And yet little is known about the battle that would establish the Rhine as the northern frontier of the Roman Empire for the next four centuries. Surviving accounts by Roman historians were written decades--if not centuries--after the fact. The Germanic tribes of Northern Europe had no writing system, so stories of the battle were passed on through oral legend; the location of the battlefield, even the names of the leaders who had clashed, soon evaporated into the boggy mists of time. Details were lost, that is, until modern archaeologists uncovered the battle site some 15 years ago in Northern Germany. Anthropologist Peter Wells uses this discovery to re-create the battle in gruesome detail, but his account remains highly speculative. Regrettably, Wells' thoughtful analysis of Germanic society, which he says was growing economically prosperous even before the battle, and the effect of the Roman defeat on European history, gets lost in all the severed limbs, spurting blood and decapitated corpses.
The Battle That Stopped RomeBy Peter S. Wells
(Norton, 256 pages, $24.95)