The Importance of Choosing Your Battlefields
A bridge too far. Whether ’tis better to take a spaniel into the woods or a metal detector, and in so doing, solve an archaeological riddle.
One golden eagle, found, Germania. Please call after hours.
Sie sehn den Wald vor lauter Bäumen nicht. (They can’t see the forest for the trees.)
Christoph Martin Wieland (1768)
Quintili Vare, legiones redde!
- Emperor Augustus Octavius
It’s just after 6a.m. on a Tuesday.* The year is 9AD. The month is November. Cruellest month of all. A ragged column of twenty thousand roman legionnaires and camp followers stretches out from the clearing where they stopped the previous evening. It’s still raining.
Shortly after dawn, the nightmare begins in earnest. A group of screaming tribesmen bursts from the undergrowth along the line, attacking an isolated group; then melts back into the woods. Then another attack a few kilometres further along. Clubs and axes do their work effectively. They’re made for this environment. The Romans can barely raise their waterlogged shields, their spears are unwieldy, catching in the dense undergrowth on either side of the track. They can’t form their defensive formations in this tight space, let alone manoeuvre into an attacking position to launch a counter-strike. They’re making easy pickings for the cunning Teutons.
News of the skirmishing reaches the front of the column, and Varus decides to set up a fortified night camp, offering them some protection in the dark and an opportunity to regroup, but when they try to break out the next day at dawn, they suffer heavy losses. They march into another wooded area where they’re attacked again. The Romans dig in, and then try to escape under cover of darkness, but their silent and now unseen attackers shepherd them into yet another trap, at the foot of Kalkriese Hill, about 20 kilometers north of where the modern town of Osnabrück sits.
Just inside the tree-line, thousands of Germanic tribesmen hide behind a camouflaged berm. Many are in fact the auxiliary troops which had galloped off with Arminius a couple of days earlier. From their well-protected position among the trees, they send a rain of spears down onto the disheveled Roman ranks.
The Roman archers are next to useless – the sinew strings of their bows are slack from the moisture, so they retaliate as best they can with lead shot from their slings. Through the dense forest their weapons have minimal effect.
The Romans then try to storm the wall in a frontal attack, but the thick undergrowth and steep slope slows them down, branches catching in their battle-dress as they mount the slope, caligulae slipping in the loamy earth: two steps forward, one step back. The Germans beat them back with spears, knives and clubs, inflicting terrible losses.
Varus’s second in command, Numonius Vala, loses his bottle, wheels his horse and gallops, trying to flee with the rest of his cavalry and reach the Rhine. Germanic cavalry, more used to operating in the thickly wooded hills, overtake them and slaughter them. For the foot soldiers abandoned on the exposed flat, with the swamp at their backs, all hope is gone.
The Germanic hordes pour over their battlement into the midst of the panicked and disorganised Romans, slaughtering them almost to a man. Varus, realising all is lost, and that if he gets out of this alive he’ll have to face some tricky questions from Emperor Augustus, falls on his sword in the appropriate manner, as do many of his officers. They are the fortunate ones.
Roman officers were sacrificed to the Barbarian Gods and cooked in pots, their bones to be used for rituals.
In his account of the Germanic wars, written between 117 AD and 138 AD, The Roman historian Publius Annius Florus, retells the story of the battle.
“Never was there slaughter more cruel than took place there in the marshes and woods, never were more intolerable insults inflicted by barbarians, especially those directed against the legal pleaders. They put out the eyes of some of them and cut off the hands of others; they sewed up the mouth of one of them after first cutting out his tongue, which one of the barbarians held in his hand, exclaiming ‘At last, you viper, you have ceased to hiss.’”
(as rendered by the essayist E.S. Forster in his 1929 translation “Florus: Epitome of Roman History”)
The historian and Senator Gaius Cornelius Tacitus, documenting Varus’s defeat approximately 100 years after the slaughter, wrote that many of the Roman officers were sacrificed to the Barbarian Gods and cooked in pots, their bones to be used for rituals. Some of the dead were decapitated, their severed heads nailed to trees in the forest. Captured officers were placed in wicker cages, strung up and burned.
The common soldiers who survived the battle faced a less gory fate. The lucky ones were ransomed, others were enslaved.
A handful escaped the battle – someone had to tell the story, after all – but it’s unclear what happened to them. It’s probable they ran for the Rhine, hoping to cross the bridge which Drusus had built when he founded Bonna (modern day Bonn) twenty years earlier and take refuge there.
The first known reference to the bridge linking the military encampment at Bonna with the eastern bank was in the work of the same Roman historian, Publius Annius Florus, in his account of the debacle at Teutoburger Wald.
Founder and secretary of the first international archaeological society, Eduard Friedrich Wilhelm Gerhard, mentions the bridge in a paper on Roman roads on page 81 of the Archäologisches intelligenzblatt zur allgemeinen Literatur-Zeitung of 1834. According to Gerhard, remnants of this bridge still posed a hazard to shipping on the Rhine in the latter half of the 18th century.
Archaeological evidence lends weight to the Roman historian Tacitus’s account of the total annihilation of Varus’s force.
The battlefield was discovered as recently as 1987 by a retired British Army officer, out for an afternoon with only his metal detector and a spaniel as company.
The site currently accepted as the battlefield was discovered as recently as 1987 by a retired British Army officer, out for an afternoon with only his metal detector and a spaniel as company. On this day, as practically every day since spaniels were first announced as a breed, the metal detector proved more useful.
Major Anthony Clunn had been hoping to come home with a few Roman coins in his pocket, but he hit the jackpot. He may not have known it straight away, but the three lead sling shot and 160-odd coins from Augustus’ reign – countermarked VAR, to indicate that they had been issued by Varus – caused something of a flap among German archaeologists. Clunn and local archaeologist Wolfgang Schlüter organised a systematic search of the area, and within a few months they had found many more coins and fragments of weapons; and located eight mass graves, filled with human bones and mule skeletons.
The human bones found here fit Tacitus’s telling of the battle and the later burials he described.
Among the dead was 53 year old Centurion Marcus Caelius of the XVIII. His cenotaph stone can be seen in the Rheinisches Landesmuseum in Bonn. The inscription says that his brother Publius Caelius carved the monument and that his bones may be laid at this place when retrieved. Marcus Caelius’s bones were never identified.
Since Major Clunn’s lucky find in the the 1980s, the site has been extensively studied and excavated, and shows battle debris spread over a narrow 20km long corridor. The highest concentration lies on the low side of a zigzagging wall of packed earth, just below Kalkriese hill.
Some 6000 artefacts have been collected from the battle site, among them only one item which is clearly Germanic, part of a spur. The high concentration of finds on the low side of the earthen wall would seem to corroborate the account of the Romans final suicidal onslaught against the Germanic defences.
The dearth of Germanic finds compared to the large number of Roman fragments could be for a number of reasons. Firstly, some of those fighting for Arminius were the Cheruscan cohorts who deserted with him, and would have been still wearing their Roman armour and using their Roman weapons, so not every scrap of Roman kit found in the mud was necessarily from one of Varus’s men. The second reason is that the Germanic tribes would have removed their dead from the battlefield, and buried them with their weapons, possibly some distance from the actual battle.
Emperor Augustus never recovered from the shock of the news, and legend has it that for years afterwards would bash his head against the walls of his palace and shout “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!” The Germanic chiefs had taken the legion standards as trophies, and the legion numbers XVII, XVIII and XIX were never reinstated in the Roman military, the scale of the defeat tainting the numbers forever with shame and ill-omen.
The Romans wanted vengeance, and began planning immediately, though it wasn’t until five years later that Germanicus set out with an army of some 70,000 men, to punish the tribes east of the Rhine. During the course of their raids, Germanicus’s soldiers found the battle site. In his annals, Tacitus describes Germanicus’s discovery of the Teutoburger Wald battlefield. The site was still littered with heaps of bleached bones, human skulls nailed to trees. They buried the remains in mass graves, before returning to the Rhine and planning their final raid into Germany’s north.
In about 16AD the Romans marched on Arminius and forced his army into battle on open ground at Idistaviso on the Weser River. This was how the Romans preferred to fight and where their full tactical prowess could be demonstrated, to deadly effect. Germanicus inflicted heavy losses for only minimal casualties. Although Arminius escaped, Germanicus had recaptured two of the three golden eagle standards and Rome felt that vengeance had been served well enough for now, and that the threat Arminius posed had been neutralised.
Not long afterwards, in AD18 or 19, rival Germanic chieftains conspired against Arminius and murdered him. Et tu, Barbarus! However Rome does not forget its eagles lightly, and in the year 41 Aulus Gabinius Secundus Chaucius, the governor of Germanica Inferior, marched up to the North Sea coast in search of the Chauci tribespeople, known to have helped Arminius at Kalkriese. The chief who had the third missing golden eagle in front of his hut must have thought he was a real big-shot until he heard the thudding hooves of Roman cavalry entering his village!
The story of the battle of Teutoburger Wald has become the founding myth for German nationalist sentiment, but it took a little time – nearly 1,500 years.
*The events described here may or may not have taken place on a Tuesday. No responsibility accepted for any unpleasantness caused by the author’s choice of Tuesday for the slaughter of Varus’s legions.