I am probably not the most neutral reviewer of the latest issue of Ancient Warfare, a special on the massacre in the Teutoburg Forest. In the first place, because I have always been fascinated by the clash in the blogs of the Northgerman Lowlands. In the second place, because I am one of the contributors to this issue. Still, I am not completely uncritical, and I like to point out that there’s something missing: an article on the Claudian Army Reforms.
The battle’s significance, we are always told, was that it meant the liberation of Germany. That was, in any case, the vision of Tacitus and Florus, who wrote in the second century AD. Contemporaries had a different vision. Velleius Paterculus believed that, as a disaster, it was less important than Carrhae, and did not notice any change in Roman policy. To agree with Paterculus and to say that nothing changed, would be exaggerating, but it is certainly possible to overestimate the significance of the battle. The Romans had always combined diplomacy and the use of arms, the first one being Tiberius’ preference and the second one being Drusus’ preference vis-à-vis the Germanic tribes. The only thing that changed was that when Tiberius became emperor, direct military occupation was abandoned, and diplomatic means were preferred to control the land east of the Rhine. But there were still campaigns, the tribes were essentially vassals of the empire, and the river was not yet considered a boundary.
The real change took place almost half a century later, when – during the reign of Claudius – the limes was created and Rome decided that the Rhine would be the limit to the empire. The river was now becoming a real frontier zone. Florus and Tacitus attributed this to the Teutoburg Forest massacre, and they were not completely wrong, but they were not completely right either. A perfect issue on the epic battle would have treated the significance of the battle, showing that the Europe indeed became divided between a Latin and a Germanic zone, and that this division can only partly be explained by the fight in the marshes.
(The traditional, more exaggerated interpretation is an example of the “positivist fallacy”: we happen to have sources on this battle, so we think it is important, but in reality, there are more important events about which we have no sources.)
All this being said, this issue is easily the best publication on the subject of this anniversary year. Many traditional errors have been avoided – no, there is no evidence that the Romans wanted to proceed to the Elbe – and the look- how-relevant-ancient-history-really is-section on the battle’s afterlife in modern German nationalism is mercifully absent. I will not sum up the individual contributions because that would self-laudatory, but I honestly believe that this is one of the best things to read on the subject. You can subscribe here.