The Ambush That Changed History

An amateur archaeologist discovers the field where wily Germanic warriors halted the spread of the Roman Empire

Between 6 B.C. and A.D. 4, Roman legions established bases on the Lippe and Weser rivers. (Mike Reagan)
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“This is the soil of 2,000 years ago, where we are standing now,” Susanne Wilbers-Rost was saying as a young volunteer pried a small, dark clod out of it. Wilbers-Rost, a specialist in early German archaeology, peered through wire-rimmed glasses, brushed away some earth, and handed an object to me. “You’re holding a nail from a Roman soldier’s sandal,” she said. Atrim, short-haired woman, Wilbers-Rost has worked at the site, which is ten miles north of the manufacturing city of Osnabrück, Germany, since 1990. Inch by inch, several young archaeologists under her direction are bringing to light a battlefield that was lost for almost 2,000 years, until an off-duty British Army officer stumbled across it in 1987.

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The sandal nail was a minor discovery, extracted from the soil beneath an overgrown pasture at the base of Kalkriese (the word may derive from Old High German for limestone), a 350-foot-high hill in an area where uplands slope down to the north German plain. But it was further proof that one of the pivotal events in European history took place here: in A.D. 9, three crack legions of Rome’s army were caught in an ambush and annihilated. Ongoing finds—ranging from simple nails to fragments of armor and the remains of fortifications—have verified the innovative guerrilla tactics that according to accounts from the period, neutralized the Romans’ superior weaponry and discipline.

It was a defeat so catastrophic that it threatened the survival of Rome itself and halted the empire’s conquest of Germany. “This was a battle that changed the course of history,” says Peter S. Wells, a specialist in Iron Age European archaeology at the University of Minnesota and the author of The Battle That Stopped Rome. “It was one of the most devastating defeats ever suffered by the Roman Army, and its consequences were the most far-reaching. The battle led to the creation of a militarized frontier in the middle of Europe that endured for 400 years, and it created a boundary between Germanic and Latin cultures that lasted 2,000 years.” Had Rome not been defeated, says historian Herbert W. Benario, emeritus professor of classics at EmoryUniversity, a very different Europe would have emerged. “Almost all of modern Germany as well as much of the present-day CzechRepublic would have come under Roman rule. All Europe west of the Elbe might well have remained Roman Catholic; Germans would be speaking a Romance language; the Thirty Years’ War might never have occurred, and the long, bitter conflict between the French and the Germans might never have taken place.”

Founded (at least according to legend) in 753 b.c., Rome spent its formative decades as little more than an overgrown village. But within a few hundred years, Rome had conquered much of the Italian peninsula, and by 146 b.c., had leapt into the ranks of major powers by defeating Carthage, which controlled much of the western Mediterranean. By the beginning of the Christian Era, Rome’s sway extended from Spain to Asia Minor, and from the North Sea to the Sahara. The imperial navy had turned the Mediterranean into a Roman lake, and everywhere around the rim of the empire, Rome’s defeated enemies feared her legions—or so it seemed to optimistic Romans. “Germania” (the name referred originally to a particular tribe along the Rhine), meanwhile, did not exist as a nation at all. Various Teutonic tribes lay scattered across a vast wilderness that reached from present-day Holland to Poland. The Romans knew little of this densely forested territory governed by fiercely independent chieftains. They would pay dearly for their ignorance.

There are many reasons, according to ancient historians, that the imperial Roman legate Publius Quinctilius Varus set out so confidently that September in a.d. 9. He led an estimated 15,000 seasoned legionnaires from their summer quarters on the WeserRiver, in what is now northwestern Germany, west toward permanent bases near the Rhine. They were planning to investigate reports of an uprising among local tribes. Varus, 55, was linked by marriage to the imperial family and had served as Emperor Augustus’ representative in the province of Syria (which included modern Lebanon and Israel), where he had quelled ethnic disturbances. To Augustus, he must have seemed just the man to bring Roman civilization to the barbarous” tribes of Germany.

Like his patrons in Rome, Varus thought occupying Germany would be easy. “Varus was a very good administrator, but he was not a soldier,” says Benario. “To send him out into an unconquered land and tell him to make a province of it was a huge blunder on Augustus’ part.”

Rome’s imperial future was by no means foreordained. At age 35, Augustus, the first emperor, still styled himself “first citizen” in deference to lingering democratic sensibilities of the fallen RomanRepublic, whose demise—after the assassination of Caesar—had brought him to power in 27 b.c., following a century of bloody civil wars. During Augustus’ rule, Rome had grown into the largest city in the world, with a population that may have approached one million.

The German frontier held a deep allure for Augustus, who regarded the warring tribes east of the Rhine as little more than savages ripe for conquest. Between 6 b.c. and a.d. 4, Roman legions had mounted repeated incursions into the tribal lands, eventually establishing a chain of bases on the Lippe and Weser rivers. In time, despite growing resentment of the Roman presence, the tribes exchanged iron, cattle, slaves and foodstuffs for Roman gold and silver coins and luxury goods. Some tribes even pledged allegiance to Rome; German mercenaries served with Roman armies as far away as the present-day Czech Republic.


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