Monday, September 21, 2009

Book Review: Rome's Greatest Defeat

Two thousand years ago this month the Roman Army in Lower Germany, three legions strong with auxiliaries, was was wiped out, almost to a man. The battle of the Teutoburg Forest is one of Rome’s largest and most famous defeats. Until recently very little was known about the battle, even it’s exact location, except for a few second hand reports from Roman authors. Recently a number of archeological discoveries have shed light on this battle.

Rome’s Greatest Defeat: Massacre in the Teutoburg Forest
Adrian Murdoch
Sutton Publishing, 2006

Murdoch's Bread and Circuses Blog
The Blog's Teutoburg Posts

Imperium Konflict Mythos Official 2000th Anniversary site.
Kalkriese Museum

Adrian Murdoch describes the tangle of political, cultural and military affairs that led to this battle and the consequences. The account of the battle is just a chapter but with a judicious reading of the ancient sources and modern research he presents a very common sense account of the events leading up to the battle , the battle, and it‘s consequences.

Lower Germany was in the process of being integrated into the Empire. Murdoch describes this process, involving a forced change in the culture politics and economy of the province. It was always complicated with winners and losers at many levels of socity and sometimes resulting in a revolt, usually defeated with much bloodshed. He tells the story of Sextus Quinctilius Varus a proven governor, able administrator, and competent general who was apparently under orders to speed up the process; and Arminius a German noble, an officer in the Roman army, and secretly a leader of the anti-Roman faction. Arminius managed to set up an alliance of several tribes, despite opposition in his own and the other tribes, while convincing Varus of his loyalty and preparing a trap for the Roman Army. There was a report of a revolt and Varus and the Army set off to deal with it and marched into the carefully laid trap, for three days they fight to escape and are finally annihilated at the recently discovered battle field at Kalkriese. The defeat rocks the Roman world, and the resulting Roman punitive expedition wrecks the hostile tribes for generations. The Romans make no effort reestablish a permanent presence on the east side of the Rhine. The impact of the failure to Romanize German culture has been debated for centuries. Much later Arminius becomes a hero in the development of German nationalism. Arminius gets the rare distinction of being a general who defeated the Romans: but is not killed by Rome or dies in their captivity.

Defeated generals are always easy targets for blame, Murdoch shows that despite the accusations of incompetence heaped on Varus, he was in fact a competent governor and general, selected for both ability and loyalty the Emperor. He had extensive experience as governor of the tumultus province of Syria. Many of the criticisms of his action are based on 20/20 hindsight but his actions were quite reasonable in the circumstances.

Arminius had learned soldiering from the Romans, but a was also master of the German tribal politics. There were many in the tribes, including members of his own family, who favored cooperation with Romans, ether because they saw an advantage or it was the lesser of two evils. Arminius managed to convince enough of the leadership in the tribes to join him. Since Arminius was a central contact for Roman contact with the Germans he controlled much of the information going to Varus. Murdoch thinks that Varus dismissed the reports that got to him as attempts to draw him into the internal politics of the tribes, which he declined.

Murdoch’s encyclopedic knowledge of the classical world, his easy writing style and common sense analysis provide a clear explanation of the events that is assessable al l readers. This is by far the best of the recent books on this battle that have been published in English. Strongly Recommended.

See Also

Book Review: The Battle That Stopped Rome by Peter Wells
Book Review: Quest for The Lost Legions by Tony Benn

The Advance Guard Fiction

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

Analysis and opinion.

What happened, this is my assessment.

Possible Route of Roamn Army 9 AD Teutoburg Forest

One thing is certain is that Varus did not get his route from Google Maps, but it is a best case close approximation and gives an idea of what was involved. [See comment from Delta V] He was moving to put down a revolt was in what is now the northern Netherlands or extreme northwest Germany. It is sixty kilometers from Minden to Kalkriese and another ten to Bramsche. 100 kilometers more to the legionary fortress at Haltern or 150 kilometers to the base at Xanten on the Rhine, He would have been expecting to march for about six hours 20 to 24 kilomters a day with column of about 12,000 solidiers, at least the same number of camp followers and 5000 horses or oxen. Quite possibly the advance guard would be marking the evenings camp as the rear guard was exiting last nights camp. Given the large amount of equipment they carried they would have at most five days of food.

This is the shortest route with the least hills, we forget how important that was when everything moved by sore muscles and aching backs. The route is mostly open farmland making it possible for the Army to get at least some of it’s food locally. Tactically it is reasonable ground, with only one real choke point, the narrows at Kalkriese. The other possible routes were longer, had less farm land and more obstacles. I think that the first leg of his march was to the area of modern Bramcshe, where the army would have to spend a day on river crossing. From there he could send his excess baggage back to Haltern or Xanten with a small escort and the tactical part of the Army would move to suppress the revolt. He would have made a prior announcement that he will be buying food at Bramcshe for the next leg of the march. All this assumes he believed he was marching through friendly territory.

The tactical system of the Roman army was a combination of heavy and light infantry supported by cavalry. The legion provided the heavy infantry. The legion can be compared to a steam roller. Nothing could stand in front of it. But it was slow and awkward to move, subject to flank attacks and required an enemy who was willing or forced to stand in front of it. Rough terrain could break it’s formation reducing it’s effectiveness. If the enemy had fortifications the legions engineers would overcome them with time. The other half of the team was the light infantry. This was either Roman auxiliary cohorts or forces provided by allies. They would scout, protect the flanks, clear enemy scouts, and with luck push the enemy under the steam roller. The light infantry would guard the legions march into hostile territory where the legions would attack a political, cultural or economic location that the enemy must defend, i.e. stand in front of the "steam roller" and hope to win. The important thing is that the legions of this period could not act alone they needed their light infantry support. The light infantry could operate alone but they would seldom be able to defeat an enemy unless they out numbered them or they had some unusual advantage. It was the team effort that make the Roman armies formidable. A common statistic in Roman history is the light and heavy forces were approximately equal strength. Varus’s Army did not have enough auxiliaries to provide the light infantry part of the team. The other auxiliary cohorts were garrisoning forts throughout the province. Varus was depending on his German allies to provide the light infantry.

In August Varus received word of the revolt. He started his preparations and called back his scattered garrisons to Minden, which is a good concentration point and possibly his headquarters. I think, since the route was known he had engineers out improving the road and had his German allies secure the route and occupy critical points such as the narrows at Kalkriese (with fortifications?). The word was sent out where he would be buying food along the route. The Allied tribes were called to come join him, either at Minden or Bramsche. The warnings he had received probably seemed to be part of the background noise that happens in any occupied province, but nothing so significant as to arouse suspicion, or make him distrust Arminius.

The Army moved out. I would think they would have made twenty to twenty four kilometers, and built a camp. The next day the advance guard had moved another twenty to twenty four kilometers and was at or close to it’s intended camp for the night when the attacks started. The front of the Army started to set up a camp and the rest closed in on it. There would have been hundreds of little attacks, each not causing much damage but the total would add up. The ground was still open enough that the Romans could move off the road and clear flanks. The baggage trains were probably hurt worse than the troops. This would be a nightmare for Varus and the senior commanders, the Army was spread out along the road there was little they could do to influence the battle. It was a centurions and soldiers battle, if the army was not well disciplined and trained it might not have survived the first day.

In the camp they got ready for the next day. The Army was in trouble but it was not defeated. Wagons and excess baggage were burned. This shortened the length of the column and make it eaiser to bypass obstacles. To make matters worse the fierce autumn German thunder storms started soaking every thing and making the roads much less usable. The Army rested as much as it could, reorganized and came out fighting. They moved a lot slower because they were in a tactical formtion partly off the road, the Germans destroyed advance work of the engineers, the rain, and fighting off constant attacks. By nightfall they would have been lucky to have advanced ten kilometers. they established a new but a vary hasty and improvised camp. The Army knew it was not going to get home. Varus and his top aides committed suicide, the cavalry tried to ride out, some tried to surrender. In the morning the Army moved out in a forlorn hope on broken ground and came to the ambush at Kalkriese. Most of the army perished here. Only a handful got back to Roman territory.

Once Arminius united the tribes and attacked the Army, the Army was lost, every thing else was details. The Army was, at best, seven to ten days march on half rations from nearest fort. The closest possible relief force was at Mainz a months march away. The tactical system was broken, without light infantry the legions would be would be worn down in a series of small actions. They were north of the Wiehengebrige ridge and their bases were on the south side. Forcing any of the gaps in the ridge would require light infantry. A wall had been constructed at Kalkrese, the engineers could defeat it with time, but a retreating army on half rations does not have time. A Gaius Julius Caesar might have brought that army home, but Sextus Quinctilius Varus was simply a competent general in a situation where genius might not have been enough.

The defeat was more political than military. The credit is Arminius’s as a political leader for uniting tribes and the defeat is Varus’s as governor for failing to prevent it.

Note: The exact size of the Army and how much road space it took, can’t be determined from the existing data. I made a number of assumptions, but small changes make big changes in the result. The Roman legions were probably between 2000 and 4000 men present for duty, I think closer to 3000. The auxiliaries were probably another 3000 men. The number of camp followers was usual about the same as the number of soldiers. They other big factor is how wide was the road. I am assuming it was wide enough to march four abreast, which would also be wide enough for a wagon. There would be an interval (size?) between units, necessary to keep the army from bunching up an spreading out on hills and turns. While the Romans were masters at it, moving an Army this size was difficult to manage under the best of circumstances.
For those who want to crunch their own numbers.

Field Manual 21-18 - Procedures and Techniques of Foot Marches

The March


El Jefe Maximo said...

Hey this is cool! Thanx...I printed it, and will hopefully comment later.

Back now, and will try to get to posting and commenting again ASAP.

DeltaV said...

I see one problem with your proposed line of march. The blue line is the Mittelland-Kanal, which was constructed in the early 1900's. Prior to that time, the area was mostly bogs. The building of the canal also had the effect of lowering the water table, and so there are farms there now. The modern highways (B218 and B65) parallel the ridgeline, and they may follow the path of much older roads that skirted the bogs at the base of the ridge. That route may be close to the actual route the legions took.

hank_F_M said...


Thanks for commenting.

You are quite possibly right. It is a google "best case" projection. The blue line is the walking route Google maps suggested which does seem to follow roads next to the canal.

The problem I have with many of the analysis's is they figured time and space form the ancient narrative descriptions without putting it on a map. A fully loaded Roman soldier is not going to march 60 kilometers a day over bad roads for more than two days which some have them doing. Using Google maps to suggest a route forced some discipline and reality on my analysis.

hank_F_M said...

I went back and found my notes and down loads I used for the map.

About 9 AD at Kalkriese the Great Moor comes south to about a kilometer from Kalkriese Hill which is one of the northern points of the Wiehengebrige ridge. Of that kilometer there was at most 200 meters of ground that could support the a man on foot and one road (one lane) that could support the weight of a wagon. Going to east the Great Moor recedes to the north and the ridge slants south. It appears there were areas of marsh and solid ground between them. There must have been a good road along the base of the ridge. If there was a usable road further north it would have had the advantage of a shorter marching distance.

When I the season is over I may redraw the map.

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Hank’s Eclectic Meanderings

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