The Romans in Ancient Germany –
A 2000th Anniversary


The Battle of the Battlefield

Germany’s foundation myth is heading for its 2000th anniversary in three years. High time to straighten out some of the historic facts around the battle between the ancient Germans and Romans in the Teutoburg Forest

Phil Hill <

Susanne Wilbers-Rost stands on a typical North German pasture; the Damme Hills are visible on the horizon in the north. “This,” she announces dryly, “is the northernmost point of the German Centra Mountains. That,” she point southward, “is Kalkriese Hill.” Some hill – you can’t even see it above the treetops. Obviously; it’s the northernmost point, not the highest. In front of us is a hole, the size of a quarter of a football field, one to two meters deep, the latest of forty or so that have been dug here since 1989.

The archaeologist is after a superlative: the famous battle between ancient Romans and Germans, around the time of Christ. A war of liberation or a victory for barbarism; the passion of local boosters or the hour of Europe’s birth; a nationalistic myth or a non-event to be dismissed – the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest has many faces. Thanks to the excavations, we now at least know where it happened: near Bramsche, in the German state of Lower Saxony.

The story: Roman Emperor Augustus had subjugated all the German tribes as far as the Elbe River. His man on the spot, Quintilius Varus, knew little about the country and relied on the Roman educated German chieftain’s son named Arminius, of the Cheruskan tribe, to fill in the gaps. One day, this advisor brought important news: a small tribe in the swampy north was rebelling. Soon, three legions, some twenty thousand men, were marching through what is today Osnabrück County, Lower Saxony, to subjugate the rebels. They marched straight into a trap.

In a dense forest, in a miserable North German autumn storm, the legions were ambushed by Germans under the leadership of none other than that same Arminius. During the next days, the Romans marched further, suffering severe defeats, and were finally surrounded – here, at the foot of Kalkriese Hill. Hardly any escaped. After the disaster, the Roman camps, forts and at least two cities between the Weser and Rhine rivers were overrun. For seven years, the Empire tried to strike back – in vain. With Rome’s forced relinquishment of Germany, Europe was set on its historic course: it was to be not only Roman, but also Germanic. September 2009 will mark the 2000th anniversary of the beginning of this fateful war. There are no bigger anniversaries than that, north of the Alps.

Once, this battle was Germany’s quintessential foundation myth, the victor Arminius, his name mistakenly re-Germanized to “Hermann,” was the father of his people. Stacks of kitschy paintings, a kitschy song that started “Als die Römer frech geworden, zogen sie in Deutschlands Norden” (when the Romans had turned cheeky, they marched into northern Germany) and, last but certainly not least, a kitschy statue of Arminius of monstrous dimensions near Detmold in Westphalia. Germany’s liberals, like 19th-century poet Heinrich Heine, poked fun at this fashion: “Here, the Cheruskan chief beat them, Hermann, that noble giant; German nationality, it triumphed in this muck” – and nevertheless “subscribed” money to build the monstrosity – for after all, a freedom fighter like that as a national symbol was a wonderful thing! But sculptor Ernst von Bandel’s gigantic creation could not be paid for out of the collection can, so that ultimately, Emperor William I had to dig into his own pocket. And so it was that in 1875, “Hermann” stood with sword held high atop a Westphalian ridge mistakenly renamed the “Teutoburg Forest,” and kept watch over the country. Did he wonder why it was now ruled by a “Caesar” –Kaiser – after all, or why his old friends, the Gauls, were suddenly “hereditary enemies?”

But those times have long past; the rubble of Germany’s last war buried its first one, too, as the country came to question its entire history, and, in a spate of post-national political correctness, to deny even the continuity of “ancient Germans” – Germanen – and “modern Germans” – Deutsche – unless it be to tar the Germans of yore with the brush of modern crimes. Their neighbors, the ancient Celts, have given rise to a many-layered modern mythology ranging from Asterix Roman-proof village to Arthur’s Camelot; the ancient Germans however, who kept the Romans at bay not in a comic-book village but in real life, are a non-starter. A recent TV-docudrama about Emperor Augustus had not a word to say about the defeat that robbed him of the completion of his life’s work; instead, his claim “I pacified Germany” was quoted – the self-deception of a failed old man thus became a modern “truth.”

Now, on the eve of the anniversary, the battle is arising from this oblivion. Or rather: is being raised, by Wilbers-Rost and her eight-person team. They have provided a virtually certain answer to the long-asked question of the “locality of Varus’ battle.” And that is a scientific sensation, for no one has ever yet dug up an entire ancient battlefield and thus solved a historic problem. Not, however, for want of trying. Around 1500, the old reports about the long-forgotten battle were found in monasteries. Rome-bashing was popular at the time: Martin Luther, for one, loved his Hermann “with all by heart” – and was probably responsible for calling him that in the first place – a name no modern linguist will go along with. What his Cheruskan fellow-tribespeople in fact called him, we don’t know; the name “Erminomar” has been suggested, and there is also speculation that he is the original Siegfried of Wagnerian fame. At any rate, since Luther’s day, all Westphalia, where the Romans settled, has been combed in search of the heroic site, and no village minister or teacher was so dull-witted as to be unable to “prove conclusively” that the battle had taken place nowhere else but in his own back yard.

That ultimately produced some seven hundred “battlefields,” and it didn’t stop even after 1945, so that to this day you can google up the theories of local boosters who want to place the battle as far east as Hildesheim or Halberstadt – the latter is in East Germany. During the 1980s, a book appeared which claimed that the Romans could only have marched along “watershed routes” i.e., through the author’s southern Westphalian homeland.

However, the days of these imaginative fairy tales were then already numbered. Due to a report by Tacitus, serious scholars had always been fairly certain that the battle site would have to be found somewhere in the hilly country west of the upper Weser river – around the Detmold-Herford area of Westphalia, or across the Lower Saxon border, around Osnabrück. The giant sculpture of “Hermann” is at one end of the plausible area, Kalkriese Hill at the other.

Around the turn of the last century, Theodor Mommsen, the grand old man of ancient historians, had argued in favor of Kalkriese on the basis of coin finds, since it seemed to be a good site for a trap such as Arminius apparently had set. But Germany’s exuberant nationalists wanted the battle where they’d built their expensive monument and not seventy kilometers away. However, there were also legitimate doubts about the Kalkriese theory: the site is so far north that even Mommsen seems to have been of two minds about it: The coins seemed to say “yes,” but strategic logic said “no.”

The change came in 1987: British amateur archaeologist Tony Clunn scanned the old Mommsen range with a mine-sweeper and found not only more coins, but also small pieces of weaponry. That brought the archaeological establishment into the picture, and before long, they had dug six thousand pieces – or scraps – of Roman equipment out of the ground. And only one single German one – apparently, the battle had indeed been as one-sided as the Roman reports indicate. The coins narrowed the date range, the bones of strong young men were found in mass graves, the organic material carbon-dated right. By the turn of the millennium, the archeologists were certain: this was it. Soon thereafter, the new “Varus-Battle Museum” arose above the remote rural landscape.

Spectacular pieces, such as the famous helmet-mask of a Roman officer, are the exception among the exhibits; the displays are filled largely with the scraps that the victors missed as they scavenged the battlefield with proto-German thoroughness. Various educational tools supplement the display, including a “Mommsen Room” – for the old historian is a hero here. The message is: let the Kaiser and his nationalists stay where they are, in their “Teutoburg Forest” with their “Hermann;” here, where the battle really took place, like the liberal Mommsen, a beacon of the “good Germany” had claimed, post-national, scientific enlightenment is on the agenda. The colossus of Detmold is out; if you want to experience history in a modern way, come to Kalkriese with the family at Easter or Pentecost and watch “ancient Germans” and “Romans” from all over Europe reenact at each other with rubber spears and styrofoam rocks, before sitting down together with a glass of wine and mead. Just in time for the 2000th anniversary, the archaeologists have managed to bring this important event out of the quarantine in which the bird-flu of nationalism seems truly to have been eradicated.

The reenactments are staged at the big surprise find – one that won’t fit into any of the museum’s glass cabinets: the “German wall.” A surprise because no Roman ever mentioned it – at least in any writing we have – although none can have missed it, for it made the trap prepared by nature complete. It wound five hundred meters along the foot of the hill, complete with breast-works, drainage ditches and openings for sorties. Arminius built this trap and lured Varus into it – a brilliant feat that heaped intolerable insult upon massive injury: For the idea that “barbarians” might succeed in such a thing – or that a Roman army might suffer it – turned their world upside down. Arminius’ “treason,” Varus’ stupidity, the miserable weather, the fact that the cavalry seems to have taken off somewhat prematurely – all this was dished up by Roman propaganda to explain the catastrophe – but one thing was left out: that the “barbarians” were smarter than we were, that they fought in a disciplined manner, and that they were always one step ahead of us. That could not be, and so it was not. A veil fell over the event. The survivors were rewarded with lifelong banishment from Italy, lest those in the homeland hear in some tavern what had really happened. The written sources about Varus, Arminius, and even the lost legions, the XVIIth, XVIIIth and XIXth, are so sparse that we know almost nothing about them today – but we do know this: never again would one of these numbers be assigned to a legion. The Wall, symbol of the catastrophe, dissolved in the rain of the far north, on the Tiber, it was killed by silence.

Not even a small rise, of the kind familiar from the limes, the earthen wall that, in the ensuing centuries, was to separate free Germany from the Empire, could be seen when the digs started here in 1989. Only the color of the soil, covered by a thousand years of forest matter heaped on by peasants as fertilizer, betrays the places that were once sand, bogland, woodland – or an earthen wall. Today, an 80 x 25 meter “cut,” with the wall reconstructed and the original plantlife, including a bit of swamp, restored, shows the bottleneck through which Varus’s army had to pass. This was also the point where the battle raged heaviest: The Romans tried to storm the wall, but it held. Only a few could flee, the rest surrendered. Thousands of corpses were stripped naked by the victors – for in primitive Germany, everything was valuable – and left where they were, until a Roman army returned six years later and buried them in mass graves, man and mule together: thus did Tacitus describe it, and thus was it found, with the traces of weathering and of the tooth marks of scavenging animals on the bones that had lain so long in the open.

The last big new museum Germany will see for some time has now left its euphoric opening days behind it; now come the problems: There are few new finds, visitor figures are dropping, research funds are scarce. Late last year, important results at the ends of the Wall promised new information about the course of the battle – but then the work was broken off for eight months. The complete restoration of the battlefield is a non-issue, given present funding, and most of the cuts have been filled in. On the field, two “armies” of sunflowers face each other.

The short financial leash is hampering the scientific research, according to an anonymous insider: For instance, the museum stubbornly uphold Theodor Mommsen’s old theory that the Romans marched due eastward from Minden on the Weser to Kalkriese, through the open country north of the Wiehen Mountains – in spite of the fact that there is not a shred of either archeological or written Roman evidence to support that claim. The possible reason: Since there’s nothing to find along that route, the archeologists won’t be called on to spend their severely limited resources digging it up.

An alternative is proposed by historians Gustav-Adolf Lehmann and Boris Dreyer of the University of Göttingen, who believe that the report of an ambush in a “dense forest” suggests a march from south of the Wiehen Mountains. This implies a connection with neighboring Westphalia, where the finds are considerable. But there’s a problem: the “typical Westphalian” is in a state of depression. For even after Germany had discarded its identity as the “majestic land of Hermann,” as a patriotic song put it, Arminius was still a local hero here. And now it turns out that the bum actually waited until the last Roman had crossed the border into Lower Saxony before attacking!

For official Westphalia, that occasioned a turn toward modern political correctness: the “barbaric” Germans are shunned, and the Lippe River, the Romans’ main logistical artery and the center of settlement, styled a thoroughfare of civilization. Haltern, the small Lippe town where the remains of a camp – and maybe a city – have been unearthed, now boasts not only the museum where the relics from all the Lippe forts are displayed, but also a monument to Varus, complete with a plaque branding Arminius a “traitor” – well yes, but which revolutionary wasn’t one? At the same time, the simple Westphalian tribesfolk hold fast to their belief in one of the seven hundred non-battlefields. The common denominator: a cold shoulder for this nouveau-riche battlefield up north. Johann Sebastian Kühlborn of the Westphalian Museum of Archaeology in Münster is an important man in the Westphalian regional administrative authority, the LWL. And as far as he’s concerned, the neighbors to the north are talking nonsense. Sorry, but Tacitus quite clearly said that the battlefield was “not far” from the country between the Ems and Lippe rivers, and Kalkriese is “far.” Sure, he admits, what they’ve dug up certainly seems to be a battle of some kind, probably one during the attempted reconquest in 15 to 16 A.D. Unfortunately, the battles of that campaign were well described in the Roman records. None of them could possibly have taken place at Kalkriese.

At the same time, the LWL is running one of the most exciting digs in Germany. Chief Archaeologist Gabriele Isenberg bubbles with enthusiasm over the evidence of lead mining and processing in southern Westphalia, initiated by the Romans and apparently continued by the Germans after their victory. For the implications are immense: the first substantial proof of Roman economic interests in Germany; an important case of the Germans’ learning from their enemies; and, finally a sign of trade between the two peoples after the end of the war, for the Germans had hardly any use for lead, and if they dug it up, they probably planned to export it. And yet, this project is being separated neatly from the millennial birthday of the most important event of that era, as if to prevent at all costs any association with it that might excite public interest. Even from a scientific point of view, that position is incomprehensible, for the political, economic and military facts, pieced together, provide a comprehensive picture of the events of the time. In the middle of the lead-mining area, for instance, is the little village of Kneblinghausen, site of a long-since discovered, but little explored Roman camp, possibly that of one of Varus’ “lost legions.” Was it stationed there to control the mining district? Why not dig it up and find out?

Not a chance – on the contrary: sites are being systematically filled in again. For example the recently discovered main camp founded by Augustus’ heir, Tiberius, in 4 A.D., according to the chronicles, and presumably shut down again five years later. Located at Anreppen near Paderborn in southern Westphalia, it probably served as Varus’ command headquarters. In 2004, a few bottles of champagne were sacrificed to celebrate “2000 years of the Roman camp;” then came the bulldozers. Now, as in Kalkriese, hedges are to be planted to mark the outlines. Restorations, such as those undertaken at some forts on the limes, are too expensive, so landscaping, in effect a helpless attempt to compete with Europe’s baroque gardens, will have to do.

If Westphalia has the omnipotent LWL, Lower Saxony has the opposite: the chaos of, county autonomy. Joseph Rottmann, manager of the public corporation that runs Kalkriese, sees no possibility for cooperation of with other excavations, such as those in Heddemünden, where Göttingen county archaeologist Klaus Grote is digging up the camp of a “Varus Legion” – possibly the XIXth. And so Kalkriese is trapped, for better or for worse, in a marriage with its mighty neighbor, the LWL.

And that’s still better than the situation in Hesse, the southern part of short-lived Roman Germany. There, in Waldgirmes near Wetzlar, the remains of the oldest city beyond the Rhine and the Danube have been brought to light in recent years; possibly it’s “Augusta Taunensis,” so far known only from Roman reports. It too was filled in again last fall, because the rich state that boasts Germany’s central stock exchange and its main international airport was to stingy to shell out a few hundred thousand euros to preserve this unique find. Archeologist Achim Becker dug out the city’s well with a troop of unemployed workers assigned by the Labor Office, and found wooden beams that confirmed its founding in 4 B.C.; in 9 A.D., it was surely evacuated in great haste, with the population probably fleeing to Mainz. Or else they were slaughtered – now, we may never know for sure.

Waldgirmes, Anreppen, Kalkriese – these are places of world-scale significance that call for a new type of historic representation, for which Germany is, however, so far prepared to do little or nothing. But they are also the tips of an iceberg of camps and forts, battlefields and ports, cities and mines, located throughout the area of the abortive Roman province of “Germania Magna” – roughly corresponding to modern Hesse, Westphalia and Lower Saxony – all a meter or so below the surface. They can tell a story, the outlines of which are already emerging, that is at least as important as the World Cultural Heritage site of the limes, the borderline during the following more or less peaceful centuries. And it is a story that can only be told through more excavations, because the winners, who normally write history, couldn’t, and the losers didn’t feel much like it.

The battle that was once a national foundation-myth is one thing – and a thing of the past. It took place everywhere and nowhere, it was a fairy tale, in which a god-like hero smashed evil with a single blow, with no losses; “locating” it makes about as much sense as looking for Hänsel and Gretel’s witch’s cottage. What the recent excavations in Kalkriese have done is something else: They have created a historic battle which will let us explore “wie es wirklich war” – what really happened. And what really happened was a long and bloody war, a Germanic victory, certainly, but one in a historical context, with all the contradictions that implies, not a divine act.

The war at the beginning of our calendrical era was the first of two mighty Roman-German tempests that bracket Rome’s imperial centuries; the second was the Great Migration of Tribes – mostly German tribes – which brought down the empire. In between there was relative peace, secured along a fortified border, the limes. Now, exactly two millennia down the road, the war is emerging from the mists – as a challenge and a mission that Germany owes Europe and the world. It has enough unemployed scholars to do the job, and plenty of remote rural areas that could profit from the economic opportunities it would bring.

This is How it Was (probably)

The findings of Kalkriese for the first time permit an attempted reconstruction of the battle, especially thanks to the report of Greek historian Cassius Dio. His “dense forest,” where the ambush took place, must have been located south of the Wiehen Mountains, probably in the area between Melle and Ostercappeln, while his “open country” must have been the area north of the mountains. style='mso-bidi-font-style:

Here’s my attempt: September, 9 A.D. The three legions deployed in the area of the Weser River are to withdraw to winter quarters on the Rhine. Just then, Arminius reports to Varus that a rebellion has broken out in the north. He calls his army together in the Herford-Salzuflen area of eastern Wesphalia, and marches northwest. At first, his advance is not molested; the Romans suspect nothing, they camp peacefully, probably somewhere near Melle, east of Osnabrück. It is the equinox, and also a full moon, as German warriors move into position in the adjoining forest. The next morning, the army starts to have trouble with the rough terrain and the rain, and the troops spread ever farther apart. As the vanguard approached the ridge of the Wiehen Mountains, the Romans are suddenly met by a hail of arrows and javelins. No effective defense is possible, so they camp on the spot. The supply train has been lost, but even those wagons which been saved are too much of a burden, and most are burned. In the meantime, the soldiers can say goodbye to their comrades whose heads have been stuck on spears around the camp’s perimeter.

Now what? Marching south would be the shortest way out, but would mean heading back into the forest. Marching north would mean a detour. The solution: a compromise. Next morning, after a hard fight, the army breaks out into open country north of the Wiehen Mountains, south of where the Mittelland Canal is today. It is moving fast now, and in close order, possibly the column is only one kilometer long. It then strikes into the forest south of Kalkriese Hill, in an attempt to reach the refuge of the bases to the south. The Romans are repulsed with extremely heavy loss, and now have no choice but to head north, around the hill. They set off on a night march – to exactly where Arminius wants them.

Arminius has had a 500 meter long earthen wall built along the march route, where the forest on the hillside come right up to the only 100 meter wide sandy strip of relatively dry land bordering the marsh. At sunrise, the Romans find themselves in a trap once again: To the left is the wall, to the right the swamp, up ahead a fortification, behind them, the enemy troops. They are exhausted, many are wounded, cold and hunger gnaw at their strength, their bowstrings, their slingshots and their shields of wood and leather are soaked from the rain – and useless. Normally, they would roll over this ridiculous earthen barrier with their “turtle” tactic, but for that, they need good shields, to carry the weight of the attacking troops, and nobody still has one. So they push their few remaining wagons up to the wall to serve as an attack platform, and have at the embankment with pickaxes – but it holds: Eventually, the Roman losses are so high, the German reinforcements so numerous, that the “Barbarians” storm onto the field. Varus, already wounded, commits suicide, as do other officers; one survivor surrenders the remains of the army.

The Roman cavalry has already fled, maybe with the army’s treasure, as the numerous gold coins found in the bog to the north suggest. Few make good their escape, fewer still reach the Rhine. Their accounts of the disaster provide Augustus’ successor Tiberius with the information he needs to prepare the counterattack. But the Germans too are making ready for the blow that is sure to come. In the next village, Venne, they build a smithy to process the iron they’ve collected from the field. The war then lasts another seven years.


German Boosterism

Hardly an expert is still to be found who still harbors any doubt as to where the famous Battle of the Teutoburg Forest took place: at Kalkriese Hill in Lower Saxony, of course. Except in neighboring Westphalia, which always assumed that it was home to the legendary battlefield: Having lost its independence through its postwar merger with the Northern Rhineland, Westphalia survives as an official entity only in the form of the Landschaftsverband Westfalen-Lippe (LWL), an association of counties that runs, among other things, cultural institutions. And you can ask whomever you want in the LWL’s many museums and institutes, but no one will out him or herself as a “Kalkriese supporter.” One anonymous LWL connoisseur puts it this way: in Westphalia, it’s politically impossible to admit that Germany’s founding battle took place anywhere else but on the native soil of the region.

All the more surprising that the LWL and its Roman Museum in Haltern are in charge of the 2000th anniversary, which is approaching as inexorably as a Roman legion. Also on board – literally, for a reconstructed Roman ship is to row along the Rhine, Main and Lippe rivers – are the Lippe Regional Museum in Detmold and the Kalkriese Museum; in the latter case, however, the suspicion is that the warm embrace of the Lower Saxon institution is designed to smother it: On the LWL-run homepage “Varusschlacht 2000,” Kalkriese had to avoid any unambiguous statement as to the location of the battle; Haltern, on the other hand, had no problem with the utterly unsupported claim that the town had already been chosen as the Roman provincial capital. A Germanic Paris, a London-on-the-Lippe seems surely to have been in the making!

Special exhibitions are planned in all three museums, each with a “theme:” Kalkriese has been assigned “the War,” and is also planning a single conference on the subject, though even that seems to be too much for the Westphalians. In Haltern, they’ve thought of nothing more imaginative than “the Empire” – and, according to museum director Rudolf Aßkamp, they plan to portray it without any particular reference to the war that is providing the occasion for it. So: the zillionth exhibition on “the Grandeur and Glory of Rome?” Chief archaeologist Gabriele Isenberg denies that – and she actually has some interesting digs running. But she’s the only LWL person who exudes any enthusiasm at all. Evidently, there is a general realization by now that “the battle” really did take place where it wasn’t supposed to have – across the border – and that anything you dig up – anywhere – will only confirm that fact, will lend it substance.

Take the case of retired high-school teacher and amateur archaeologist Rolf Bökemeier, who combs the Westphalian countryside looking for Roman leavings, all to refute the Kalkriese theory. He only annoys the LWL, for everything he finds – and he finds plenty, just no battlefield – only lends support to the Kalkriese theory, since the Roman sources state very clearly that sly Arminius lured gullible Varus far away from the centers of Roman power – away, say, from Detmold and toward Kalkriese. As far as the LWL is concerned, a Bökemeier find is automatically a non-find.

The Detmold museum has a more exciting task: to deal critically with the German national foundation mythology around the battle, which is closely associated with the “Hermann Memorial” overlooking the town. Their intent is honorable – yet they too toe the line of Westphalian state doctrine: Press speaker Thomas Wolf-Hegebekemeier explains that no tourist cares where exactly the battle took place, so you might just as well ignore that issue. But of course that’s nonsense. Tourists visit battlefields, castles or old cities to be able to stand at the “authentic” site of an event, to be able to imagine: “It happened here, right here.” And of course, they want to see something having to do with “it.” Only that costs money, and that’s scarce these days. But relocating the battle somewhere remote from the nationalist temple in Detmold, “building” a new one at a new, untainted site, is precisely what can send the old “Hermann’s-battle” mythology into retirement.