We’ve talked numerous times about how coins have historical consequence. Most are designed or minted as a commemoration of an important event or person or are the result of politicking or maneuvering by various people in power interested in maintaining their power. Another way coins have historical importance is that they can be used to date or identify people, places, or things.
Recently archeologists in Kalkriese unearthed eight Roman coins that historians believe may be the key to identifying the site of Rome’s greatest defeat: the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. You may wonder how the site of Rome’s greatest defeat could have gone missing, given the importance of Rome in the ancient world and the fact that this battle was hardly obscure and went on to have far-reaching effects for Rome and greater Europe. It’s an interesting story.
In fact, about 18,000 men died in that battle. Rome lost three full legions, and it was all because a local man, the son of a Cheruskan chief in Germania, managed to trick a Roman general into diverting three full legions of soldiers and leading them straight into an ambush. That military commander, Arminius, had been taken hostage in childhood, raised in Rome, and given a military education and citizenship. Despite all of that, he did not forget his homeland or the suffering Roman soldiers had brought to it.
In 6 A.D. Publius Quinctilius Varus was given the task of consolidating the new province of Germania. At that time Rome had solidified its hold on the territories just east of the Rhine river and was seeking to gain a stronger hold eastward to the Weser and Elbe rivers. Since the initial Roman conquest of the area, relations among the Germanic tribes had deteriorated and there was much hostility. However, when in 7 or 8 A.D. Arminius returned, he succeeded in making alliances among a handful of Germanic tribes. He then bided his time until he could lead them in an attack on their mutual enemy. Meanwhile he became Varus’ trusted advisor.
In 9 A.D. rumors of a rebellion, fabricated by Arminius, reached Varus who decided it must be instantly quelched. Varus had a reputation of cruelty and tyrannical ruthlessness. In order to squash the rebellion, Varus’ three legions would have to march into unknown territory in the forest. Many of these soldiers were untrained, and Varus neglected to send soldiers in advance to scout the territory. Arminius, under the pretense of drumming up support among the Germanic tribes, led attacks on Roman garrisons in the areas while his alliance of tribes surrounded the Romans and slaughtered them. A violent storm contributed further to the Roman’s confusion and made many of their weapons ineffective. Utterly defeated and humiliated, General Varus fell on his sword, as did many of the other Roman leaders who survived.
How do coins feature in this tale? The gold coins, called aurei (the plural of aureus) and minted between 2 B.C. and 5 A.D., were excavated only a few meters from each other. Historians believe they belonged to an officer or high-ranking Roman soldier. They feature Emperor Augustus on its obverse and the imperial princes Gaius and Lucius on the reverse, and each one would have been valuable enough in 9 A.D. to feed an entire family for a month in Rome.
For almost two thousand years the site of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest was a mystery. Romans authored the history of it, and they were unfamiliar with the geography of the area. Then an amateur archeologist, Major Tony Clunn, took a metal detector out looking for Roman coins and found some. This find resulted in excavations and eventually the locating of the eight gold aurei this year. Historians now believe these coins confirm Kalkriese as the site of the battle. In addition to these coins, a number of remnants of Roman military equipment were found as well as some bronze coins.
Because these aurei have established dates and value, they have helped solve a mystery several thousand years old, and as relics of a historic battle they are extremely valuable in and of themselves. This is another wonderful example of the overlapping value coins have to people and civilization.