The Romans in Ancient Germany –
A 2000th Anniversary




The battlefield at Kalkriese Hill, as seen from the tower of the Museum


The "Battle in the Teutoburg Forest," or the the "Varus Catastrophe," as the Romans called it was the beginning and also the central event of the Germanic War of Liberation that lasted from 9 to 16 AD. However, it was not the only event of that war, for the ancient Germans still had to defend the advantage they had gained against a carefully planned counterattack by a gigantic, militarily superior army.

The German-Roman War at the dawn of our era put an abrupt end to the rapid expansion of the Roman Empire that had taken it in 200 years from its Italian homeland to domination of the entire Mediterranean area and large parts of northern. Never before had a conquered people liberated itself from Rome – and never again would any, until the collapse 400 years later.
The long war set the stage for an even longer era of contact between ancient Romans and ancient Germans. For while Rome might be unable to conquer Germany, the Germans were likewise unable to overwhelm the Empire. Instead, they could, over the centuries, appropriate those elements of its culture that they wanted, at the limes, the fortified borderline that stretched from Rotterdam to Vienna and beyond. And by the time they finally did pour in the Western Roman Empire and bring it down, its culture was already so familiar to them that they didn't simply smash it, but took over much of it. European history since then has seen the continued interaction of these two cultural traditions. Europe as we know it today is the result of this war; had its outcome been different, Europe, too would have been incredibly different – too different for us even to imagine.

The Course of the War

The war began in 17 BC, with the annihilation of the V Legion by the Sugambrians, a tribe that lived in what is now the industrial Ruhr valley. The battle must have taken place somewhere in the area between Cologne and Aachen, today on the Dutch and Belgian border.

The Romans planned their counterstroke carefully, for four years. In 12 BC, their commander Drusus, stepson of Emperor Augustus and younger brother his heir, Tiberius, marched in and rapidly subjugated the Germanic tribes in the present-day states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Hesse. While trying to extend his conquests to the lands between the Weser and the Elbe, he died in an accident. It is very likely that the place of his death has been found – the Roman camp he founded at Hedemünden on the Werra, between Kassel, Hesse, and Göttingen, Lower Saxony. The camp may later have house one of Varus’ legions.

His brother Tiberius soon finished the job, his six-year-old son inherited his honorary epithet "Germanicus" – conqueror of Germany. By the time he was old enough to in fact assume that heritage, it was time to prove he was worthy of it: For three years, Caesar Germanicus was to lead the vain attempt to regain the lost conquests. Not until his recall in 17 AD did Europe's first "Thirty-Year War” end..

In between, there had been the “Great Uprising,” that broke out around the turn of the millennia, and covered most of Westphalia and southern Lower Saxony; it was not completely suppressed until 6 AD, and was of course followed three years later by the ultimately successful rebellion that began with the famous "Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.”.