Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Saga of the Lost Roman Legions Volume 58 Number 6, November/December 2005
by Mike Burns

[image] Originally covered in silver, this iron mask was part of a Roman soldier's helmet. (Wolfgang Schülter) [LARGER IMAGE]

In A.D. 9, the Roman general Varus led three legions and their auxillary forces into the forested highlands of northern Germany. Unwittingly, the Romans had been lured into a carefully concealed ambush by the local chieftain Arminius, whom they believed to be their ally. In a major battle fought over several days, the legions not only had to contend with thousands of bloodthirsty tribesmen, but lashing rains, difficult terrain, and dwindling supplies. Varus and his army were annihilated. It was a tremendous blow to the prestige of the Roman legions and effectively stopped their expansion in Germany at the Rhine.

The Quest for the Lost Roman Legions

The site of the battlefield has long been contested by scholars, but in 1987 Tony Clunn, a British officer then stationed in Germany who is also an avid metal detectorist and amateur archaeologist, uncovered 105 Roman denarii (silver coins) near Kalkriese that date to the battle. This discovery led to the eventual identification and excavation of the battlefield, which is related in Clunn's The Quest for the Lost Roman Legions (New York: Savas Beatie, 2005; $37.50), an intriguing and refreshing assessment of a military disaster in which the archaeology reveals what really happened in those dark forests.

The book alternates between Clunn's detailed description of how the battlefield was found from coin and artifact distributions, and a fictional account of the conflict reconstructed from classical literature and archaeological evidence. Clunn demonstrates a keen awareness for the subtleties of the battlefield landscape, which is crucial in understanding how the Romans were ambushed and then tried to fight their way out. ("Battle of the Teutoburg Forest," September/October 1992.) When placed within this geographical context, the numerous scatters of coins, weaponry, and human remains take on particular significance. The fictional account provides a narrative interpretation of the battle centered around Marcus Aius, a Roman soldier killed in the battle whose identity has come down through an armor clasp inscribed with his name. Clunn stretches this fictional element at times--a gold nugget he recovers from a Roman fort appears in the story as the remains of a bracelet that Arminius has made for one of his warriors. Nonetheless, his passion for finding the lost legions is contagious.

Mike Burns is a military archaeologist specializing in the armies of early Italy.

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© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America