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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Teutoburg Forest & The Mind

In September one year more than two millennia ago, the Battle of Teutoburg Forest unfolded. I found great sources of information on the incident in Jona Lendering's account posted on livius.org and in this wikipedia entry with the title "Clades Variana". The legend of this confrontation between occupying Romans and occupied Germans gained great notoriety in 19th- and early 20th-century Germany, where it was used as rallying point for the rise of fervent nationalism.

At the time of the battle, in Emperor Augustus' reign, the Romans had been present on the Rhine for two centuries, had founded prosperous cities and towns along the river and had pushed their zone of influence into regions North and East. However, governance was not stable and needed consolidation in order to establish an actual province. In 55 year-old Publius Quinctilius Varus, Rome sent an ambitious governor of first-rate pedigree to the region with the task to achieve this aim. Varus was a seasoned administrator, but had little insight into local politics and was inexperienced as a military leader. His first act of governance was to implement a rigorous tax system according to Roman law, without consulting and seeking a consensus with the local warlords. Some apparently had a lot to lose under the new system.  In addition, the consolidation of Roman power East of the Rhine would bring settlement of retired Roman military personnel to the region, limiting the free reign of the local tribes. Under the pretense of fighting for independence from the Romans and of liberating the tribes from the Roman tax yoke, these warlords sought alliances among the German tribes to conspire against Varus. One tribal chieftain formally allied with the Romans became a major clandestine leader of the insurgency. His name was Arminius, chief of the Cheruscans.

Over the centuries of building their empire, the Romans had developed an intriguing policy of binding subdued ethnic tribes to their culture, which proved profoundly successful in solidifying their hold over conquered lands. In an expansionary military campaign, the leading general of the invading force would commonly ask for young children as hostages from the noble families of the subdued tribes. They were routinely sent to Rome where they were hosted by affluent families, providing them with a good education. They spent several years there, before they were allowed to return home, learning to appreciate the ways of the Romans. They would learn to speak, read and write the language. They would assimilate the ways the Romans thought and, certainly, learned to love Roman amenities like the free public baths and swimming pools with their impressive architecture and beautiful mosaics, the seemingly never ending supply of cool clean drinking water dispensed from magnificent fountains in every neighborhood, as well as the in-house toilets and the sewage system. Not to mention the culinary adventures, Roman cuisine offered. Imagine chilled fruits in the summer! People stored ice from Alpine glaciers underground. Moreover, the city offered unlimited entertainment in parades, festivals, sports events, theater and games. Life in Rome must have seemed on a different planet compared with life back home. Rome delivered memories these 'guests' would not forget.

Arminius, courtesy P. Heather
Arminius had spent his youth growing up as a hostage in Rome. He was trained in horsemanship and received the title of equestrian. He knew the Romans well and had collaborated closely with them after his ascend to power at home. The Romans considered him a trusted ally. We do not precisely know what turned this seemingly loyal ally against Varus. But it is likely that Varus with his brash reforms rankled him enormously, because they cut into his income stream. While continuing to profess friendly relations, he and others decided to set a trap for Varus. They staged an uprising against Roman rule on the low-lying Northern planes of Germany. To quell the rebellion, Varus mobilized three legions, approximately 25,000 soldiers, to march under his command North from their quarters on the lower Rhine. Arminius and a small retinue of his warriors accompanied the army. What happened next has remained much speculation. We do not even know for sure, where the ensuing confrontation precisely took place. The most likely location is a small valley known as Kalkrise near the modern city of Osnabrück.

By the time the Roman legions reached this location, the column of the slowly advancing force had stretched out many miles. The advance guard, main body, and rear guard had become disjointed. The troops filed through a corridor flanked by low forested hills. The weather was bad. Rainfall had softened the ground. Progress slowed even further. Arminius and his men disappeared. The insurgents had laid an ambush, and the trap snapped close. Without prior warning, javelins and spears poured from the forest onto the unprotected flanks of the troops drudging along in the morass on the open ground. The awkwardly moving mass of men and materiel mustered little defense. Encouraged, the enemy closed in and wreaked havoc in the midsection of the column. The advance guard met a camouflaged wall of palisades that the insurgents had erected in the weeks before and from which they savagely attacked the arriving legionaries. The soldiers accomplished to re-group, undertook counter-attacks, waged break-outs and put up valiant resistance for four days. But the enemy forces grew continuously. Their onslaught remained unrelenting. The Roman resistance eventually succombed, and the troops were obliterated. Some, among them the cavalry, fled the battlefield. Others reached a fortified forward base. Most fell in battle. Some committed suicide. The Germans customarily tortured and killed captured enemy. Faced with such destiny, Varus and his officers ended their lives.

As a result of the debacle, subsequent Roman administrations rescinded the ambition to extend permanent rule further East and focused on consolidating their power West of the Rhine. It would be false to interpret this policy change as weakness. The Romans were not afraid of another confrontation with the Germanic tribes. Rather, Varus' successors saw no significant gain in such enterprise. Certainly, Arminius was not allowed to enjoy his victory for long. Eight legions defeated his insurgency seven years later. The Romans kept relentlessly on his heels. His pregnant wife was taken as hostage to Rome, and Arminius met a violent end before he reached the age of 40. The rebels began to quarrel amongst themselves, and he was assassinated on the behest of another warlord.

Hermann's Monument
German romanticism inflated the historical significance of Arminius' military success out of proportion, basking in imagined superiority of Germanic culture. After the Napoleonic wars, a colossal statue of Hermann, as he is known in German, was erected in Teutoburg Forest to celebrate German unity. Though Hermann's feat looms as large in German lore as his statue is tall, in fact, Roman influence left far deeper, indelible marks on German history. Under Roman rule, the region would enjoy 200 years of stability and peace, known as Pax Romana or Pax Augusta, a length of time unrivaled to the day. Latin was used as the official language of public administration and spiritual life for more than 1,000 years. Still today, Roman laws regulate landownership in Germany; properties are marked by cornerstones.

The Romans possessed an extraordinary gift for effective public administration and superb civil engineering. Within three days, Augustus in Rome knew of the demise of his legions in Germany. When he was informed of the disaster, the emperor reportedly was so shocked that he choked on his dinner and exclaimed in exasperation, "Varus, bring back my legions!" The sudden loss of three entire legions was no small incident. The Roman Empire maintained 28 at the time. The distance between the battlefield and Rome covers roughly 700 miles. We have to cross the Alps. How could the Emperor be informed so quickly?

The Romans had built a network of highways and a messenger service, not unlike the Pony Express, that afforded them such rapid communication across their sphere of influence. Being informed in timely fashion has been a recipe for success then and now. Alas, intelligence needs to be adequately assessed. Varus had been warned by an informant in advance of Arminius' betrayal, but chose to ignore the warning. Perhaps, the most relevant lesson we can learn from the Battle of Teutoburg Forest today is that in an insurgency partners by necessity possess limited value.

Addendum
  • Even powerful emperors depended on the support of Rome's eminent families represented in the Senate. The size of the home of this senate may illustrate the efficiency of Roman government in Augustus' reign. The building is located on a small elevation at the edge of the Forum.


    Curia Julia
    Outside was the fabled navel of the Earth. The Romans made the decisions that determined the fate of their empire in a building the size of a barn (09/22/10).

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