QUEST FOR THE LOST ROMAN LEGIONS: Discovering the Varus Battlefield ; by Major Tony Clunn, British Army (ret.); Savas Beatie; 1st HC trade ed. Edition (April 1, 2005); ISBN: 978-1932714081
I stumbled onto Tony Clunn’s book, “Quest for the Lost Roman Legions,” quite by accident while I was doing a little personal research into Roman military operations in Germania and Gaul during the period from about 70 B.C. to 70 A.D. It was a happy accident because, once I actually began to read Major Clunn’s chronicle of his life-long quest to find the Varus battlefield, I really couldn’t put it down.
Reconstructed German fortifications at Kalkriese, photo Markus Schweiss
In 9 A.D., the Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Legions and their auxiliaries, under the command of Roman Governor Publius Quinictilius Varus, were ambushed by rebellious Germanic tribesmen, led by the Roman-trained German cavalry commander Arminius (or Hermann), as they marched from their fortified encampments near the River Weser west towards the Rhine. All three Legions were, in the course of a running three to four-day battle, virtually annihilated. Perhaps as many as 25,000 Romans and their allies and families were killed as a result. Because so few of the “civilized” Romans survived the battle, the actual location of one of the greatest and most far-reaching Roman military defeats in history — despite the accounts of the Roman historians Tacitus and Dio — was lost. And so the matter stood for almost 2,000 years, and there it might have remained for another two thousand years, were it not for the dogged perseverance of a single British amateur archaeologist and historian.
Archaeological dig at Kalkriese, 2004
“Quest for the Lost Roman Legions,” is the account, by retired British Army Major, Tony Clunn, of his decades long archaeological investigation into the fate of the three Roman Legions that perished somewhere in the Teutoburg Wald in 9 A.D. Major Clunn, long fascinated by the story of Varus’ lost Legions, look advantage of a military posting to Germany, to begin his personal investigation into the mystery of Varus’ Legions and their last battlefield. His conviction that the ancient battle had actually taken place north of the German city of Osnabrück, led him to explore this wild area of peat bogs, forest, and hillocks. At Kalkriese, despite initially finding only a few Roman coins, the author, after years of additional searching, finally came upon an extensive swath of Roman military artifacts that revealed where the Roman legionnaires actually fought and died in the Fall of 9 A.D.
Roman ceremonial mask from the Museum Kalkriese, photo 2004 by Pieter Kuiper
This obscure Roman military disaster had far-reaching consequences for the Roman Empire. Unlike the Battle of Cannae, in which over 50,000 Roman soldiers died at the hands of the Carthaginian Army under Hannibal, but which still could not save Carthage from Roman conquest and retribution, this battle preserved the German national identity. The defeat at Teutoburg Forest halted Roman expansion into the German tribal territories. It determined that the northern frontier of the Roman Empire would henceforth be the Rhine, and not the Elbe, or the Oder. The short-lived Roman Province of Germania, after only two years of Roman rule, would never again fall under Roman control. In short, because of Arminius, the German people would never become Romanized, and their culture, traditions, and language would remain peculiarly their own.
Still, if the “Quest for the Lost Roman Legions” was merely a chronicle of Major Clunn’s archaeological experiences and discoveries I would probably not be recommending it here, however engrossing it might otherwise be. Fortunately, the book is much more than that: the author skillfully weaves his modern field work and research together with an exciting historical account of the events leading up to the battle, as well as of the bloody hand-to-hand struggle, itself. It is a fascinating account of Germania’s only provincial governor, the unlucky and lethargic Publius Varus; his personal betrayal by a trusted German tribal leader, and Varus’ refusal to heed the advice of another loyal German commander who rightly mistrusted the persuasive and flattering Arminius. Using his soldier’s eye for terrain, and his understanding of the flow and tempo of combat, the author first describes the hopeless situation that the Romans found themselves in once they had become ensnared in Armenius’ trap; then he goes on to chronicle the critical events of the battle, based on the archaeological evidence, as the fighting continued over its several desperate, bloody days.
The Museum Kalkriese
Because of Major Clunn’s decades-long dedication to his historical project, there is, today, a modern, multi-million dollar museum at the actual location of the Varus battlefield at Kalkriese; so visitors can now tour the museum and examine the thousands of historical artifacts that have, thus far, been recovered at the archaeological site. Tony Clunn’s discovery is a signal accomplishment and an inspiring testament to the ability of a single dedicated individual, through dint of dogged determination and sheer hard-work, to change our understanding of history.
Diagram of Kalkriese archaeological site by Markus Schweiss, 2007
“The Quest for the Lost Roman Legions” is not a book intended merely for those interested in military history. It is well-written and detailed; it also an exciting detective yarn and an interesting look into the curious world of the amateur archaeologist. In addition, Major Clunn brings something to the story of Varus’ lost Legions that no historian or archaeologist could: the special understanding by an experienced military commander of the many different clues left behind on an ancient battlefield. For this reason, I very strongly recommend this book.
Posted by JCB III at 10:11 AM
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