Teutoburg Forest (4)

Battle in the Teutoburg Forest (Latin Saltus Teutoburgiensis): the defeat of the Roman commander Publius Quintilius Varus against the Germanic tribesmen of the Cheruscian leader Arminius in 9 CE. In this battle, three legions (XVIIXVIIIXIX) were annihilated.

Archaeological evidence

Tomb of Marcus Caelius

In the late 1980s, archaeological finds started to appear that forced scholars to change their ideas about the battle in the Teutoburg Forest. Yet, they were not the first known material remains of the battle.

Cenotaph of Marcus Caelius

The most impressive archaeological discovery is much older: the cenotaph of an officer named Marcus Caelius and two of his freedman, which was found at Xanten in the seventeenth century and is now on display in the Rheinisches Landesmuseum in Bonn. This monument has been known since 1620, and has been damaged (the lower part is broken off) but the relief and inscription are intact. The epitaph (CIL 13.8648):

Marco CAELIO Titi Filio LEMonia tribv BONonia
I Ordinis LEGionis XIIX ANNorvm LIII S

To Marcus Caelius, son of Titus, of the Lemonian district, from
Bologna, first centurion of the eighteenth legion. 53½ years old.
He fell in the Varian War. His bones
may be interred here. Publius Caelius, son of Titus, 
of the Lemonian district, his brother, erected (this monument).


Other evidence confirmed the presence of the Nineteenth Legion at Cologne. Along the river Lippe, dendrochronologically dated Roman military bases like Oberaden and Haltern (again occupied by the Nineteenth) corroborated Cassius Dio's statement that this river had been the main road into Germania.


Finally, large numbers of coins, both gold and silver, found in the area east of Bramsche, were taken by some as evidence that this was the site of the battle in the Teutoburg Forest. There were so many coins, that the people of Bramsche called the site Goldacker (field of gold). And all coins belonged to the age of the emperor Augustus. The best-known proponent of this theory was Theodor Mommsen, the greatest ancient historian ever. His publication Die Örtlichkeit der Varusschlacht (1885), however, received criticism from several sides, and rightly so: no military objects had been discovered.

Until 1985 several dozens of scholars have proposed several dozens of other locations, including such "brilliant" identifications as Varseveld (= Varus' field) in eastern Holland.

Silver dish fromthe Hildesheim Treasure

Hildesheim Treasure

Another archaeological discovery (from 1868) that has been connected with the battle in the Teutoburg Forest, is the beautiful Hildesheim silver treasure, which can now be seen in the Altes Museum in Berlin. The more than seventy pieces of service, stylistically dating to the reign of Augustus, must have belonged to the belongings of a rich Roman and must have been captured by Germanic warriors. That this treasure belonged to a member of the army of Varus, however, is just a hypothesis. It might as well be a diplomatic gift.

Goldacker Revisited

In 1987, a British officer named Tony Clunn visited the Goldacker again. With a metal detector, he found no less than 162 silver coins, none of them younger than the reign of Augustus. This would have caused a sensation anyhow, but the presence of three slings stones of lead proved that Roman auxiliary troops had been on this site, which is now known as Kalkriese. Clunn already collaborated with the archaeologist Wolfgang Schlüter of the University of Osnabrück, and a survey was organized. Again, many coins of the same age were found, including several military objects. The conclusion that the coins had been lost by soldiers from the age of Augustus was inevitable.

In 1989, a field called the Oberesch was excavated. It was to be one of the first scientific excavations of an ancient battlefield, and the archaeologists had to develop new methods of digging. Again, there were many coins, and -more spectacularly- many other objects made of metal, most of them of a military nature. A silver cavalry mask suggested the presence of horsemen. Another discovery was the print of a soldier's heavy sandal. This much was clear: during the reign of Augustus, a Roman army consisting of several types of soldiers - auxiliary infantry and cavalry - suffered a heavy defeat. After all, the lost objects could not be recovered.

Kalkriese: reconstruction of the narrow corridor between bog and hills

The site itself was remarkably well-suited for an ambush. To the south was the Kalkriese hill. Although it is only 157 meters high, it is hard to pass along its northern slope, because a traveler has to cross many deep brooks and rivulets. To the north of the Kalkriese is a large wetland, which stretches north for a large distance. Between the great bog and the hill is a more or less accessible zone of about 1 kilometer wide, and it comes as no surprise that in the nineteenth century, German engineers have chosen this solid east-west corridor for the construction of the Mittelland Canal and a road. The most accessible part of this zone has a width of only 220 meters. This site could well have been called "narrows" or saltus.

In fact, this also indicated by a nearby topographical name: at the eastern entrance of the narrows is a town that is still called Engter, which means "narrows".

During the next years, it became increasingly likely that the Roman army that had been defeated at Kalkriese had been none other than the three legions of Varus. There were so many finds, that it was hard to believe that the fight at Kalkriese was a minor skirmish. The archaeologists found remains of Roman swords and daggers, parts of javelins and spears, arrowheads, slingstones, fragments of helmets, nails of soldiers' sandals, belts, hooks of chain mail and fragments of armor plate.

Other finds were less military in character, but may have belonged to soldiers nevertheless: locks, keys, razors, a scale, weights, chisels, hammers, pickaxes, buckets, finger rings. A doctor may have owned surgical instruments; seal boxes and a stylus may have been among the possessions of a scribe; and a cook must have carried cauldrons, casseroles, spoons, and amphorae. Finally, jewelry, hairpins, and a disk brooch suggest the presence of women.

Several finds are inscribed, and two of them mention a "first cohort", i.e. the subunit of a legion that was responsible for accounting, records, archives, and all other tasks to support the legion's staff. Not only scribes and accountants belonged to the first cohort, but also engineers, messengers and others. One of the inscribed objects is a plumb bob with CHOI, or C(o)HO(rtis) I ("belonging to the first cohort"). The other one is on the fastener of a chain mail:

M AIUS (cohortis) I (centuriae) FABRICI(i) 
M AII (cohortis) I (centuriae) FAB(ricii)

Marcus Aius of cohort I, centuria of Fabricius
Belongs to Marcus Aius of cohort I, centuria of Fabricius

 Although we do not know to which legion this cohort belonged, this discovery is important because it proves that the staff of at least one legion was at Kalkriese. The presence of light auxiliary infantry and cavalry had already been attested, but now the archaeologists knew that one of Rome's mighty heavy infantry units had been defeated at Kalkriese.


The excavations at the Oberesch also told a lot about the nature of the battle. In the south, a turf wall of at least 700 meters long was discovered, extending from east to west along the northern slope of the Kalkriese hill. Once, it was a 1½ meters high, with a wooden fence on top and on several places fortified with limestone. On several places were gates.

Concentration of Finds

The Y-shaped concentration of Roman finds between the great bog and the hills.

It is important to consider the distribution of the finds (see to the right), which suggests that this is the place where an army, arriving from the east and proceeding to the west, was no longer able to continue in one column and fell apart. If we accept that the Romans were moving from east to west when they were attacked, it seems logical to conclude that at the moment of the first attack

  1. one group of soldiers was already marching to the northwest, to the river Hase;
  2. and the other group marched to the southwest
    • but was annihilated or
    • able to recuperate and continue its way without archaeologically traceable losses, perhaps along the course of the medieval trade route to Münster and the Lippe.

It is possible that the first group was annihilated in bog areas in the north, but it is also possible that it was able to join the second group and continue its way.  We will return to this possibility below. In any case, the conclusion is inevitable that the Roman army had to pass through the Kalkriese narrows, that the soldiers expected nothing, and that they were suddenly attacked from their left flank.

Finally, many human bones - often with heavy cuts - were discovered in five pits. The dead bodies seem to have been exposed for a few years before they were finally buried.

Dating the Fight at Kalkriese

The gold pieces (aurei) that were discovered enable a precise dating. The coin that was struck to commemorate that Augustus had adopted his grandsons Lucius and Gaius (in 2 BCE) was found at Kalkriese. However, the next Augustan gold piece, which was minted in the year 13 CE, was absent. Although gold coins did not spread very fast, we can be confident that the Roman defeat at Kalkriese can be dated in the first two decades of the first century of our era.

Perhaps a more precise dating is possible. Several coins were stamped with the mark VAR. The interpretation of this abbreviation is not completely certain, but most scholars agree that it should be read as "Varus". When he became governor of Germania, he donated money to his soldiers (a donativum), and this gift was marked with the VAR-sign. The implication is that the marked coins were minted after Varus' arrival in Germania, i.e. in the summer of the year 6 CE. We can therefore narrow down the time interval in which the Kalkriese-battle was fought to the years between 6 and, say, 20.

 As we have already seen, the staff of at least one legion was present, and the presence of cavalry and auxiliary infantry is also attested. There were also noncombatants and perhaps women at Kalkriese. Many people must have died and we can be confident that the defeat was a major one. It rarely happened that legionary soldiers lost a battle. Now we happen to have excellent sources on the Germanic wars and the reign of Augustus: Velleius Paterculus and Cassius Dio. Both authors mention only one Roman defeat that can be identified with the fight in the Kalkriese narrows: the battle in the Teutoburg Forest.