Common Errors (32): Teutoburg Forest

22 May 2010

The narrows, reconstructed

The Battle in the Teutoburg Forest in September 9 CE was, for a long time, recognized as a major turning point in European history. The Romans lost three legions (XVIII, XIX, and probably XVII), and many scholars have argued that this made the Romans retreat to the western bank of the Rhine, leaving the territories in the east unconquered. As a result, Germany was born. There is a lot to be said against this. For example, archaeologists have always dated all Roman objects prior to 9, but are now realizing that there is evidence for continued Roman presence in Germany.

But that is not the common error I want to discuss today. I want to argue that the Teutoburg Forest was not a forest. Granted, the Roman historian Tacitus refers to a Saltus Teutoburgiensis (Annals, 1.60), but for centuries, no one knew where this was, until Renaissance scholars argued that it had to be somewhere near the Upper Weser, in a densely forested area. They found what they were looking for: the hills known as Osning, between modern Rheine and Detmold. In the nineteenth century, the Osning was renamed Teutoburg Forest. However, archaeologists have found the battlefield at a place called Kalkriese, north of Osnabrück. The ancient name was given to the wrong site.

But as I said, there was not a forest at all. Of course Tacitus’ saltus can mean “forest”, but it can also mean “narrows” (e.g. Livy 36.17, and Livy, Periochae, 22.8, 49.13, and 67.8.). This meaning better fits the situation, as the Kalkriese site is indeed a narrow stretch of land between a hill and a great bog. The author of Tacitus’ source must have thought of this, and Tacitus must have misunderstood this information.

But from pollen research we know that there were no big trees, and the only ancient author who refers to them is Cassius Dio, who is well-known for the way he adds details to his stories to give them some local color. Those barbarians on the edges of the earth,  in his view, ought to live in an inaccessible country, full of mountains and forests. Naive faith in our sources has seriously impeded research – and perhaps we’re lucky because of that, because now, Kalkriese was found by professional archaeologists, and not looted in the eighteenth century by antiquarians.

<Overview of Common Errors>


Ancient Warfare: Teutoburg Forest Special

10 June 2009
Ancient Warfare III.3

Ancient Warfare III.3

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.