TOP 100 REVIEWERon 8 December 2012
This is a rather good Osprey campaign title on the destruction of Varus' legions in AD 9 in the forests of Germany. As usual with the collection, and assuming you already know about the event and its background, do not expect to learn much knew about it. However, it presents a good and at times excellent, at times superb overview of what seems to have happened, using both the sources and the archaeological findings at Kalkriese to offer a reconstruction of the battle.
There are some glitches and disputable points. While significantly better than Peter Wells' sensational, incorrect and gory "story-telling" (as opposed to history, see "the Battle than Stopped Rome"), this book also has to deal with the issue that we know virtually nothing of the three-battle that saw the Germans destroy the legions. The second half of the book relating this battle is therefore mostly, if not entirely, speculative, something that the author fails to acknowledge explicitly. At times, the author is also tempted to go for the same kind of "drama" and "visual effects" which makes up most of Wells' book. There is a good side to this, of course: it makes it easier for the reader to imagine what happened. The other side of the coin, however, is that these kinds of tricks duplicate with the illustrations and may tend to obscure some important points.
There are two points, in particular, which the book could have made and which are hardly discussed at all. The author mentions that most of the legates were killed and that Varus himself seems to have committed suicide by the end of the second day, leaving only two camp prefects in command of the survivors. According to the author, these would still have made up to half the initial force although this, again, is pure speculation. However, he never really gets to discussing how come ALL of the most senior Roman officers seem to have been put out of action. The suicide of Varus is dismissed in a rather cursory way: he must have been either despairing or badly wounded, according to the author. This, however, is not good enough. Unless he was dying of his wounds, it is difficult to see why he would have committed suicide at this stage (as opposed to latter, if he had managed to extricate part of the command). It also does not explain how such a high proportion of the Roman senior command was taken down. I could not help wandering, for instance, whether they were deliberately targeted.
A second, and more important point, that should have been discussed, is the Romans' perseverance is going down the unknown western route instead of falling back. While the book clearly shows to what extent Varus was abused, it does not explain why he persisted in following his initial plan, once it was clear that Arminius had betrayed them. Arguably, and with hindsight, you would think that instead of pressing on into enemy and unknown territory, he probably should have fallen back on the bases he had established along the water courses, and which the book describes very well.
Finally, there are the illustrations, which are mostly superb. The one titled "Death in the forest", where a centurion is beset by half a dozen German warriors, is particularly good, but also perhaps a little problematic. The centurion is described as "attempting to shield the remainder of his unit who are following as best as they can" and these are illustrated by a legionary helping along his wounded comrade a few meters behind the centurion. I could not help finding this second group somewhat "unrealistic". Since the centurion is fighting one against six, would you except the unwounded legionary to come to his help rather than to continue plodding along with his wounded fellow soldier?
Anyway, despite these few quibbles, this book has many qualities. In particular, the summaries of the prequel and sequel to the battle - the Roman campaigns in Germany under Drusus the Elder and Tiberius, and then those of Germanicus - are rather good. The author shows that, despite the shock of defeat, the "disaster" needs to be toned down. The frontiers were not threatened and the Romans had the means to hold the Rhine frontier. Also good are the explanations showing that it is Tiberius, not Augustus, who decided to pull back along the Rhine and abandon the idea of creating a province of Germania because it was not worth the trouble or the expenditure.
This book is worth a solid four star.