Battle of the Teutoburg Forest Germany Recalls Myth That Created the Nation

The Hermann Monument testifies to the power of the myth that created the German nation.
David Crossland

The Hermann Monument testifies to the power of the myth that created the German nation.

By in Kalkriese, Germany

Part 2: Crushed Skulls and Slingshots


The Kalkriese museum displays spear tips, human bones with terrible battle wounds and metal parts from Roman body armor found on the battlefield in the more than 20 years since a British hobby archaeologist, Major Tony Clunn who was stationed in Germany with the British army, discovered 150 silver coins and three Roman slingshots about a kilometer from the site.

Traces of fighting have been found in a wide area around Kalkriese, which ties in with accounts by Roman historians that the battle lasted four days and began with ambushes on the thin column of legionnaires and supplies that stretched 15 kilometers along narrow forest paths.

The army was commanded by Publius Quinctilius Varus, a Roman general, and was heading south to spend the winter in a base by the Rhine.

Arminius, who belonged to the tribe of the Cherusci, was the commander of a troop of Germanic cavalry attached to the Roman army as auxiliaries. He led Varus into a trap by persuading him to make a detour to put down a rebellion, Roman historians wrote.

Varus trusted Arminius -- the two had dined together -- and agreed to change course. Then the Germanic warrior, who wanted to head a revolt that would help him found his own kingdom, rode off with his men to join up with fighters from other tribes hiding in the forests. They started a wave of guerrilla-style ambushes up and down the snaking column.

Romans Outwitted

The Roman legionnaires, accustomed to fighting in disciplined formations on open ground using their shields, spears and swords, were unable to deploy their trusted tactics in the forest. But they were able to regroup and make camp on the first night of the ambush.

After days of attacks, the battle is believed to have culminated at Kalkriese, a bottleneck between a hill and a moor where the Germans had erected an earthen wall from which to assault the Roman flank. Seeing that defeat was inevitable, Varus fell on his sword rather than be captured by the Germanic hordes slaughtering his troops all around him.

The site of the battlefield had been a mystery ever since the Hermann cult got going in the 16th century, and countless locations have laid claim to it. Some historians still have their doubts about Kalkriese, but they are now in the minority because the certainty that this is the true battlefield has grown steadily over the last two decades.

Eight pits containing the bones of men aged 20 to 45 have been found, with many skulls showing gaping holes from fatal blows. The pits tally with Roman accounts of how an army under commander Germanicus discovered the battlefield in AD16 and buried the heaps of bleached bones strewn across it. The soldiers also found skulls nailed to trees.

There are other clear indications that the battle was fought here. None of the 1,600 coins found were minted after AD9. Skeletons of mules were found -- only Roman armies used mules.

Tiny Metal Parts Tell Chilling Story

Other finds at Kalkriese tally with the presence of a Roman military column that wasn't expecting trouble. Ornate tableware, large amounts of cash, even a miniscule painted glass eye taken from a decorative figure that adorned a luxurious Roman dining sofa -- it's not exactly the equipment a Roman army would carry into battle. The army of Varus was moving home for the winter rather than embarking on a military campaign.

The most visually striking find is an iron face mask from a Roman cavalryman's helmet. But it's the myriad of unspectacular bits of metal that really tell the chilling story of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.

"We have been finding traces of plundering rather than of fighting," Susanne Wilbers-Rost, the chief archaeologist at the site, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "The excavations have revealed many small items torn off when the Germans were stripping the Romans as they lay dead or wounded. Things like buckles, hinges, connecting parts of body armor and chain mail.

"You can only imagine this kind of brutal stripping of the dead when the defeat was total, when no Romans survived," she said. "We know that the Romans always tried to retrieve their dead. The Germans had all the time in the world. They weren't disturbed."

Hermann on the Wane

Wilbers-Rost and her colleagues have even found evidence of organized sorting of equipment such as heavy Roman shields that the Germanic warriors had little use for. "They were mainly interested in the metal frames of the shields which they could melt down. We found many frames bent and folded ready to transport. That kind of folding can't have happened in battle."

Wilbers-Rost has gained international recognition for her work which has provided insights that can be applied to other battlefields of all ages. "This is a highly interesting excavation because it's very unusual to find an ancient battlefield. The locations of these sites usually aren't known because they were always plundered. Here we have found out that inconspicuous items can be indications of battle, or of related actions like plundering."

"Usually if you're looking for the remains of thousands of Romans and their enemies you wouldn't pay any attention to a few spear tips and a few remains of a few metal frames, but that may be an indication of a battle," said Wilbers-Rost.

Each year some 100,000 people visit the Kalkriese museum, which does a good job of explaining the battle. This year, visitor numbers are likely to be well above the average. The museum shop is doing a brisk trade in souvenirs such as "Hard Hermann" sausages, replica Germanic drinking horns and "Varus Temptation Waffles."

But the myth of Hermann has lost its power in modern Germany. The old nationalism has been replaced by an easy-going patriotism that mainly manifests itself at sporting events like the soccer World Cup. Today's interest in Arminius mainly reflects curiosity about what really happened in that fateful September 2,000 years ago. "This is a historical thriller," said Söger.

"The myth of Hermann will continue to wane," said Bendikowski. "What will remain of him will be the experience of how a historical myth was created, and how a nation sought to invent itself by fabricating history. It may help us to understand ourselves and other nations better."

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