Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.07.74

Reinhard Wolters, Die Schlacht im Teutoburger Wald: Arminius, Varus und das roemische Germanien.   München:  Verlag C.H. Beck, 2008.  Pp. 192.  ISBN 9783406576744.  €18.90.  

Reviewed by David B. Cuff, University of Toronto (
Word count: 2732 words

[A link to the table of contents is provided at the end of this review.]

The Kalkriese museum near Osnabrück, Germany, was recently a prominent site of the 2000th anniversary festivities commemorating the Varusschlacht--Arminius's impressive defeat of three Roman legions (the 17th, 18th and 19th).1 It is not surprising that this event's bimillennial, coupled with the ongoing research at Kalkriese, would inspire the publication of new research on this subject. Ancient and modern perspectives on Arminius, Varus and the Germans in general, and Kalkriese's claim to be the site of this event in particular, are the subjects of Wolters's work, first published in 2008 and recently reissued (2009) just in time for the Teutoburg Forest festivities.

The tone of the book suggests that it is intended for a more general audience; Wolters limits his citations and arranges them as endnotes, which, combined with bibliography, bring the work to a total of 255 pages. Of the work's 29 illustrations, several suffer from a reduced size. This is particularly the case with maps; one hopes that in a future reprint some of these will be enlarged.2 His German style is straightforward and reflects the language's engagement with vocabulary from other languages, especially English. The first six chapters particularly provide a good general introduction to the subject. The organization of the first six chapters is chronological and each chapter is helpfully subdivided under more specific headings.

An introduction (9-18) highlights the need to reassess the battle of the Teutoburg forest in light of recent discoveries at Kalkriese and the upcoming bimillennial celebration this summer (2009) of Arminius's defeat of Varus at the saltus Teutoburgiensis.

Chapter 1 (Der Barbar als Nachbar) is divided into two sections. 1.1 (Römer am Rhein) surveys the historical background of the Roman presence on the Rhine frontier from Caesar until the start of Drusus's campaign across the river in 12 BCE. This includes a general discussion of the Roman army, its reliance on the co-operation of local elites to maintain control in frontier contexts, and Caesar's early use of Germans in his army. Wolters foreshadows his discussion of Arminius with a brief survey of the clades Lolliana (17-16 BCE).3 1.2 (Die Germanen) switches the focus to the Germani, a term that is first attested--in Greek--only in a well known 1st century BCE fragment of Posidonius (FGrHist 87 F 22). Wolters rightly notes that the 'tribal world' (Stammeswelt) was inherently unstable, and as such the Germani should not be interpreted as an ethnically or culturally homogenous group. In addition to this useful survey one might add, particularly for the benefit of the interested Anglophone reader, Rives' introduction to his commentary on Tacitus's Germania, and Bleckmann's recent book, also published by C. H. Beck.4

Chapter 2 (Roms Vordringen bis zur Elbe) surveys the elder Drusus's campaign across the Rhine (12-9 BCE) and Tiberius's continuation of it following the death of Drusus. Wolters discusses the thorny issue of Roman 'policy' on the frontier. Since the emperor was in command of the army, policy was not, in any case, a matter of public debate. 2.1 (Die Feldzuge des Drusus) surveys the Romans' first sustained military actions across the Rhine. This resulted in the conquest of the Sugambri and submission of the Frisii as dediticii in 12, with subsequent expansion to the Elbe in the following years. This narrative is accompanied by a useful full-page illustration of all phases of Drusus's campaign (p. 40). This is the start of the 'Occupation' phase of Rome's presence in Germania. Wolters singles out Oberaden as an example of the immense scale of these operations: he notes that this two-or-more legion fortress, 70 km east of the Rhine and 56 ha in area, is fully 12 ha larger than the Vatican City. Oberaden was built in 11 BCE-Wolters notes that coins from 15 BCE to 13 have been discovered here, and observes that coin dates alone are not dispositive for the establishment of a site's terminus ante quem. This is an argument to which Wolters will return, in more detail, in chapter 7.

2.2 (Weltherrschaft, Bedrohung oder Familienpolitik) discusses Drusus's strategy, particularly in the context of the Romans' long term strategic objectives in Germania. Wolters rejects the concept that rivers were firm frontiers of the Roman Empire, an argument articulated compellingly by Whittaker.5 Wolters suggests that Drusus's goals at the outset of his campaign were modest and that following his relatively easy subjugation of the Frisii he decided on a more aggressive campaign east of the Rhine (p. 50). Wolters cites Kehne's hypothesis6 that a desire to win the spolia opima may have played a part in this decision. This argument does not seem particularly convincing. The number of individuals credited with this honour (4, of whom 3 were either legendary or lived centuries before the earliest Roman literary accounts) is extremely small, and it seems likely that images of the spolia opima on Augustan monuments served primarily to emphasize the achievements of Romulus, with whom Augustus sought to associate himself. We cannot say what Augustus would have done had Drusus actually won the right to the spolia opima, but we do know that the emperor denied the honour to the only well-attested example of a Roman who justly merited it.

Chapter 3 (Römische Herrschaft in Germanien) focuses on the period of the Roman consolidation of conquered territory, surveying Tiberius's campaigns deep into the territory of the Cherusci and, further north, the Chauci (4-6 CE). This brought the Romans into contact with peoples who would later provide numerous soldiers to the Roman auxilia, such as the Cananefates, Frisii and Bructeri, marking what Wolters sees as a new phase in Rome's "Germanienpolitik" (58), calculated to demonstrate the superiority of Roman power toGermania's neighbours. Section 3.2 (Militäranlagen, Städte und Wirtschaftsaktivitäten rechts des Rheins) offers, along with a good map (61), an informative survey of early military and urban centers and presents a compelling picture of a nascent province which, at Lahnau-Waldgimes, may contain evidence of both civic and military planning, if the reconstruction of the forum is correct. The archaeological evidence leads Wolters to conclude, ultimately, that Germania in this period should be seen as a Roman province (71-74).

Chapter 4 (Karrieren im Dienste Roms) at last brings the reader to Varus and Arminius. This chapter is essentially biographical, surveying first the history of the gens Quinctilia and Varus's political career (75-88). Varus was closely connected to the imperial family; his third marriage to Claudia Pulchra, granddaughter of Octavia, sister of Augustus, clearly identifies him as one of Augustus's most trusted officials. Varus's command in Germany came after two previous governorships (Africa Proconsularis and Syria), and one gets an appropriate sense of the confidence that Augustus must have had in Varus when, in A. D. 7, he was given the command of Germania for three years. On page 89 we come next to Arminius. Wolters provides a succinct and useful survey of his known biographical details: his connections with his tribe's royal stock (stirps regia), his possession of Roman citizenship and experience in the Roman army. Wolters identifies and summarizes three modern interpretations of Arminius's life offered by Bickel, Hohl and Timpe.7 He rejects Hohl's argument that 'Arminius' is a corruption for 'Armenius' ("Armenian"--this would surely have been rendered "Armenicus") but accepts, rightly, that once Arminius was enfranchised he would have borne the Roman names C. Iulius, with his peregrine name Romanized as a cognomen.8

In chapter 5 (Die schriftliche Überlieferung zur Varuskatastrophe) Wolters surveys the literary sources for the battle in the saltus Teutoburgiensis. He begins, however, with a discussion of the famous tombstone of Caelius, the oldest extant Latin inscription from Germany (CIL 13, 8648), from Xanten) depicting a fallen centurion of the Eighteenth Legion, M(arcus) Caelius T(iti) f(ilii) Lem(onia tribus) Bon(onia), and his two freedmen M. Caelius Privatus and M. Caelius Thiaminus. Remarkable for its detailed depiction of a legionary centurion in full gear, the text informs us that Caelius cecidit bello Variano. Wolters then surveys the extant literary accounts of the battle: Dio (102-107), Velleius Paterculus (108-109), Frontinus (109-111). Wolters rightly engages the accuracy of these literary traditions, none of which are eyewitness accounts. There were survivors of the battle, however, and some lived long enough in captivity to be freed during the reign of Claudius. Literary accounts of Germans are necessarily clouded by the topos of the rash German, a stereotype that Vitruvius, for example, attributed to the cold weather of their homeland.9 This is of course entirely a literary conceit which, along with the set piece oration, should not be treated as accurate, though these features do not, as Wolters avers, render literary sources useless. Thus Wolters offers an interesting critique of the suggestion that Arminius's attack was a rebellion, noting that to use this term is necessarily to view the event from a Roman perspective (119-121). Since he views Germania as a Roman province, Wolters accepts the validity of this characterization, although he is careful to demonstrate that the Germani were not unified in resistance; clearly the Cherusci, whose territory was the "Kernland der Rebellion" were the major opponents of Varus.

Chapter 6 (Die Varuskatastrophe als epochale Wende?) investigates whether the battle should be seen as a truly defining moment in Roman history. Augustus, as Suetonius reports, did not take the news of the defeat well, although the shock did not keep him from boasting about expanding Roman territory to the Elbe in the Res Gestae.10 Wolters summarizes Germanicus's campaign against Arminius that lead to enough successes to justify a triumph in 17 for Germanicus over "the Cherusci, Chatti, and Angirivarii and the other nations that live as far as the Elbe". This was an obvious exercise in propaganda since, despite an impressive campaign, Arminius had not been captured and direct Roman administration of transrhenane Germania had not been restored. Arminius's death at the age of 37 came not in a epic battle but at the hands of an assassin; Wolters observes that dissension among the leadership of the Cherusci, as presented by Tacitus, can be read as a metaphor of civil strife in Roman history, where the immense power of one individual arouses jealousy among other members of the nobility. As for Varus, his head, at least, could receive a proper burial, since Arminius had sent it to Maroboduus, who then passed it along to Roman authorities. A negative assessment, however, of Varus's character was not universal in ancient scholarship, and Wolters rightly attacks the disproportionate influence the image of an arrogant and / or incompetent Roman commander has had on later scholarship.

Chapter 7 marks a stark shift in the book's structure. The historical narrative of Arminius and Varus essentially concludes with chapter 6. Chapter 7 surveys past and present research on the site of Arminius's fateful battle. Noting that over 700 theories have been posited over the years--itself a reflection of the tremendous local and academic interest in Arminius--Wolters proceeds in chronological order to survey several of the more influential ones. This leads quickly to Kalkriese, on which the majority of this chapter focuses its discussion.

This is hardly surprising, but Wolters's discussion of Kalkriese is not just a summary of scholarship and archaeological reports, but also a critical assessment of this work, which, in his opinion, has rashly and erroneously identified Kalkriese as the site of Arminius's victory.11 Wolters has expressed these views elsewhere.12 This is certainly an argument worth making, since the archaeology of Kalkriese is clearly something of an enigma: the excavation of a wall with associated burials of bones that bear clearly battle-related marks led to early associations with a Cheruscan ambush fortification; the graves were associated with later burials of remains, probably by Germanicus; all the human bones belonged to males of fighting age and were, in some cases, mingled with animal bones, and bore signs of exposure to the elements. The wall, however, is oddly shaped in a zig-zag wedge line and only stretches 400 meters (as opposed to the 2000 meters originally thought), and the deposits of bones seem far to haphazard and indecent for a Roman burial of the dead at the Teutoburg Forest, while the area itself is criticised as being too small to accommodate an army the size of three legions and auxiliary troops: the Roman army would have filled the valley.

However, no post-Varus coins have been found at Kalkriese: the latest strikes date to 2-1 BCE. Wolters argues that later strikes simply were not there to be found, since newly minted coins would have taken time to reach the German frontier; if they were circulating, then the quantities would have been miniscule. However, numismatic studies of Kalkriese have noted that a small number of coins datable to Germanicus's campaign have been found at sites known to postdate Varus's death;13 of course, there are exceptions, as Wolters notes in the case of Holsterhausen (p. 171). There is also no consensus on a possible rival identification, though there are several possibilities, based on conflicts recorded in Tacitus's account of Germanicus's campaign: a battle at the pontes longi, Idistaviso, or against the Angrivarii. The finds themselves were not concentrated in a small area, but were strewn over a relatively long (3 km) and narrow (1 km) funnel of territory, which, as noted by Wilson / Creighton and Bleckmann, roughly fits Tacitus's description of the battle site.14 Of course, since Germanicus did return to the battle site, even the discovery of post-Varus coins could be explained as a result of that return. We await discovery of some trace of the tumulus that he built to memorialize the fallen, although this was destroyed by the Germani soon after he left the site.

Chapter 8 surveys Arminius's Rezeptionsgeschichte, starting from the discovery and publication of Tacitus's Germania and concluding with contemporary interest in Arminius, inspired largely by the discoveries at Kalkriese. Following the discovery of the manuscript of Tacitus's Germania in the sixteenth century, Arminius was adopted by the Germans as a national hero and idealized in various ways: as the emblem of Lutheran Protestantism challenging the Roman Catholic Church, as, along with his wife Thusnelda, part of an idealized Romantic story, and as a symbol of German nationalism embodying also 19th and 20th century antipathy toward the French, with whom parallels with the Roman Empire were easy to draw. Although Wolters surveys the use of the term Germani in the 20th century to support race theory, on the imagery specifically of Arminius during the Third Reich he says relatively little (one paragraph, no illustrations).

An addition here would be welcome. For example, this reviewer was reminded of an exhibit of Werner Peiner's artwork at the Römisch-germanisches Museum at Bonn 15 that included a striking piece: a gilded print on paper entitled "Die Schlacht in Teutoburger Wald" (1939). Peiner, the director of the "Hermann Göring Academy for Art" (Hermann Göring-Meisterschule für Malerei), depicted Arminius and all the Germans as blond, muscular, armed with shields (one of which bears a swastika), marching against Varus and the Romans. Both armies hold spears / pila at precise 45 degree angles, reminiscent, surely, of the Nazi salute and the regime's cult of uniformity. Also striking in that piece was the prominence of German women (also blond) in the corners of the image, aiding their comrades in battle. These idealizations combine some of Nazism's more pernicious themes of racial purity and subordination of the individual to a noble Führer with a traditional German image that had embodied the concept of freedom from oppression. The result, in this reviewer's opinion, is a chilling image that seems very appropriate to Wolters's discussion.

In a short 'Epilogue' Wolters summarizes the policies of Roman emperors towards the Germanic tribes beyond the Rhine up to the reign of Domitian. He then shifts to a discussion of Tacitus's portrayals of the Germani and Arminius in the Germania and the Annales. In the latter respect he seizes on Tacitus's assessment of Arminius's character to conclude his book.

In sum, although this book's title promises a study of Arminius, Varus and the battle in the Teutoburg Forest, Wolters actually provides us also with a detailed account of the early history of Roman Germany up to the death of Arminius. Wolters provides a fine introduction to the evidence and history of the site, while his opinions exemplify the enduring controversies that his subject cannot help but inspire.

Table of Contents


1.   The museum's homepage has links to resources on recent research on the Varusschlacht.
2.   Image 16, at less than half a page, contains place names that are difficult to read; image 17 represents archaeological data on findspots that is similarly difficult to read.
3.   Dio 54.20.4-6 relates how the Sugambri destroyed a Roman fort on the Rhine commanded by M. Lollius. Wolters notes Mommsen's suggestion that this event was a major motive for Drusus's campaign.
4.   J. Rives, Tacitus: Germania. (1999) - not listed in W's bibliography of commentaries on the Germania (p. 240), B. Bleckmann, Die Germanen: Von Ariovist bis zu den Wikingen (2009).
5.   C. Whittaker, Frontiers of the Roman Empire (1994), not in Wolters's bibliography.
6.   P. Kehne, "Augustus und "seine" spolia opima: Hoffnungen auf den Triumph des Nero Claudius Drusus?" in T. Hantos and G. A. Lehmann (edd.), Althistorisches Kolloquium aus Anlass des 70. Geburtstages von Jochen Bleicken (1998), 187-211.
7.   90-93, cf. E. Bickel, "Der Sohn der Sigimer, der Befreier des Germaniens, sein Römername Arminius und der Siegfriedmythos", RhM 84, 1935, 1-16; E. Hohl, "Zur Lebensgeschichte des Siegers im Teutoburger Wald", HZ 167, 1942, 457-469; D. Timpe, Arminius-Studien (1970) and Römisch-Germanische Begegnung in der späten Republik und frühen Kaiserzeit (1973), 216-241.
8.   Cf. Bleckmann (op. cit. n. 4), 118.
9.   Vit. 6.1; on the ethnographic tradition of this stereotype, see e.g. Rives' introduction to his edition of Tacitus's Germania (1999).
10.   Suet. Aug. 29.2, "Quinctili Vare, legiones redde!"; cf. RG 26, item Germaniam qua claudit Oceanus a Gadibus ad ostium Albis fluminis pacavi.
11.   A confident assertion of Kalkriese's identity as the battle site is offered by Schlüter's contribution to Creighton, J. D. and R. J. A. Wilson (edd.), Roman Germany: Studies in cultural interaction. JRA Suppl. 26 (1999). In the same volume (14-15) Wilson and Creighton echo Schlüter's confidence.
12.   See his contribution to Lehmann and Wiegels (edd.), Römische Präsenz und Herrschaft im Germanien der augusteischen Zeit. (2007). This work was reviewed in English by J. Drinkwater, Sehepunkte 8 (2008), no. 9, and the review can be consulted online.
13.   See especially the contributions of Berger and Wigg-Wolf to Lehmann and Wiegels (2007).
14.   Wilson and Creighton (op.cit. n. 10), 14; Bleckmann (op cit. n. 4), 125.
15.   I viewed this exhibit while on a research trip to Cologne in July 2008.

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