Tuesday, July 09, 2013

The Battle of Teutoburg Wald
A Brief Update Note on a TV Program
and a Brief Look at two books about it

Battle at Kalkriese / Teutoburg Wald

In a previous posting I discussed the Battle of Teutoburg Wald where the German leader Arminius destroyed a Roman army.1 and by doing so put an end, it turned out permanently to Roman attempts to conquer Germany. Here I will discuss a television program on the battle. It is part of the series Perfect Storms. The episode is called The Lost Legions.2 

Given my interest in history and given the rather unpleasant fact that the History Channel has become the repository of endless, boring and dull reality TV shows, whose huge boredom weight is only exceeded by their stupidity weight, both of which are in the gigaton range, I looked forward to finally some real history on the History Channel. Well sad to say I was under impressed. No it isn’t as mind numbingly stupid and criminal as the shit called Ancient Aliens3, but it does have definite weaknesses and a desperate attempt to instill fake drama into a poorly known event.

One thing caught me and annoyed me the show refers to the German God of thunder and storm as Thor twice. Thor is the Norse name of the God and belongs to the Viking period and to Scandinavia. The Germans of this time and area would more likely have given the God the name Donar or Thunaer.4 This may seem picayune but such sloppiness is symptomatic of a difficulty that this show has with getting stuff right.

This is especially annoying in that the program mentioned, quite correctly, that we do not know Arminius’ actual name just the name that the Roman’s gave him. The show gets that detail right but then has Thor as the German God of storm and thunder. Well that is annoying.

The show then lists the Roman force as 16,000 men strong and consisting of three legions. Well that figure is only of the three legions and assumes that the only men in the army were those three legions. That is unlikely. A legion amounted to at this time to c. 6,000 men each meaning a total force of 18,000. I suspect the figure of 16,000 was gotten by adding the 5,200 infantry of each legion for a total of 15,600. This ignores the fact that each legion had cavalry component of course it is possible that the 3 legions were not up to full strength so that 16,000 men is not unreasonable. However the army had in addition 3 cavalry squadrons and 6 cohorts. Each cohort would number c. 480 men so this would be 2,880 additional men and the three cavalry squadrons would number c. at least 500, men and the cavalry in the three legions would number c. 900 men, (300 per legion), all together adding up all these figures gives a total of 4,280 additional men to the figure of c.15,600; giving a total of 19,880, men. Of course this figure ignores that each Roman legion was accompanied by large numbers auxiliaries whose numbers generally equalled those of the legion. So it is possible that the Roman army in the Teutoburg Wald battle could have numbered as much as 40,000 men! In my previous posting I deliberately gave a very low estimate of the size of the Roman army, including of course the auxiliary units giving a figure of 22-24 thousand in total. I assumed at the time that the Roman army was seriously under strength and the fact that many of the auxiliaries deserted along with Arminius to join the rebels that the Roman army was altogether about 22-24 thousand.5

I suspect now that given that Germany had been at peace for a few years that the three legions were probably close to full strength and that was also true of the additional cohorts and squadrons. If that is the case the army even excluding the auxiliaries that joined Arminius and the rebels likely numbered more not less than 24,000.

So likely the show seriously underestimated the size of the army that Arminius had to fight  in the Teutoburg Wald. Certainly leaving out mention of the 6 additional cohorts and 3 cavalry squadrons is not an impressive display of getting the facts right.

The show did mention that the army would have been accompanied by a large number of slaves, servants, wives and children and camp followers. Those would have numbered at an absolute minimum 10,000 more people. Although the show does talk about the fate of the Roman soldiers it does not discuss the fate of the civilians who accompanied them. This was a missed opportunity to discuss the impact of war on the lives of civilians. As it is this would have been the movement of a small town of at least all together 35,000 people and probably over 40,000.

But the real problem with the episode is that they manufacture the idea of some truly serious cyclone like storm with torrents of rain. Actually the accounts do say it rained but they don’t seem to describe a deluge and those elements of the description that do face a problem in that the account mirrors the idea common in Greco-Roman literature of the “edges of earth”,6 with rugged terrain, dense forests and of course horrible weather. In Dio we get the following:

The mountains had an uneven surface broken by ravines, and the trees, standing close together, were extremely tall

Meanwhile a great rain and wind came up that separated them still farther, while the ground, being slippery where there were roots and logs, made walking very difficult for them, and the top branches of trees, which kept breaking off and falling down, caused confusion.7

Later describing the final disaster Dio says:

Dawn of the fourth day broke as they were advancing and again a violent downpour and mighty wind attacked them, which would not allow them to go forward or even to stand securely, and actually deprived them of the use of their weapons. They could not manage successfully their arrows or their javelins or, indeed, their shields (which were soaked through). The enemy, however, being for the most part lightly equipped and with power to approach and retire freely, suffered less from the effects of the storm.8

From such accounts and those are the only ones that mention the weather at all; the TV program concocts an image of an apocalyptic storm. Frankly it could just be a heavy downpour that was exaggerated in order to give a more apocalyptic flavor to this disaster. As it is it is obviously exaggerated.

For one thing the terrain around Kalkriese where the battle took place can hardly be described as mountainous. And at the time the area despite the bogs etc, had many scattered hamlets and open farming fields. It was not a wild, inhospitable thickly forested terrain. It appears that the Roman historians likely exaggerated just how wild and difficult the terrain was.9

For we now know that:

Dio mentions mountains, ravines, and impenetrable forests. As we will see below, the battlefield has been discovered near Osnabrück, and there were neither mountains nor ravines. There may have been a forest, but it was certainly not impenetrable, because there was a village on walking distance from the excavated part of the battlefield.10

And later it is said concerning Dio’s account:

Mountains, ravines, trees: this sounds very spectacular, but we can ignore this information. As we have already noticed, like every ancient author, Dio was obsessed with the edges of the earth, where an unfriendly environment created the most ferocious and savage barbarians. Mentioning forests was simply a way of saying that the Roman legions were challenged by a formidable enemy. It comes as no surprise that part of the country near Kalkriese was in fact under cultivation.11

Finally about the rainfall:

Dio says that it was raining. Rainfall belongs to the standard-clichés about the edges of the earth, so we should be careful, but it may be true.12

The TV show accepts the highly coloured Roman account. I note that neither Florus nor Paterculus mention the weather. It seems that Dio’s account was part of the whole idea of the “ends of the Earth”, in which there were steep mountains, vast forests and great storms.13

Thus the stuff in the TV program about rain making the Roman’s shields heavy and gale force winds making it hard for the Romans to move may be nothing more than historical hyperbole and have in fact little historical veracity. So that the show's demonstrations of the effects of wind are just not germane to what actually happened.

In the program we hear about how the Germans would show no mercy to captives. Well it appears that in fact they did hold as captives those worth a ransom. And the stories of mass human sacrifice to their gods etc., are parts of the clichés about the barbarian other by the Romans. Although there can be no doubt that Romans were massacred during and after the battle. Further it is likely that the slaves who accompanied the Romans and at least some of the camp followers would have been taken as valuable captives by the Germans. Finally any declaration of German savagery should take into account Roman war making methods such as the following:

Caesar, to spread devastation widely, divided his eager legions into four columns, and ravaged a space of fifty miles with fire and sword. Neither sex nor age moved his compassion. Everything, sacred or profane, the temple too of Tamfana, as they called it, the special resort of all those tribes, was leveled to the ground. There was not a wound among our soldiers, who cut down a half-asleep, an unarmed, or a straggling foe.14

The TV show then goes on to a tangent about how after the first day of fighting Varus burned his battle catapults and that likely with them he would have been able to defeat Arminius’ ambush at Kalkriese. This is dubious. If you read Dio’s account it appears that there was a sudden violent ambush. For now the best location for that initial ambush is Kalkriese. For Dio says:

While the Romans were in such perplexity as this the barbarians suddenly encompassed them from all sides at once, coming through the thickest part of the underbrush, since they were acquainted with the paths. At first they hurled from a distance; then as no one defended himself but many were wounded, they approached closer to them. The Romans were in no order but going along helter-skelter among the wagons and the unarmed, and so, not being able to form readily in a body, and being fewer at every point than their assailants, they suffered greatly and offered no resistance at all.15

I suspect that the initial ambush happened at Kalkriese. Certainly the account of Tacitus that describes a well-fortified strongly built camp and then a decrepit disorganized and much smaller camp after this ambush seems to fit the idea of a successful ambush at Kalkriese followed by the survivors likely then burning their baggage and other equipment.16 Thus it is likely that Varus had his catapults available at the ambush site at Kalkriese and they made no difference.

Thus it is unlikely that Kalkriese was as the TV show claims the site of the end of the battle. Instead it was probably the initial ambush site.

And if you read the account of the actual end of the battle it does not seem to be describing a real battle but the chopping up of a demoralized and scattered force. That was already severely decimated.17

The TV account seems to claim that the battle at Kalkriese lasted several days and refers to many Germans joining Arminius to share in the victory not likely if the battle was at Kalkriese and which would mean it was over in a single day.4

Thus to sum up the TV show likely exaggerates the effects of the weather and telescopes the battle to a much shorter time than indicated by the surviving accounts. Finally contrary to the TV show's attitude Varus’ suicide was not unimaginable but from the Roman point of view utterly sensible in the circumstances. The Romans viewed suicide as honourable under certain circumstances and avoiding degrading captivity was one of them.

As such I rate the show as at best a C.

The Book Rome’s Greatest Defeat,18 contains some good pictures, a nice summary of the source material and the battle’s later role in history and myth. However I can’t say it is much of an advance over the book by Wells, (Listed in the Footnotes.). Its account of how the battlefield was found and the results of the excavations there is by far the most interesting part of the book. The material about the battle itself is actually inferior to Wells, even though Well’s reconstruction of the battle is frankly extremely unlikely. There is material on Germanicus’ campaigns in Germany which is insufficiently critical about how dubious those accounts are.19 All in all this book isn’t a substitute for Well’s book.

Osprey have finally produced an account of the battle.20 As per usual the illustrations and photos are top notch and so are the descriptions of military minutia, such as weapons, how troops were raised and organized. The description of the site and finds at Kalkriese are also excellent. Sadly the reconstruction of the battle is a mess.

The account claims that Varus committed suicide before his troops entered the path around Kalkriese. It then goes on to describe, quite fancifully a battle at Kalkriese. This of course almost completely ignores Dio who makes it quite clear that the Roman army was only a shell of itself before Varus killed himself and that the whole army was dissolving and was hunted down and butchered. In fact Dio says that after Varus killed himself:

When this news was spread, (Varus’ suicide), none of the rest, even if he had strength still left, defended himself longer. Some imitated their leader; others, throwing aside their arms, allowed who pleased to slay them. To flee was impossible, however one might wish it. Every man and horse, therefore, was cut down without resistance, and the…[there is a gap in Dio’s account here]21

The fact that the account in the book has the action stretched over 2 days at Kalkriese and even gives dates?! (September 10th and 11th), and then describes a true battle after Varus commits suicide on the evening of September 10, on the 11th of September which indicates that what is described in this book is a fictional account that ignores the sources. Frankly the surviving accounts indicate pretty clearly that the survivors of the army were destroyed by the Germans on the 4th day, the day Varus killed himself. There is no indication of battle the day after Varus’ suicide that is simply a fantasy by the writers, that is even more absurd than Well’s. So in the account of the actual battle the author here blows it pretty badly. So I can’t recommend this book.

Perhaps at another time I will revisit Teutoburg Wald.

1. Here.

2. Here.

3. No I will not give a link to this piece of utter pestilent mind rot.

4. Davidson, H. R. Ellis, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, Penguin Books, London, 1964, pp. 86-87.

5. See Roman Legion, Wikipedia Here.

6. Lendering, Jona, The Edges of the Earth in Greek and Roman Thought, Livius Here.

7. Dio, Cassius, The Roman History: The Reign of Augustus, Penguin Books, London, 1987, Book 56, s. 20.

8. IBID, Book 56, s. 21.

9. Wells, Peter S., The Battle That Stopped Rome, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 2003, pp. 40-41 127-132, Lendering Jona, The Battle in the Teutoburg Forest, (2), Livius  Here.

10 Lendering, The Battle…

11. IBID, (5) Here.

12. IBID.

13. Lendering. The Edges…

14. Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, Penguin Books, London, 1971, Book 1, s. 51

15. Footnote 7.

16. Tacitus, Bok 1, s. 61.

17. Dio, Book 56, s. 21.

18, Murdoch, Adrian, Rome’s Greatest Defeat, The History Presss, London, 2008.

19. Wells contends that the entire battle was an ambush not the 4 day affair described by Dio. This is very unlikely to put it mildly.

20. McNally Michael, Teutoburg Forest AD 9, Osprey Pub. Ltd., Oxford, 2011

21. Dio, Book 56, s. 22.

Pierre Cloutier


  1. I am very sorry that you didn't like the documentary. I would, however, like to pick up on one of your points - on the number of dead. The figure was calculated rather carefully. From other contemporary sources, it is inconceivable that the entire military capacity of Germany was with Varus at the time. It is likely that only a quarter to a third of each legion was marching back before Teutoburg. The traditional figure given for the dead at Teutoburg is 24,000. The figure of 16,000 is a much more plausible number.

  2. The main thing I noted in your comment is the assumption which has no evidence to support it that the legions with Varus were under strength. That is an assumption. As for contemporary sources. Well Tacitus was writing a century after the disaster. Dio 2 centuries, Florus a century and a half later. The nearest thing to a contemporary surviving account is in Velleius Paterculus's Roman History, probably written in the 20's CE and it is a short, terse and to put it bluntly very poor. That is our one and only "contemporary" surviving account. The accounts we have do not give numbers they simply list 3 legions and give no numbers. There were in addition to this 6 cohorts and 3 cavalry squadrons. And one must not forget the auxiliaries who as I said tended to equal in number legionaries. You gave 16,000 killed I assume you mean 16,000 men altogether including auxilaries. Well that would mean that there was only c. 8,000 - 10,000 legionaries with three legions and 6 cohorts etc. This is so absurd it is not even worth arguing about.

    In the past author after author "knew" that it was absurd for Rome to have c. 70,000 men at Cannae. They "knew" the legions were not full strengthed etc. It is similar here I've read over and over again in all sorts of books that Varus' army "must" have been small, well under 20,000 and in some cases as small as 11,000. It is part of well established scholarly tradition that numbers must be minimized even when there is no evidence at all that the legions with Varus were only a 1/4 to 1/3 strength. THat is a "pausible" conjecture pulled out of thin air. The sources to not say anything like this. It is simply absurd. No ancient source mentions the actual number lost. Also 3 legions + the 6 cohorts were not the entire Roman military resources in Germany at the time. 16,000 dead is not an implausible figure but of course it leaves room for possibly thousands of prisoners and some who escaped. If you want to argue that the legions were not at full strength, that is reasonable, but has I said that would still leave the army with Varus including auxiliaries at well over 20,000.