Peter Jones in the BBC HISTORY MAGAZINE, June 2004
In AD 9 Varus, the Roman governor of Rhineland and Germany, was preparing to return from his summer camp near the river Weser to his winter headquarters at Xanten on the Rhine when a trusted local chieftain Arminius informed him that there had been an uprising in a region to the west of the Weser. Since this required only a slight detour en route to Xanten, Varus decided to sort the problem out there and then. Setting out with his three legions (some 18,000 men), he took a route he had not used before through the Teutoberg forest. It was a trap. Arminius had deceived him. In swampy terrain, through an often impenetrable forest, with rivers, pools and marshes impeding progress and the rains lashing down, the ambush was sprung. The three legions, fighting a virtually unseen enemy in conditions wholly unsuited to their style of battle, were almost completely wiped out.
This battle, as Wells points out, is not particularly well known, but it changed the course of Roman history. The emperor Augustus, devastated by the unprecedented loss of one ninth of his total legionary force in a single engagement, brought an end to the expansion of the Roman empire, not merely in Germany but in Africa and Asia as well (we are told he let his hair and beard grow, and for months after would hit his head against the door, shouting 'Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!'). The Rhine now became the limit to eastern expansion in northern Europe, and a series of military bases were established along it (now Cologne, Bonn, Mainz and Strasburg). From now on, the river became as much a cultural, political and psychological barrier for the Romans as a physical one. For Germans too, the engagement was of high significance: Arminius (later Germanicised, possibly by Martin Luther, into 'Hermann') became a symbol of resistance to outside domination.
The main interest of Wells' new account lies in his involvement with the excavations at the site of the battle, which was discovered in Kalkriese, north-east of Osnabrück, in 1987. Work has been continuing there every year, large quantities of material have been recovered, and a clearer picture has been emerging of the engagement. For example, it looks as if the Germans obscured parts of the Kalkriese track that led into more open territory where an ambush would have been less effective; they also narrowed the track that the Romans troops were consequently forced to use; and they constructed a heavily disguised turf wall running alongside the track, from behind which they could launch the first phase of the ambush.
Wells' attempts to bring the actual battle vividly to life are less successful, but otherwise this is a clearly written, well illustrated and authoritative account of Varus' defeat, located firmly in the political and cultural context of the Roman and German world alike.