Recently discovered battlefield may alter perceptions of German history

Recently discovered battlefield may alter perceptions of German history

6th March 2009, Comments 0 comments

A recently discovered ancient battlefield in Germany may send historians back to the books for some rewrites.

Archaeologists have found an ancient battlefield in Germany that indicates that the Roman Legions were still fighting Germanic tribes deep inside "barbarian" territory as late as the 3rd Century AD – 200 years later than hitherto believed.

The discovery comes as preparations are being made to commemorate the 2,000th anniversary of the famous Battle of Teutoburg Forest in September 2009. In the battle, Germanic guerrilla fighters annihilated three elite Roman Legions, the XVIIth, XVIIIth and XIXth, in September of the year 9 AD.

The defeat of the crack troops, who were led to their deaths by the proud ex-Consul Publius Quinctilius Varus, effectively changed the course of Western Civilization. Prior to 9 AD, Emperor Augustus Caesar pursued a course of military expansion across the Rhine and into central and northern Europe. After 9 AD, however, the Rhine became the frontier between the "civilized" Roman world and the "barbaric" lands to the east and north.

The Battle of Teutoburg Forest between
myth and reality: an hagiographic view

The leader of the Germanic tribal forces was a tribal chieftain named Arminius who was educated in Rome and was a trusted friend of Varus. It was that trust in Arminius that resulted in Varus’s fatal decision to lead an expeditionary force into the indefensible, boggy forest of Teutoburg without sentries or reinforcements.

The Roman defeat was so devastating that the numbers of the Legions XVII, XVIII and XIX were retired forever and were never again included in the Roman Army's order of battle. Augustus himself was so traumatized by the loss of three elite legions that he reportedly tore his clothes, refused to cut his hair for months and, for years afterwards, was heard to moan, "Quinctilius Varus, give me back my Legions!" ("Quintilie Vare, legiones redde!")

As a result, Germany was never incorporated into the Roman Empire, leaving the region as a breeding ground for barbarian incursions that eventually brought down the empire.

Arminius, known as Herrmann to the Germans, has come down through German history as a hero of liberty and a symbol of German national strength. In popular German lore, Herrmann was the man that permanently held the Roman occupation forces abreast. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, unscrupulous German leaders often used Hermann as a rallying figure in wars of conquest.

Schling, North Rhine-Westphalia: Arminius statue (Hermannsdenkmal)A monument near the site of the Teutoburg Forest battlefield celebrates Herrmann as a national hero and the regional soccer team in Bielefeld is called Bielefeld Arminia. In recent years, archaeologists have determined the exact location of the battle near the modern village of Engter, north of the city of Osnabrueck. Bones, weapons and armour from the fleeing soldiers of the XVII, XVIII and XIX Legions are strewn along a narrow, 17 km stretch of marshy woodlands.

But the new archaeological discovery, if verified, could mean that the history books must be rewritten, as the newly discovered 3rd Century battlefield is located 100 miles (160 kilometres) further east of the Teutoburg Forest.

"The find can be dated to the 3rd Century and will definitely change the historical perception of that time," said Dr. Henning Hassmann, director of historic preservation in the state of Lower Saxony.

So far, 600 artefacts have been unearthed that are clearly of Roman 3rd Century origin and dating, says Michael Wickmann, an official in the town of Northeim, where the dig has been conducted over a period of months. The dig location has been kept under wraps to prevent the site being overrun by curiosity-seekers and looters.

Why the location is so deep within the territory of the Germanic tribes is still a mystery to archaeologists.

Angus McBride illustration "It is pretty normal to find evidence of Roman culture all over, even up in Scotland, but a find like this in northern Germany is really amazing," Wickmann told reporters when announcing the find. "And it's spectacularly well preserved."

Initial reports said that DNA fingerprinting evidence indicated that some of the arrows had been made of African wood, which was the preferred wood used in the manufacture of Roman arrows. However, Hassmann said he could not confirm those reports.

The latest discovery came as archaeologists continue to dig at the site of what appears to have been a Roman military outpost nearby. It is unknown whether that outpost predates the 9 AD battle of Teutoburg Forest or whether it might be a later tribal camp where Germanic warriors stocked up on Roman-made armaments smuggled or looted from imperial frontier garrisons.

Ernest Gill/DPA/Expatica  
Photo credit: Arminius monument © Beige Alert


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