New Roman Battlefield in Germany:
The Search for Information before the Excavation
A new Roman battlefield has been found in Germany, near the city of Kalefeld. This places it over a hundred miles east then where the last previously thought battle had been fought, as well as nearly two-hundred years later. Previously it was believed that the last major Roman and Germanic battle had taken place at Teutoburg Forest, in the year of 9 C.E. However, with this recent discovery, it is believed by archaeologists at the new battlefield that the location “can be dated to the 3rd Century and will definitely change the historical perception of that time.” This proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Roman Empire was still doing battle with the Germanic people all the way into the 3rd Century C.E. So far, over 600 artifacts have been unearthed, including arrowheads and shafts that came from Africa. Both Roman and Germanic armor, swords, horse harnesses, pieces of chariots and spears have also been found. Despite of this, however, the main excavation will not begin until this summer, so there will not be a lot of new information coming out of the new site until that point. Currently the site is being kept secret to deter looters and the beginning of the excavation will coincide with the 2000 year anniversary of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. Because of this, one does not need to look at the new excavation to get the idea of what a Roman battlefield, with all of its destructive nature, would have been like. To see this, there are accounts of the previous battle fought in 9 C.E., of the battle at Teutoburg.
The Battle of Teutoburg was fought in 9 C.E. between the troops of Rome and the German “barbarians.” In this battle, three Roman Legions, the XVIIth, XVIIIth and the XIXth, were effectively annihilated. To this day, the German hero of the day, Herrmann, is still celebrated as a national hero, as well as having a monument on the site where archaeologists determined the battle had been fought. The devastation to the Romans was so bad, that Suetonius, speaking of Augustus Caesar, that “they saw [the people around him] that he was so greatly affected that for several months in succession he cut neither his beard nor his hair, and sometimes he would dash his head against a door.” In the same chapter, Suetonius writes that Augustus would ran out the door calling out, “Quintilius Varus [the losing general], give me back my legions!” It is clear from both the German reaction, and the account of Augustus reaction by Suetonius that this was a major victory for the Germanic peoples and a terrible loss and blow to the Roman army and image. Beyond the blow to the Romans, however, there is even the argument that Europe, itself, would have been completely different. In his article in the Smithsonian Magazine, Fergus Bordewich quotes an Emory University professor as saying, “Had Rome not been defeated,” says historian Herbert W. Benario, “a very different Europe would have emerged.” According to his argument, the battle was such a devastating loss, that the Roman Empire struggled to survive. This is because it even shook Emperor Augustus to his corps. There are even reports that he wished to kill himself to spare himself the disgrace of his armies losing so badly to the Germanic peoples. Also, it created a barrier between the Roman Empire and the Germanic peoples further north. At the site, Bordewich reports, German archaeologists have found nails, Roman armor, and old fortifications. This was important because it confirmed that this was the location mentioned by so many Roman historians in antiquity. Though archaeologists knew the general location of the battlefield from Roman historians, it was not found until 1987, when a British Army Officer “stumbled” over the site. Since then, archaeologist Susan Wilbers-Rost has been leading volunteers in excavating the location at Teutoburg.
Though the discovery of the site and its since excavation has produced a lot of evidence and history, the majority of the accounts up until the discovery came from both Roman historians and poets. Ovid, a Roman poet, in his Tristia, mentioned barbarian incursions, and the death and destruction that follow their arrival and pillaging. He wrote how they would attack on horses, using arrows, as well as use spears and axes. He also described how if they could not carry it away with them, they would burn and destroy it, leaving nothing for the Romans who survived. He finished his description by explaining how, after the barbarian incursions, no one lived in peace, and no one planted or grew anything.
Strabo, in his Geographica, also mentioned the battle. He criticized Augustus for his handling of the plan of the Roman’s attempt to quell the many revolts of the German people. He explained that these “tribes” would revolt, yield, and then revolt again. Strabo claims that if Augustus would have allowed his generals and men to cross over the Alibis, then he believes this would have stopped the revolts. Instead, Augustus wanted to just hold them there, possibly thinking it might keep peace. However, soon, two Germanic warlords, Sugambri and Melo, soon began leading incursions into Roman territory. Strabo then claimed the three legions of Quintilius Varus was ambushed in violation of a treaty, decimating them all. He does point out however, that the “younger Germanicus” was able to receive a wonderful triumph once he returned and captured those who had led the ambush and broken their treaty with Rome.
Marcus Velleius Paterculus, in his Roman History, also mentioned the battle. He explained that, not soon after Caesar had finalized the Dalmatian and Pannonian War, the word came of the death of Varus, general of the three legions. He then continued to tell what kind of a man Varus was, but then he began to describe the way that the Germans attacked. He explained that with “great ferocity” the Germanic people revolted against Roman justice and ambushed Varus and his men. He described this as the “greatest calamity” since the disaster of Crassus at Parthia. He then continued on to explain how wonderful the three legions were, “the first of Roman armies in discipline, in energy, and in experience in the field,” and essentially blamed the loss on Varus, as well as the barbarians who led the ambush. After the massacre, he told that Caesar immediately repositioned his armies and resources in Gaul, so that such a massacre would never happen again.
Tacitus, in his Annuals, mentioned different accounts of actions that surrounded the battle in Germany sporadically throughout his book. First, he mentioned that Germanicus was chosen over Agrippa Postumus to lead the eight legions to take revenge for the murder of Varus and his men. Next, Tacitus made it clear that Augustus wanted to commit suicide due to the disgrace of losing his armies. He claimed that Augustus preferred to die before he had learned of their disgrace, however, the people around him had stopped him from committing the act. His next mention is when he described the triumph decreed for Germanicus, thus avenging Varus and the three legions. Through the subsequent verses, Tacitus explained why Germanicus deserved the triumph. In all, he captured and brought back the barbarians who had committed the ambush, as well as avenged Rome. It so effected Rome, that Tacitus even mentioned the fact that the Romans consecrated an arch near the Temple of Saturn to commemorate the recovery of the standards lost by Varus. This was also a day to commemorate Germanicus and his victory. This happened in 17 C.E., eight years after the Roman defeat.
One of the last historians from Roman antiquity who fully discussed the Battle of Teutoburg is Cassius Dio. He also wrote a history named Roman History. Essentially, he reverberated all of the previous written histories. He explained how the Germans actions ultimately were a betrayal and that the massacre was brutal and absolute. Again, he ultimately blamed Varus. Even worse than his military failure was Cassius’ reason of the Germanic revolts. He claimed that Varus, while governor of the Province of Germany, had forced taxes and other means of submission that would not have ordinarily been allowed. By doing this, to Cassius, Varus inevitably forced the Germans to revolt against his rule. Again though, the point of this history, as well as the others was clear; to assign blame and to tell how terrible the massacre was. First, he described how Varus could not keep his legions together in rank and file. This being the blame, and this caused the massacre.
Though the major excavation at the site in Kalefeld has not begun, one can get the sense of how terrible that battlefield, as well as the rest of them, was and is a terrible place. Though the battle at Kalefeld did not bring the Roman Empire to its knees, it is apparent that there were battles fought that came close. The Battle of Teutoburg Forest was just one of many battles the Romans fought, and yet that one battle effectively changed the Roman Empire and Europe to this very day. Also, the accounts of the battle show just how destructive war really is. In every battle there are winners and losers, in Teutoburg it was clearly the Romans who were the losers. However, through Germanicus, Rome was able to avenge her defeat and carry on. Could it have been different? We will never know, but this summer as the new excavations begin, it is clear that our view of history, and Roman battles, will change with each new discovery.
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