Page last updated at 13:24 GMT, Tuesday, 29 September 2009 14:24 UK

Roman 'disaster' that shaped Europe

By Greig Watson
BBC News

The Romans never reused the numbers of the three legions, XVII, XVIII and XIX, which were lost in the battle

Three days of blood-soaked butchery in the unfamiliar forests of Germany culminated in one of the Roman Empire's darkest moments, and may have helped shape the Europe of today.

As many as 30,000 Roman soldiers, along with countless slaves and families, died at the hands of people they regarded as barbarians, who were led by a man they regarded as a friend.

Did the Varian Disaster, which took place exactly 2,000 years ago and stunned the Roman Empire into a temporary paralysis, mark a turning point in its all-conquering mindset? Does the slaughter in the Teutoburger Forest still affect us today?

Adrian Murdoch, author of a book on the battle, said the shockwaves were immense.

"The battle was not only the Roman Empire's greatest defeat, but it definitely changed European history in ways which are being felt still now," he said.

Kalkriese map
Varus was marching back to the Rhine when attacked and killed at Kalkriese

In 9AD the Romans believed the land they called Germania was all but conquered. The man at the head of the army, Varus, was more civil servant than soldier. Marching south at the end of the summer fighting season he was led into unfamiliar territory by a trusted native lieutenant, Arminius.

Arminius, a nobleman who had spent years in the Empire, had secretly organised an alliance of German tribes and as the three legions of Romans struggled through forest and storms, they were caught in an immense ambush.

"It shouldn't be thought of as a swift attack. It went on for three days," says Roman military expert Dr Jon Coulston, from the University of St Andrews.

Imperial nightmare

"I compare it to the USS Indianapolis, which sank in the Second World War and sailors, in the sea for days, were attacked by sharks.

"The first attacks would have be short and sharp, only doing a little damage. Then more tribesmen would have been attracted, hitting harder. The normally ordered Roman marching column would have begun to break up, groups of soldiers being picked off.

"Eventually, exhausted and in disarray, the army was stopped by ditches and earth walls and was then overwhelmed in a final onslaught."

But countless soldiers have died in endless battles. Why is this one different?

Site of the battle
The stockades which finally trapped the Romans have been reconstructed

Adrian Murdoch believes it was a decisive moment in the development of the West.

"The split along the Rhine across which the Romans were pushed remains significant today," he said. "But the battle certainly did affect the thinking of the Romans right away. The Germans became almost revered as well as feared in the mentality of the Romans. Early emperors kept Germans as their private bodyguards. They were bogeymen.

He added: "Later there is of course the issue of the role of Arminius and the battle in fostering the idea of German nationalism. This was helpful and arguably benign in the 19th Century especially in the wake of Napoleon's imperialistic ambitions.

"It reached its lowest point during the Nazi era when Arminius pulled on jackboots. During the nationalistic marches through Munich, Arminius and Cheruscan warriors marched alongside stormtroopers."

Religious conflict

The importance of the battle to modern Germany is such that the anniversary has been marked by three separate exhibitions on the battle, opened by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Sven Felix Kellerhoff, a journalist for Die Welt newspaper and specialist in German cultural history, believes its influence runs deep.

"European history is shaped by the differences between the Romanic western part, the so called Germanic part in the middle and the Slavic part in central Europe," he says.

"Maybe without the Varian disaster there would never have been the separation of west and east Frankish kingdoms, never the confrontation between the German kings and the popes, never the Reformation, never the conflict between Germany and France.

Excavations at battle site
More than 5,000 objects have been found at the site

"If Europe to the Elbe had been shaped by Romanic culture and language, the roadmap of European history would have changed in many parts. This doesn't mean that it would all be better - other conflicts and other wars would have broken out. But Europe would have had a very different history."

But Dr Coulston feels that while the battle was significant, its long term effects have been overplayed.

"This was a defeat for Rome at its strongest under the rule of Augustus, the first true emperor," he says.

"It probably affected him personally. Roman historians have him banging his fists on walls and shouting for Varus to give him back his eagles. He also told his successors to limit the Empire to the Rhine.

"But we have to recognise the Romans came back hard. They smashed the German armies soon after, regaining the ground and driving Arminius to his death.

"They probably could have completed the conquest but the political will to spend the effort doing so had weakened.

"And after this Rome did not turn its back on Germany. There was trade, there were treaties, and the later Roman army was substantially made up of German mercenaries.

"And it was mostly tribes from Germany which overwhelmed the Western Empire. The cultures of Rome and the tribes north of the Rhine, even if they had not mixed before, must have done then."

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