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Rome’s Forgotten Battle: Harzhorn

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I recently read an article on a numismatic site written by Julius Gemanicus. He described his recent visit to the site of the Harzhorn battle of approximately 228 CE in his native Germany. It inspired me to delve more deeply into the history of this interesting site.


I had vaguely remembered this topic being discussed years ago on this site. (See link below.)


My new-found interest about this battlefield coincided with my reading the excellent book by Paul N. Pearson, “Maximinus Thrax: From Common Soldier to Emperor of Rome.”



In his book Professor Pearson dedicates an entire chapter on the battle.

The interesting finding is the distance into hostile German territory that the battlefield was found. The battlefield is found farther north and east than anyone had predicted. The battle also occurred much later than anyone would have imagined.

In the book, Pearson writes, "Hence the late date surprised just about everyone because the Romans were not supposed to have penetrated this far into Germany after the first century" [after the Varus disaster at Teutoburg Forest in 9 CE].

"Radiocarbon dating of wooden artifacts tied the battle [at Harzhorn] unequivocally in the first half of the third century." Numismatic evidence includes denarii of Severus Alexander and Julia Mamaea "advancing the terminus post quem [the earliest possible date for something] to 228." The battle is now believed to have occurred during the reign of Maximinus Thrax in about 235 CE.


(Replica of coin found)


(Actual coin from battlefield)

This coin of Julia Mamaea on display (with the enlarged photo of the coin behind) is one of of the important pieces of evidence that the battle at Harzhorn occurred no earlier than 222 CE. (Her son Alexander Severus was emperor 222-235 CE. Both mother and emperor were murdered by disgruntled troops in 235 CE.) 

"The battlefield is no less than 350 kilometers across barbarian territory ... and would have taken a Roman legion the best part of a month to approach ...."
"And the layout of the battle suggests the Romans were engaged on their return journey."

So, the Harzhorn battlefield is significant for three reasons:

1)   It shows a significant incursion by the Romans deep into German territory more than two centuries later than previously known.

2)   The numismatic evidence almost certainly confirms this theory.

3)   Despite the chaos and crisis of the third century, the Roman Empire was still able to project its power despite its internal turmoil.

Professor Pearson notes that an axe-head was found at the battlefield with the inscription leg IIII SA on one side and FAV on the other. This identifies the legio IIII flavia felix. The symbol of the unit was a lion. The initials SA probably signifies severinae alexandrinae (Severus Alexander).  



(Actual axe-head found at battle site)




(Coin unrelated to battle site that shows the lion on the reverse of legio IIII FL.)


By sheer coincidence, the unit commanded by Russel Crowe in the movie Gladiator during the battle in Germania set more than a half century earlier was legio III, felix legion (also the symbol of the lion).

GladiatorA.gif.b980744c4020f14a43390b6bc0650cb8.gif Banner.jpg.21c2afa9a450d2f79c73d474a044dc5d.jpg






guy also known as gaius

Edited by guy

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Can't remember where I posted these answers, but out of interest, some Q&A on the battle the expedition fought so far from camp...


- If a roman legion, and auxillaries was involved, why do the excavators estimate the roman force at 1000 ?

This was a punitive raid, not a campaign of conquest. The forces were not required to be any larger and given what had happened in AD9, perhaps the Romans could be forgiven for not risking their entire legion!


- Why are most of the sandal nails, so far found concentrated at the base of the slope leading to the Germanic tribes position on the top of the hill ?

Most likely that was where the Roman casualties fell.


- How did the romans have enough time to get their 'artillery', that is ballista, up the hill and into position if this was an ambush ?

They didn't. The bolts were fired onto the hill from the north.


- Why are there no Germanic artifacts found ?

Either looted from the Germans at the scene by Roman soldiers or revovered later by tribesmen


- Why did the Romans not collect their used arrows and ballista projectiles after the battle ?

They wanted to move on, plus there was no guarantee the spent projectiles were usable.


- If it was a Roman victory why was it not more recorded ?

The Romans might have mentioned the campaign in the Historia Augusta, telling us that in the summer of 238 Maximinus Thrax marched troops north from Moguntuacum (Mainz) for three or four hundred miles on a mission to revenge some damaging raids mounted by german tribesmen over the previous five years, though the plan had been prepared by his predecessor, Severus Alexander. That concurs with the approximate date of this battle.


Unfortunately the Historia Augusta is widely regarded as inaccurate and thus the distances have always been in doubt. As for the scale of the battle, it's a minor engagement. The Germans occupied a hill blocking the route of march so the Romans dealt with it and moved on quickly to avoid further encounters - they were limited in numbers.


Estimates reckon it was all over in thirty minutes - and that's quick work by ancient standards - thus I doubt the records of the time paid much attention to it. Also there were other larger campaigns during the period the Romans probably found more interesting to write about. In any case, not all records survive.


- Which Legion(s) were involved ?

"Summer 238...Maximinus led out his entire army and crossed the bridge (over the Rhine) fearlessly, eager to do battle with the Germans. Under his command was a vast number of men, virtually the entire Roman military force, together with many Moorish javelin men and Osrehenian and Armenian archers; some were subject peoples, others friends and allies, and included, too, were a number of Parthian mercenaries and slaves captured by the Romans.


Entire Roman military force? I don't think so. That sounds like a mistake by the Roman authors rather than an exaggeration. What was meant was that Maxminus took almost the entire force raised to attack the Germans, not the empires forces as a whole.


- Is the similarity to the opening battle in the film 'Gladiator' purely coincidental ?

Yes. But the film does not portray the forces engaged at Harzhorn Hill, but legions in Marcus Aurelius's campaigns of fifty years earlier.

Edited by caldrail

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2 hours ago, caldrail said:

Can't remember where I posted these answers, but out of interest, some Q&A on the battle the expedition fought so far from camp...

Thank you for reading my post. It's crazy to realize we had this discussion eight years ago. (Time does march on.) There is a link to that older discussion in my original post as well as below:

I actually wrote a response to another thread on this subject ten years ago. Yikes. I didn't remember that thread, either.  


Your answers to the questions posed in the older original thread are certainly insightful and have survived the test of time.

Thank you for posting, again.


guy also known as gaius

Edited by guy

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Here is a video description of the battle:





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