"New" Roman battlefield in Germany may mean a rewrite of history

Hamburg  - Archaeologists have discovered an ancient battlefield in Germany which indicates the Roman Legions were still fighting Germanic tribes deep inside "barbarian" territory as late as the 3rd Century AD - 200 years later than hitherto believed.

The discovery comes as preparations are being made to commemorate the 2,000th anniversary in September 2009 of the famous Battle of Teutoburg Forest in which three elite Roman Legions the XVIIth, XVIIIth and XIXth were annihilated by Germanic guerrilla fighters in September of the year 9 AD.

The defeat of the crack troops, who were led to their deaths by the proud ex-Consul Publius Quinctilius Varus, effectively changed the course of Western Civilization. Prior to 9 AD, Emperor Augustus Caesar pursued a course of military expansion across the Rhine and into central and northern Europe. After 9 AD, the Rhine became the frontier between the "civilized" Roman world and the "barbaric" lands to the east and north.

The leader of the Germanic tribal forces was a tribal chieftain named Arminius, who was educated in Rome and had become a trusted friend of Varus. It was that trust in Arminius which resulted in Varus leading an expeditionary force into an indefensible, boggy forest without sentries or reinforcements at the behest of his trusted friend Arminius.

The defeat was so devastating that the numbers of the Legions XVII, XVIII and XIX were retired forever, never again to appear in the Roman Army's order of battle. Augustus was so traumatized by the loss of three elite legions that he tore his clothes, refused to cut his hair for months and, for years afterwards, was heard to moan, "Quinctilius Varus, give me back my Legions!" ("Quintilie Vare, legiones redde!").

As a result, Germany was never incorporated into the Roman Empire, leaving that region a breeding ground for barbarian incursions which eventually would bring down the empire.

Arminius, known as Herrmann to the Germans, has come down through German history as a hero of liberty and a symbol of German national strength. Herrmann turned back the Roman occupation forces forever, according to the popular interpretation by Germans. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, unscrupulous German leaders used Hermann as a rallying figure in wars of conquest.

A monument near the site of the Teutoburg Forest battlefield celebrates Herrmann as a national hero and the regional soccer team (in Bielefeld) is called Bielefeld Arminia. Archaeologists in recent years have determined the exact location of the battle near the modern village of Engter north of the city of Osnabrueck. Bones, weapons and armour from the fleeing soldiers of the XVII, XVIII and XIX Legions are strewn along a narrow 17-km-long stretch of marshy woodlands.

But the new archaeological discovery, if verified, could mean that the history books must be rewritten. That is because the newly discovered 3rd Century battlefield is located 100 miles (160 kilometres) further east of the Teutoburg Forest.

"The find can be dated to the 3rd Century and will definitely change the historical perception of that time," according to Dr. Henning Hassmann, director of historic preservation in the state of Lower Saxony.

So far, 600 artefacts have been unearthed, clearly documenting their Roman 3rd Century origin and dating, says Michael Wickmann, an official in the town of Northeim, where the dig has been conducted over a period of months. The dig location has been kept under wraps to prevent the site being overrun by curiosity-seekers and looters.

The location so deep within the territory of the Germanic tribes is a mystery to archaeologists.

"It is pretty normal to find evidence of Roman culture all over even up in Scotland, but a find like this in northern Germany is really amazing," Wickmann told reporters when announcing the find. "And it's spectacularly well preserved."

Initial reports said that DNA fingerprinting evidence indicated that some of the arrows had been made of African wood, which was the preferred wood used in the manufacture of Roman arrows. But Hassmann said he could not confirm those reports.

The latest discovery came as archaeologists continued to dig at the site of what appears to have been a Roman military outpost nearby. It is unknown whether that outpost pre-dates the 9 AD battle of Tuetoburg Forest or whether it might be a later tribal camp where Germanic warriors stocked up on Roman-made armaments smuggled or looted from imperial frontier garrisons. (dpa)