Why the Germans do not speak a Romance language

The Battle That Stopped Rome: Emperor Augustus, Arminius, and the Slaughter of the Legions in the Teutoburg Forest.

The Emperor Augustus hoped to extend the Roman Empire’s German frontier from the Rhine River to the Elbe, incorporating the inhabitants of the region between the rivers into the Empire. In 7 A.D. He appointed Publius Quinctilius Varus as Governor, and gave him three Legions of heavy infantry and some cavalry and other auxiliaries, about 20,000 men, to enforce Roman authority. Two years later Varus and his army were ambushed on their march back to winter quarters in Gaul. He and almost all of his soldiers were killed.

This was one of the worst disasters in the history of the Roman army. Afterwards the Romans withdrew to the Rhine and never again tried to conquer Germany. The Rhine remained the Roman frontier until the end of the Western Empire. Less than 40 years after its foundation, the State that gave us the term “Imperialism” was forced to adopt a defensive strategy. The linguistic and cultural differences between Germany and France began with this event.

Wells gives a lot of background. Germany was a poor and uncivilized country by Roman standards, but there was plenty of iron and the inhabitants knew how to make good weapons from it. The Roman army was a well organized, and thoroughly professional force, supported by an efficient bureaucracy. It seems much more “modern” than the armies that followed it in Western Europe for the next millennium and even beyond. The soldiers even had a retirement plan, and camp life was healthy enough that many live to enjoy it. The legionnaire’s life expectancy was longer than that of a Roman civilian.

In recent decades that battle site has been found and excavated. However, the remains do not give us any detail about the exact sequence of events. Germany was not literate at the time, so all of our written sources are from the Roman side. They all agree on the totality of the Roman defeat. Wells does not trust them for details, so his account of the battle itself is very sketchy and speculative. In particular, he does not believe that the battle took three days, arguing instead that it was essentially over in a couple hours. This is debatable. With pre-gunpowder weapons it could not have been easy to kill 20,000 armed veteran soldiers in such a short time, even with a surprise attack.

The Roman sources blame the disaster on incompetence of Varus. Wells points out that Varus had some military command experience, and suggests that the Romans in general simply underestimated the Germans. However, the Romans had many officers with a lot of experience on the German frontier, while Varus’s previous experience had been as governor of Syria, a very different environment.

I recently read Harry Turtledove’s novel about the battle, Give Me Back My Legions! Nothing that Wells presents contradicts what is in the novel: Turtledove was scrupulous about following all the evidence. He follows the Roman sources in blaming Varus, and as a novelist had to come up with a reason for why Varus made such a disastrous mistake. It works as a story; we will probably never know the real reason.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.