My Illlustrated Travel Journal with Essays about Roman and Mediaeval History and some Geology

  Another Poem Translation

Erich Kästner (1899-1974). German writer, best known for his YA fiction, but he also wrote adult books and poetry, often with satirical tones. He became a pacifist after WW1 and thus he was at odds with Hitler's Reich albeit he never fled Germany. His books were forbidden, though, and published in Switzerland.

The poem represents the status of science at about 1930.

You can find more information about Erich Kästner here.

Fortschritt der Menschheit
(Progress of Mankind)

Once, the guys sat in the trees,
Ugly, and with angry faces.
They were coaxed out of the wood;
And their world was storeyed up
Right to the thirtieth floor.

There now they sat, fled from the fleas,
In central heated rooms.
There now they sit, using the phone,
And using still the same ol' tone
As back in jungle trees.

They listen far, they watch TV.
They are in touch with the universe.
They brush their teeth. They breathe clean air.
The earth is an educated star
With lots of water flushing.

They shoot letters through a tube,
And hunt and breed microbes.
They equip nature with comfort;
And rocket right up to the sky
And stay there for two weeks.

They turn to cotton the remains
Of what their body didn't digest.
They cleave atoms and they heal incest,
And divine by analysis of style
That Caesar had flat feet.

Thus they created with head and mouth
Progression of mankind.
But that aside,
And seen by light, they still remain
The same ol' hairy apes.

For Tess Gerritsen who recently had to suffer from someone who obviously has problems with human evolution.

Translation is mine, done right on the spot, because her blogpost reminded me of the poem.

  The German Wall

It was one of the most intriguing discoveries at Kalkriese. Those big blond Germans had learned a few things from the Romans, and one was that walls are a good place to hide behind. So, along the smallest part of the path between woods and swamp, they built a series of wall and wicker or palisade defenses to make it even more difficult for the Romans to escape into the woods, and to hide behind until the moment of the ambush. That required planning ahead and a few weeks of work.

The walls were probably camouflaged by bushes and near to invisible. The pic above shows a piece of reconstructed wall - made of earth and grass cuts - from the 'Roman" side, the one to the left shows me standing on the 'German' side. The wicker screens were higher back then but have been adapted to school kid size (Kalkriese is a good place to visit for kids). So far, beside the reconstructed wall, iron palisades demonstrate the line along which the wall ran but I hope they will rebuild more of it until 2009.


  The Museum Park at Kalkriese

An extended essay about the Varus battle will appear soon, taking into account new discoveries.

Below is an overview photo taken from the museum tower. Of course, the landscape has changed a lot since 9 AD; what was a nasty bog where the Romans got stuck are now fields; the hill on the other side is less high because the land has risen thanks to a fertilizing system that used cut out grass sods turned upside down (the layer is about three metres today) trees have been felled.

Picture taken from the watchtower (not a Roman one, a modern building that also houses the museum

The winding grey way in the middle that cuts right through the iron enclave in the centre of the picture is the Roman marching line; to the left is the woodcovered hill, to the right the former swamp. Within the area enclosed by ruddy iron plates, the original landscape, forest, German wall and wicker defenses, small sandy stripe and bog have been reconstructed.

The German forests were proverbial in Latin literature, dark, impenetrable, hostile. It became a topos, a metaphor for a country that would never become a Roman province. Sure, Germany was more densely forested than today, but even in 9 AD there were populated areas, clearings, fields, pasture, and settlements, long distance paths and trails. The Romans had built fortified camps as far east as Hedemünden at the Werra (Weser and Werra, the Roman Visurgis, are the same river*), the kernel of a Roman system of settlements and roads, left unfinished after Tiberius called the army back in AD 16. The disaster in AD 9 reinforced the Scary German Forests-topos, and the German woods were present in Latin literature about Germania ever since.

If you walk some 50 metres into the forest, it becomes a lot more like what the Romans saw. Boggy ground, dense foliage, trees hindering the way. And German altars, places where they sacrificed to their gods, gods that contrary to the Celtic ones never made it into the Roman henotheistic pantheon.

I would have liked to also see the skeleton of a Roman on an altar, and his skull on a pole, but since the park is visited by children, I assume it was considered too scary. I bet for some horse-loving teenage girls that hide is scary enough.

Roman sources agree on the fact that it had rained the days before and during the battle. I think they could be right there, German autums can be on the wet side. Now, imagine a Roman legionary carried some 30 kilo equipment; I have no idea what the stuff weighs when wet, but according to Bernard Hill's statement in the LOTR DVD extras, it's a lot (his armour as Théoden is a mix of metal and leather as well). In AD 9 the mail shirt was still the more common armour albeit some pieces of lorica segmentata, the rectangular plates connected with leather straps we know from the movies, have been found at Kalkriese. This new form of armour became more popular in the time to follow because it was less heavy than mail.

The poor legionaries also carried a large shield made of leather fortified plywood. That's a lot of leather to get soaked. Not to mention wet equipment doesn't work well: the Romans had a whole auxiliary company of Balearic slingers with wet slings, archers with wet bows, legionaries with wet feet, soaked shields and rusty mail, and mules with sore hooves.

And this sorry troop, already diminished and disenheartened by two days of continous guerilla attacks from the Germans, now gets driven into bogs by a horde of Germans more used to getting wet, with smaller shields and less armour.

The weather surely was on Arminius' side but would the outcome have been different with weather as sunny as I experienced at Kalkriese? The Romans still would not have been able to display their army in proper fighting order, and a marching column is always an easier target. The bogs would still have been there (like in this little, reconstructed patch),

and we don't know how many Germans there were, not even the Roman sources, usually not beyond exaggerating the numbers, do mention any numbers at all. Maybe a few more Romans would have managed to break through but I think even with good weather, the battle in the Teutoburg Forest would have been a disaster. The problems the Romans encountered were too varied, and the psychological aspect plays a role as well - and if you talk about the boogieman long enough, people will believe in it.

* The old Germanic forms of both names are something like Visera / Wesera. In some German dialects a so called rhotazism took place, that is, a -s- between two vowels became a -r-. Since Germanic languages stress the first syllable of a word, the following syllables are prone to get contracted or weakened. Werera soon became Werra, while Wesera weakened the final -a- into -e- and finally lost it altogether and became Weser. The border between the two names is given by the fact that a rather large river, the Fulda, confluences into the Weser, and that looks as if Fulda and Werra join and become a new river. The name goes back to an Indoeuropean root *uis- that means 'water' and is also in the word Whisky.


  I'm Back

Tired, but it was fun. The museum and park of the Varus Battle are great, especially the park. And the weather didn't listen to the forecast that predicted lots of rain. We got sunshine instead. We also visited some other places, Osnabrück (as mentioned before), the remains of a castle and fortification structure near Osnabrück that is said to have been held by the Saxon leader Widukind, one of Charlemagne's enemies; and the Canoness Chapter at Fischbeck/Weser which has a very old church.

Yes, there will be pics. As soon as my father gets them onto a CD. And not all of them at once; I need some icing for future posts. *grin*

BTW, I got plotbunnies. I knew I would. Damn little buggers.

The Lost Fort is a travel journal and history blog based on my travels in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and other places. It includes essays on Roman and Mediaeval history, as well as some geology, illustrated with photos of old castles and churches, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.
My Photo
Location: Germany

I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who hasn't yet gotten an Instagram account. :-)


    Featured Posts

A Virtual Tour Through the Wartburg

Dunstaffnage Castle

The Roman Fort at Osterburken

The Vasa Museum in Stockholm

The Raised Bog Mecklenbruch in the Solling