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on 30 November 2016
I found this in the bibliography of a German book on the Varus massacre.
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on 15 December 2015
How gross incompetence and pride cost Rome 3 elite Legions!
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on 15 September 2016
I purchased this book with the book Romes greatest defeat i much preferred this book with more information on the battle itself.
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on 23 September 2011
The thesis of this book is that the battle of the Teutoburg Forest was responsible for stopping Rome's expansion. To prove this Dr. Wells uses large amounts of the literary data that he will later dismiss when he covers the battle itself. Dr. Wells does not come up with much of an argument to support his thesis. He uses the written sources to show that the Romans abandoned their Germanic provinces immediately after the battle and never returned to them. In doing so he fails to mention Rome's later expansion into Britain, Dacia, and Mesopotamia. This `lack' of further expansion is the only evidence he has. All of the sources he uses to show this are written ones which seems hypocritical given how little faith he puts in them when he actually describes the battle later on in the book.

His overview of Roman history is fairly superficial but the biggest flaws in his account come when he discards written evidence entirely in favor of archaeological evidence. His description of the battle is based entirely off of archaeology with little to no evidence from the written sources. In his view the attack began when the Roman army reached Kalkriese Hill where defensive walls combined with the swampy terrain allowed the Roman army to be massacred in about an hour. The problems with his account are legion. To focus on literary sources for the moment, all of them agree that Varus killed himself before the final Roman defeat. How could anyone know this if the entire battle was over in about an hour with the army still spread out in marching order? To be sure it could be propaganda designed to discredit Varus as the scapegoat, but as the author himself pointed out depictions of Varus varied greatly and were not uniformly negative by any means. What is more the literary evidence does not contradict itself as thoroughly as he makes out. When describing Germanicus' visit to the battlefield Tacitus mentions a "first camp" and "a half-ruined wall and shallow ditch" where "the now broken remnant had taken cover." This mention of a camp agrees with Dio's statement that the Romans set up their first camp when they were attacked. Despite the author's statement that the location of the camp and the wall in relation to each other is uncertain Tacitus goes on to state that there is a plain between them. While Dio is the only source to specify three days (Florus says one day, the rest are silent) all the sources agree that the Romans had time to set up at least one camp, thus invalidating Dr. Well's theory. Furthermore, he is being disingenuous when he says that no authors state where they get their information since Tacitus actually mentions that Germanicus had survivors and freed Roman prisoners leading him around the site.

The problems are worse than simply literary, they go against common sense. The worst part of his recreation is that he expects the reader to believe that the Romans walked right up to enemy fortifications without noticing them. Certainly they might have used auxiliaries to scout out the area, but when they got within sight of these walls it would take monumental incompetence for them not to reevaluate their position. Also unexplained is how the Germanians, who must have been within visual range if they were manning the walls, were able to remain completely unobserved. It feels more like a movie scenario than one which could succeed in real life. The fact that he uses the film Gladiator as an example of a Germanic battle does not exactly help defend him from that assessment. Since Dr. Wells describes the army as being in marching order when the attack began he makes it harder to support his theory. It would be impossible to kill all the Romans in this situation with a numerically inferior force within an hour. The line was supposed to extend for three miles. A man can easily walk three miles in an hour but not if he had to fight his way there. Even assuming that all the Roman soldiers lay down and let the Germanians slit their throats it would take longer than an hour to kill all 18,000 men along the line. If Arminius spread his troops out to attack all the Romans at the same time then he would have given up the advantages of his fortifications and have decreased his concentration of force giving the Romans plenty of time to form up or break out. Unfortunately the author does not provide any reason for his interpretation and since he does not use footnotes there is no way of knowing what evidence (if any) he has to back it up.

The assumption which Dr. Wells is operating on is that archaeological evidence trumps written evidence. Indeed, when there is something found in the archaeological record that directly contradicts a written record then the written record must be wrong, but when the evidence is not so specific should the written record just be idly tossed away? There is nothing at the site itself to suggest how long the battle lasted. If archaeological evidence is inconclusive then why discard the accuracy of written records without question? While the majority of artifacts were found near the fortifications there were plenty of others scattered throughout about four miles or so of country. This is fully in keeping with the written description of continual harassment over a period of several days followed by a final massacre which can be connected with their attempt to force the pass. Trying to pass through terrain that is protected by recently erected and manned enemy fortifications could only have been a final act of desperation, not one of reasoned policy. In his description he throws around words like `consummate tactician' casually. Even if the massacre went as smoothly as described it was not a display of tactical genius on Arminius' part but an example of a well-planned ambush and an ability to fool the commander of the Roman forces. Wells' fondness for the Germanians has led him to rate their achievements higher than he can justify.

The good things about this book are the descriptions of the camps and the Germanic villages. Unlike the battle there is no evidence for these places apart from archaeology and occasionally a name. Here he is free to speculate as much as he wants without contradiction. Even here though I question his interpretations. Are coin hoards evidence of Romans fleeing in terror? It seems to me that if they left in a panic never expecting to return then they'd bring all their valuables with them. This is an area where maps would come in useful but the ones included are dreadful. I had to find another map of the battle online just to find out which direction North was. That's a rather important fact to know given how without it you can't know whether the accumulation of artifacts appear before the fortifications or after. For the record, North is up which means that the majority of artifacts found are to the East, the direction they were approaching from, which supports my theory rather more than his. This author makes bold statements and then fails to provide evidence for them. While this book is written for a popular audience and it is therefore less important for the author to give his footnotes in full, he still needs to provide some reason for his radical assertions. This he fails to do.

For a better look at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest I'd recommend Rome's Greatest Defeat. It's written for the same audience (the non-expert) but has much better analysis and accuracy.
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on 18 October 2010
I bought this book in the hope it would offer new evidence and discussion on the infamous loss of the Varus legions in the Teutoberg forest in AD 9. However, it amalgamates to what is in effect the general history reader's guide to the Roman Empire's policies and strategies during the early principate delivered in a popular history style. If it is intended to translate to the small screen as a documentary it would succeed very well as anyone who has no knowledge at all of the period and the events would find it explains both background and actions extremely well. However, anyone with knowledge of the event will find this a disappointing effort as it offers nothing new, simply rehashing currently accepted theory based on the wealth of archeological evidence. To be honest I skipped several sections based on the titles as they provided no more that general background knowledge and in some respects the fact that the format of the text allows you to do this is quite effective as you can dip in and out more easily.
The author would have us think that this battle has been lost in the mists of time but I am not too certain why given most of my contemporaries have heard of the battle, if not the events surrounding it, at the very least.
Simply put, this is written for the general history reader or pre-college student, not for the university or serious historical scholar, but there is certainly a place for this type of history book on the shelves. So...recommended for the general history audience but specialists in the subject will find it offers nothing new.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 28 March 2007
This is a workmanlike volume which serves as an introduction to what happened, but it doesn't satisfy - most of the text is context (potted early history of Rome, background to the "German" opponents) with relatively little about, for example, the archaeology of the battlefield. It is embellished, if that's the word, by little bits of reconstruction (the first sentence, quoted above) or attempts to empathise (being told an ancient battle was savage and bloody - surely not!) that add little.

I found the most interesting aspect to be the discussion of why the Romans lost, but this could have been taken much further. Wells argues that they simply underestimated and misunderstood the North European tribes, which seems a fair assessment so far as it goes - but why such a fatal misjudgement in this particular case against a background of success elsewhere? He says he does not accept the "Varus was a bad general" school of thought, but then speculates that V. would have employed - and trusted - local scouts who led his army into a trap. You can't have it both ways.

And the issue that is really left hanging is that pointed to by the title - was this "The Battle That Stopped Rome"? And if so, why? The invasion of Britain took place after the destruction of Varus' legions. Why did Rome succeed there but not in Germany?
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on 26 March 2009
In the early first century BC the Romans abandoned their efforts to include the lands east of the Rhine in their empire. This book reads as a long and highly competent essay on the battle that played a major part in that decision. Wells overlaps without pointing out that he mentioned something previously and this can confuse the reader; but iteration helps one remember key points/facts. He is convincing in his reasoning that the Romans lost the battle due to strategic miscalculation rather than tactical errors by Varus; i.e. the Romans didn't understand the nature of the people east of the Rhine and underestimated them to the point where a showdown on the "Germans'" terms was inevitable as soon as an inspired leader like Arminius came along. Also convincing were the descriptions of battle - I am glad I wasn't one of the Roman soldiers.

A bit more on the religion of the "Germans" would have been interesting. Also, a longer examination of how European history and social geography might have been different had there been a different outcome - i.e. a different background strategy by the Romans involving incorporation of these lands into the empire through diplomacy - would have been useful and fun. (The section What if the Romans had Won? gets only a few paragraphs; and in any case they had no chance of winning the battle itself once it had started as Wells himself makes abundantly clear several times.)
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 28 March 2012
I bought and read this book in early 2004, at a time when I didn't write reviews. I read it, I found it wanting and was deeply annoyed at the time that such a book could even be portrayed as a piece of history for a "general" reader. I have only picked it up recently and gone through it again in an attempt to explain, through a review, why this book should be avoided by anyone wanting to learn more about what happened in the Teutoburg Forest, why it happened, and what were the consequences.

In a nuttshell, and regardless of whether the reader is someone with just a passing interest in this topic or a history buff (or even a historian or an archeologist), this book does not provide a satisfactory answer to any of these three questions. Besides, there are quit a few other books which are better in dealing with what happened or even strictly with the archeological evidence, as other reviewers have mentioned.

Rather than being about substance and analysis, this book is about hype, form, visual and sensational effects (preferably gory!), with the author giving a free rein to his vivid imagination. As another review (Stuart) mentioned, at times, when reading the last section (the account of the battle itself), I felt I was reading the script for a Gladiator-style movie rather than an account of a historical event. Note that I loved Gladiator. It's one of my favorite films. It's great fun and I've seen it at least half a dozen times. However, it's NOT history and it's own author had never intended it to be. Rather, it was a bit of a "pastiche" and a modernized summary of the peplums that Hollywood used to come up with in the 1960s. This book has the same feeling but it is rather disingeneously portrayed as a piece of history and archeology.

In other words, this is about hype and effect, not about substance and analysis. To make things worse, the author has a systematic biais towards archeology, which I also happen to like, and he discards out of hand anything in the written (Roman) sources that may contradict his preconceived views, without even bothering to discuss and explain his choices. It seems that his main justification is that the sources are all biaised and contradict each other. As any historian or archeologist should know, written primary historical sources are ALWAYS biaised, one way or another and may often contradict each other, at least on some points. One of the key elements in a historical analysis is, precisely, to discuss the various merits of these sources, to detect, understand and analyze their biais, to confront what the source is willing to tell us, how it tells it to us, and why it does so. There is simply NONE of this in the book. So, this is NOT a history book, nor a book on archeology, not even for a general reader.

Apart from this major issue with the author's curious methodology - or lack of it - there are three other issues which I have hinted at above.

The first is to understand why and how this major Roman disaster could have happened. The Roman sources, understandably, heaped all the blame on Varus, the Roman commander who committed suicide rather than survive the disaster (and be captured and tortured). Wells states in a typically oversimplified way that "he was the wrong man in the wrong place and at the wrong moment". However, he fails to go any further than this rather superficial assessment and, by failing to do so, he is giving credit to the idea that Varus as grossly incompetent, arogant or even stupid whereas in reality he was unaware of the situation and not qualified to deal with it. Varus was, in (historical) fact, more of an administrator than a military man. He had some military experience (as all Roman leaders of legions had at the time), but not much. Where he excelled was in administering and organizing province to make it income producing for the Empire.

Understanding this is essential because from it, two crucial consequences can be drawn.

First, it implies that at the time he was appointing, Augustus considered that Germany was conquered or almost conquered and that Rome could move to the second stage, that is integration within the Empire. This seems to be a gross misunderstanding of the situation "on the ground" or perhaps a case where Augustus and his administration got to believe their own propaganda about the Empire's triumphal achievements (see, for a few examples of these, the book on Drusus the Elder). Another possibility may have been that the Germanic tribes, most of which had submitted, accepted to follow Arminius (Hermann?) and revolt as the Roman grasping tax-gatherers came in after the legions. Both possibilities can of course be combined. So, Augustus grossly underestimated the Germanic tribes and believed that because they may have been willing to benefit from Roman civilisation (for instance through trade and by "migrating for work" to serve in the Roman auxiliaries, as Arminius did himself), they had accepted "Roman ways" and were ripe for integration and taxation.

The Romans at all levels were caught by surprise. This shows complacency, and what we would nowadays call a major intelligence failure at the strategic level. Some of this had to do with the excellent job of disinformation that Arminius (and probably quite a few others, although the sources only mention him) achieved. However, a lot also had to do with the Romans' own attitudes, at all levels it seems, and starting by Varus who was repeatedly warned against Arminius but chose to discard the warnings as mere jalousy and infighting between Germanic chieftains. What we have here, of course, is a display of ignorance, arrogance and wishful thinking on the part of the Romans. This view, rather than being only the view of Varus, was very likely shared by the vast majority of Roman officers, by imperial headquarters and by the Emperor himself. This is precisely what the Roman sources - and Tacitus among others - are trying to hide through their obfuscations and this is what a careful analysis of the situation prior to the battle could have shown.

Second, what happened during the campaign and how did the Romans fall in such a huge trap. To begin with, it is interesting to note what we do not know. We know Varus had three legions with them. We do not know whether these were up to strength (slighly over 5000 men per legion at the time) or not, neither to we know how many auxiliary cohorts might have been with them. We also have no precise idea as to Germanic numbers on the other side. None of this is discussed, and no real attempt is made by the author to give even a rough sense of numbers, his story of the battle is flawed right from the beginning. Then comes the author's unsubstantiated statements about the whole army being caught between a fortified ditch, a bog, and a hill with the battle lasting an hour, which would make it into a slaughter rather than a battle. None of this is even credible.

To begin with the length of the battle, the Roman sources mention that it lasted three days from the first engagements to the last stand. This knowledge came from survivors who managed to get back to Roman lines several days afterwards. There seem to have been quite a few of these. This estimate of the length of the "battle", or rather of the repeated harassment and engagements during which the legions were gradually worn down came from eye-witnesses, even if Roman. Why would it need to be discarded? Why would this even be a Roman lie? How would such a lie make the Romans "look" any better? None of this is even discussed or explained. Is it even posible to slaughter three legions of legionaries in armour, helmets and shields in only 60 minutes?

To answer that question, remember for instance that it took Hannibal a whole day to destroy the Roman army he had entirely trapped at the battle of the Trasimeme lake (rather5 than the usual example of Cannae, which was a rather different type of battle): he ambushed the whole Roman army and attacked it when it was marching on the road between the lake on one side and a hill on the other side by posting missile and light infantry on the hill and heavy infantry to seal off the back and the front of the trap. Even in such unfavorable conditions, however, the Romans fought and several thousands (6000 of them) in the vanguard managed to break through.

Since the Roman army's quality does not seem to have declined since 217 BC, to say the least, he is very hard (meaning impossible) to believe that Varus' army were slaughtered like cattle over a single hour. It is however possible that the last attack during which the Romans were finally overwhelmed may have lasted only a hour as the last organized troops attempted for the last time to storm the barricades blocking their way and got cut down from all sides. This is however an entirely different story...

Another element in favor of a running battle over three days is, of course, that archeological findings have been found scattered across a rather wide area, even if they are concentrated in some places, most likely those where clusters of troops made their last stands. What may have happened (and it is not more than a "may") is that the huge Roman column, through continous skirmishing (starting with attacks on the rearguard and then on the flanks, parhaps?) would have, at the beginning, been gradually thinned out and driven forward and funelled into the trap where the troops simply could not deploy. Once this had happened, the Romans' only (but very slight) chance was a frontal attack to break through. Faced with ennemies on three sides and exhausted by the two previous days of fighting and terror, this unsurprisingly proved to be "mission impossible", even for the Roman legionnaries.

Such a scenario seems more likely, especially since the Roman army faced a number of similar situations that ended in disasters or near-disasters when Roman troops got ambushed in forests. There is as least one example where Caesar got caught in Gaul by the Nervians. He managed to extricate himself and finally win the battle because it seems that the Nervians attacked a bit too soon (aso he was rather lucky). Another example was the near-disaster that Drusus the Elder experienced in Germany: this could have been a disaster of the same magnitude as Teutoburg, but some twenty years earlier, at a time when neither the Roman army nor the Emperor considered Germania to be as good as conquered. He was rash, and almost lost his life and that of the whole of his army as a result. A couple of latter examples include the disaster of Cerialis' legion during the rebellion of Boudicca - he lost about half of it while trying to march it from Lincoln to Colchester in multiple forrest ambushes - and that of the Roman legion that got cut to pieces in the Highlands and was never heard off afterwards. The bottom line is that Roman legions had a weakness, like any heavily equipped close order troops: catch them on the march when crossing a forested area where they could not deploy effectively and they could be beaten and possibly almost exterminated. THIS is what seems to have happened at Teutoburg and it worked almost perfectly for the GErmanic tribes.

Finally, the consequences. As others have already mentioned, the book's title is a piece of misleading hype. Teutoburg did not stop Rome's exansion. The Empire went on to conquer Mauretania, Britain, Dacia and Parthia, to mention just these four. What is true, however, is that the Empire evacuated what was to have been a Roman province (or several?) running from the Rhine to the Elbe, and never came back. Pulling back to the Rhine would have made perfect sense at the time and it very probably was portrayed and even believed to be a temporary move, with Germanicus' campaigns being quite deliberatly portrayed as a sequel and vengeance, if not a "reconquest". So, with the hindsight of the historian, the battle itself may not have been enough on its own to "stop Rome" from expanding, even in Germania and we might have to look elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the author hasn't been bothered to do so, preferring to be superficial and sensational rather thorough and comprehensive. Avoid...

PS - added on 27 March 2014
For those looking for a better book than this one, I can recommend the following:
- Adrian Murdoch's "Rome's Greatest Defeat: Massacre in the Teutoburd Forest" (2008), which is rather good, despite the hyped up title (Teutoburg was simply NOT "Rome's Grestest Defeat", and the Romans had gone through worse a number of times before: Cannae (216 BC), Arausio (105 BC) and Carrhae (53 BC).
- Tony Clunn's "The Quest for the Lost Roman Légions" (1999), with this Major in the British Army stationaed in Germany (at the time) spent ten years looking for and finally finding the place (or rather places) when the running battle took place
- Michael NcNally's Osprey Campaign title (Teutoburg Forest AD 9: "The Destruction of Varus and His Legions"). Although just an overview, and you can hardly expect anything else from a little booklet whose size is limited to 96 pages, it discusses all the main issues, makes all the main points and contains some rather superb plates thrown into the bargain. It references both of the books above and the one that is the subject of this review.
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on 12 January 2004
"The Battle That Stopped Rome" is a very interesting book about the Battle of the Teutoberg Forest, which may have been one of the most important engagements in European history. I had not read a great deal about the battle before picking up Wells' book, but I gather that the author is offering a revisionist history based on his interpretation of the archaeology at the battle site, which was finally located in 1987 at Kalkriese in northern Germany.
The broad outlines of the battle are reasonably well understood. Arminius, a member of the Cherusci tribe who had served in the Roman army and had become a Roman citizen, led three legions under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus into a trap east of the Rhine. While the legions were on the march in a column that may have been over two miles long, they were ambushed by Germanic warriors. The terrain and the extended column prevented the Roman units from forming up properly, with the horrific result that 20,000 or so men (and possibly a large group of camp followers) were killed on the spot, ritually sacrificed or sold into slavery. The catastrophe cost the Roman army almost ten percent of its effective strength, revived Roman fears of an invasion by northern barbarians, and may have induced the Romans to halt the expansion of their empire at the Rhine River rather than pressing on to the Elbe.
Wells tends to dismiss ancient descriptions of the battle, arguing that classical historians suffered from the fact that they were not present at the battle, were often writing long after the fact, and were burdened by stereotyped and inaccurate notions of how the Germanic tribes fought. He suggests that the battle did not take place over three days (as the writer Cassius Dio claimed 200 years later) but that the slaughter was essentially over in an hour, with the rest of the day devoted to capturing or killing the survivors.
According to the book's chapter notes, Wells bases his description of a short and bloody battle on historical information about Varus and his legions, Roman accounts of the battle, the archaeological and topographical evidence at Kalkriese, and information from other historical battles. Wells' conclusions may be right, but he could have done a better job of explaining why his analysis of these sources led him to reconstruct the battle as he did. Although Wells offers a gripping description of what must have been a gruesome and terrifying encounter for all concerned, I suspect that his book will not be the last word on the subject.
All in all, Wells' book is a perfectly serviceable introduction for a reader who, like me, is just beginning to explore the history of this period. Having said that, I am brought up a bit short by one of the reviews that I see below, which seems to have been written by a reader with a strong (and seemingly well reasoned) negative opinion of the book. Duly chastened, I nonetheless draw two conclusions:
First, as a newcomer to this period, I genuinely enjoyed the book, read it avidly and thought it was fairly well done. I think you will find "The Battle That Stopped Rome" to be interesting and thought-provoking, as long as you have not already formed strong opinions about what happened on that long-ago day in 9 AD.
Second, the seminal work on the archaeology of the battle seems to be Tony Clunn's "In Quest of the Lost Legions,". I have already ordered that book, and I look forward to learning more about this very important battle.
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on 14 March 2005
Having just read the paperback version of this book I must agree with the reviewer from Norwich with respect to it's poor content and structure. While not having studied Roman history at University I have read all the ancient authors that refer to this incident and I must say that the originals are still the best. I found this book very repetitive - the danger of cut and paste without strict editorial control perhaps? In addition, there was an unacceptable amount of padding in the book. The book was a (ladybird version) history of the Roman Republic/Empire, life of Augustus and his family, socio-economic conditions along with a slight review of archaeological finds in the area. The text covering the battle itself was scanty and too short. Basically I was left after reading the book with the question - where's the beef?? The book did not deliver what it promised and I am just grateful that I bought a paperback and not a hardback copy so I wasted less money than I might have. A disappointing read.
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