KALKRIESE, GERMANY // Germany is marking the 2000th anniversary next month of a battle hailed as the birth of the nation - the bloody defeat of three Roman legions by Germanic warriors under Arminius, a young chieftain, in 9AD. Some 10,000 to 12,000 of Rome's finest legionnaires were slaughtered in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, which created a national myth that filled German hearts with patriotic fervour right up to the 20th century. Arminius, the story goes, drove the Romans out of Germania and united the nation.
"This was the big bang that created Germany, according to the myth," Tillmann Bendikowski, a historian and author of a book on the battle, said. "The historical facts disprove that but every nation wants to pinpoint its roots and will passionately grasp any opportunity to do so." From the 16th century, nationalists seized on Arminius, or Hermann as he became known, as a symbol of unity and freedom from such perceived enemies as the Pope, the French or the Jews. Today, Hermann is contaminated by the militant and racist nationalism that led to the Nazi period, and this year's festivities have been muted as a result.
Many Germans do not even know his story nowadays because schools refrained from teaching it after 1945. But interest has been reawakened by the discovery of the presumed site of the battle in the late 1980s, and there has been intense media coverage of the man and the myth this year. Angela Merkel, the chancellor, visited the battlefield near the village of Kalkriese in north-western Germany in May to open an exhibition on the warlike ways of Germanic tribes. Some 400 actors in rough leggings and Roman armour re-enacted scenes from the battle in June.
A bombastic, 53-metre high monument to Hermann erected in the 19th century, when Germany consisted of dozens of states and was striving to unite, testifies to the power of the cult. The statue holding its 7m sword in the air and glaring ominously towards France became a rallying point for nationalists. The hero featured in more than 50 operas and plays and was portrayed as a blonde, muscle-bound warrior in the art and literature of the 19th century. The myth was aided by a lack of known facts - there are no eyewitness accounts of the battle because the Romans were all killed and the Germans had no written culture.
The truth does not live up to the legend, though. Far from uniting the German nation, Hermann did not even manage to unite his own tribe, the Cherusci, and was killed by relatives a few years after the battle. Besides, the more than 50 Germanic tribes were the forefathers of many European nations, not just the Germans. And the battle was not the only factor that led Rome to abandon plans to turn Germania east of the river Rhine into a Roman province. Undeterred by the defeat, Roman legions repeatedly struck deep into hostile Germania after 9AD and won major victories there.
But Roman histories do indicate that the battle shook the empire. Three of Rome's 28 legions were wiped out and excavations at Kalkriese have confirmed the scale of the defeat by revealing evidence that the Roman dead were thoroughly stripped. "We have been finding traces of plundering rather than of fighting," said Susanne Wilbers-Rost, the chief archaeologist at the site. Her work has gained international attention because it is providing insights that can be applied to battlefields of all ages.
"The excavations have revealed small items torn off when the Germans were stripping the Romans as they lay dead or wounded. "Things like buckles, hinges, connecting parts of body armour and chain mail. You can only imagine this kind of brutal stripping of the dead when the defeat was total," she said. "The Germans had all the time in the world, although the stench of the corpses must have soon been terrible. But they weren't disturbed."
The most sensational find, an iron face mask from a Roman cavalryman's helmet, also reveals signs of plunder - the silver foil was roughly torn off it. Eight pits containing the bones of men aged 20 to 45 have been found, with many skulls showing gaping holes from fatal blows. The pits tally with a Roman account of how legions under commander Germanicus discovered the battlefield in 16AD and buried the heaps of bleached bones they found. The soldiers also found skulls nailed to trees.
Some historians still dispute that Kalkriese is the battlefield but after 20 years of excavation, they are in the minority. The more than 5,000 artefacts found, ranging from spear tips to ornate tableware exhibited in a well-devised museum at the site, paint a conclusive picture of a devastating ambush on a Roman column that was not prepared for trouble. Why else would it have been transporting luxury goods and dining sofas, as well as ample cash? Also, none of the 1,600 coins found were minted after 9AD.
Traces of fighting were found in a wide area around Kalkriese, which ties in with accounts by Roman historians that the battle raged for four days and began with ambushes on the thin column of legionnaires and supplies that stretched 15km as they marched along narrow forest paths. They were commanded by Publius Quinctilius Varus, a Roman general, and were heading south to spend the winter in a base by the Rhine.
Arminius, the commander of a troop of Germanic cavalry attached to the Roman army as auxiliaries, is believed to have led Varus into a trap by persuading him to make a detour to put down a rebellion. Varus trusted Arminius and agreed to change course. Arminius, intent on launching a revolt that would help him found his own kingdom, rode off with his unit to join up with fighters from other tribes hiding in the forests and launched a series of ambushes.
The legionnaires, used to fighting battles in open ground using their shields, spears and swords, were not able to use their tactics in the forest. After days of guerrilla-style attacks up and down the column, the battle is believed to have culminated at Kalkriese, a bottleneck between a hill and a moor where Varus fell on his sword rather than be captured. "We should be glad that the battlefield wasn't found in the 18th or 19th century, let alone during the Nazi period, because it would have become a pilgrimage site for German nationalists," said Mr Bendikowski.
Two world wars have left Germans deeply cautious about national myths. An easy-going, peaceful patriotism has replaced the old brand of aggressive nationalism, and today's interest in Arminius mainly reflects curiosity about what really happened in that fateful September 2,000 years ago. "The myth of Hermann will continue to pale," said Mr Bendikowski. "What will remain of him will be the experience of a historical myth.
"We will remember how a nation tried to invent itself and how history was constructed. It will help us to understand ourselves and other nations better." email@example.com