The Battle of Teutoburg Forest was in many ways the 9/11 of the ancient world. In 9 A.D., in a period of about an hour, Germanic "barbarians" under a mercurial chieftain ambushed and slaughtered three Roman legions--more than 15,000 men. Emperor Augustus was so despondent after the massacre, Suetonius writes, that he would pound his head against a door, shouting for his dead Roman commander to "give me back my legions!" The Roman Empire reacted to the massacre like the United States did to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor--it made excuses. Romans blamed the treachery of the enemy, the incompetence of its own generals, bad luck--anything but crediting the tactical cunning and warrior spirit of a people it had regarded as racially inferior.
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.
By Peter S. Wells
(Norton, 256 pages, $24.95)