Presentation

 

Toward the end of his long life, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus was ruling the vast Roman Empire. His farthest provinces, constantly threatened by the Barbarians, were defended by the best soldiers in the Roman Army: the Legionaries. Out of the woods at the foot of Mount Kalkriese, a dreadful story of blood and death has resurfaced from that distant past. This story tells the tragedy of the lost Legions, swallowed up by those woods, marshes and swamps. In September of AD 9, thousands Legionaries from the 17th, 18th and 19th Legion of the Army on the Rhine fought with courage and many fell with honour at Teutoburg, under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus, Governor of Germania Magna, together with an unspecified number of civilians accompanying the expedition. This story was written to remember and honour those heroic men, to rescue them from oblivion and deliver them to History and to the memory of the humankind.

 


 

 

 

Preface by Daniele Castrizio

 

Few historical events have had longer-lasting consequences in the history of Humanity. One of these is certainly the clash between the Germanic tribes and the Roman Legions led by Varus in the Teutoburg Forest. The events that took place in the span of a few days, regardless of their actual scale – was it a battle? A series of ambushes? – convinced the empire to give up the occupation and Romanisation of the territories situated beyond the river Rhine. The idea, perhaps entertained by Augustus, of reuniting the entire Ecumene under Roman rule, began to fade. This project included not only the boundless Germanic tribes, but the Parthians and the other Eastern peoples as well. It was the continuation of the dream of Alexander the Great, who had extended the borders of the world known by the Greeks, and had facilitated a hybrid and variously contaminated culture, which is the basis of Western civilisation. One world under one rule. A mode of globalisation ante litteram, that perhaps not many, at that historical time, were able to fully understand. As a matter of fact, the objections raised by the Roman Senate to Julius Caesar during his Gallic campaigns could have been reiterated, with even more conviction, in order to halt Augustus’ war effort beyond the Rhine. What was the point – his detractors asked – of conquering hordes of savages, whose economy, moreover, was mostly based on subsistence? Alexander had managed to get his hands on the treasures of Persepolis and Babylon, as well as on Egypt, which had more wheat than any other land in the world, and he made of the Greeks and the Macedonians two wealthy peoples. Augustus, on the other hand, fought to acquire poor lands, inhabited by barbarians. However, he was also proven right: the Celts had rapidly been Romanised, creating a real “Roman” cultural area in mid-western Europe. The Germans, much like the Celts, may have followed them in this process of Romanisation – in theory, at least, Arminius and Teutoburg

however, have proven that the proud Germans would not have gone down this road; that the tribes beyond the Rhine would not have given up their gods and culture. Celtic women forced their husbands to live in the comfortable Roman domus, instead of their dirty huts; to wear comfortable Roman tunics – both stylish and practical – instead of their traditional rags which hindered mobility. They welcomed thermal springs and theatres, the comfortable life of symposiums and banqueting, rational and impartial laws, a production-based system and an impulse for trade. The Germans never did any of these things, save for a few small groups. Arminius himself, who had been a “hostage” with the Romans, would surely have been an excellent witness to the advantages of the Greco-Roman culture and way of living, but chose to remain faithful to his own traditions and to play a deadly match against Rome, not in the name of independence, but out of personal gain: he wanted to lead the Germanic tribes. This very same attitude can be found centuries later in the “Romano-Barbarian” kingdoms. That is, while the Goths seemed to appreciate Roman customs, the Lombards systematically destroyed Italian art and culture to apply their ancient models, which gave rise to the Middle Ages.

Many, perhaps too many authors, have written about Teutoburg, but above all this battle has sometimes been used for “political” and chauvinistic ends. At certain times in Europe’s history, nationalistic pride has seized a betrayal and turned it into epic feats, misinterpreting and rewriting history. It was the German archaeologists, among others, who shed new light on Teutoburg. They discovered the locations where the fighting took place, and the traces left by the Roman legionaries who gave their lives to fulfil their duty as soldiers. Coins and weapons tell us the stories of the last hours of those ill-fated fighters, and sometimes give us their names as well.

Starting from such robust scientific basis, Joseph Garo has tried to give consistency to the scientific reports offered by archaeologists, in an attempt to show us a brand new Teutoburg, seen through the eyes of the Romans, who have fought and have lost. The outcome of the author’s experiment is undoubtedly interesting and worthy of note. Stripped of its rhetorical frills, the battle appears for what it is: a series of unavoidable events, during which the best army of the ancient world found itself virtually helpless against enemies whom it would have otherwise crushed with no effort whatsoever, had the fighting taken place in the open field. That is the power of strategy!

The author infuses this novel with the passion and the expertise of an esteemed re-enactor of the deeds of the Roman Legions. He knows their weapons, their tactics, the materials they used, and the way of living of the legionaries, whom he portrays as vividly as if we were with them during those terrible and ferocious days. This way of writing historical novels deserves our undivided attention, particularly in a Western world so largely dominated by fantasy stories, which are unintelligible to my poor senses. With our wealth of History and true stories, like Teutoburg’s, that no one tells anymore, what need do we have for middle-earths, games of thrones and other made-up tales that push the audience away from the awareness of their own roots and origins? If it is a struggle between what’s real and what’s imagined, I know which side I am on, bag and baggage: on the same side where my friend, Joseph Garo, has set up camp.


 

 

 

Teutoburg and Varus’ Legions, between Myth and Reality

 

The events narrated in the chapters of this book – twenty-eight in total, like the number of Augustan Legions before Teutoburg – develop over a long period of time, with the tragedy that occurred to Varus’ Legions as its tragic epicentre.

For those among the readers who have studied the classics, of the tragic events that took place at Teutoburg, that which leaves a lasting mark in the memory of the student is indubitably the historically famous phrase attributed to Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus: “Varus, give me back my Legions”. According to various authors, the battle, which was in fact an ambush, lasted no less than three days, probably in September AD 9. In the year 1841, in the area of the city of Detmold, Germany, on the river Weser, works went underway to build a memorial statue over 170 feet tall, called Hermannsdenkmal, portraying the hero who liberated Germany from Roman rule, the Cherusci prince Arminius (subsequently called Hermann). The statue was completed several years later and placed precisely on top of Teutberg hill. The earliest finds were Roman coins, discovered by the farmers who laboured in the estate of count Heinrich Sigismund Von Bar, as reported in two documents published by the philosopher and numismatics enthusiast Zacharias Goeze in 1698 and 1716 respectively, and by the scholar Justus Möser in 1768. Only the latter had the intuition to link these discoveries to the events of Teutoburg, quoted in the same year in his work Osnabrücker Geschichte (the history of Osnabrück). Möser’s theory was based on two arguments: the first was that none of the coins reported a date that followed the Augustan era; the second was that all of the coins found during labour in the fields had been dug up in Kalkriese. However, Möser ascribed Varus’ battleground (Varusschlacht) to the area known today as Osnabrück-Voxtrup. Subsequently and along the same line as Möser’s, a friend of his, Carl Gerhard Wilhelm Lodtmann, mentioned the discovery of those coins in that area in his work Monumenta Osnaburgensia, published in 1753. He justified the presence of the coins with an alleged series of skirmishes involving cavalries, that took place precisely in Kalkriese. So far, then, the battleground was still believed to have been Osnabrück. The coins, therefore, represented one of the keys to unveil the mystery of the site where the Battle of Teutoburg took place. An early rendering of a coin found in the Kalkriese-Niewedde valley can be seen on the cover of Beschreibung und Geschichte des Hochstifts und Fürstenthums Osnabrück mit einigen Urkunden (description and history of the diocese and district of Osnabrück), written in 1789 by Johann Eberhard Stüve. It was an aureus discovered near the small village of Venne and ascribable to Varus’ battle. We owe to the scholar Theodor Mommsen (1817 – 1903), following the unearthing of more Roman coins of Augustan age again in the lands belonging to the counts Von Bar, the theory that the battle between Varus’ Legions and the Germanic tribes, aided by deserting contingents of the Legions’ auxiliary troops, had instead taken place several miles to the west, in a swampy valley north of the hills and woods of Mount Kalkriese that constitutes the northernmost end of the Wiehengebirge range ( Wiehen Hills), situated between today’s North Renania Westfalia and Lower Saxony, which stretch out like a long finger from Minden–Porta Westfalica, in the east, to Osnabrück, in the west). Mommsen’s idea was based on his own interpretation of Tacitus’ words “Saltus Teutoburgensis”, which he understood not as “Teutoburg forest” (or “woods”), but as “Teutoburg crossing”, indicating the narrow passage between the Kalkriese mountain range and the big swamp (grosse Moor). Thanks to the important work of classification carried out by the expert in numismatics Julius Menadier, in 1885 Mommsen published his article Zur Ӧrtlichkeit der Varusschlacht (the site of Varus’ battle), which he indicated as the area of Kalkriese.

However, the turning point was reached in 1987, when a British officer, major Tony Clunn of the Royal Army Medical Corps, visited Osnabrück. Being an archaeology enthusiast, with the permission granted by the superintendent of archaeological excavations Dr. Wolfgang Schlüter, major Clunn did field surveys starting as usual from the Von Bars’ estate. He narrowed down his research to a semi-marshy area between the foot of Mount Kalkriese and the beginning of the great swamp, called Lutterdamm (the old army road), where he found more than 160 silver denarii and some glass pieces from a game played by the legionaries to pass time. Over the following years up to the year 1992, more artefacts were discovered, including another 135 Roman coins, of which one was gold and forty-eight were silver, plus another twenty-nine items that used to constitute the army’s equipment, all of which have been validated by doctor Frank Berger of the Kestner Museum of Hannover, who certified that all items dated back to the Augustan age. The most crucial piece of evidence was discovered when major Clunn unearthed a series of lead bullets used by the slingers, a rather special and important auxiliary unit. These bullets were the unmistakable proof of the presence of the Legions in that area. The artefacts discovered during the following excavations until 1999 brought the number of relics to four thousand, while in our day they amount to over six thousand (including 1500 coins) found across the whole Kalkriese area, of which five thousand are concentrated in the Oberesch site. These extraordinary discoveries have made it possible to “map” the presumed marching line of the ill-fated column led by Varus, which, coming in all likelihood from Minden, outflanks in a semi-circle Mount Kalkriese from east to north-west, south of the village of Ostercappeln, heading north toward Felsen, believed by major Clunn to be the place where Varus set up his last camp before the final defeat and total annihilation of his expedition. The marching line continues toward Schwagstorf, then Venne, then north-west toward the Kalkriese-Niewedde valley, an overall flat area that during the 60s underwent a process of reforestation, located between Mount Kalkriese, to the south, and the great swamp to the north, over 0.6 miles.

However, at the time of the historical battle, in that narrow crossing, approximately 1.8 miles long, the distance between the mountain and the swamp amounted to approximately two hundred yards According to the theory of Tony Clunn, it was therefore a mandatory route for those who wanted to move from east to west. Beyond this narrow passage, the trail of artefacts branched out north-west, not far from the village of Kalkriese, and south-west toward the village of Engter. The epicentre of this area is represented by Oberesch, in the Kalkriese-Niewedde valley, where lies today the Varusschlacht Museum und Park Kalkriese. Recently, the excavation works have been resumed in this area, carried out by the experts of the University of Osnabrück. Among the artefacts displayed at the museum there are two bronze clips from a lorica hamata, the iron-ringed armour used by legionaries during the Republican and the Augustan age. The clips bear on the rear the name of the legionary Marcus Aius of Fabricius’ first cohort (probably his centurion). Near the village of Kalkriese, the archaeologists found precious pieces in solid silver and gemstones used to adorn the sheath of a gladius that had probably belonged to a centurion or a non-commissioned officer, or a legionary among the veterans of the first cohort, the “gladius of Kalkriese” (author’s note). The events concerning the ill-fated and above all “soon-forgotten” Legions of Varus remains a mystery today, for many details are yet to be clarified. According to history, Arminius, a highly-skilled cavalry officer of noble origins (he was the son of Segimerus, a Cherusci prince), who later became a Roman citizen, allegedly betrayed Varus by persuading him to move his troops to the west, where an uprising had supposedly broken out (despite the timely warning offered by his father-in-law Segeste, father of Tusnelda, given as wife to Arminius against her father’s will). In a short span of time, several Germanic tribes joined forces, causing, through a series of repeated ambushes along the way, the destruction of three whole Legions, as well as of six infantry and three cavalry cohorts of auxiliaries, for a total of nearly twenty thousand men according to the sources. In AD 9 the area between the rivers Rhenus (Rhine) and Albis (Elbe) was considered to be a Roman province in its own right called Germania Magna, but perhaps more in Augustus’ personal opinion than in reality. As a matter of fact, only the region of the river Lupia (Lippe), a tributary of the Rhine, was permanently controlled by a Legion, the 19th,  which had taken up quarters at the fortress of Aliso (today called Haltern am See), whereas the other fortresses along the Lippe – Holsterhausen, Beckinghausen, Oberaden and Anreppen – had not been used for a few years, except maybe during the summer by auxiliary troops responsible for patrolling and supporting the transference of the supplies needed by the Legions (or the cohorts) during their traditional inland summer campaigns. Aliso was only a few Roman miles away from the Rhine and the fortress of Castra Vetera (today called Xanten), at the junction with the Lippe, which housed the 18th Legion and that year, perhaps in anticipation of the summer campaign, the 17th as well, which would otherwise have taken up quarters in one of the other forts along the Rhine. One  Legion alone could not have controlled such a wide area, inhabited by tribes that were independent of one another, in a land that was wild, inhospitable and above all hostile to Rome and her methods. Publius Quinctilius Varus was a skilled politician and administrator, but he was not so proficient in matters regarding warfare. He had been appointed as governor of that province only two years earlier with the role of legatus Augusti pro praetore. He was married to Claudia Pulchra, the daughter of the emperor’s niece, and he believed he could use with the Germanic tribes the same violent and repressive methods he had employed during his earlier office in Syria. The summer campaign of AD 9, which would later prove fatal for the Roman expedition, led Varus and his Legions to set up a semi-permanent camp along the Visurgis (today called Weser), that is, a camp that would be used for a few months rather than just for one night (marching camp) or for an indefinite period of time (permanent camp), in an area that corresponds today, according to the experts, to the district of Barkhausen in the city of Minden.

How many men did Varus actually bring? Even though we found proof of the presence of two Legions, the 18th and the 19th, nothing has been found in connection to the third Legion. Many believe it was the 17th, if nothing else because after the events of Teutoburg these three numbers disappeared from the Legions’ count. Historians, archaeologists and all major authors who have dealt with this story agree on the fact that Varus believed he was crossing a completely Romanised, and therefore safe, area. Why, then, would he bring three whole Legions? In the Augustan age, one Legion consisted of ten cohorts of legionary infantry, each one comprising 480 men, for a total of 4800 soldiers who had to be Roman citizens or citizens of the Roman provinces, born free. In addition to these, there were over three hundred men between officers and non-commissioned officers and about 120 horsemen. The auxiliaries, who were generally recruited among the local people, were divided into infantry and cavalry cohorts and were usually used for scouting missions. Assuming that the first two Legions – the 17th and the 18th – had departed from the forts on the Rhine, no experienced general would have left a fort in a vulnerable state, with less than 1000 to 1500 men to control it and carry out, besides the regular guard duty organised in shifts across the centuriae and the patrol duty outside the fort’s perimeter over a certain distance, all the various administration and logistics assignments, and above all the defence of the fort itself in case of an attack. An even bigger issue would have been leaving the fortress of Aliso, on the Lippe, undefended, for this was the only and last ring of defence of the Army of the Rhine wedged into enemy territory. And besides, Aliso was also the administrative headquarters responsible for the whole new province of Germania Magna, which could not afford to be left undermanned. On the basis of a similar argument (advanced by the author), Varus could not have brought with him more than nine  or ten thousand legionaries, including a few thousand German auxiliaries, led by Arminius, whom he trusted. Moreover, as reported by various historical sources, he had left a few garrisons along the Lippe and the Weser, in order to watch over the constant inflow of supplies for his troops from the Rhine, each manned by at least a couple of cohorts. For all these reasons, at the time of the ambush Publius Quinctilius Varus could count on seven or eight thousand legionaries at best. But what really happened, and where?

As proven by the excavation works carried out by archaeologists, the artefacts found north of Mount Kalkriese, precisely at the site of Oberesch, show how the whole surrounding area was indubitably the theatre of brutal and bloody skirmishes involving both infantry and cavalry forces, which ended with the defeat of the Roman army. The discovery of a fortified wall in the Oberesch region is an example of extemporary fortifications, and the recent discovery of another moat in the same area will eventually serve to clarify whether it was built by the Germans, the Roman legionaries or the German auxiliaries who joined Arminius (and therefore able to build one just like those built by the legionaries). What was Arminius’ true role in all of this? Is it possible that in such a short time he managed to organise an uprising that involved so many Germanic tribes plus several auxiliary troops of the Legions, getting everyone to act in unison without being caught nor raising the concern of the other tribe leaders, who were jealous of their own independence? What sparked the fighting? Perhaps a simple rebellion against the much hated methods employed by Varus? Or was it a reaction to the over-taxation exerted by Rome, or to a raid carried out by a unit of auxiliaries at the expense of a local village? Despite the writings provided by the authors of the time, there is still a lot to uncover today. Even though they were outnumbered, after the first skirmish the Romans would certainly have regrouped. Despite being five or six thousand, they still posed a serious threat. In the open field and with the Roman Legions deployed, the German warriors – particularly Arminius – were well aware that the odds were against them; in fact, during a conventional battle in the open field very few enemies would have survived against the élite forces of the Roman army. North of Oberesch, a series of small ditches have been found recently containing coins which had probably belonged to the legionaries, who may have hidden them prior to fighting. It is likely that the actual fighting began earlier, in the east, only to come to an abrupt end beyond Mount Kalkriese, in the north-west. We can only hope that one day archaeologists will find more striking evidence. But did Varus bring all these men with him? Was Arminius truly able to predict exactly the route that Varus’ column would take after the first ambushes, and carry out such a complex scam in the span of a few days, or rather, have both characters been idealised by their respective peoples, one as being the good guy and the other as the bad guy?

As a matter of fact, Arminius never did become the unifier of the German peoples that some have claimed he was for reasons of mere propaganda, because he was killed by his own men a few years after the battle of Teutoburg. As for Varus, he became a convenient alibi for the emperor, who had to justify a defeat that was both politically awkward and dangerous to the empire. However, in my view, the need for reviewing the history of those events should spring from what happened in the years that followed, considering how nearly nothing changed in the geopolitical frame of that region of the empire. Arminius’ (alleged) victory did not allow the Germans to unite once and for all and invade the “Roman world” by crossing the Rhine, because two Legions – the 1st Germanica and the 5th Alaudae, quickly brought there from Mogontiacum (today’s Mainz) in the south by the legate Lucius Nonius Asprenas – took care of preventing that from happening. Varus’ defeat, whatever its actual extent, did not determine a revision of the border which remained on the Rhine, nor did it reduce Rome’s influence in any way. Ten years after the incident at Teutoburg, all its main players had already died: Varus, Arminius, Augustus and Germanicus (the latter under unclear circumstances), who had avenged the defeat by retrieving two of the three missing eagles, respectively in AD 15 and 16, while the third was found several years later, in AD 41.

Tiberius, Augustus’ successor, decided that Rome would no longer try to subdue and control the regions beyond the Rhine that had been the theatre of the tragedy. Why did he make a similar decision? Presumably for two reasons: the first would have to do with the geography of the area, which was wild, inhospitable and above all unprofitable to Rome, except for the large amount of timber available; the second, which is far more likely, has to do with balance of power. Even though Rome could have afforded to send there a higher number of Legions, putting so many professional soldiers such as the legionaries in the hands of a single man (Germanicus, the designated successor to the empire’s rule) could have posed a potential threat to Tiberius and to Rome. Eventually nothing changed with respect to the original border, which coincided with the Rhine and, to the south, the Danubius (today’s Danube). What was left was the echo of a Roman defeat celebrated by the Germanic tribes and quickly buried by Rome, but also, and more importantly, the fact that many brave legionaries never returned to Aliso and Castra Vetera, having fallen bravely for Rome and the emperor, however quickly forgotten. As one walks through the woods of this region, near the towns of Venne, Felsen, Kalkriese, as well as along the “Römer Lippe Route” touching Haltern Am See, Lunen and Bergkamen (where lies the fort of Oberaden), one cannot help but be charmed by the beauty of the landscape: forests of various densities alternate with farming fields and huge stretches of grass, usually well kept. The ideal place for a relaxing holiday.

Ever since the first historical re-enactment event in which I took part, the bimillennial anniversary of 2009, every time that I find myself strolling down the clearing in the Oberesch region my heart goes out to those men who marched there two thousand years ago, fighting and falling ambush after ambush, carrying, when possible, the more lightly wounded while leaving the heavy wounded to their fate, who would die during the night from blood loss or from exposure, amid mud and rain, in a slow and painful agony. It is certainly not up to me to assess what truly happened, for such a task is the archaeologists’ prerogative, who are the only expert and competent parties on the matter. My heart naturally goes out to the legionary Marcus Aius, who, led by his centurion Fabricius, crossed those fields with his cohort, the first, the élite of the Legion, comprising the best and most experienced soldiers. In the spot where the archaeologists found the clips that fastened his armour on the front, a small iron gravestone has been placed as a memorial. What happened to Marcus Aius? Was he killed and stripped of his armour, or did he lose those pieces while fighting, managing to escape and take shelter in the great swamp? Did he throw his armour away in order to surrender or to escape, or did his body lie helplessly in that blood-drenched field, exposed to severe weather and without receiving a dignified funeral as befits a legionary?

We will never know, but for poetic reasons I prefer to picture him behind his shield intent on fending off the blows inflicted by the swords and the spears of the outnumbering Germans. In all likelihood he was one among thousands of legionaries who fought and perished with honour in those fields where we peacefully stroll today, without ever making it back from that hell, fulfilling the oath of allegiance sworn to the emperor and his Legion. Given the beauty of these regions, one can hardly imagine the tragedy and the violence that characterised those days of September AD 9.

The two main players, Varus and Arminius, died under different circumstances: the former took his own life at Teutoburg, in the last extemporary camp set up during the days of the attacks (according to the sources); the latter died a few years later at the hands of members of his tribe during a meeting (again as reported by the sources). One could argue that these two men crossed paths with one another so that they may face a nearly identical as well as taunting fate: they both fell victim to their poor understanding of the situation in Germany at that time. Even though their motives were different, they both wanted to subdue its people: Varus as an invader, Arminius as the aspiring unifier of a nation that did not yet exist. Their dreams fell fatally apart as they clashed against the spirit of independence of the Germanic tribes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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