Livius.Org Anatolia Carthage Egypt Germ. Inf. Greece Judaea Mesopotamia Persia Rome Other

Kalkriese


Map of the Kalkriese excavations. Design Jona Lendering.
Kalkriese: site of the Battle in the Teutoburg Forest.

In September 9 CE, the Romans suffered one of the greatest defeats in their history in the Teutoburg Forest. Three legions (the Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth) were destroyed; general Publius Quintilius Varus was forced to commit suicide. The site of the battle has been discovered at Kalkriese, north of modern Osnabrück..

Ancient-Warfare.com, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
The Kalkrieser Berg. Photo Jona Lendering.
The Kalkrieser Berg.

Here is a small strip of solid land between the Kalkrieser Berg (Mount Kalkriese) and a great bog; a satellite photo can be found here. The most accessible part of this zone was a strip of cultivated land with a width of only 220 meters. This could well have been called "narrows" or saltus; the Roman name Saltus Teutoburgiensis, often rendered as "Teutoburg Forest", should be translated as Teutoburg Narrows. In fact, one of the towns in the neighborhood is still called Engter, "narrows".
A modern reconstruction of the Kalkriese narrows at the Kalkriese Museum. Photo Marco Prins.
The narrows, reconstructed

At the Kalkriese Museum, this narrow passage has partly been reconstrucred: see the photo to the left. In front, you can see the bog; then, a small strip of land, and finally the slopes of the tree-covered mountain, which have been fortified with a wall.

The Germanic leader Arminius, who was believed to be a Roman ally, guided the legions to these narrows and unexpectedly attacked his former friends. The results were terrible, as was shown during the excavation. Archaeologists found so many objects, that it was hard to believe that the fight at Kalkriese was a minor skirmish: Roman swords and daggers, parts of javelins and spears, arrowheads, sling stones, fragments of helmets, a mask (below), nails of soldiers' sandals, belts, hooks of chain mail and fragments of armor.
View of the excavation. Photo Jona Lendering.
View of the excavation.

Other finds were less military in character: locks, keys, razors, a scale, weights, chisels, hammers, pickaxes, buckets, finger rings, surgical instruments, seal boxes, a stylus, cauldrons, casseroles, spoons, amphorae, and the skeleton of an oxen who had broken away from the cart, and was never recovered by its owner. Finally, jewelry, hairpins, and a disk brooch suggest (but do not prove) the presence of women. The army trapped here was large and unprepared for battle.
Modern excvation. Photo Marco Prins.
Modern excvation. 

Yet, according to the historian Cassius Dio (whose account can be found here), the Romans were able to reorganize themselves and tried to build a new fortress. The obvious place would have been near modern Engter, where they could cross the Riesengebirge and start to move to Haltern. More finds may be expected in the area of Osnabrück and Münster.

Today, the Kalkriese area is a tranquil piece of land. There is a museum that gives the visitor an impression of the puzzle itself, and you can visit the field where most discoveries were made. Near the museum is a large tower so that you understand the environment: a mountain to the south, a bog to the north, and a narrow corridor.
Cavalry mask, found at Kalkriese, now in the Kalkriese Museum. Photo Jona Lendering.
Cavalry mask found at
Kalkriese

One of the most dazzling pieces of the museum's collection is a mask, once owned by a cavalry man. It was discovered in front of the wall on the picture above.

In the nineteenth century, many Germans believed that the battle in the Kalkriese narrows was the birth of their nation: a symbol of the eternal opposition between the overcivilised and decadent Latin and the creative and vital Germanic people. To make the connection between the noble savages of Antiquity and the modern nation closer, the Germanic war leader -whose name had been rendered by the Roman writers as Arminius- was referred to by the Germanic name that Luther had invented for him: Hermann.
The Hermannsdenkmal at Detmold. Photo Jona Lendering.
The Hermannsdenkmal

The war hero soon became a symbol of national unity that could be used on almost any occasion. For example, in 1809, the romantic poet Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811) wrote a play called Die Hermannsschlacht, to inspire the Germans to a national war against Napoleon. Several soccer teams were called after the Germanic warrior; Arminia Bielefeld still exists.

At Detmold, which was once believed to be the site of the battle, the Hermannsdenkmal (Hermann Monument) was erected in 1875. Ironically, during the Second World War, the monument served especially to help the allied bombers find the way to Berlin. The symbolic creator of the German nation was instrumental to the country's destruction - or at least the Nazi part of it.

Today, many Germans don't like to be reminded of these excesses of nationalism, which were, however, nothing worse than the nationalistic "cults" of Vercingetorix, Ambiorix, Boudicca, and Julius Civilis in France, Belgium, Britain, and the Netherlands
© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2003
Revision: 5 Dec. 2008
Livius.Org Anatolia Carthage Egypt Germ. Inf. Greece Judaea Mesopotamia Persia Rome Other