Novels about the Battle of Teutoburg Forest – the battle in AD9 where three Roman legions under Public Quinctilius Varus were wiped out by a coalition of Germanic tribes under the rebel Cheruscan leader Arminius – do not have an especially glorious history. This is thanks primarily to European politics. Around the time of the Franco-Prussian War, Arminius became co-opted into current German political nationalist thinking.
Between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II, more than thirty novels about the battle were published in Germany, virtually all of them using the words “liberator”, “hero” or “the first German” somewhere in the title.
They were for the most part dire on every level. German pre-history had become the “Old Testament of the German people”. Archaeology was a direct political tool and what lay at the core of the Nazi attraction to Arminius was less his opposition to Rome and more Tacitus’ comments on German ethnicity.
Since then, modern writers have tended to leave the battle alone. Even the anniversary of the battle in 2009 saw few attempts to fictionalise the conflict. Writers who have touched on it – Lindsey Davis and David Wishart to name two – have the disaster in the background. Until now that is. Ben Kane’s Eagles at War is a hugely enjoyable and much-needed retelling of the story.
There are two specific challenges for any writer who attempts to retell the story. First and foremost are the characters of Varus and Arminius themselves. One of the (many) reasons that Arminius became such a useful political tool is that he and Varus are ciphers. Their personalities have left little imprint on the historical record, which means that authors have been free to see them as they want. All too often this means that they have been reduced to goodies and baddies.
What makes Kane’s novel stand out from a historical point of view is that he has brought nuance into the game. There are varying shades of grey. What is specifically praiseworthy is that Kane does not portray the Germanic tribes as in any way either unified or with the same agenda. Arminius, in his account, is not a messianic figure trying to protect the German people; he is a very modern political leader trying to bring factions together.
Nor is Varus a buffoon. All too often the commander of the Roman legions in Germany is still seen as a hopeless and incompetent clown. This is ridiculous for a man who had served the Roman empire successfully and honourably for many years, and was related by marriage to the imperial family. Kane’s Varus is a man who makes a wrong and fatal mistake.
The other significant problem for any writer who looks at the battle is that of motivation. Rather inconveniently from our point of view, no classical author shows any awareness of knowing what it was that Arminius was trying to achieve with his revolt. It is this that allowed some twentieth century historians to run free with their fantasies of a nascent Germanic empire. But again, Kane is elegant and plausible in his psychological portrayal of the man.
It says much about Kane’s skill as a writer that the book is scattered with Easter eggs – treats for classical readers who know what they are looking for. Many of the actual artifacts found both on the battlefield and at Roman camps along the Lippe get a mention, but it is done in a subtle and clearly affectionate manner.
For fans of Simon Scarrow and Robert Fabbri, I would wholeheartedly recommend Eagles at War. In the meantime I will be waiting with bated breathe to see what happens next to Lucius Tullus.
[Full disclosure – Ben very generously thanked me in the introduction to Eagles at War for my help, which, as far as I recall, involved passing on a couple of off-prints and answering a couple of emails]