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Rome's Greatest Defeat

A Review, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
Cenotaph of Marcus Caelius. Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn (Germany). Photo Marco Prins.
Cenotaph of Marcus Caelius (CIL 13.8648; Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn; more...)
This review was originally published in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review.

Adrian Murdoch,
Rome's Greatest Defeat. Massacre in the Teutoburg Forest (Sutton Publishing, 2006.  Pp. xiv, 234.  ISBN 0-7509-4015-8.  £20.00)

The two last chapters in Rome's Greatest Defeat are dedicated to the development of Western ideas about the Varian disaster. Murdoch carefully describes the opinions of Renaissance scholars, German nationalists, Altertumwissenschaftler, Nazis, and recent archaeologists, and leaves the reader with the impression that so much has already been written about the famous battle that it is no longer possible to say something new. However, a good book in English [1] was overdue. Murdoch's publication now fills the lacuna and leaves nothing to be desired. Of course new archaeological discoveries are likely, but for the time being, Rome's Greatest Defeat is the definitive book on the Battle in the Teutoburg Forest. I would be surprised if another historian still dares to tackle the same subject.

Briefly summarized, the book contains chapters on the main actors, a sober description of the battle itself, an account of its aftermath, and an exhaustive description of later assessments of the significance. Those familiar with the massive output of German publications in the past decade will find little that is new in Rome's Greatest Defeat. The finds at Kalkriese have solved all major puzzles and created several minor ones, for which Murdoch offers plausible solutions.

As to the responsibility for the disaster, he does not agree with those who say that the German policy of Augustus was misguided from its very beginning. Instead, Murdoch stresses that Varus could reasonably assume that he could start to organize the new province's governmental infrastructure. As he was to discover, this was based on too optimistic a view on the extent to which the Germans had become pro-Roman, but the governor was a careful man. He had "what can loosely be called a counter-intelligence network of his own" (page 101), and did in fact receive a warning, which he misinterpreted. Although this identification of the cause of the disaster is clearly inspired by the failure of the American intelligence services in the present war in Iraq (as Murdoch indicates on page 194), it is almost impossible to disagree.

In short, this book is almost perfect. Almost: no writer is omniscient and no reviewer can resist the temptation to split some hairs. In the first place: Alexander the Great was not halted by the Jhelum but by the Beas (page 36). In the second place, Flavius Josephus can not have been a rabbi (page 59). In his age, a rabbi was a religious teacher, well-versed in the study of the Scriptures and the oral traditions of the Pharisees, a branch of Judaism for which the Hasmonaean aristocrat Josephus never felt much sympathy.[2] Because 'rabbi' was not a formal title until after 70, the two vandals mentioned by Murdoch on page 60 can not have been rabbis either.

Finally, the Batavians did not occupy "the area at the mouth of the Rhine around which the modern town of Leiden is now situated" (page 144). This was the territory of the Cananefates. The Batavians lived more to the east, with Nijmegen (Batavodurum or Oppidum Batavorum) as their capital.[3] The area is still called Betuwe.

This topographical error is related to another one, Murdoch's misunderstanding of what he calls "the Drusus Ditch" that "connected the Rhine with the Zuider Zee and the North Sea via the River Vecht" (page 32). Although this was once a common hypothesis, it has been abandoned since the tombstone of Marcus Mallius, a legionary who wanted to be buried near one of Drusus' hydraulic projects, was dredged out of the Rhine east of Arnhem. Archaeologists now agree that the Fossa Drusiana is identical to the Upper IJssel, northeast of Arnhem. To control the entrance of the canal, the Romans built Castra Herculis, a satellite of the major legionary base at Nijmegen.

If Murdoch had used a map that was based on adequate palaeogeographic research, he would not have weakened the point he is trying to make: "a protected channel that avoided the open sea was [...] of psychological importance to the army. The Romans were never comfortable sailors and the North Sea especially made them nervous". However, a Roman ship that sailed down the channel and the IJssel would have reached Lake Flevo (the Zuider Zee), and could only continue its voyage through the lake's western outlet to the dreaded North Sea. The open connection to the North Sea shown on the map on page xi did not exist until the All Saints' Flood of 1170, when the sea broke through and changed the sweet Lake Flevo into a salty Zuider Zee.

The point is that Drusus gave Lake Flevo a second outlet to the north,[4] which gave access to the Wadden Zee, a sandy sea protected by a line of islands that was well-known to the Romans (Pliny, Natural History, 4.79). The shallow Wadden Zee was subject to the tides (id., 16.2-4) and not an easy route (Cassius Dio, Roman History, 54.32.3), but at least the Romans could avoid the treacherous North Sea. Murdoch's statement that the Romans "hit open sea" (page 148), appears to be based on Tacitus (Annals, 2.23-24), who is exaggerating but does in fact mention the protection offered by the islands.

I already said that I was splitting hairs. Murdoch could only have known the details of Batavian topography and Dutch hydrology if he had access to several rather obscure publications, which is more than a reader can reasonably expect. Rome's Greatest Defeat. Massacre in the Teutoburg Forest is a fine book that can sincerely be recommended.[5]

Of course, there are bad books on the subject. Peter Wells, the author of The Battle That Stopped Rome (2003), appears to belong to those historians who believe that writing for a more general audience is a license to be inaccurate.

The counter-argument is of course Josephus, Life, 2 §12. But see S. Mason, Flavius Josephus on the Pharisees. A Composition-Critical study (1991), and for an overview of the debate: John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew. Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Volume 3 (New York 2001), page 301-305, especially 303.

See Willem Willems, Romans and Batavians. A Regional Study in the Dutch Eastern river Area (Heerhugowaard 1986).

Suetonius (Claudius, 1) states that there was more than one canal; Murdoch quotes this line (page 209, note 20) but did not realize the significance of the plural. Cf. Kerst Huisman, "De Drususgrachten: een nieuwe hypothese", in: Westerheem 44 (1995) 188-194.

To my surprise, I discovered my name in the book's acknowledgments. The author and I did indeed exchange two or three e-mail messages in which we discussed a remark on my webpage. My only contribution to this book has been the advice to visit the museum of Haltern; I may also have suggested a hotel or two.
© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2006
Revision: 23 June 2006
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