Book Review: The Battle That Stopped Rome

by J.W. Jamieson

17 April 2004

[from The Mankind Quarterly, Winter 2003]

The Battle That Stopped Rome: Emperor Augustus, Arminius, and the Slaughter of the Legions in the Teutoberger Forest
Kate Crehan

W.W. Norton, 2003

A little-known archaeological investigation, conducted between 1987 and 1992, has definitively identified the site of one of Creasy's famed "Fifteen Decisive Battles" which shaped world history, and the results of this, combined with research into Iron Age weaponry and Roman military tactics, are presented in Peter Wells's The Battle that Stopped Rome.

Fought in the year AD 9, when Roman power under the Emperor Augustus was virtually at its peak, the Battle of Teutoberger Wald which totally eliminated three of Rome's ten Legions stationed in Europe, marked a turning point in Roman imperial power. The number of Roman soldiers that died in this battle has been estimated at twenty thousand. But for this signal victory by the experienced military tactician and royal leader of the Germanic Cherusci nation, known to the Romans as Arminius but whose real name was Hermann, there would be no English, German, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian or Swedish languages today. The entire northern portion of Europe would have inevitably fallen under Roman domination. Not only did this battle block Roman penetration into northern Europe, but it came at a time when post-Republic Rome was undergoing a sweeping social and political transformation which was to continue under Imperial rule, until the eventual collapse of the decaying Empre before the advancing pressure of the more youthful Germanic nation.

Tacitus early praised what he regarded as the moral virtues of the Germanic peoples in contrast to the corruption and venality of latter-day Rome. But the eventual shape of Medieval Europe might never have been possible had the "pacification" and Romanization of the Germanic north proceeded under the Roman General, Publius Quinctillus Varus, whose powerful legions, supported by an agglomeration of mercenary forces, were annihilated in this fateful battle before they could make contact with the Roman fleet on the coast of the German Ocean.

Until the present century, our prime knowledge of this epic victory came from the writings of Roman historians, notably those of Vellius Paterculus, in his History of Rome written in AD 30, by P. Cornlius Tacitus in his Annals, also not long after the actual event, and later by Lucius Annaeus Florus in the second century AD, and by Cassius Dio in the early third century AD. The exact location of the battle was unknown: the literature only indicated that it had been fought in the woods somewhere near Detmold, in the historic state of Lippe.

In 1716, a local scholar by the name of Zaharius Goeze noted the large number of Roman coins found near a small village known as Kalkriese, and in 1885, the renowned historian Theodore Mommsen published Die Oertlichkeit der Varusschlacht in which he speculated that the battle may have taken place at Kalkriese. But it was not until 1987 that an antiquarian-minded British Army officer, Tony Clunn, then stationed in Germany, contacted Dr. Wolfgang Schlueter, the head of archaeology in that region. He was pointed to the site by Schlueter, who told him of the Roman finds in that area, and he decided to conduct personal archaeological investigations at Kalkriese.

Clunn found not only Roman coins on the site, but lead slingstones of the kind used by Roman soldiers, and this discovery prompted an in-depth investigation by archaeological teams directed by Dr. Schlueter. By the end of 1999, some 3,100 Roman military objects had been uncovered, plus some 1,160 Roman coins and a miscellany of other objects, such as glass game pieces of the kind popular amongst Roman soldiers. In addition, there was a ritual site where Roman weapons had been collected, and presumably offered to the gods by the German victors, and a long turf wall, constudcted by the Cherusci, it is believed, as both a defensive position and a place of concealment from behind which they were able to ambush the thin, very long line of Roman soldiers, wagons and camp followers, as they wended their way through the marshy, wooded valley which was to be the scene of their annihilation.

Ambushed in this manner, the twenty thousand Roman foot soldiers and cavalry were unable to adopt their customary battle formations, and according to Roman historians a three-day-long running battle ensued, with all the advantages on the side of the Germans. As the outcome of the battle became apparent, with the almost unbelievable loss of the three highly trained and disciplined legions he commanded, the Roman general Varus fell upon his sword in the traditional Roman fashion of those who had been dishonored. Back in Rome, the Emperor Augustus cried out, when he heard the news of this epic defeat, "Varus, Varus, Give me back my Legions."

Northern Europe was saved from Roman domination, and while Latin was to become the basis of the French, Spanish, Portugese, Romanian and Italian languages of today, the Germanic languages of northern Europe survived. Perhaps equally important, the genetic constitution of the peoples of Northern Eurpe was not to become as commingled with that of other peoples, as did the genetic heritage of the other European countries which fell under Roman rule, for the Roman legions of the Imperial period were no longer filled by Romans, but were recruited from almost all corners of the Roman Empire. Roman legionaries were not allowed to marry, but they unquestionably bred many children amongst the peoples in whose lands they were stationed.

Yet one of the characteristics of the German nations, as of other Europeans, has been their weak sense of racial loyalty -- their readiness to fight against their own kinsmen. This was apparent in the two great wars of the twentieth century, which in Europe were essentially fratricidal wars, as well as in the bitter conflicts arising from the rivalry of European nations during the empire-building period of the second half of the second millennium. This fratricidal warfare was characteristic of the Germans and other Europeans in the time of the Renaissance, as also of the Middle Ages. It was characteristic of the nations of Ancient Greece, and it was characteristic of the Germans of the Roman period. Thus the Roman armies were often partly composed of Germanic recruits and supported by German forces in combat against free German nations, and when Rome sent fresh legions into Germany in an unsuccessful attempt to reinstate Roman influence north of the Danube, they were supported by no less a person than the brother of Arminius, known to the Romans by the name of Flavus.

Tacitus reports that the two brothers, Arminius and Flavus, argued with each other across the banks of the Weser, with Flavus standing with the Romans on the West bank and Arminius at the head of his loyal Cherusci, on the East bank. Thus he writes:

Flavus insisted on 'Roman greatness, the power of the [Emperor]... and the mercy waiting for him who submitted himself...' His brother Arminius urged 'the sacred call of their country; their ancestral liberty, the gods of the German hearths; and their mother, who prayed, with himself, that he would not choose the title of renegade and traitor to his kindred...traitor to the whole of his race'...

While the Romans claimed victory over Arminius in this later conflict, the historical fact is that the Emperor Augustus and his successor Tiberius abandoned further attempts to conquer the northern part of Germany, and that in the end it was the control of Western Europe -- the Anglo-Saxon settling England, and Franks settling France, the Burgundians settling Burgundy, and the Lombards settling Lombardy. The Goths actually seized Rome, and swept through the Balkans, Italy, southern France, and Spain, while their close relatives, the Vandals, moved on to settle Andalusia and then to conquer much of north Africa, only to be absorbed into the sands of history.

In the course of time the Cherusci nation merged with other Germanic peoples; so who are the nearest descendants of the Cherusci amongst the present-day speakers of Germanic languages? That honor most probably falls to the Saxons of northwest Germany, but includes also the Anglo-Saxons who gave England its name, and in the course of time settled so much of the present-day United States and Canada.

This book records an event of vast worldwide, historic importance, which is a part of the common history of the English and German-speaking peoples of today -- although it has been little taught since the fateful events of World War II. Indeed, following the defeat of Germany in that war, emphasis has been placed in German textbooks on whatever evidence can be found of German cooperation with the Romans, in harmony with the political goal of a united Europe. What a terrible symbol it is of the current ignorance of history amongst the nations of the West that in World War II a British warplane returning from a bombing raid against the German heartland, erected in honor of Arminius on the crest of a hill in the Teutoburger Wald, close to the actual scene of his victory at Kalkriese, chose to use up some of its ammunition on the memorial commemorating the man without whose victory that pilot's own language would not have existed today.

Wells has presented us with a valuable survey which augments what we already knew about the battle from Roman literary sources with the solid evidence provided by contemporary archaeological investigation. It also describes contemporary German and Roman military equipment and tactics. Some readers may find his description of the experiences of those engaged in the battle to be over-reliant on his own subjective interpretation of what it would be like to be involved in such a conflict, on the grounds that he ignores the likelihood that the cultures of both the Germans and of the Roman legionaries could have caused them to experience somewhat different emotions from those that he ascribes to them. Certainly his style is the diametric opposite of that utilized by Creasy in the latter's account of the battle (based solely on Roman literary sources), but that does not detract from the fact that Wells is able to include archaeological evidence not available to earlier writers, and, all in all, in addition to the new information it contains, the book is undoubtedly "a very good read."


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