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The day Rome and Germany split up - Battle in the Teutoburg forest

Updated on May 24, 2012

2009 marks the 2000th anniversary of this event I am about to tell you. Forgotten as it may be (at least out of Germany), this is one of these few days that have changed the world. I am talking about the battle of the Teutoburg forest, where ancient Rome's three legions were ambushed and slaughtered. After this battle Rome abandoned its plans of converting Germany into a roman province, retired to the Rhine-Danube border and never after tried to romanise the germans.

By the time Jesus was born Rome was mightier than ever. The Roman Empire stretched over most of the mediterranean basin, from the desert sands of North Africa to the wheat fields of Spain, from nowadays Vienna to Jerusalem. After years of civil wars the mediterranean superpower was ruled by a sole man, Augustus. The very basis of Augustus' power was military, thus he was desperately in need of new military challenges. That's the reason why he waged wars first in Northern Spain (to gain access to the rich gold mines of the region), then in the Alps and the pannonian plains (to secure the mountain passes and extend the roman domains to a easy-to-defend border - the Danube), and ultimately in Germany (to avert threats to Gaul, a big, wealthy province).

By september, 9 AD, most of the work to convert Germania into a roman province had been already done. According to some new archaelogical evidences Rome had even come to the point of founding a colony east of the Rhine, in central Germany, which would probably had been the capital of this new province. Nevertheless, even if after the military campaigns of Drusus and Tiberius (the sons of Augustus' wife Livia) the whole land was considered pacified the romans still maintained very powerful forces in Germany. By that time the roman army was composed of about 22 legions, numbering 6000 men each, which were the elite of the army. Germany's garrison numbered 5 legions, which means that roughly 25% of the legionnaires Rome had were stationed in Germany. As 3 legions were completely destroyed, their legionnaires massacred, you can imagine how big a blow the Empire suffered. The extent of the disaster can be compared to a hypothetical destruction of the whole US american expeditionary force in Iraq. As Augustus' position became somehow unstable and everybody in Rome feared a large-scale german invasion he sent his heir Tiberius to check the threat. But the loss of experienced soldiers was so big that Tiberius and later Germanicus did little more than showing off roman warcraft superiority in a couple of punitive expeditions. Rome never really never abandoned the conquest of Germania plan, but rather postponed it "sine die". But... Had this roman crushing defeat never happened, how would the world now look like?

If the roman army had somehow been able to check the germanic revolt or at least if the 3 legions had been able of gaining the Rhine (they were in their way back to their winter headquarters), even with heavy losses, the fate of Germania would probably have been quite similar to Gaul's, nowadays France. Roman powerful garrisons would have been kept for some generations in the land to prevent/check possible revolts. After some time the germans would come to live according to the roman "way of life", that is, baths, games, latin... And, if the germans were to be accepted in the roman "commonwealth"? Who would put an end to the roman rule over most of Europe? No angles and saxons, who were germanic invaders, would have come to Great Britain at the end of the roman era. Moreover, what we call United States of America would be quite different. Or, the differences between romanised France and germanic Germany that marked the history of Europe and the world in the 19th and 20th centuries would never have arisen. No pangermanism would have ever existed. Would Adolf Hitler as such have existed had not this roman army been defeated?

Casualty of the battle: the gravestone of Marcus Caelius, centurion of the XVIII legion

Remains of the lost army: a cavalryman mask

Stay put! the germans come!


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