The Romans in Ancient Germany –
A 2000th Anniversary



Roman Camp Found on the Weser

Phil Hill, Berlin, August 2008

The excitement was great at the end of July when Westphalian archeologists discovered the remains of a Roman camp in Barkhausen, just south of the city of Minden. Since the Romans occupied Westphalia for only about twenty years, the number of their large camps in northwestern Germany beyond the Rhine is single-digit, so that any such find is an event. But was it necessarily a "Varus camp," as the press releases suggested – either a residence of the man who responsible for the most humiliating defeat in Roman history, or even a facility connected with the battle itself?

Publius Quintilius Varus was appointed legate – general and governor – in newly conquered Germany in the year 0007, with the task of organizing it as a province. He didn't succeed, as we well know, because he led his army into disaster in September 0009. And he did so not in Westphalia, as was long suspected, and is still claimed adamantly by some Westphalians, but in Osnabrück country, Lower Saxony. Thus, the recent discovery on home soil promised a substitute: here it was, local boosters hoped, that Varus had surely lived, and from here he had marched to his doom.

No Great Break-Through

Now comes the sober truth: traces of a major fire reveal that the camp went up in flames after the battle, but that was true of every Roman base up to the Rhine after the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, so that such traces are anything but rare; this was certainly a base in 0009, but whether or not it was anything special is questionable. For serious archeologists like Dr. Best and Bettina Temmel who conduct the need dig, the interesting but still quite modest represent finds, at best a "possible" connection to Varus. The work on these first finds has also yielded a rather scanty result: Initial probes had suggested that the remains of a ditch around the camp might be present, but further investigation showed that they were traces of a later invasion – British communications cable from the mid-20th century. Three copper coins were obviously Roman, but their poor condition did not even permit them to be dated. Neither the size nor the age of the camp is now known.

The find actually isn't surprising, since some Roman facility is very likely in this area, where an important trade road crossed the Weser. Susanne Wilbers-Rost, chief archeologist at the site of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, thinks that Varus’ march actually began here; University of Göttingen historian Gustav-Adolf Lehmann, on the other hand, sees a march from the Detmold area to Kalkriese Hill near Osnabrück as more likely, since this landscape better fits the Roman report on the battle. And the new finds have certainly not settled that debate. It could be a summer camp, or the camp of only one of the three "Varus legions." If it is the great three-legion camp on the Weser which some historians have long sought, there is no indication of that yet. One problem is that even a one-legion camp would have measured over 15 hectares, and the mega-camp that some imagine, around 50 ha. But the open space on which the dig is being carried out is only about 3 ha, so that whatever was here, probably only a small part of it will be found on this terrain. The rest is located – or has long since been obliterated – in the surrounding single-family residential area.

Civilization or liberty?

The camp was in all probability a base in the ultimately unsuccessful Roman attempt to conquer Germany, first during the years prior to the battle, and then once again in 0016, as the Romans tried to attack the Germans “from the rear” via the Weser river. One of the best known debates in antiquity, described in some detail by Tacitus, took place during that campaign, and it was very likely near this camp: The Weser, said the historian, separated the armies, and Arminius ("Hermann") commanding the Germans, called out for his brother Flavus, who was fighting with the Roman legions. The brothers, standing in the shallow water near the camp, waged a debate over the values for which each was fighting: Flavus for the glory and the achievements of an empire invincible and stern, yet generous and forgiving; Arminius for his native country, for liberty, for his clan and for the gods of the north. It got abusive, with Arminius mocking Flavus' medals, awarded him for the loss of an eye in combat, as the miserable wage of a slave; he added that their mother sorrowed for her wayward offspring. Swords would have decided the issue, but both brothers were pulled back to the shore by their friends.

The next day, the Romans crossed the Weser, and were twice defeated so badly, first at the Idisto Meadows (at Lohfeld, just to the southeast), then at the Angrivarian Wall (at Leese, up the Weser to the north) that they had to vacate Germany – this time for good.