Important analysis of a fierce first-century surprise attack by German tribesmen that ended Rome’s designs on territory east of the Rhine and profoundly altered subsequent history.
Wells (Archaeology/Univ. of Minnesota) argues convincingly that both archaeologists and historians must contribute to understandings of long-ago events. (Naturally, he believes the former are less subject to bias since histories are written by the victors.) The site of this little-known battle was not located until 1987. Since then the four-by-three-mile location has yielded a trove of relics; more than 4,000 Roman objects had been recovered by the end of 1999. The author’s account of the battle consumes only a single short chapter and is admittedly heavily inferential: the surviving written accounts are scanty (and Roman); the archaeological evidence is still being uncovered and assessed. Still, Wells is able not only to reconstruct a credible analysis of the German strategy—pinning the Romans into a tight area of unforgiving forest and marshy terrain in which they could not execute their customary combat tactics—but also to explore the thoughts and fears of the combatants on both sides as the massacre commenced. In about an hour it was all over but the dying and scavenging, the burying and celebrating, the torturing and sacrificing of prisoners. Three Roman legions, some 20,000 men, were destroyed; a very few survivors escaped to spread the news. The Roman leader, Varus, a trusted ally of Augustus, probably fell on his sword when he saw the imminent defeat. The German leader, Arminius, became a folk hero: though trained by the Romans and granted citizenship, he gave the treacherous intelligence that led the legions to the slaughter. Wells offers much background on Roman and Rhineland history, politics, anthropology, military strategy, and weaponry, supplying myriad grisly instances of the sanguinary horrors of war. Ultimately, Rome vastly underestimated the “barbarians” they faced.
At times repetitive or obvious, but always literate and learned. (16 pp. illustrations, 9 maps, not seen)