Saturday, January 23, 2010

Review: Give Me Back My Legions by Harry Turtledove

Give Me Back My Legions!The Roman Emperor Augustus' anguished cry, "Publius Quinctilius Varus, Give Me Back My Legions!", is probably one of the most famous quotations that has come down to us from the ancient world.  So, I was naturally drawn to a novel with that title, hoping I could explore at least one person's interpretation of the events of that fatal confrontation and insight into the motivations of the men who met their destiny there.

"Give Me Back My Legions" is the first book I have ever read by Harry Turtledove although I have several of his books, either written alone or as a co-author with someone else, in my "to-be-read" stack.  Since the novel, centered around the events leading up to the massacre of three Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest, was released in unabridged audio format, it gave me the opportunity to listen to it while I exercise each morning so received my attention much sooner than my other hard copy volumes.

Turtledove did a good job of characterization, neither overtly villifying either one side or the other in the conflict between occupying Roman forces and the tribal cultures of Germania.  The only problem with this approach, of course, is that there appears to be no clear protagonist or antagonist so the author sacrifices tension to some extent in the telling of the story.  Publius Quinctillus Varus is portrayed as a typical middle-aged Roman administrator who has married well (the emperor's Augustus' grandniece) but who is really ready for a gradual slide into retirement and longing for a less stressful life in Rome and the companionship of his son, who is currently studying in Greece.  When he is assigned the task of turning Germania into a proper Roman province paying proper Roman taxes, he is less than enthusiastic about the job.  But, who in the entire Roman Empire, would dare to refuse Augustus' request?

Arminius is an auxiliary officer with the Roman legions fighting a revolt in Pannonia.  He demonstrates courage and a strategic understanding of guerilla warfare, but privately harbors fears that his own people will eventually become victims of the Roman war machine if something isn't done soon in his native Germania.  When he receives word that the father of his betrothed, an overt Roman supporter, has decided to break the engagement and wed his daughter to another man with a political attitude more like his own, Arminius asks for permission to return home and straighten out this point of honor.

After Arminius resolves the matter by whisking away his betrothed and deflowering her to prevent any other man of his tribe from wanting her, Arminius turns his attention to finding a way to drive the Romans out of his homeland.  He knows that his countrymen's style of personal combat would be disastrous in a pitched battle with the disciplined Romans so he decides his only option is to somehow deceive them into venturing out of their encampment through territory more advantageous to an ambush.  He begins his plan by overtly trying to impress Varus.  Varus, in turn, sees something of his own son in the young, brash Arminius and despite numerous warnings from his own officers as well as Arminius' suspicious father-in-law, Segestes, Varus warms to the young man.

 Arminius watches as year after year the Romans build up then tear down their settlement at Mindinum and struggle back through the mud to their winter quarters on the other side of the Rhine. It occurs to him that if he suggests to Varus that he knows an easier route back to the base camp, he could lure Varus out onto a winding track through the forest where Arminius and his followers could construct an ambush.  So, although Arminius lives within the Roman camp and sups frequently with Varus during the spring and summer, he travels around Germania recruiting followers for his planned attack during the winter months.  I can understand the need for duplicity but when the time finally arrives and the ambush is accomplished, I was bothered by Arminius' eagerness to capture Varus alive so Varus could be brutally butchered as a sacrifice to the Germanic gods.  I found it hard to imagine that the kindness shown by Varus towards Arminius could be so totally dismissed.  In the novel, Arminius is quite aware that Varus misses his own son and views Varus as a kind of temporary substitute.  Although Varus must levy taxes as a requirement of provincial administration, he is not depicted as cruel or unjust (or at least he is not portrayed as such by Turtledove).  Therefore, the viciousness of Arminius' plans to brutalize him are repugnant and not really justified by the portrayal of a relatively benign Varus in the story.

In actual history, however, Varus may not have been quite so harmless.  While governing Syria, Varus, in command of four legions, put down a Jewish revolt that erupted after the death of the Roman client king Herod the Great in 4 BCE and crucified 2,000 Jewish rebels.  Although Josephus tries to point out the judiciousness of Varus' actions, there are references in the ancient sources to mass protests as a result of Varus' cruelty.  Turtledove's sympathetic portrayal of the man may have been a little misleading.

But, nevertheless, the retelling of the ambush and subsequent massacre was riveting.  Something that really stuck in my mind as I read the passage was how Arminius pondered the meaning of his countrymen's willingness to attack the Romans and the realization that most of the tribal warriors were only interested in plundering the Roman baggage train for loot.  Arminius concludes that they had no real overarching vision of independence or dream of establishing a united kingdom of their own.  I think Turtledove hit the hammer right on the head with that observation.  The other aspect of Arminius that I found disquieting was his immediate plans to not only throw the Romans out of Germania but follow it up by ravaging Gaul and taking it away from the people living there.  The victim had no qualms about becoming a brutal conqueror himself which seemed to diminish Arminius' nobility, at least in my eyes.

I realize Arminius is celebrated as an historical hero in Germany but I, like some other scholars, wonder if the victory he won in the Teutoburg forest was not ultimately a setback to cultural development.  A people's independence is always held up as the ultimate achievement but living in a society without a law code where the strong routinely exploit their weaker neighbor could hardly be viewed as an ideal way of life. Much was made in the novel about the Germans' hatred of Roman taxes but the taxes assessed at the time were not particularly exorbitant or arbitrary.  The Romans were apparently trying to base the taxes on the prosperity of the individual steadings.  Taxes are ultimately necessary to fund projects that provide services to a large group of people and are too expensive for any one individual to undertake.  Sadly, the Germanic tribes had not reached that level of understanding yet so still clung to their "mine" vs. "yours" view of the world. Some scholars have gone so far as to suggest that if the massacre in the Teutoburg forest had not happened and Germania had been successfully Romanized, we would have never had WWI and WWII.  I, too, wonder..

 Rome's Greatest Defeat: Massacre in the Teutoburg Forest   Terror in Teutoburg Forest   The Battle That Stopped Rome: Emperor Augustus, Arminius, and the Slaughter of the Legions in the Teutoburg Forest
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