The Romans Lose in the Teutoburg Forest

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I had heard of Boris Johnson before I started reading his books. I read his Churchill book, and the rest was history, I was hooked.

I enjoy the sarcasm in his writing, much of my writing has the same. You will get sarcasm, silliness, and some seriousness. (How do you like the alliteration)? The Dream of Rome created an interest in Ancient Rome I never had.

Externsteine-Teutoburg-Forest
Externsteine – a distinctive sandstone rock formation located in the Teutoburg Forest

I told this to my mother, who was surprised. “Didn’t you read the Falco mysteries?” Unlike my mom, my Jewishness got in the way Through my lens, I saw Rome as the enemy. More on that, as we move along.

I remember being in the ruins of the Forum in Rome as a teenager, looking up at the Arch of Titus, which depicted the sacking of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. My Dad looked at the arch, looked at me and said simply, “We’re still here, where are you?” Dad respected Roman ability, but the sentence spoken in the Forum said everything.

I am Jewish and an American. I can’t answer for comparisons between Ancient Rome and the European Union, but I can answer for United States history. Especially, because so many now compare the United States with Ancient Rome. I wish I could get to Rome, that I spoke some Italian and could ask a resident of a neighborhood like Testaccio, which goes back to Ancient Rome, what THEY think of Ancient Rome.

The people are still there, but the system that ruled collapsed more than fifteen centuries ago. Jews got Israel back (at least for now). Boris Johnson keeps asking whether the European Union can recreate Rome. Oh those Romans, they just roamed all over. (Yes, my beloved readers, you can take me to task for the pun later). This so far is the longest, of what will eventually become my History Made Fun series, on YouTube.

I will cover the questions in each of his chapters. Call this fan fiction, only it isn’t fiction. Thank you, Mayor Johnson. I want you to enjoy the fun. Thank you for sparking my interest. I enjoyed playing with all this.

This is Chapter One of an electronic book I am self- publishing.  Looking forward to comments.

For seven hundred years, the Roman Army was a citizen army, which went out to conquer the known world. I remember a great Asterix the Gaul cartoon from 1977, drawn specifically for National Geographic. Caesar points past Brittany out in the Atlantic and demands “Are you sure there is nothing out there?”

This was the ultimate military screw up. What happened 2006 years ago, in the Teuteborger Wald, near Osnabruck, Germany? (Between Hanover and Munster).

I give you Boris Johnson and his take on what happened.

I enjoyed the way Boris Johnson asked when the penny dropped for the dimwitted commander, about to be defeated in such a humiliating fashion. Publius Quincitillus Varus, leading three legions into the mother of all ambushes. If you’re American, you think Little Big Horn, British and South African, Isandhlawana, just three years after that. Only the Romans had many more men about to be cut to pieces and a recent History Channel documentary about the Little Big Horn suggests, not just did the allied Native American groups outnumber the Seventh Cavalry; the Native Americans were better armed. Oops.

Varus certainly knew, as Boris Johnson put it, when the first Iron Age spear came flying over, skewering a nearby Roman soldier like shish-kebab. The spear came in like a Randy Johnson fastball. The Big Unit hit that strike target. Or the Germans were being trained as American Football Quarterbacks. A German warrior as Brett Favre?

Battle of the Teutoburg Forest
Battle of the Teutoburg Forest – By Varusschlacht, 1909

How did Varus act to the Centurion dying near him? Anguish, shock, outrage? All of the above? If his brain had gears, did they kick in with, “Oh no, just like Dad!” Or did he react in slow motion, “The Germans are fighting us; the mighty Romans, the greatest civilization ever known to man? Are they serious? Then Varus looked at the dying soldier. “Yes, they are.”

The three Roman legions, the Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth, were as tough as the nails holding their sandals together. (I wouldn’t put it past them to eat those nails if ordered to). They had to be able to run, almost the equivalent of a marathon, (25 miles) in four hours, carrying 66 pounds on their backs. They ate their hardtack, Buccelletum and they were toughened by swimming in freezing waters, of which their were certainly enough of in Germany.

Maybe it was one reason the army wanted to conquer Germany In the United States; you have bases in the South and Southwest. The Marines have Parris Island, South Carolina, Rome had Germany. You might even have to build a bridge or fight a battle, but with that kind of training, fighting a battle may not have been as difficult. There was also no room for individual heroics; everyone did his job. If, as a young soldier, you fell asleep on guard duty, you certainly didn’t make that error again, after your messmates gave you the mother of all beatings. Any army, whose drill as Boris Johnson put it, could make Prussians look sloppy, gets respect. I would steer clear. (Us Jewish folks just kept on revolting and being revolting, but that will be explained later).

So Germany might have made a good training ground for the Legions, but what about the land on the East Bank of the Rhine? Julius Caesar saw Britain as not worth the bones of a Roman soldier. There are themes of that throughout. Bismarck said the Balkans were not worth the bones of a Pomeranian soldier, and a gentleman in Poland, a friend of my family, said the same of American soldiers and the Balkans.

Boris-Johnson
Boris Johnson

The wacky part of me thinks of the snotty rich Jewish couple in Life of Brian. I gave them a name, the Ben-Davids. Mrs. Ben David is angry because her husband’s rebel antics got them exiled to Cologne. He wants to trade for amber, in the woods out there. He asks a soldier, “What’s out there?”

“Oh I get it, you want the amber. We lost three legions in those woods. It’s your funeral, mate.”

Mrs. Ben David wants another fur coat and is not amused.

The people the Romans would have needed for penetrating Germany had not been created yet. The English-Scots Borderers, partly created by Hadrian’s Wall, sent to Ulster, then Appalachia. They would have marched through those forests and taken the land, and no prisoners. They probably would have intermarried with all the peoples they met and absorbed them. That’s the irony; the Roman Emperor Hadrian built the wall to keep the Scots out (only they weren’t called that, then).

At that time, the wall was a case of; we are protecting the Celts who became Britcelts from the lunatics farther North. The Northerners were another case of not being worth conquering. I guess the whiskey just wasn’t enticing. The wall created the physical and psychological barriers that created the Borderers. If you read George Macdonald Fraser’s The Border Reivers, you get the idea. That is for an Alternative History book. Yes, I have written those, but not here.

Back to our commander. Varus was no genius. Neither was his father, who botched a battle and had his slave run him through with a sword. Couldn’t even commit suicide, and of course, the slave had no trouble obliging.

The son is not doing any better. This really is a case of “Like father, like son,” and not for the better.

Tacitus described the Germans and doing nothing but drinking beer, feasting, and head bashing. It sounds like parts of South Boston; only Saturday night is every night. These were the people East of the Rhine Varus wanted to conquer.

He trusted his chum Arminius, better known as Herrmann. (I know, Herrmann the German, how clever). Arminius’ own father-in-law warned Varus, but did he listen? No, silly man. The Romans marched across non-Roman Germany with their camp following women and children. You have to tip your helmet, I mean hat to Arminius. He managed to put together a massive coalition against the might of Rome.

The Romans were a long way from their forts at Cologne and Mainz Varus thinks (he wasn’t smart enough to think, and no one gave him permission); he can handle this. He is very sadly mistaken.

The Germans threw their first spears from the distance, like the second string quarterbacks, until they saw they were successful and could now be the first string, who won the Super Bowl. The various German tribes were massing, like the Minutemen at Lexington and Concord in 1775. The British in that case only had to travel twenty miles, they made it to Boston but were shot at all the way.

Varus could complain and cry out about treachery, but it was a little late for that. Who knew the Germans, could have that kind of strategic thinking? Was Varus insulted that Germans could be smarter than a great Roman? (If he managed to piece that together).

Roman discipline broke down in the cold and damp, with fallen leaves making traction slippery. Fallen leaves would greet fallen bodies. The Roman Legions couldn’t form the disciplined ranks that normally ran over enemies like human tanks. The Germans may not have been sophisticated, but they knew their terrain. The Scots-Irish would learn this in Appalachia and shock the British in the American Revolution when they could now fight like Native Americans. What made Roman victories unstoppable, was useless between the trees, thus breaking the winning streak. The German troops also had their bare-breasted cheerleaders rooting for them. Now there is moral support for you. Roman discipline was what defeated most Celtic peoples and what conquered Gaul fifty-three years earlier. Alesia was a very different battleground than the dark German woods. Scots-Irish would deal with that, sixteen centuries later in Appalachia, against Cherokee and Shawnee war parties.

The Germans also began a tradition of picking on lawyers. These weren’t lawyer jokes, but dead lawyers. These ungrateful Germans, not wanting the law and civilization they were being brought. Tacitus was right, the Germans wanted to idle their lives away in drunken brawling overfed sloth. Could be Saturday night The Germans leaping from the trees were like attacking Defensive Linemen trying to nail the Roman quarterback. So that’s why Germans can take to American Football! Picture Roman quarterbacks being repeatedly sacked by a defensive lineman, who knew how to use the terrain.

The Teutoburg Vikings instead of the Minnesota Vikings. Hit and run, Varus thought? (Again, no one gave him permission). What a bunch of cowards! Cowards or not, you fool, they are winning. Time to emulate your father, who was just as dumb and do the right thing and kill yourself. You lost three legions eagles, you fool. Do you really want to get out of this mess alive and face ruin? Better to die in the Wilderness. From American History, the year is 1755 and British General Braddock made a similar mistake at a place called Fort Duquesne. Today, we call it Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The Germans cut the lawmakers to pieces. I liked the one, who held the lawyer’s tongue in his hand, according to Boris Johnson and said, “At last Viper, you cease to hiss.” Have attitudes toward lawyers changed that much?

I remember the scene from I Claudius with Augustus screaming “Give me back my legions!” Of course, Varus was in no shape to do such a thing, and if he got back alive, you don’t get to explain.

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