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Very good but with a few glitches
on 4 April 2016
This is a very good book, possibly the best one in English, on the Teutoburg disaster where a three-legion plus auxiliaries Roman army was destroyed and Varus, the Governor and commander in chief was killed in 9 AD by a coalition of Germanic tribes lead by one of the chieftains of the Cherusci that the Romans caller Arminius. It dies however have a number of glitches and I would like to start with these before enumerating the multiple qualities of this book.
First of all, the book’s title, which may have been chosen by the publisher for marketing reasons, is somewhat incorrect and misleading. Simply put, the Teutoburg disaster was not “Rome’s greatest defeat”, however one looks at it. Losses resulting from the disasters of Arausio, Cannae or Carrhae were much larger whereas the both the losses and the consequences of the disastrous defeat of Adrianople where the Emperor Valens himself was killed were probably more severe also. The sub-title “Massacre in the Teutoburg Forest” is another example of inaccurate hype. It was not a massacre but a running battle or a series of multiple engagements which, according to one of the sources, may have lasted several days. The Roman losses were huge because the Roman army was trapped and the engagements were fought under the most unfavourable conditions but German losses, which are rarely mentioned, may have been significant if only because the Roman legionaries were not exactly defenceless. Moreover, and the author shows rather well in his book, the last phase of the battle does not seem to have happen in a forested area so that the now consecrated name of “Teutoburg Forest” is in fact incorrect.
A second point that can, at times, become a bit of an issue is a tendency towards anachronism. At one point, the author claims that Arminius’ struggle against Rome had the overtones of a crusade of a djihad. The Germanic tribes did – as many others – dedicate the spoils taken from their enemies to their gods. They did sacrifice prisoners to their gods, but then so did the Romans and this is in fact the origin of gladiators. However, the conflict was not driven by religion and the Germanic tribes do not seem to have such a thing as a concept of Holy War. Another problem is a tendency to draw parallels with may be somewhat superficial with modern conflicts, with mentions of the Afghan war and the British disaster of 1842 and the war in Irak, for the Americans. In both types of cases, this is probably part of the efforts that some authors feel obliged to furnish to bond with the non-specialist reader, however patronising this may feel, in some cases.
A third type of glitch relates more directly to the topic at hand. Unless I am mistaken, Drusus the Elder was the younger brother of Tiberius, and not his elder brother. Also, during the late Republic and the Early Empire, it was the island of Rhodes which was famous for its mercenary slingers alongside those from the Balaric Islands, and not Crete. Crete was famous for its archers since at least the fourth century BC.
Then you are treated to a host of strongpoints, the first of which is probably the amount of ground that this little book of barely more than 200 pages manages to cover. In addition to the battle itself, you will also find a quick discussion of the (exclusively) Roman sources, and the difficulties that this raises, and a brief summary of the reign of Augustus. Also included to provide context is a whole chapter of the numerous campaigns in Germany prior to Varus, with the narrative starting in 17 BC, almost a quarter of a century before the disaster that befell Varus and his troops.
The next chapter is an illuminating piece on Varus’ origins and career. This shows clearly that, in addition to being part of Augustus’ inner circle, he was both an excellent administrator and an experienced general with a shining track record for, among other things, putting down swiftly and competently one of the numerous revolts in Judea following the death of Herod the Great. He was clearly a “safe pair of hands” who meet all the requirements for the third position of Governor to which he was appointed (he had governed both the provinces of Africa and of Syria previously).
The following chapter is about Arminius and his own background, of which we know next to nothing. We know that both he and his brother Flavus served as officers of Roman auxiliary cavalry, possibly each commanding a squadron of Cherusci cavalry and earning coin in serving Rome. We do not know whether they were brought up within the Empire during part of their youth, whether they joined the Roman army as part of some treaty or whether they volunteered on their own as quasi-mercenaries. What does seem sure, however, is that they served in several campaigns in Pannonia. They also learnt Latin and Roman military warfare, and they held very different views. While Flavus was and remained pro-Roman, just like one faction of his tribe, and continued to serve in the Roman army well after his brother’s revolt, Arminius adopted an anti-Roman stance and, after returning to Germany, sought to unite the tribes against Rome and under his leadership. The author then includes an interesting and comprehensive discussion and presentation of Arminius’ motivations to revolt.
The narrative of the disastrous campaign and battle makes up Chapter four. While this only represents some twenty-five pages, these explain clearly how and why Varus got tramped. Essentially, he had no reason to suspect Arminius’ double dealing, quite the opposite in fact. A number of issues are also presented and discussed, such as the quite controversial issue of numbers on each side and the fact that it is rather impossible to reach definitive conclusions since, for the Romans, we simply do not know how understrength the legions and auxiliary cohorts could be and, for the Germanic tribes, we do not know either how many warriors each could field. Implicitly, the author seems to consider that each tribe could field perhaps 5000-6000 so that total forces on both sides would be broadly equivalent. However, this is no more than an educated guess which is fully acknowledged.
The next chapter, one of the book’s longest, deals with the aftermath of the battle until the death of Arminius some ten years later in AD 19 at the age of thirty-seven, when he was murdered by a member of his own family. The chapter includes the Empire’s emergency reactions and measures and shows how badly the events shook the ageing Augustus, how he may have over-reacted to some extent, because the Germanic tribes were never going to invade Gaul or Italy, contrary to what was feared. However, the fall-out was perhaps more of a political disaster – it was a blot on an otherwise pristine record and the loss of three eagles was dishonour for the legions involved which were never reconstituted – as it was a military disaster. Frantic conscription took place and legionaries due for retirement were not discharged.
Also included in the chapter are the mutinies following the death of Augustus and the retaliation campaigns of Germanicus, with their rather mixed successes obtained with heavy casualties. Another very interesting piece is the discussion about the very self-conscious “poster child” and “hero” that Germanicus was, with the author believing, contrary to a more recent biography of Germanicus, that Tiberius’ suspicions with regards to his nephew may not have been totally misplaced and due to jealousy.
I was however puzzled by the author’s claim that Arminius finally won because he pushed back the Romans over the Rhine and managed to consolidate his power. Also puzzling was the claim that “by giving up his call for freedom” and “by trying to meld the tribes into a single nation” he became just another oppressor. Both assessments are rather anachronistic. Rather than create “a single nation”, a concept that was as alien to the Germanic tribes as it was to the Gallic, Hispanic or Briton ones, he tried – and ultimately failed - to assert his dominance over the chieftains of other tribes and of his own, including his family. As for his supposed “call for freedom” as seen through the somewhat misleading eyes of Tacitus, this had perhaps at least as much to do about alliances between the chieftains of various tribes to preserve their power against Roman encroachment, domination and taxes.
Finally, the last two chapters focus upon, respectively, Arminius’ posterity and how he was progressively recast as a legend and a nationalistic German hero and then a rather sinister Nazi one, and upon the finds of Kalkriese and the actual museum. Both chapters are extremely interesting, fascinating and the book would be well worth buying just for these. Four strong stars for a remarkable piece, despite the few glitches.