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>

Varus and Vergangenheitsbewältigung (1)

8 September 2009
Merkel at the

Merkel opening one of the expositions

On various occasions, I have blogged on the splendid expositions in Germany, dedicated to the battle in the Teutoburg Forest (here, here, here). There is nothing wrong with these exhibitions, on the contrary; I am envious – why can’t they do something like that in my own country? Yet, a thought occurred to me: why do the Germans actually commemorate the battle at all?

If I summarize the communis opinio correctly, no scholar still believes that the Varian disaster forced the Romans back to the Rhine, created the limes, and caused the rift between Romance and German civilizations that contributed to German wars against France in 1870, 1914, and 1940. The old interpretation that the battle in the Teutoburg Forest marked der Tag, an dem Deutschland entstand (“the day on which Germany was born”) is now absent from serious scholarship. The idea that the inhabitants of the land west of the Weser spoke German, is currently reevaluated. And it is obvious that the limes, which did really cause a rift, was not created before the Claudian army reforms.

So, why still commemorate the battle in the Teutoburg Forest? After all, school curricula are continually updated. In Holland, we used to think that the Batavians were important. They were not, and they are now almost absent from school education. In a recent “canon” of fifty historical subjects every Dutchman is supposed to know, Julius Civilis was not included; the limes, on the other hand, was. I may be wrong, but I think the Belgians and French have developed a tongue-in-cheek approach to Ambiorix and Vercingetorix.

Why can’t the Germans update their vision of the past? On the one hand, German scholars correctly state that es ist falsch die Varusschlacht als historischen Wendepunkt aufzufassen (“it is wrong to interpret the battle of Varus as a pivotal moment in history” – the Mythos catalog), but on the other hand, the battle is commemorated. And here’s another paradox: the expositions correctly present the battle as part of the pan-European phenomenon of Roman imperialism – yet it was not Mr Barroso but Mrs Merkel who opened those expositions. I am left with the impression that modern Germans fear to accept the real conclusion of modern scholarship: that there is no reason to commemorate the battle (except, of course, as a regrettable aspect of nineteenth-century nationalism that contributed to a hatred towards France). It is as if it still is some kind of national event, worthy of the presence of the Chancellor.

What happened in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, is not happening in Germany. I am not sure why, but I have an idea, about which I will blog later.


21 May 2009
Excavations at Barkhausen

Excavations at Barkhausen

After an uneventful trip, I reached Düsseldorf, where I spent the night. The only thing remarkable is that the train passed through Würm, where I saw the small river with the same name – but there was no ice to be seen. After a night’s rest I continued to Minden. It is close to the place where the river Weser passes through the Wiehengebirge, through the “Porta Westfalica” gorge. For a long time, scholars have suspected that this was the place where Varus started on his ill-fated march against the rebellious Chauci, which ended at Kalkriese: the Battle in the Teutoburg Forest.

Recently, some evidence has surfaced that supports this hypothesis. In the first place, at Hedemünden, a supply base was excavated, from Minden upstream. If there’s a supply base, there has to be something to be supplied, and the obvious places are Minden and Hamelin: we know that there must have been at least one Roman base east of Anreppen, because there is a road leaving from its eastern gate, which can have crossed a minor mountain range on only two places, bringing the traveler to either Hamelin or Minden. Even better was the discovery of a number of Roman finds at a place called Barkhausen (satellite photo). It reportedly included a millstone, which proves that it was a settlement of some importance. There was every reason to go there.

I arrived at the railroad station of Porta Westfalica – an impressive gorge indeed – at half past eleven, and was walking to the site of the excavations when I was saluted by a car’s honk – my friends Arjen, Jasper, and Paul, with whom I would visit the site. Over there,  Mrs. Kröger and Mr. Bérenger, the excavators, explained to us what they had found: something from about every period – from the Funnelbeaker culture to the Thirty Years’ War – which was to be expected, because this is a really strategic point.

There are indeed Roman finds: coins, sherds, brooches, and a small oven – the charcoal still has to have a C14-dating, which is not expected until September. But so far, no traces of ditches have been found, and the identification of the site as Varus’ base may be incorrect.

Mr Berenger brought us to the monument of the German emperor Wilhelm I, and later showed us the remains of a remarkable church from the tenth century, and a monastery. After this, we said goodbye, and went to Kalkriese, where we visited a new exposition on the battle in the Teutoburg Forest. To be honest: this site always fails to impress me, but the exposition contained many objects I had never seen before, so that the visit was, in the end, worthwile – and the four of us all went home with the 60 euro catalog: three massive books, beautifully illustrated, and weighing at least six kilo.

Paul’s car brought us to Deventer, where we said goodbye, and the train brought me to Amsterdam, where I went to the Brakke Grond and arranged my 287 photos. End of a nice little holiday.