The Romans in Ancient Germany –
A 2000th Anniversary



The Fort the Romans Held
Phil Hill, Berlin, May 10 2009

First, the archeologists discovered a potter’s area. Parts of the skeletons of 24 people and a dog lay in one of the ten ovens.
Photo: Jochen Hähnel

A skull and the remains of a dog’s jaw also found in the potter’s oven.

Photo: LWL/Andreas Weisgerber

Model of a potter’s oven.
Photo: LWL

Aliso – it was Rome’s impregnable fortress in the wilds of Germany beyond the Rhine. Twice it defied German sieges, after the Romans had been chased out of all their other strongholds. Now, these Roman accounts have received confirmation from archeologists: 24 Germanic warriors were killed in an attempt to storm the walls of the fortress, and their corpses dumped by the defenders into a pit next to the potter’s oven. They were found 1975 years later – and so achieved a kind of immortality denied their mostly victorious comrades who, if they died in battle, were sent off to the happy drinking grounds of Valhalla from a funeral pier.

The bones were found 18 years ago in Haltern on the Lippe, in one of the most spectacular digs in northwestern Germany. Now, in time for the anniversary of the battle that rang in the end of Rome’s rule east of the Rhine, an examination of the enamel of the teeth of ten of the men has been carried out, using a method which can reveal where the individual grew up. Most were from nearby parts, but several warriors had travelled from the distant south to join in the war – an indication that the Germanic tribal coalition drew recruits from all over the Germanic territories. It is the third major discovery in the year leading up to the 2000th anniversary of the battle in the Teutoburg Forest, where three legions were annihilated near Osnabrück in September, 0009.

Whether the men died in winter of 0009 or during the fighting some six years later isn't clear. Aliso was the only fort to withstand the German sweep following the victory over Varus, but ultimately, it too was evacuated – although never stormed. Another battle over the fortress was reported in the winter of 0015/16 – which indicates that the Romans occupied it again during their cautious advance beyond the Rhine in 0010-‘14; the corpses could date also from these fights.

The find is a strong indication that the huge facility on a slope above the Lippe, a fort that was almost a town, was indeed Aliso, which is a matter of debate among historians. That debate still isn't settled completely, says Haltern archeologist Rudolf Aßkamp. But if it is Aliso, the large Roman Museum, where he works, is indeed at the right place, unlike the “Hermann Memorial” near Detmold, built to commemorate the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, which now turns out to have taken place in Osnabrück county. But although Aliso remained steadfast, the Romans otherwise suffered ever more devastating defeats, and after 0016 vacated the entire area, including their stronghold on the Lippe. And so it was that Haltern’s glorious future was already over 1250 years before the city was even founded.

The camp in Barkhausen on the Weser south of Minden, found in the summer of 2008, also dates from this time. These two discoveries have helped to provide an idea about the course of the long war. And then there’s a third dig, which has revealed a hitherto unknown war: the traces of an assault were found between Hildesheim and Göttingen in the northern state of Lower Saxony. They could only have been launched by a gigantic Roman army – the army of the emperor Maximinus Thrax who invaded Germany in 235. It may have been one of the greatest Roman invasions of Germany, though historians have always thought it involved only some border skirmishing. The attack itself was successful, but only in breaking out of a trap; the invasion itself was defeated and the dream of conquering Germany was over – this time for ever.