The Romans in Ancient Germany –
A 2000th Anniversary


“Varus, give me back my horse!”

Phil Hill, Detmold/Kalkriese, Oktober 2006

The Emperor Augustus looked down on the little town from his great steed – of course both were a statue, in the center of town. For the new city on the Lahn river, today Waldgirmes in the modern German state of Hesse, was named after him: “Augusta taunensis” (in the Taunus mountains), like “Augusta of the Treverians” (Trier) or “Augusta of the Vindelicians” (Augsburg) – and many others throughout the empire. The quality of the work of art was also imperial: This was no legion camp in barbarian country; a place where such a statue stood was clearly a city on Roman soil.

But not for long. One day in October 2000 years ago, a messenger came riding in; he was in a hurry: A rebellion had broken out up north, the Governor Varus was dead, his three legions had been wiped out. The order was: pull back to the Rhine immediately. What couldn't be dragged away was destroyed, anything that might be valuable to the enemy was dumped into the town’s wells. Protected by the garrison troops from the nearby camp (today in the village of Lahnau), the would-be city-founders retreated down the Lahn valley to the safety of Koblenz. They had had to smash the mounted statue of the emperor and dump the pieces in the well, lest the barbarians desecrate it or use its metal. When the Chattians – “Hessians,” in modern German – tried to emulate their northern friend Arminius and drive the Romans out, they found them already gone. They looted what had been left behind in haste, and then set the place on fire.

Archeologists had already suspected all this before they discovered an 11-meter deep well at the beginning of August, in which they found the head of Augustus’ horse. They had previously found one of its feet and a piece of a bridle, so they were already sure the statue had existed, and hence that the place was a city, not a military camp. The find is nevertheless sensational, not only because of its high quality, comparable only with two other finds from Italy, as Gabriele Rasbach of the Roman-Germanic Commission notes. For these finds from this second well reveal much about the city’s life and also confirm the dating of its foundation in 4 B.C. Its fall is placed in 0009, on the basis of historical knowledge: wherever you find a layer indicating a large-scale fire, as is the case here, the assumption is generally that you’re dealing with traces of the German mopping-up operations after the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.

But there have also been other, less spectacular finds during the past two years which have expanded the conventional view of history. Evidently, the Romans ventured over the Rhine rather soon, not only in Westphalia, but also in Hesse – that’s according to Tacitus, who reported that an old camp has been rebuilt, but historians have never taken that too seriously. But indeed: a part of the town, says Rasbach, shows signs of military use, including a land-filling operation in which a piece of the statue was also found. Clearly, the Romans came back and used some rubble from the ruins of the city to make a level assembly area. This is one more piece of evidence that Roman rule was not ended by that one big, legendary battle, but only after a long seven-year war.

There is evidence from finds in the surrounding area that the Germans found parts of the statue and recycled them. An alternative theory of the war holds that the statue was intact when they got to town, and that they smashed it themselves, used parts of it and dropping the horse’s head in the well as a present to their gods. While such Germanic religious practices are known, Arminius seems to have put an end to such nonsense. There has been no find at the site of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest near Osnabrück revealing any such offering; rather, the Germans seem to have used everything they could get to make weapons. They knew the empire would strike back.