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.

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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.

Marcus Caelius Exposition

13 June 2009
Reconstruction of the Marcus Caelius Cenotaph

Reconstruction of the Marcus Caelius Cenotaph

The museum of Xanten has recently been reopened, and there’s a nice exposition on Marcus Caelius, called “Marcus Caelius – Tod in der Varusschlacht”. According to the inscription of his famous cenotaph, this centurio of the Eighteenth Legion was killed in action during the Battle in the Teutoburg Forest.

The exposition tries to evoke the man’s life. For example, you will find information on Roman Bologna, the place where he was born, but also on his activities as a soldier. In short, the exposition informs you about “arms and the man”. I liked it very much, especially the drawings from the seventeenth century, which illustrate how later generations have used this monument, which was discovered in 1620 and is one of the first and finest examples of Roman sculpture made north of the Alps.

The exposition lasts until 30 August, and will be in Bonn’s Rheinisches Landesmuseum from 24 September 2009 to 24 January 2010.

Haltern, Imperium Exposition

11 June 2009
Relief showing the Capitoline geese from the Ostia Museum

Relief showing the Capitoline geese from the Ostia Museum

It’s two thousand years ago that the Roman commander Varus and three legions were defeated by Germanic tribesmen led by Arminius. The Battle in the Teutoburg Forest has always been a lieu de mémoire in German history, and it comes as no surprise that there are several expositions devoted to this event. In Xanten, there’s a charming exposition on Marcus Caelius, one of the soldiers killed in action (more…). In Kalkriese, there’s an exposition called “Conflict” on the relations between Rome and the Germanic tribes (which I already mentioned in passing); in Detmold you can visit the “Myth” expo, on the Nachleben of the battle; and finally, there’s  “Imperium” in the Seestadthalle in Haltern, which tries to show to which civilization Varus belonged.

“Imperium” is the most overwhelming exposition I have visited in five years or so. You will see art objects from the first centuries BC and AD documenting the origins of Rome, like the relief shown next to this article;  imperial propaganda (e.g., the Vatican Actium relief and works of art pertaining to the Ara Pacis); portraits of the main actors (Pompey, Caesar, Augustus, Cleopatra, Tiberius, Gaius and Lucius…) and cultural icons (Virgil, Maecenas…); you can see frescoes from the homes of Rome’s rich and famous (from the Palazzo Massimo); there are codices with the poems of Ovid and Propertius; coins with Varus’ portrait; objects illustrating his career in Syria; et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Best of all, you can make as many photos as you like. I have on at least five occasions tried to make photos in the Ostia museum, because I wanted to study the geese relief – it was always forbidden, but now I finally was able to make my photos. I have one complaint, though: the illumination was rather old-fashioned – the objects were still shown in poorly illuminated rooms in which only a couple of objects are to be seen in low-key light. This was, now that new museums like Tongeren and Xanten have decided to abandon this approach, an unpleasant surprise. Still, the set of objects that has been collected is splendid and I was suffering from exhaustion when I had seen it all.

The official website of the Imperium – Conflict – Myth expositions is here, while Xanten’s Marcus Caelius exposition is here.

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.


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.