For four days the battle raged, stretching along lines up to 100 kilometers long through the dark and foggy Teutoburg Forest in northwestern Germany. It was the year 9 AD, and the Roman general Publius Quinctilius Varus, governor of Germania, was following the advice of a Germanic chieftain he knew and trusted, because the German had long fought in the service of the Romans. His name was Arminius – Hermann, in German. But Arminius was using his knowledge of the Romans to lure Varus into a trap, vanquishing three legions so completely that only handfuls of the 20,000 Roman troops escaped.
Those captured were enslaved or sacrificed to gods, their severed heads nailed to trees. Varus himself fell on his sword on the fourth and final day of the battle. Arminius, of the Cheruscan tribe, sent Varus’ head to Maroboduus, king of the Suebi, another Germanic tribe. The message was simple: the Romans can be beaten, join me. But the king declined the offer and sent the head to Emperor Augustus in Rome.
The battle of Teutoburg Forest changed history, its impact visible to this day. It stopped the Romans from colonizing the wild lands east of the Rhine – Germany even now is divided between a wine-loving south and west and a beer-swilling north and east. But the war cries and clang of swords also echoed through the ages in other ways: as a creation myth – glorious and catastrophic at once -- that later forged the German nation.
The battle’s tale was spun into myth and retold in poems, plays, operas, books and paintings that hailed Hermann as Germany’s first hero. Many experts think that Siegfried, a hero in German mythology like Beowulf in Anglo-Saxon, is based on Arminius. The cult around Hermann the German peaked in 1875, when a gigantic monument of him was completed near the town of Detmold. This copper hero holds aloft a sword seven meters long and faces France, Germany’s old foe, beaten four years earlier in a war that had finally ushered in German unification.
For all that legend and interpretation, however, historians and archaeologists still argue – often bitterly – about exactly how and where the battle took place. And now that story must be rewritten once more, after a dramatic discovery last month at the presumed site of the battle near the village of Kalkriese, some 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) north of Osnabrück in northwestern Germany.
The latest excavations show that the Romans barricaded themselves into a makeshift fortification. Joseph Rottmann, director of the Kalkriese museum
That’s where archaeologists found layers of sand, piled-up earth, wood and Roman artifacts that confirm what they had already begun suspecting after a previous dig in 2016: the find is the remains of a hastily-erected Roman fortification, a classic ditch-and-earth-rampart construction.
This contradicts the earlier theory that a 400-meter earthwork previously found on the battlefield was Germanic. Historians at Kalkriese had assumed that Arminius and his men used the wall as cover from which to ambush the passing Romans. Now, it’s believed to have been part of the Roman fort.
“The latest excavations show that the Romans barricaded themselves into a makeshift fortification,” Joseph Rottmann, director of a Kalkriese museum that recounts the battle, told Handelsblatt Global. This discovery does not refute the theory of a vast Germanic ambush. “We’re talking about a battle that lasted several days. The Germans definitely lay in wait but they did not, as assumed up to now, use the wall.”
This insight raises new questions about the course of the battle — and whether it even happened at Kalkriese. But one certainty remains: chilling and poignant discoveries in recent decades prove that the fighting here ended in a rout of Roman soldiers.
Small stashes of coins found in the ground suggest that legionaries knew their end was near - they buried their belongings to prevent them from falling into the hands of tribesmen. The wealth of buckles, hinges and connecting parts of body armor discovered suggests that they were torn off the dead and dying. Archaeologists have also found metal frames ripped from shields, folded and ready for transport to be melted down. They were probably loot, piled up to be distributed among the victorious tribesmen.
“I would hesitate to call this a battle,” Boris Dreyer, a history professor and author of “Arminius and the Downfall of Varus”, told Handelsblatt Global. “I would describe it as a massacre or a series of running skirmishes like Napoleon’s retreat from Russia.”
The head of the excavation, Professor Salvatore Ortisi, said one plausible version of events may be that the Romans, depleted after days of fighting, built the fort for a last stand. “It is relatively small, five to six hectares, which would have provided enough room for 3,000 to 4,000 soldiers but they would have been tightly packed,” Mr. Ortisis said. He's a specialist on provincial Roman archaeology at the University of Munich.
“It’s not a textbook construction. The troops made the best possible use of what high ground they could find in the relatively flat land. The makeshift, uneven construction suggests that the force was under pressure and disintegrating. Remnants of the Roman army probably took refuge here in the final stages of the battle. The fort was probably overrun because there are signs of fighting inside it.”
“We know from the condition of the bones found in previous excavations that the dead were left on the surface for several years,” Mr. Ortisi added. “Some of the bones had traces of animal bites and showed signs of weather damage.” Mr. Ortisi, whose father is Italian but who was born and raised in Germany, admitted to mixed feelings while working through the soil where so many Romans were killed. “There’s a lot of tragedy here. The battle went so unbelievably badly for the Romans, it does make me put myself in the position of those who lost their lives here.”
Research has focused on Kalkriese since 1987, when hobby archaeologist Tony Clunn, a British major serving in Germany, discovered 150 silver coins and three Roman slingshots about a kilometer from the site. More evidence was unearthed over the years; human bones with terrible battle wounds, some 2,000 coins, spear tips, fragments of Roman armor, belt buckles, tent pegs, sandal nails, surgical instruments and a spectacular face mask from a cavalryman's helmet. They’re on display in a museum at the site.
Despite all this, there is still no definitive proof that Kalkriese was the site of the battle. Archaeologists keep hoping that they will unearth some item with the inscription of the 17th, 18th or 19th legions that fought in the battle. It is significant, however, that none of the coins found was minted after 9 AD, and some coins bear the image of Varus.
“In theory the battle could have stretched over 100 kilometers, which means many places can be Varus battlefields,” said Mr. Dreyer, who is based at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg in Bavaria. “That’s part of what makes it so exciting. Did it happen in my back yard or my neighbor’s? It’s a fight among localities, and researchers also battle tooth and nail over this, with accusations that they’ve been withholding discoveries or are part of a cartel.”
Those who have doubts about Kalkriese as the location believe the discovery of a Roman fort supports their case. “No site has been searched as thoroughly as Kalkriese,” said Mr. Wolters. “For the past 20 years, they have tried to locate the route the Romans took to get there, and they haven’t succeeded so far.”
An expert on ancient coins, Prof. Wolters added that the coins found at Kalkriese did not prove that the fighting that evidently took place at the site happened in 9 AD, the date of the Varus battle. The head of the Kalkriese museum, Dr. Rottmann, countered that the coin debate had been going on for years. “We have no coin in Kalkriese — and we’ve found more than 2,000 so far — that was minted after 9 AD,” said Dr. Rottmann, the museum director. “Our coin with the most recent mint is the Caius/Lucius type printed up to 2/1 BC.”
Whether or not the earth around Kalkriese still reveals the decisive evidence, Germans follow this detective work with more than fascination. The battle is part of their centuries-long quest for a national identity. Ever since the 16th century, following the chance discovery of a Roman account of the battle in the German abbey of Corvey, Arminius has served as a figurehead for nationalists seeking to unite the fragmented German-speaking territories.
The Roman historian Tacitus described the battle in his Annals, a history of the Roman empire, the first six books of which were found in Corvey and translated into German. He called Arminius the “liberator of Germania” and was the only author to give a vague indication of where the battle took place: “Not far from the Teutoburg Forest,” a range of hills in northwest Germany, he wrote. Kalkriese is about 30 kilometers north of the eastern reaches of the Teutoburg Forest.
So the long-forgotten Arminius became the freedom fighter who saved his people from foreign oppression. In the early modern period, “the Germans were an agrarian people far removed from their ambitions and suddenly they discovered that they had ancestors who had beaten the biggest military power in the world,” said Mr. Dreyer. “Suddenly, all freedom movements, regardless of who they were against — the Pope, or the French — were likened to the supposed war of liberation of Arminius.”
That was fake news, of course. Arminius only led a few tribes located in the northwest of Germany. Meanwhile, the more than 50 Germanic tribes of the ancient period were the forefathers of many different European nations. Moreover, Arminius’ motivation was personal power rather than national freedom. He wanted to sideline rivals within his northwestern tribe and possibly even form a Cheruscan monarchy — with him as king. At that he failed.
Hermann nonetheless became the symbol of an increasingly aggressive nationalism that ultimately led to National Socialism. That’s why, after 1945, many schools shunned the story of Arminius. But a fascination with the man and the myth lingered. In the 1970s, children who found anything metal in the woods in northwestern Germany would run home to their parents claiming they had found the battlefield. In 2009, there was a new surge in media interest and book publications for the 2000th anniversary of the battle.
The only surviving written accounts are from Tacitus, his fellow Roman Paterculus and from the Greek historian Cassius Dio. Of those, only Paterculus was alive at the time of the battle. In fact, he served in the Roman army in Germania and may have known Varus and even Arminius personally, but he didn’t write a description of the battle.
What is known from these accounts is that Varus was attacked while marching home from somewhere near the Weser river to the safety of winter quarters further west on the Rhine, which formed the frontier between the Roman empire and the unsubdued Germanic tribes.
Arminius was a Roman ally and Varus knew and trusted him. The Cheruscan leader, around 25 at the time, had become a Roman nobleman, commanding a unit of Germanic cavalry attached to the Roman forces as auxiliary troops. He had served with distinction in the suppression of a three-year revolt in the Roman province of Pannonia in southeastern Europe.
“He set a trap for Varus, telling him that some tribes had mounted a revolt, which led him to divert his troops north into unfamiliar territory during his march back to the Rhine,” said Mr. Dreyer. It was a German autumn and the Roman column snaked for some 15 kilometers along narrow, sodden, foggy forest paths, slowed down by ox-driven supply carts, with each legionary carrying an estimated 48 kilograms of equipment including shield, spear and sword.
Arminius knew that Roman forces were vulnerable when on the march, especially when drawn out in long lines through forests.
On open ground, the Roman army of the day was all but unbeatable. The soldiers were highly disciplined and capable of rapidly maneuvering in flexible but bristling and deadly formations. Their javelins, hurled over distances of up to 20 meters, could smash through wooden shields and chainmail, and they were trained to jab their broad, double-edged swords over the edge of their shields into the face or neck of their enemies.
But Arminius knew that Roman forces were vulnerable when on the march, especially when drawn out in long lines through forests, where they could not maneuver in their usual formations. So Arminius started his assault with terrifying skirmishes from the depths of the woods that threw the Romans into disarray. As the fighting dragged on, more and more tribesmen joined the fray.
According to the accounts, Varus was able to repel the first attacks and managed to build a proper military camp after the first day. But the next day, he made the fatal error of marching further into the trap, heading north to where the supposed uprising was taking place, unaware that he faced a skillful adversary versed in Roman tactics. “He didn’t know who he was dealing with at first and he underestimated the peril he was in,” said Mr. Dreyer.
The defeat made the Romans reconsider whether pacifying this land of warlike wildlings was worth the trouble. “Initially, great prestige had been attached to victories in Germany,” said Reinhard Wolters, a history professor at the University of Vienna and author of the book: “The Battle in the Teutoburg Forest: Arminius, Varus and Roman Germania.”
“As Rome shifted from being a republic to a dynastic empire, military victories in Germania had presented an opportunity for members of the dynasty to earn their laurels on the battlefield. But the defeat of Varus and the difficulties of the subsequent campaigns of the emperor’s son Germanicus in Germania raised awareness of the risks and costs involved.”
The misty forests around Kalkriese hold many more secrets. As the archaeologists keep digging, historians are writing a further chapter of the Hermann saga: how a nation fabricated history to invent itself. In these days of populist firebrands tweeting new myths, it’s a cautionary tale. And as for Hermann the German: He was killed by members of his own tribe only a few years after his triumph. His tribe, the Cherusci, decimated by subsequent battles with Romans, vanished from memory.
David Crossland is an editor for Handelsblatt Global.