By David Crossland
"In September 9 AD, Germanic tribesmen slaughtered three Roman legions in a battle that marked the "big bang" of the German nation and created its first hero - Hermann. This battle represents nothing less than the birth of the German nation, a devastating victory over three Roman legions by Germanic tribes in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. The battle created the first German hero, Arminius, or Hermann as he later became known, a young chieftain of the Cherusci tribe who led the rebellion and was hailed for centuries as the man who united the Germans and drove the Romans out of Germania.
But Germany marks the anniversary event with noticeable restraint. There's no sense of glory and no program of flag-waving festivals of the sort one would expect in other nations celebrating their creation. In fact, a lot of Germans don't even know about Arminius. Many schools shunned his story after 1945 because he became contaminated by the militant nationalism that led to Hitler. Interest has gradually reawakened since the discovery of the presumed site of the battle in the late 1980s, and there has been intense media coverage of the man and the myth this year. "The battle became the big bang of the German nation in terms of myth and legend. But in terms of real history, it was no such thing," said Bendikowski.
The more than 50 Germanic tribes of the ancient period were the forefathers of many European nations, not just the Germans. And Arminius by no means united them - he persuaded five tribes to join him in battle, and he was killed by members of his own tribe a few years later. However, there's little doubt that the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest sent shockwaves through the Roman Empire. It was one reason why Rome abandoned plans to turn Germania east of the Rhine into a province.
The popular notion that Arminius drove the Romans out of Germania east of the Rhine is a fallacy, though. Roman legions were back in force six years after the battle, wreaking havoc and winning major battles. The discovery last year of an ancient battlefield some 100 kilometers east of Kalkriese, near the town of Kalefeld south of Hanover, testifies to Roman military presence deep in hostile Germania as late as the third century AD.
"It's typically German to say world history was shaped on German soil," said Bendikowski. "We know that this was one battle among many and that there was a range of factors behind Rome's eventual retreat to the Rhine. Everyone who needed this myth regarded it as the turning point of history. For many it remains the turning point. But it wasn't." The Kalkriese museum displays spear tips, human bones with terrible battle wounds and metal parts from Roman body armor found on the battlefield in the more than 20 years since a British hobby archaeologist, Major Tony Clunn who was stationed in Germany with the British army, discovered 150 silver coins and three Roman slingshots about a kilometer from the site.
The site of the battlefield had been a mystery ever since the Hermann cult got going in the 16th century, and countless locations have laid claim to it. Some historians still have their doubts about Kalkriese, but they are now in the minority because the certainty that this is the true battlefield has grown steadily over the last two decades. Eight pits containing the bones of men aged 20 to 45 have been found, with many skulls showing gaping holes from fatal blows. The pits tally with Roman accounts of how an army under commander Germanicus discovered the battlefield in AD16 and buried the heaps of bleached bones strewn across it. The soldiers also found skulls nailed to trees.
There are other clear indications that the battle was fought here. None of the 1,600 coins found were minted after AD9. Skeletons of mules were found - only Roman armies used mules. Other finds at Kalkriese tally with the presence of a Roman military column that wasn't expecting trouble. Ornate tableware, large amounts of cash, even a miniscule painted glass eye taken from a decorative figure that adorned a luxurious Roman dining sofa -- it's not exactly the equipment a Roman army would carry into battle. The army of Varus was moving home for the winter rather than embarking on a military campaign.
The most visually striking find is an iron face mask from a Roman cavalryman's helmet. But it's the myriad of unspectacular bits of metal that really tell the chilling story of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. "We have been finding traces of plundering rather than of fighting," Susanne Wilbers-Rost, the chief archaeologist at the site, told Spiegel Online. "The excavations have revealed many small items torn off when the Germans were stripping the Romans as they lay dead or wounded. Things like buckles, hinges, connecting parts of body armor and chain mail. You can only imagine this kind of brutal stripping of the dead when the defeat was total, when no Romans survived," she said. "We know that the Romans always tried to retrieve their dead. The Germans had all the time in the world. They weren't disturbed." Wilbers-Rost and her colleagues have even found evidence of organized sorting of equipment such as heavy Roman shields that the Germanic warriors had little use for. "They were mainly interested in the metal frames of the shields which they could melt down. We found many frames bent and folded ready to transport. That kind of folding can't have happened in battle."
Wilbers-Rost has gained international recognition for her work which has provided insights that can be applied to other battlefields of all ages. "This is a highly interesting excavation because it's very unusual to find an ancient battlefield. The locations of these sites usually aren't known because they were always plundered. Here we have found out that inconspicuous items can be indications of battle, or of related actions like plundering. Usually if you're looking for the remains of thousands of Romans and their enemies you wouldn't pay any attention to a few spear tips and a few remains of a few metal frames, but that may be an indication of a battle," said Wilbers-Rost.
Each year some 100,000 people visit the Kalkriese museum, which does a good job of explaining the battle. This year, visitor numbers are likely to be well above the average. The museum shop is doing a brisk trade in souvenirs such as "Hard Hermann" sausages, replica Germanic drinking horns and "Varus Temptation Waffles."