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.