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in association with Amazon.com, click hereRome's Greatest Defeat : Massacre in the Teutoburg Forest
by Adrian Murdoch

[Although] Arminius and Varus are, naturally enough, part of Germany’s national consciousness, their names often warrant barely a flicker of recognition in the English-speaking world. It is fair to say that Roman Germany as a whole, specifically the country’s early history under the first emperors, has been conspicuously ignored outside Germany. Even in the academic field, only a handful of critical book-length studies have appeared in the last thirty years. The sheer volume and variety of discoveries in the last decade alone – archaeological, historical, epigraphic – make this nothing short of a scandal.

So writes the author in the introduction to his book, and he is out to correct this failure. Mr. Murdoch, a Scottish journalist and historian, has packed an enormous amount of research and analysis into a mere 200 pages.

He looks at the political situation in Rome and Germania leading up to the fateful battle in 9 A.D., the geopolitical aims of Augustus and their collapse after the defeat – he believes that before the event, there was a definite plan to create an new province east of the Rhine – the battle itself, the protagonists of the battle, its aftermath, and finally the role which the battle story in general and Arminius in particular played in 19th century nationalism in Germany and in the Third Reich.

A chapter each is devoted to the lives of Varus and Arminius, cutting through the myths that were created around them and presenting more balanced profiles. This is an easier task of Varus, as his extensive career can be charted fairly easily. He certainly appears not to have been the inept bungler he is usually portrayed as, and Mr. Murdoch points out that in view of the revolts adjacent to the region, Augustus would hardly have appointed a man without “military experience, bravery, prestige and luck”.

Recent archaeological finds in Germany give a more rounded picture of what the country east of the Rhine looked like; for instance less forest and more cultivated land, and larger settlements than had been previously assumed. This fact would have been a cogent argument for more extensive Roman plans for the region and would also likely have contributed to the reasons for Arminius' revolt, amongst others: definite Roman masters, and the specter of taxation. Less of course is known about Arminius than Varus, but Mr. Murdoch gives us a picture of a complex personality, grown up in area of political conflict, educated by the Romans, ambitious among his own Cheruscan tribe, and by no means universally welcomed back into the fold.

As to the interaction between the two men, Mr. Murdoch reasons that Varus over-estimated the extent to which Germania was pro-Roman “or even pacified”, and that he may have failed to see the potential of unity among the Germanic tribes. Indeed, the author speculates “whether the emperor and the Senate actually may have believed their own propaganda that Germany was essentially a province”. Thus Varus never seems to have entertained the idea that he might be betrayed.

The rest is history, or so they say. Mr. Murdoch traces the battle, the massacre, and the aftermath. Augustus decreed in his will that henceforth the Rhine should be the border, and while there might have been a chance that this would have been ignored, events after Augustus death lead Tiberius to follow the line. Germanicus made some forages across the river, but was never successful. Arminius was not caught, but met his end among his rivals. He and Germanicus died within the same year.

Having neatly tied up all loose ends, the author concludes the historical events by letting Tacitus have his say on Arminius.

“Romans began to come under the spell. His obituary at the end of the second book of Tacitus' Annals is one of the most extraordinary pieces of Latin prose to come down to us. In a few sentences, Tacitus manages to capture both the admiration and revulsion the Romans had for their most successful opponent with incredible pathos: ‘Make no mistake, Arminius was the deliverer of Germany, one too who had defied Rome, not in her early rise, as other kings and generals, but in the height of her empire's glory. The battles he fought were indeed indecisive, yet he remained unconquered in war. He lived for thirty-seven years, twelve of them in power, and he is still the subject of song among barbarous nations, though to Greek historians, who admire only their own achievements, he is un­known, and to Romans not as famous as he should be, while we extol the past and are indifferent to our own times’.”

Mr. Murdoch devotes the rest of the book to modern Germany and the role Arminius has played in German identity and nationalism, beginning with the 1500s when Tacitus' Germania had been discovered and translated into the vernacular – and shortly thereafter Velleius Paterculus' Roman History as well – and the story moving even to France in the 17th century. Both countries gave it a literary treatment, of the worst kind it seems. The 18th century brings us plays by Schlegel and Klopstock, but the height of nationalist fervor is reserved for the 19th century, with, among other things, the Hermannsdenkmal, the Arminius monument in the Teutoburg Forest. (This reviewer admits that though she grew up in Germany, she has never visited said monument, which still remains a popular destination.) Mr. Murdoch has entertained us lately with 19th century German art examples in his blog Bread and circuses.

After a digression into musical treatment of the subject, and the author wondering about the absence of a Wagner opera, he guides us through the exploitation of Arminius in Third Reich.

The final chapter, “A Second Troy,” discusses the post-war treatment of the subject, when reaction to Nazi nationalism made Arminius almost a non-person in Germany until the fall of the eastern wall and German re-unification created a more relaxed atmosphere and made the subject more conducive to a realistic treatment. The discovery of the battlefield, description of the site, and modern literary treatment follows. Mr. Murdoch closes the book with a warning of lessons never learned, from Napoleon through the British Empire into the 21st century:

“Germany in AD 9, Afghanistan in 1842, Iraq in 2005: it is the same story; the same warnings from history ignored. That is reason enough for the importance of the museum and park at Kalkriese. It is the equivalent of the fool in a medieval court or a dwarf in a Renaissance canvas. It is a repository of human memory that reminds us of the folly of grandeur and the absurd fates of those who seek power.”

At one point, he writes: “While a deliberately tight focus on the events themselves is paramount, it is also important for the historian to see beyond this, to see the wood beyond the trees. Rome's Greatest Defeat has the secondary aim of highlighting the ways in which the battle has been transmitted through history.” He certainly has reached both aims, and his intent to write the book for a non-specialist audience is met by a lively and entertaining style and a lot of interesting minutiae.

The book has just been released in the U.S.  A warning to American readers: they may be somewhat baffled by the occasional references to modern times British historical events. On the other hand, it might send them right to the history books…

© 2006 Irene B. Hahn
in association with Amazon.com, click hereRome's Greatest Defeat : Massacre in the Teutoburg Forest
Sutton Publishing, June 2006)
ISBN: 0750940158
List Price: $29.95
in association with Amazon.com, click hereThe Quest for the Lost Roman Legions : Discovering the Varus Battlefield
by Tony Clunn
Savas Beatie, 2005
ISBN 1932714081
List Price $24.75

Irene's Review

in association with Amazon.com, click herein the UK:
Rome's Greatest Defeat : Massacre in the Teutoburg Forest
Sutton Publishing, April 2006
ISBN: 0750940158
List Price: £20.00
in association with Amazon.com, click hereThe Battle That Stopped Rome : Emperor Augustus, Arminius, and the Slaughter of the Legions in the Teutoburg Forest
by by Peter S. Wells
W. W. Norton & Company,reprint 2004
ISBN: 0393326438
List Price $14.95

 Review by N.S. Gill

Kalkriese project and museum website
English version
Irene's visit to Kalkriese
Irene's comment: It seemed to me that Mr. Wells was simply jumping on the bandwagon. However, Mr. Wells is the author of an excellent book: The Barbarians Speak: How the Conquered Peoples Shaped Roman Europe

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