The Roman Empire’s Greatest Defeat was in the Backyard of my Ancestors

One of the greatest battles in the history of the world occurred in the backyard of our Theler ancestors.  Well, maybe not quite in their backyard. But the church where my great great grandfather was baptized is only six miles from the battle site.

On Friday morning, May 25, 2012 our tour guide Carol Saint-Clair drove us around that backyard area about 30 kilometers northeast of Osnabruck where our Thelers once lived.  We first visited Alswede, once a small village with a small Evangelical church where our Thelers worshiped for many generations. Now it is part of a larger town called Lubbecke. Then we drove just a couple of miles west to Hedem on the south side of the Mittleland Kanal and Hedemer Buchholz on the north side. Our Thelers farmed at #12 Hedemer Buchholz for several generations. Hedem is now part of a larger town called Preussisch Oldenburg and we found this sign in that town on a road that parallels the canal:

The Way of Arminius. My Thelers lived on a farm in Hedemer Buchholz across the canal from Hedem which is now a part of Preussisch Oldendorf. The family worshiped at a church in lswede, now a part of Lubbecke. Mygreat great grandfather was baptized in Hunteburg which is now a part of Bromte and about four miles from Kalkriese.

The Way of Arminius. My Thelers lived on a farm in Hedemer Buchholz across the canal from Hedem which is now a part of Preussisch Oldendorf. The family worshiped at a church in Alswede, now a part of Lubbecke. My great great grandfather was baptized in Hunteburg which is now a part of Bohmte and about six miles from Kalkriese.

The great battle took place near a place called Kalkriese Hill just below the canal and near the village of Schwagstorf. Nearby the Hunte river – not much more than a creek actually – flows northward. Following the river road you will get to Hunteburg where my great great grandfather was baptized in 1822. Hunteburg is about 10 kilometers from Kalkriese.  East of Hunteburg we visited three places: Stemshorn, Dielingen and Meyerhofen.  Stemshorn resides in North Rhine – Westphalia and is where our Dinkelmanns  came from and where our great great great grandparents were married. Dielingen adjoins Stemshorn in the western portion of a hilly area called Stemwede but is located in a different state, Lower Saxony. Our Theler great great great grandfather moved from Hedem to Meyerhofen, a farming community between Dielingen and Hunteburg,  and worshiped in Dielingen where some of his children were baptized and then in Hunteburg when a Protestant church was built there in 1815.

Map of Stemwede which is north of the first photo. Stemshorn and Dielingen are on the left. To the east of Stemwede is the city of Espelcamp which didn't exist until after World War II. It started out as a refuge camp for displaced Germans after the war and has now a population of

Map of Stemwede which is north of the first photo. Stemshorn and Dielingen are on the left. To the east of Stemwede is the town of Espelkamp which didn’t exist until after World War II. It started out as a refugee camp for displaced Germans after the war and has now a population of more than 25,000.

It’s now called the Battle of Teutoburg Forest but that name just cropped up in the 19th century (most of the Teutoburg Forest is south of Osnabruck). The Roman historians called it Clades Variana after the general (and governor of Germania) Publius Quinctilius Varus who was defeated in the battle and committed suicide. Arminiusweg means “Way of Arminius,” named after the leader of the German tribes who tricked the Romans and led them to an ambush and massacre in September, 9 AD. The 100 kilometer trail starts at Porta Westphalia on the Weser River and runs along a corridor between the Wiehen Hills (Wiehengebirge) on the south and other hilly (and some boggy) areas including Stemwede on the north. The trail closely parallels the Mittleland Kanal which was built in the early 20th century to move cargo across Germany.

Some people say about 9,000 Romans were killed in the battle; some say as many as 25,000, including women and children. The army was most likely moving from a camp on the Weser River to their winter quarters on the Rhine. We know that there were three legions and legions are usually comprised of 5000 soldiers. There were also some cavalry attachments and the camp followers must have included families, nurses, cooks, etc. Researchers have calculated that the line of the army through the narrow corridor must have strung out for ten kilometers. When the head of the army reached Kalkriese the rear would have been straggling where the town of Ostercappein now lies.

Caesar Augustus told his army to move back to the Rhine and stay there. He grieved for his friend Varus and commanded that the numbers 17, 18 and 19 be excluded forever for legion names. Five years later after Augustus died the Romans, led by a general named Germanicus (!) who also just happened to be the nephew of the new Caesar, came back to Kalkriese and buried their dead. A few years later they defeated Arminius and recovered two of their three eagles (it was considered a terrible embarrassment to lose a standard in battle). More than 30 years after the battle the third standard was recovered, along with some middle-aged slaves who were probably children captured after the battle. There were more battles here and there over the next 300 years where the Romans were victorious but there were no more plans to include Germany in the Roman Empire. Augustus’ original plan was to move the empire borders to the Elbe River but his successor Tiberius decided to leave the border on the Rhine. And there it stayed until the empire crumbled in the 5th century.

Impact of the battle: Some historians are of the opinion that if the three Roman legions were not annihilated then people nowadays would probably be speaking a Latin language in Germany. And there would probably not be a great hatred for the French. Also, if there were no longer any Saxons, then there would never be an English language. And if there were no German nationalism then there never would be a Hitler. And never a Holocaust.

The Germans kept their language but their country was divided up into many city-states and duchies for more than a thousand years. In the 1500s Martin Luther gave Arminius the name of Hermann to encourage a national spirit. This spirit rekindled in Napoleonic times (1807) with a popular play about Hermann and later when Germany finally became a unified country (1870) and Kaiser Wilhelm built a monument in Detmold (where most people at the time thought the battle took place) with a gigantic statue of Hermann. The exact place of the battle was not determined until the 1980s when a British officer and amateur archeologist named Tony Clunn decided to visit the area near Kalkriese with a metal detector. He then turned over the treasure he discovered to professional archeologists at the University of Osnabruck.

The 2000th year anniversary of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 2009 was pretty much played down all over Germany.  German descendants in Hermann, Missouri and New Ulm, Minnesota probably celebrated more than than the people of Germany. It seems to me that the people of Germany these days are ashamed of what their grandparents did in the name of German nationalism. They are still proud of their heritage and they root loudly for their sports teams but they no longer dream about world domination and purifying the master race.

So that is the story of Arminius and Varus and the defeat of a mighty Roman army by German tribes. I wonder if one of my ancestors might have participated in this great but rather horrible event.

Here are a few more pictures I took that day:

View of the W Hills (W) from Alswede.

View of the Wiehen Hills (Wiehengebirge) from Alswede.

The Mittleland Kanal from a bridge near Hedem.

The Mittleland Kanal from a bridge near Hedem.

On the way to Stemshorn.

On the way to Stemshorn.

View of Dielingen from the edge of Stemwede.

View of Dielingen from the edge of Stemwede.

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About crowcanyonjournal

I am a family man with interests in family history, photography, history and travel.
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One Response to The Roman Empire’s Greatest Defeat was in the Backyard of my Ancestors

  1. Larry Gaskamp says:

    Very interesting post. I would love to go to Dielingen where my ancestors also lived for generations — in Haldem. Church records there record Gaskamp’s back to 1600s for baptisms, marriages, and deaths. I have a feeling the family roots were there many generations prior to that as well. People of the land in the Middle ages and maybe more so in the Dark ages did not travel more then 10-20 miles from where they were born. They simply did not have the means as landless farm workers. The Dukes and estate owners saw to that as well capturing families in more or less indentured servitude.
    The great battle field was not just a location where two great armies met. I think Arminius was able to recruit the local tribes, not far off tribes to travel long distance to fight the Romans.
    In my estimation it is highly likely yours and my ancestors were among the tribal groups that defeated the Romans. We don’t have any means to know but it is tempting to make this assumption.
    Larry Gaskamp
    The Woodlands Texas

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