Saturday, April 09, 2005

The Battle That Stopped Rome

Somewhere east of the Rhine, Province of Lower Germany, September, 9 AD.

It’s stopped raining for now. Sixty pounds of equipment are not lighter for being wet. The Legion marches or rather slops along the trail. A swamp to the right, a forested hill to the left, the ground would be soft in sunny weather. At least they are the lead legion; several thousand pairs of feet haven’t already chewed up the ground. Eight hours marching yesterday, five today and who knows how many until they get to a place to build a camp. Four or five more days of sore muscles, aching backs, and maybe a fight to get home.

The Centurions are calling to
“Keep formation;” “how, the trail is barely wide enough.”
“Watch your sectors;” “right, this is allied country, who but poor legionnaire would be out in this weather.”
“A perfect place for an ambush;” “come on, the auxiliaries already cleared the road or we wouldn’t be here.”
"At least they aren’t saying to unsling shields and weapons."

War cries break the air.
A shower of javelins.
Even without orders the well rehearsed drill tries to assert itself:
unsling shields and weapons, drop packs, move off the road, form a shield wall.
The javelins rip though the ranks. When they do not hit flesh they remain stuck in the equipment so it can’t be moved without hitting another solider.
Slipping in the mud, tripping over bodies, climbing over packs they struggle to reach the side of the road and form a line.
Another yell; every warrior in Germania swarms out of the woods.
The shield wall never forms.
Those who don’t die outright, mostly die of exsanguation or hypothermia.

Book Review:
The Battle that Stopped Rome
Peter S Wells
W. H. Norton 2003

Kalkriese museum

In 9 AD a Roman Army of three legions and nine cohorts of auxiliariescommanded by Publius Quinctilius Varus was destroyed in the “Teutoburger Wald” by the German leader Arminius some place in northern Germany. The event has come down in history as one of the "Great Battles" but where it was fought was unknown. In 1989 the site of this battle was found. This book is a beginners Archeological/Anthropological/Historical study of the battle using the new information.


The battle took place at the base of what is now called Kalkriese hill about 10 miles north of Osnabruck in Lower Saxony, Germany. The archeological remains combined with the sketchy information in the sources allow for several reasonable reconstructions of the battle. The most notable discovery is that the ambush had been planned for a long time. The trail as it would have existed at the time would have been a narrow stretch of sand and clay soil along the base of the hill just wide enough for the Roman column to march. A sod wall had been built along the uphill side of the road and the vegetation allowed to grow so it looked like part of nature from the trail. In Wells reconstruction, the attackers hid behind the wall until the lead legion was parallel and then attacked with javelins followed by a charge. With a small amount of warning a Roman column with an unexpected enemy on the flank could easily drop it’s packs, grab its weapons, and form a line on the threatened flank. Once they had formed a shield wall they had a tactical superiority over any possible enemy. Arminius, the German commander had commanded an auxiliary cohort in the Roman Army and a number of his key subordinates had also served with the Romans. They set an ambush that placed a legion in the worst possible situation, no warning time and no room to form ranks. The wall was the length of one legion. My vignette above is most likely what happened to the lead legion, about 4000 to 5000 men. The Roman commander considered Arminius to be an ally and accepted his suggestion for a route.


A modern reconstruction of the Kalkriese "narrows" at the Kalkriese
. In front, the bog; then, a small strip of land,
and finally the slopes of the mountain, fortified with a wall.

The battle stopped Augustus’s attempt to push the Roman boundary to the Elbe. A larger Army was needed to garrison both the Rhine and Danube lines than would have been required for the Elbe line. Since the Army was larger and closer to Rome it could more easily use it's strength in electing Emperors, changing for the worse the state of Roman politics. The difference of several hundred years of Roman rule still is a cultural dividing line for many things in Europe. The Reformation/Counter Reformation ended with territories close to this line. Whether beer or wine is usually had with dinner also follows this line. Depending on your point of view it was either a major defeat to European unification or a key event in the forming of the German nation. Actually, I think both are correct.

In twelve easy to read chapters with basic maps and some good photographs Dr. Wells describes the events leading up to the battle, the battle, and it’s aftermath. It is especially strong on the archeology of the site and the anthropology of northern Germany. Since I already know a good bit of Roman military history I learned the most from his description of the peoples of northern Germany. His descriptions make the German participants alive rather than the stereotypes that most histories make them out of ignorance. It did much to provide context for other reading on the subject.

Not a military historian, the Dr. Wells made extensive research to understand the event as military history. He almost succeeded. He did make good use of John Keegans the Face of Battle in his analysis. His conclusion that the other two legions were destroyed with in an hour of the first is imimplausible, doesn’t agree with the ancient sources, is not tactically sound, and seems unlikely from the topography. The archeological evidence he describes does not require it and would support other conclusions. It seems more likely that the ancient account is close to correct, these legions had the time to form ranks and then establish a fortified camp that evening, then were destroyed piecemeal as they tried to fight their way home. Other more probalble theories assume the battle began several days earlier and the Romans were driven into this trap and finally destroyed.

The book is intended as an introduction for those without background, and I think especially to introduce people to his favorite field of Anthropology. In this he succeeds admirably. The reader with more background will find the book interesting, while wishing for a more extensive and critical examination and analysis of the battle itself.

See Also

Book Review: Quest for The Lost Legions by Tony Benn
Book Review: Rome‘s Greatest Defeat by Adrian Murdoch
In my opnion, this is the best book in English on the subject. I appended my analysis of the battle.

The Advance Guard Fiction

Book Review: Eagle in the Snow
Book Review: The Fall of the Roman Empire

The pictures are from Livius website were made by Marco Prins and Jona Lendering, and can be downloaded and used for non-commercial purposes, but you have to acknowledge Livius.

Updated 18 May 2007

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