history of climate) argued in an interview that the Roman empire extended only into regions where they could grow their wine ... :) BTW, can you please be a bit more specific about the act of betrayal you are referring to: do you mean Arminius' betrayal? – Drux Jan 21 '13 at 11:55
@Drux While the statement about wine maybe an exaggeration, there were little practical gain but high cost to keep and defend northern territories. A land that cannot used for agriculture and has no valuable minerals or protecting a trade-root is worthless. – Greg Dec 22 '15 at 6:50
The Romans may have been most interested in Southern Scandinavia/Denmark. There is evidence that there was a 'client state' of the Roman Empire there. – AlaskaRon Dec 23 '15 at 0:17
up vote 42 down vote accepted

To sum it up: The costs simply outweighed the benefits.

You have to consider that Germania at this time was essentially one huge forest, which was very, well empty. No cities to conquer, the first German cities were actually founded by the Romans, like e.g. Aachen, Cologne or Trier. The Germans were primitive tribesmen and had little to offer to the Roman Empire. Yet they were warlike and fought many hard battles against them. Although the Roman armies were generally much more advanced with regard to arms technology and tactics, there were also huge setbacks like the batte Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.

Even Germanicus' campaign from 14 to 16 AD, is not considered a success. While Germanicus won the battles with only small losses, he lost ships and material to a storm in the North Sea after a generally successful campaign, and was recalled later.

Consider also that the northern european climate is not very attractive for people who are used to the mediterranean. You might want to read what Roman historian Tacitus wrote about Germania, the land and its inhabitants:

Then, besides the danger of a boisterous and unknown sea, who would relinquish Asia, Africa, or Italy, for Germany, a land rude in its surface, rigorous in its climate, cheerless to every beholder and cultivator, except a native?

Source: Tacitus

Another fact that should be taken into account is that the Roman invasion actually created a dangerous enemy for the Roman Empire, as the German tribes of that time were rather small groups that were hostile towards each other. In my opinion, only the threat of the Roman aggression allowed leaders like Arminius or Marbod to unite them into larger groups that presented a real threat at the Roman borders.

So that eventually, the emperor Tiberius recalled his nephew Germanicus and decided to leave the Germans to their own discord (I can't find an English translation of the exact quote). In my opinion, this is exactly what the Romans would repeat later in northern England/Caledonia, where they decided that further conquests of hostile territory and peoples were not worth the effort, and just pulled up a wall (the limes in case of Germania, Hadrian's wall in England) to guard the frontier.

share|improve this answer

The Romans were able to "conquer" large parts of Germania, briefly. They were unable to HOLD it for any length of time.

The reason stemmed from the region's "backwardness." There was no central government or central power through which the Romans could operate. There were no cities (except the ones the Romans built). There were few roads, and the country was broken up by large forests, through which it was difficult to "project" power.

Hence, the Romans would have to control the country on a tribe-by-tribe, village by village basis if they could do so at all. That is a tough exercise. (The most recent modern example is the United States in Vietnam.)

share|improve this answer

Like we discussed in my answer in Why China was able to unify and not Europe.

This video documentary gives an explanation:

The Germanic tribes, although being quite capable fighters didn't have enough to offer the Romans. The area was poor and difficult and dangerous to travel, like the massacre of 9.AD. proved.

So the most beneficial activity for the Romans was to just apply divide and conquer upon it to keep them divided and weak, and at that just stay out of there.

It's not that they weren't able to. Had the Roman empire taken on the task with full force to take over Germania they pretty surely would have succeeded. But just conquering for the sole purpose of conquering isn't what matters really are about. It's about economic interest, you have to benefit more from the conquest, all variables taken into account, than what the conquest costs.

And conquering Germania simply wasn't a profitable endeavour.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.