The Battle That Stopped Rome by Peter S. Wells

Book Review by Virgil61

In the "Battle that Stopped Rome" Professor Peter Wells brings to light discoveries in the recent find of one of the most famous and influential battles of the ancient world known as the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. This should be a welcome work, the battlefield is the most complete one of its kind ever found, located in a semi-rural area of Germany and undisturbed for two thousand years. Unfortunately rather than stating the discoveries and giving a view to all possible theories, which would have made this a seminal work, Wells misses this opportunity by embarking on an opinionated interpretation of the event. Judicious and balanced this work is not. Perhaps this is possibly explained by his area of concentration in anthropology; his writings are almost exclusively dedicated to the northern barbarians of antiquity. In spite of their victory, Wells seems somewhat defensive of the German tribes in his portrayal of the battle.

Much of the book is quite interesting; Wells does a nice job of describing the lifestyle of the Romans on the Rhine in their garrisons as is the chapter on the anthropology of the German tribes and the background of Arminius, the German leader who lured Varus into the ambush by pretending friendship. While Wells states that Germans engaged in a militarization because of the Roman intrusions, the truth is that they were not peaceful natives conducting tea party's. They were notorious raiders who often preyed on each other and known to both the Gauls and Caesar two generations earlier, as a serious military threat. There is a chapter that describing battle from an individual's perspective and a section that discusses battlefield wounds; both are stimulating and intelligently drawn. It's a tragedy that the most informative and important chapter in the book on the archeology of the battlefield is extremely brief although the eight pages of pictures are helpful and instructive.

Someday someone will adopt a rule for scholars of military history that academics will be prohibited to write about tactical matters without first spending some time as infantrymen. I make the comment only half-jokingly for throughout the "Battle that Stopped Rome" Professor Wells makes assumptions that a 25 year-old infantry squad leader today could correct. While weapons have changed, much of tactical ground movement on foot remains very similar in many ways. Take Wells ambush scenario. He criticizes the Roman view that Varus was to blame for the slaughter, because in his view, this downplays the competency of the Germans. Wells assumes that auxiliary scouts (German) told the Romans the way was clear, yet later on acknowledges auxiliary cavalrymen's spurs interred with Roman bodies indicating they perished along with them (Roman legions under Germanicus buried many of the remains when discovered years later).

Any movement of a unit through a narrow passage in unfriendly or unknown territory is dangerous and for a commander, then or now, not to take precautions is simply irresponsible. Soldiers understand this concept today and the Romans- competent professionals- understood it. Wells seems to misunderstand that this doesn't downplay the competence of German tribes, it acknowledges their ability to conduct serious operations. There was ample evidence of this German tactic as even he states that Drusus and his legions almost succumbed to a similar disaster in 11 B.C. Certainly Varus assumes much responsibility for the disaster.

There are also little quibbles. Unsure, the author speculates on an amazing find, a legion donkey's bell stuffed with grass. Perhaps, he asks, it was to squelch it's sound or was it to allow the soldiers to hear what was happening around them? Some things don't change, ask any infantryman about that bell and he'll understand it immediately. Wells speculates that the Romans fled in panic within minutes, yet there is evidence along the walls in the form of legionary effects, that some attempted a counter-attack on the ambushers (a technique taught today to soldiers caught in ambushes). The garrison at Haltern is singled out because of the large quantity of items buried by the unit stationed at the location, which Wells helpfully points out "fled in terror". Again he seems misses what seems obvious; buried items indicate time to plan. Terror-filled troops don't organize the burial of equipment, money and other personal items, they leave immediately. The alternate answer is the unit knew of the disaster or was called back and in either case intended on returning.

But what may be regarded as the worst criticism is saved for his description of the battle and his unwarranted speculation that it was over in an hour; the legions were annihilated or captured by that time. This is squarely in opposition to Cassisus Dio's written description over a century later that a large part of Romans escaped initial destruction and built defensive works nearby succumbing to the Germans within three days. But Wells gives no reasons for his this major departure and states only in a footnote his agreement with scholars who doubt Dio. While ancient writers must often be taken with a grain of salt, one does so in such a dramatic fashion with peril. Velleius Paterculus, a contemporary of Varus and probably acquainted with him, writing only a few years after the battle says the two prefects survived long enough to speculate on surrender of the remaining forces or death in combat and one Lucius Caedicius may have made it back to a Roman camp with a band of survivors. Tacitus as well, relying on reports from survivors and veteran's of a later campaign, writes that the legions under Germanicus finding the site saw ramparts where it looked clearly like defensive works were built, indicating much more than an hour-long battle (to be fair Tacitus may have mistaken the partially fallen German wall used to cover their ambush for the army's defensive positions). Wells ignores this completely. He ignores that human remains found buried together were almost certainly the result of burial by the legions of Germanicus lending some credibility to Tacitus' version of events. He also ignores physical evidence that shows movement in two columns west of the narrow passage in what seems a fighting retreat, possibly supporting Dio and Paterculus' statements on the battle.

One of the chief archeologists of the site, Suzanne Wilbers-Rost, has said that her own opinion is the number of killed at the immediate battle site was closer to 10,000 than 20,000. That may mean either some troops did not accompany Varus or that a large number survived the initial onslaught and moved off the battlefield, further indicating that the battle took much longer than the one hour Wells speculates. That he chose to write and dictate a chapter based on such a position seems a serious error on his part.

While there is a lot to applaud in "The Battle That Stopped Rome" it ultimately seems a vehicle for a misplaced defense of the German tribes who won and poorly thought out assumptions on the tactical nature of the battle in spite of the dramatic and excellent description of individual combat. Wells spends a lot of ink explaining that the Romans held the Germans in contempt and were loath to think that they could execute an attack with any degree of coordination. He seems to dismiss Drusus' earlier difficult venture into Germany, Tiberius' invasion demanding more than ten legions which (cut short by probems in Illyria) or Varus' assembling of three legions along with cavalry and auxiliaries to counter a perceived threat to believe instead that Rome dismissed German military ability. Being condescending and arrogant of your opponent if you are an ancient Roman writer is one thing, but the legions knew better. While the Germans won due to the duplicity of Arminius, something Wells seems curiously critical of the Romans for pointing out, in the end Varus is as much to blame for his failure to heed warnings given by other Germans and his complete tactical failure in a dangerous crossing. Six years later the Romans returned to Germany under Germanicus exacting retribution of sorts and Arminius' met his end being murdered by his own people. While the battle was a psychological blow to Rome, previous forays into the region had already showed the legions that the conquest of Germany would take a large amount of military resources.

The final answer to the Roman approach to Germany may be that it was simply not worth the serious efforts it would have taken to conquer it. While "The Battle That Stopped Rome" is an interesting and worthwhile read, it contains far too much speculation than should have been included. A comprehensive story of the battle based on the archeological evidence and ancient sources is still to be written.

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