Sunday, January 04, 2009

Book Review: The Quest for the Lost Legions

The Emperor Augustus looked at the severed head of Publius Quinctilius Varus and cried

“Give me back my legions!”

Varus was long past answering, but for centuries people have pondered the question of just how did he go about losing three legions of professional soldiers to what is essentially a tribal militia. This book describes the latest chapter in the The Quest for the Lost Legions.

Quest or the Lost legions

The Quest for the Lost Legions, Discovering the Varus Battlefield
Author: Major Tony Clunn
UK Publisher: Spellmount Limited, Staplehurst, Kent, 2005
US Publisher: Savas Beatie, New York, New York, 2005

Tony Clunn’s webpage
Kalkriese Museum
Imperium Konflikt Mythos
Official 2000th Anniversary site.

The Battle of the Teutoburger Wald in the fall of 9 AD, though always listed as one of the most important battles in world history, was an event of some mystery since the location of the battle was somewhere in German Forests and the historical sources are summaries written by later authors. It was known that Varus lost three legions and auxiliaries to a coalition of German tribes lead by Arminius an auxiliary officer in Roman service, the political shock to Rome was tremendous, and precipitated a change of frontier policy by Rome. In 1989 the author Tony Clunn, a British Army officer stationed in Germany, and an amateur archeologist, discovered some Roman coins in the vicinity of Kalkriese in Northern Germany. Additional discoveries proved his theory that this was the location of the Teutoburger Wald battle. This is one of the most significant archeological discoveries in recent times.

The book has two story lines, the discovery of the battle site and Clunn’s other explorations in northern Germany interweaved with a fictional reconstruction of the Battle

The Search.

Clunn tells the story of his discovery, armed with an avocation for Roman history a metal detector and some military common sense, discovers the long lost battlefield. He rather downplays that he had already done the available archive research on the subject, talked with the last person who had found a Roman coin at the site. Using this information and a soldier’s eye for looking at the ground; his selection was an informed estimate rather than a lucky guess.

He provides a good example of how an amateur should work with professional archeologists. First he got required permissions to conduct a survey and then kept the professionals informed. When enough evidence came to light to make this an official project he kept in the background, maintaining an interest and helping but never working at cross-purposes. A major dig is expensive, where as Clunn could just get the permissions and search on his free time. One of his biggest achievements was to do the preliminary searches on his own and find the discoveries that could justify a major project. He also tells of his subsequent efforts to find related sites which will take further searching to confirm his theories.

Clunn’s telling makes the story of the archaeological discovery an adventure.

Reconstructing the Battle.

The principle Roman character is Marcus Aius the Tribune second in command of the Army. (Cloak clasps belong to a Marcus Aius were found in Kalkriese though real Marcus was of a much lower rank.) A professional solider to Varus’s politician he tries to convince Varus to maintain a more combat ready posture and he also suspects that something is wrong and that Arminious is behind it but he does not have the hard evidence that will convince Varus. After Varus and many of his top commanders committed suicide he leads the legions in a last desperate attempt to escape and unknowingly leads them into the ambush at Kalkriese.

The principle German character is Arminius who has been working for a least a year to destroy the Varsus's Army, building alliances with the tribes, giving advice to Varus that leaves the Romans exposed, training his forces and preparing the battle site. He knows the tribes cannot stand in open formation against a Roman legion so he plans to draw them into a route where the Romans can be ground down in many small attacks and ambushes culminating in a major trap at Kalkriese where it will be destroyed. All the while pretending to be loyal officer in Roman Army.

This is a possible reconstruction that explains how one goes abut losing three legions. It does a good job of integrating the historical sources and the archeological discoveries. The route he picks seems to be very long but not impossible. The best features of this account are seeing the ground and situation with a soldier’s eye, and giving the feel of a professional army to the Roman command.

The book tells both stories with a clarity that can engage the general reader but still be informative to readers with more background. The photographs add to the story. The maps are adequate. Recommended.

The Battle That Stopped Rome by Peter S. Wells
Book Review: Rome's Greatest Defeat By Adrian Murdoch
Eagle in the Snow by Wallace Breem
Friday Snippet



Jeff said...

I've read Peter Wells's book, The Battle that Stopped Rome, but not Clunns book. It is on my list.

For me I think sometimes too much significance is given to the battle of the Teutoburger Wald by historians. Especially the anti-Roman ones. The battle was, of course, a set back. But the Romans recovered and invaded under Germanicus 6 years later. This battle in-fact did not stop the Roman empire.

Great post.

hank_F_M said...



I think Peter Heather's argument (The Fall of Rome, review coming sometime in the next month or three.) that what really stopped the Roman empire was that Germany at the time did not have an economy that could support a garrison has some merit. But I’m not sure that could be the whole explanation.

Jeff said...

Hank - Heather's book is superb. One day I may write a post on it myself.

The fall of Rome. This is a question and discussion no mere blog post can give justice. Maybe I should start a blog on it. Hmmm, no time though. But great subject.

My view is that, along the lines with Heather and Hanson, that the Fall of Rome was as much a slow cultural disillusion, a loss of identity which weakened the core Roman collective character. That core, that made being Roman something, something exceptional, maybe not always the best, but better than any of the alternatives, was key to Roman preeminence. Once that loss of pride and identity creped in; that lose of loyalty to their ancestors—the Mos Maiorum—and their traditions, the fall was on its way. Much like what is happening to America. My guess is we won’t last near as long as Rome.

hank_F_M said...


You could very well be right. But it is not yet inevitable, I hope.

Jeff said...

I think the fall of America is envitable. But not in ours or our children's life time. Hard to say, but nothin lasts forever, especially where nation states are involved. Give 3 to 500 years and your have parts of the country ready to break away. The division in our politics will drive a bigger and bigger wedge between us. We can just examine Rome and see the direction. Anyway, always a pleasure.

Also, I notice you have an interest in ancient Roman history. What is your background in it? You seem well informed.

hank_F_M said...

Sporadic reading (that is eclectic meandering.)

In high school or collage I bought a copy of Graham Webster’s The Roman Army. It hooked my interest and I have been off and on picking up pieces of Roman History especially military ever since then.

Later I also picked up a lot of early church history, which is a rather different view. One of the things I enjoyed about Heather is he puts these two very different themes in the same Empire.

Jeff said...

I love good reading myself. The way to the world is through the printed page.

El Jefe Maximo said...

Leaving aside the mega topics for the moment, I think that the significance of the Battle of the Teutoburger Wald is possibly overrated.

Rome was overstreched holding on to Gaul as is (at least prior to the Flavian dynasty when the Romanized population of Gaul was larger) and I agree with Heather that further expansion into Germany was not at the time practical. I wonder though if the Romans should have found a way to make it work, at least as far as the Elbe, which looks to me to be a more defencible line than the Rhine-Alps-Danube, if only becuase it's shorter. But that would have been a work of generations.

On the bigger topic of the Fall of Rome, I agree with Heather that strengthening the Persian frontier after the Crisis of the 5th Century about broke the Romans, and they have to weaken themselves too much in the West to do it. By that time, Germany was stronger than it had been in Augustus's time, and Gaul/Raetia and Noricum needed the field troops that went east.

If I had to put my finger on the big strategic decision that really got the Romans in over their head it would be the destruction of the Pontic Kingdom and wholesale involvement of the Roman Republic in affairs of the eastern Med. in the last century before Christ. (True, nutty King Mithradates made those wars, but collapsing his whole kingdom -- wars of Lucius Licinius Lucullus and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus -- was a long-run bad bargain).

The Roman Empire in the West could work, if the Romans didn't have to police the east and have a land commitment against Parthia/Persia. Sure the Romans wanted the taxes of the east, and they had trouble finding satisfactory clients in the eastern Med, but the West (Gaul and the Spains, plus North Africa) was a better long term investment and easier to defend.

With hindsight, they'd have been better finding some heir of Mithradates VI, leaving everything east of the Aegean to him, and doing whatever they had to not to get in deeper in that part of the world.

El Jefe Maximo said...


Re the "fall of America."

If you want to dig out Roman parallels, look earlier than the fall of the Empire. Think on the process of the change from Republic to the Empire (say 100 BC -- year of the birth of Caesar, down through 27 BC, time of Augustus's "first settlement" after Actium in 31 BC). I think that Roman analogy might wind up being more appropriate.

hank_F_M said...

El Jefe

Thanks for the comments. The Republic/empire analogy may be apt, perhaps both are apt.

My knowledge of the Eastern Empire is a little short. I get the impression they got into a cycle of : "that to defend what we have we need to take the next place over" until they ran into Parthia/Persia which was to big and to far away. That is a hard cycle to break.

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