Bestselling author Turtledove turns his attention to an epic battle that pits three Roman legions against Teutonic barbarians in a thrilling novel of Ancient Rome
Publius Quinctilius Varus, a Roman politician, is summoned by the Emperor, Augustus Caesar. Given three legions and sent to the Roman frontier east of the Rhine, his mission is to subdue the barbarous German tribes where others have failed, and bring their land fully under Rome's control.
Arminius, a prince of the Cherusci, is playing a deadly game. He serves in the Roman army, gaining Roman citizenship and officer's rank, and learning the arts of war and policy as practiced by the Romans. What he learns is essential for the survival of Germany, for he must unite his people against Rome before they become enslaved by the Empire and lose their way of life forever.
An epic battle is brewing, and these two men stand on opposite sides of what will forever be known as The Battle of the Teutoberg Forest--a ferocious, bloody clash that will change the course of history.
Alternate history icon Turtledove probes the intrigues and battles surrounding Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar's attempts to control uprisings in Germanic lands circa A.D. 9. Caesar appoints Publius Quinctilius Varus, formerly a successful governor of Syria, to become the new governor of Germany, and Varus sets off bolstered by three legions from the overextended Roman army. Sure that he is headed for further glory, Varus is unaware that crafty Prince Armenius, who serves in the Roman army but secretly seethes in indignation at Rome's plans to make Germany another conquered territory, is planning a massive revolt. Turtledove rotates through many points-of-view, from Caesar to slaves and soldiers, to give a panoramic look at the epic battle of Teutoburg Forest, laced with telling details of ancient military life and strategy and lightened with humorous interludes. The fantastic action scenes and taut narrative make this a fine addition to the ancient Roman battles canon. (Apr.)
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St. Martin's Press
April 11, 2009
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Excerpt from Give Me Back My Legions! by Harry Turtledove
Rome brawled around Publius Quinctilius Varus. Half a dozen stalwart lectiarii bore his sedan chair through the streets towards Augustus' house on the Palatine hill. The slaves wore matching red tunics. Their smooth, skillful broken step kept him from feeling the bumps in the cobblestoned roadway.
Varus could have lowered the sedan chair's curtains. That would have given him privacy in the midst of untold tens of thousands. But he didn't mind being seen, not today. Anyone could tell at a glance that he was someone important.
A wagon full of sacks of grain drawn by two plodding oxen blocked his path. The ungreased axles squealed and groaned. A man could die of old age stuck behind something like that.
His slaves weren't about to put up with it. One of the pedisequi who accompanied the litter--a Roman aristocrat was too special to carry what ever he might need, but had underlings to do it for him--called out in Greek-accented Latin: "Make way, there! Make way for the litter of Publius Quinctilius Varus!"
In narrow, winding streets packed with people on foot, donkeys, carts, and other wagons, making way for anybody wasn't easy. The gray-haired man driving the wagon didn't even try. "To the crows with him, whoever he is," he shouted back. His accent said he was a Samnite or Oscan by birth.
" 'Whoever he is'? How dare you, you--peasant, you!" The pedisequus knew no worse abuse. He was as furious as if he'd been insulted himself. The master was the sun; the slave was the moon, and shone by his reflected light. Varus' man went on, "I will have you know he was consul twenty years ago. Consul, I tell you! He is just returned to Rome after governing the province of Syria. And he is married to Augustus' grand-niece. Gods help you, wretch, if he has to ask your name!"
The wagon driver lashed his oxen. He also flicked the lash at a couple of middle-aged women to make them get out of the way. They screeched abuse at him, but they moved. The wagon slid into the space they'd occupied. The litter and its retinue glided past.
"Nicely done, Aristocles," Varus said. The pedisequus thrust out his chin and thrust out his chest and marched along as if he were ten cubits tall and eight cubits wide, not a balding, weedy little Greek. Quinctilius Varus smiled to himself. As with anything else, there were tricks to getting the most out of your slaves. Judicious praise at the right moment could do more good than a denarius.
Aristocles did more shouting as the litter made its way toward the Palatine. Too many people and not enough room for all of them--that was Rome. Musicians strummed citharae or played flutes, hoping passersby would throw them enough coins to keep them fed. Scribes stood at street-corners, ready to write for people who lacked their letters. Hucksters shouted their wares: "Figs candied in honey!" "Beads! Fine glass beads from Egypt!" "Bread and cheese and oil!" "Kohl to make your eyes pretty!" "Roasted songbirds! Who wants roasted songbirds?" "Amulets will give you luck!" "Wine! Genuine Falernian!"
Varus guffawed. So did his bearers. The pedisequi, men who made much of their dignity, only shook their heads. No one but a fool would think a scrawny street merchant lugging an amphora had wine .t for Augustus himself. What ever was in that jug would taste like vinegar--if it didn't taste like piss.
When the litter finally reached the Palatine hill, traffic thinned out. This had been a prosperous part of town for many years. Important people--proper Romans--lived here. You didn't see so many trousered Gauls and swarthy Jews and excitable Numidians on the Palatine. People from all over the Empire swarmed to Rome, hoping to strike it rich. No one had ever found a way to keep them out. Too bad, Varus thought.
And the Palatine became all the more exclusive when Augustus, master of the Roman world, took up residence on the hillside. He had dominated the Empire for more than a third of a century now. Senators still pined for the days of the Republic, when they were the biggest fish in the pond. Most people didn't remember those days any more. Most of the ones who did, remembered round after round of civil war. Hardly anyone--except those Senators--would have traded Augustus' peace and prosperity for the chaos it replaced.
Quinctilius Varus knew he wouldn't. He was part of the new order: one of the many who'd risen high by going along with the man who had--who'd won--the power to bind and to loose. He couldn't have done better under the Republic. Rome couldn't have done better under the Republic, but Rome mattered less to Varus than Varus did.
His father, Sextus Quinctilius Varus, had thought differently. He'd killed himself at Philippi along with Brutus and Cassius after they lost against Antony and Octavian--who was not yet calling himself Augustus. Almost fifty years ago now; Publius had been a boy. He was lucky the victors hadn't proscribed the losers' families. He nodded solemnly. He was lucky a lot of ways.
Soldiers guarded Augustus' residence. Augustus was no fool--he was about as far from a fool as a man could be. He knew some people still resented his mastery of Rome. Three cohorts of praetorian troops--about 1,500 men--were stationed in the city to protect him. Six more cohorts were based in nearby towns. The armored men in front of the doorway unmistakably separated his house from all the others on the Palatine.
Some of the guards were Italians. Others, tall and fair, had to be Gauls or Germans. In its way, it was a sensible arrangement. Rome as Rome meant nothing to the barbarians. Augustus, as their paymaster and commander, did.
"Who are you? What do you want here?" the biggest and blondest of them asked, his accent guttural, as Varus' litter came up.
Aristocles answered for Varus: "My master is Publius Quinctilius Varus, the ex-consul. He is to meet with Augustus this afternoon." He didn't throw his master's rank in the German's face, as he had with the wagon driver. The praetorian, after all, served a man with a higher rank yet--with the highest rank. But even someone summoned to meet with Augustus was a man of some consequence . . . and his pedisequus, therefore, a slave of some consequence.
"You wait here. We check," the guard said. He spoke in his own sonorous tongue. One of the other soldiers ducked inside.
"It will be all right, boys," Varus told the lectiarii. "You can put me down now."
Gently, the bearers lowered the sedan chair to the ground. Varus got out and stretched. Unlike his slaves, he wore a toga, not a tunic. He rearranged the drape of the garment. At the same time, not quite accidentally, he flashed the purple stripe that marked his status.
The soldier returned and said something in the Germans' language to the man in charge of the detachment. That worthy inclined his head to Varus. "You may go in now, sir," he said, respect ousting practiced suspicion from his voice.
"Good." Varus left it at that. He never knew how to talk to Augustus' guards. They weren't equals; by the nature of things, they couldn't be equals. But they weren't insignificant people, either. A puzzlement.
As soon as he and his two pedisequi went inside, one of Augustus' civilian slaves took charge of them. Varus was sure someone else would bring his bearers into the shade and give them something cool to drink. A great house--and there was none greater--took care of such things as a matter of course.
"I hope you are well, sir," Augustus' slave said politely.
"Yes, thank you." Varus enquired not about the slave's health but about his master's: "I hope Augustus is, too."
With a hint of a smile, the slave answered, "He says a man who gets as old as he is is either well or dead."
That held considerable truth, and truth told with Augustus' usual pith. The ruler of the Roman world was seventy, an age many aspired to and few reached. He'd had several serious illnesses in his earlier days, but recovered from them all. And he'd outlived the younger men he'd expected to succeed him.
Varus, in his early fifties, already felt the first hints that the proud strength of his youth would not last forever--and might not last much longer. And he'd enjoyed good health most of his life, the main exceptions being a couple of bad teeth that finally needed the dentist's forceps. He shuddered and tried to forget those times.
The slave led him and his attendants to a small room on the north side of a courtyard. A roofed colonnade shielded it from direct sun, but the broad doorway still let in plenty of light. The slave darted in ahead of Varus. His voice floated out through the doorway: "Sir, Quinctilius Varus is here to see you."
"Well, bring him in." Augustus' voice was mushy; over the years, he'd had more trouble with his teeth than Varus had.
At the slave's gesture, Varus and his pedisequi walked into the room where Augustus waited. Despite his years, the ruler of the Roman world moved very gracefully. He stood so straight, he seemed uncommonly tall, although he wasn't. He wore a toga of solid purple: a luxury he'd reserved for himself alone.
"Good day, sir," Varus said, bowing. His slaves bowed deeper, bending almost double. As he straightened, he went on, "How may I serve you today?"
"We'll get there, don't worry." Augustus turned and waved towards a chair. "In the meantime, sit down. Make yourself at home." Seen full on, his broad face seemed mild and unassuming. In profile, though, the harsh curve of his nose warned there was more to him than first met the eye.
"Thank you, sir," Varus said. The pedisequi stood on either side of his chair.
Augustus eased himself down into a larger chair with a cushion on the seat. One of his slaves brought in refreshments: green figs, sardines, and watered wine. He'd always had simple taste in food.
As he and Varus nibbled, he asked, "How is Claudia?"
"She's fine, sir," Varus answered. "She sends her great-uncle her love." If his wife hadn't sent it, Varus would have said she had anyhow.
"That's good." Augustus smiled, showing off his bad teeth. A lock of hair--almost entirely white now--flopped down over his right eye. Varus, whose hairline had retreated farther than Aristocles', was jealous of Augustus'. Smiling still, the older man went on, "She's a pretty girl."
"She is, yes." Varus could say that in all sincerity. His wife was called Claudia Pulchra--Claudia the Good-looking. It made what had been a marriage of convenience more enjoyable.
"How's your son?" Augustus asked.
"He's studying in Athens right now." Varus smiled, too. "Whenever he writes, he wants money."
"What else do children want from their father?" Augustus said with a wry chuckle. "Still, we have to civilize them if we can." He spoke the last sentence in fluent Greek.
"That's the truth," Varus replied in the same language. Dropping back into Latin, he continued, "I couldn't have managed anything in Syria if I didn't know Greek. Only our soldiers there know any Latin--and some of them do better in Greek, too."
Augustus sipped from his wine. It was watered more than Varus enjoyed; Augustus had always been a temperate man. "You did well in Syria," he said as he set down the cup.
"Thank you very much, sir. It's a rich province." Varus had been staggered to discover how rich Syria was. Places like that showed him Italy was only a new land. Rome claimed to have been founded 760 years earlier, but it had been a prominant place for only three centuries. Some of the Syrian towns went back thousands of years--long before the Trojan War. And the wealth they held! Varus went into Syria poor and came out prosperous without being especially corrupt.
"You did so well there, in fact, that I've got another province for you," Augustus said.
"Sir?" Varus leaned forward. He had all he could do not to show too much of his excitement. After you'd been governor of Syria, where could you go? Achaea? It wasn't so rich as Syria, but it held more cachet than any other province. It was under senatorial administration, not formally Augustus' to control, but if he asked the Conscript Fathers to honor his kinsman by marriage, how could they say no?
Or maybe Egypt! Egypt belonged to Augustus--he wouldn't dream of letting the Senators get their hands on the place. Egypt made Syria seem poor by comparison. If you served as Augustal prefect in Egypt, you were set for life, and so were all your heirs.
"Yes." The ruler of the Roman world leaned forward, too. "Germany," he said.
"Germany?" Varus hoped his disappointment didn't show. He'd been thinking of civilized places, comfortable places, places where a man could enjoy himself, could live. "It's a long way from . . . well, everywhere, sir." That was as much of a protest as Varus would allow himself.
"I know it is. And I know it will be a bit of a shock after Syria." No, Augustus was nobody's fool. When he was very young, Antony made the fatal mistake of underestimating him. Everyone who made that mistake was sorry afterwards, but afterwards was commonly too late. Of course Augustus would have a good idea of what Varus was thinking right now. "I'm sorry," he said. "I am sorry, but I need someone I can trust there. It just hasn't shaped up the way I wish it would have."
"I'll do my best, sir, if that's what you want," Varus said. Gods! How will I tell Claudia? he wondered. The .t she'd throw would make facing overgrown blond savages seem delightful. It also made him give evasion another try: "Shouldn't you perhaps think of someone with, ah, more military experience?"
"I'd send Tiberius, but he's busy putting down the uprising in Pannonia," Augustus replied. "He's finally getting somewhere, too. Why the Pannonians couldn't see they'd be better off under Roman rule . . . But they couldn't, and so he has to show them."
"I'm glad to hear he's doing well," Varus said. He wished Tiberius were doing better still, so he could deal with the Germans. Plainly, though, that wouldn't happen. Which meant Varus was stuck with it. Which meant he had to make the best of it. If there was any best to be made.
"When my father conquered Gaul, he did it in one campaign, and the conquest stuck," Augustus said fretfully. He was Julius Caesar's sister's grandson. But he was also Caesar's heir and adopted son, and he'd taken advantage of that for more than half a century now. The comparison still had to weigh on him, though, for he went on, "I've been sending armies into Germany the past twenty years. They mostly win when they fight the Germans, but the country isn't subdued yet. And it needs to be. A frontier that runs from the Elbe to the Danube is much shorter and easier to garrison and cheaper to maintain than the one we've got now, on the Rhine and the Danube. I could hold it with far fewer soldiers."
"Yes, sir." Varus suspected Augustus had got to the root of things right there. Augustus had been cutting the army down to size ever since winning supreme power. Paying soldiers was the most expensive thing the Roman government did. A shorter frontier would mean he didn't have to pay so many of them.
"Besides," Augustus added, "the Germans are a pack of troublemakers. They sneak over the Rhine and raid Gaul. They helped stir up the Pannonian rebels--they've given them aid and comfort, too. I want them suppressed. It's about time. We've played games with them for too cursed long."
A cold wind seemed to blow through the little room. You'll answer for it if you don't suppress them. Augustus didn't say that, but Varus knew he meant it. The ruler of the Roman world rewarded success. He punished failure, failure of every kind. His own daughter Julia had languished on a hot, miserable island for years because of infidelity and vice. No, he didn't fancy people who couldn't live up to what he expected of them.
Licking his lips, Varus asked, "What kind of force will I have to bring the Germans into line?"
"Three legions," Augustus answered. "The XVII, the XVIII, and the XIX. They're all solid outfits. I'd give you even more if Tiberius didn't have a full-sized war on his hands. But three should be plenty for the job. We have made progress in Germany. We just haven't made enough."
"Three legions!" Varus echoed. After Augustus' cuts, there were only thirty all through the Empire. Excitement coursed through the younger man. He would command close to twenty thousand elite soldiers. Once he pacified Germany, people might not think of him in the same breath as Julius Caesar, but they would remember him. They'd remember him for-ever. He inclined his head to his wife's great-uncle. "I won't let you down, sir."
"I wouldn't give you the men if I thought you would," Augustus said.
Arminius led half a cohort of German auxiliaries down a trail in western Pannonia. A town called Poetovio lay not far away. The Roman legion to which his Germans were attached had retaken it from the Pannonian rebels a few days before. Deserters from the enemy said the Pannonians wanted to take it back; their warriors still prowled the neighborhood.
"Keep your eyes open!" Arminius called in his own guttural language. "We don't want these barbarians giving us a nasty surprise."
Some of the Germans chuckled. As far as the Romans were concerned, they were even more barbarous than the Pannonians. But they'd taken ser vice with Rome. Why not? Augustus was a good paymaster. The Pannonian rebels weren't, which meant that few Germans had gone over to them.
One of the soldiers said, "Nothing to fear in open woods like these. The rebels couldn't set up a proper ambush even if they wanted to."
"Keep your eyes open anyway," Arminius answered. The other German nodded, but it was the kind of nod a man gave a chief he was humoring. Arminius recognized it; he'd used that kind of nod often enough himself.
And the other warrior had reason enough to use it here. By German standards, these woods were open. Pannonia lay south of the Danube and also well to the east of the lands of the Cherusci, Arminius' tribe. It was warmer, drier country than he was used to. Woods here were full of oak and ash and other broad-leafed trees. They were nothing like the dark forests of Germany, with pines and spruces growing close together, with a formidable understory of bushes and ferns, and marshes and swamps and bogs ready to swallow up a traveler unwary enough to wander off the track.
Rome had pushed her border up to the Danube in these parts only a generation earlier: not long after the legions reached the Rhine. Tidy, thrifty Augustus wanted to push east to the Elbe, which would shorten the frontier by hundreds of miles and let him use fewer legions to garrison it. The Pannonians hadn't much minded at first, not till they saw that permanent occupation went hand in hand with higher taxes than they'd ever known--till they discovered they were enslaved, in other words. Then they rose under two men named Bato and a third called Pinnes. They'd put up a good fight, but the Romans were wearing them down at last.
Augustus aimed to enslave Germany, too. The German tribes hadn't yielded as much as the Pannonians had before they rebelled. They loved their freedom, Germans did. Even so, quite a few of them would have welcomed slavery if it came with wine and silver drinking cups and gold coins to make them feel important.
And, obviously, quite a few of them took ser vice in the Roman auxiliaries. Some sought adventure. Some wanted to bring silver back to Germany when they went home. And some didn't aim to go home, but to win Roman citizenship after twenty years of ser vice and to settle inside the Empire.
Most of the Germans with Arminius were dressed Roman-style. He was himself: he wore hobnailed caligae on his feet; a jingling mailshirt covered by a knee-length wool cloak; and an iron helmet whose crest, which ran from ear to ear rather than front to back, showed him to be an officer. Which he was, and a chief's son to boot. The troopers he commanded had on cheap bronze versions of the standard legionary helmet. They carried oval shields like his, which covered less of them than the ones the Romans used themselves.
Their weapons, though, were the ones they'd brought from Germany. They all carried spears, longer and stouter than the javelins Roman soldiers used. German spears were good for thrusting as well as throwing. And German swords, made for slashing, were half again as long as the stubby thrusting-swords the legionaries preferred. Since Germans ran at least a palm's breadth taller than Romans and had correspondingly longer arms, they had more reach with their blades than legionaries did.
But Roman soldiers could do wicked work with those gladii of theirs. Arminius had seen as much in this campaign against the Pannonian rebels, and before that in clashes with the Romans inside Germany. His own folk, who fought to show off each warrior's individual bravery, often mocked the Romans for slavish obedience to their officers. They were no cowards, though. Arminius had also seen that for himself.
And, because they worked so well together, the Romans could do things in war that his own folk could not. Germans who hadn't come into the Empire had no idea how vast it was or how smoothly it ran. Arminius had signed up as an auxiliary to learn the Romans' tricks of the trade, so to speak, and bring what he could back to Germany. He'd got more of a military education than he'd dreamt of before he left the forests of his homeland, too.
The Pannonians had also learned the Roman style of fighting-- they'd made a point of it, in fact. When Arminius and his followers came out of the woods and looked across the rolling meadow beyond, he saw a few scrawny sheep grazing on the lush summer grass and, beyond them, a knot of eighty or a hundred men in chainmail and cloaks and helmets. He peered at them, frowning. Were they legionaries and allies, or Pannonians and enemies? It wasn't easy to tell at first glance.
They seemed in no doubt about his men. They started away from the Germans as fast as they could go. In their commander's caligae, Arminius would have done the same thing: his force outnumbered theirs by about two to one.
"After them, boys!" he yelled. "Good fighting, good looting!" The auxiliaries raised a cheer and swarmed across the broad meadow after the Pannonians.
And then, about a quarter of a mile to the south, a force of legionaries about the size of his also emerged from the woods. They were the outliers of the legion to which Arminius' auxiliaries were attached. As soon as the Roman soldiers spotted the Pannonians, they also cheered and began to pursue. One of their officers waved to the Germans, as if to make sure his force and theirs were on the same side.
Arminius waved back, not without resignation. Auxiliaries and legionaries together, they'd make short work of the hapless Pannonians. But the Germans would have to share what ever loot there was with the Romans, and who'd ever heard of a Roman who wasn't greedy?
An average Pannonian was as quick on his feet as an average German or Roman (even though the Romans had short legs, they were formidable marchers). But that wasn't what a pursuit was about. If the Pannonians wanted to stick together and not get cut down one at a time, they had to move at the pace of their slowest men. The Romans and Germans on their trail steadily chewed up the ground between the forces.
One of the Pannonians shouted something. Arminius heard the words clearly, but couldn't understand them. That proved the enemy was the enemy. Like most of the auxiliaries with him, Arminius had grown fluent in Latin. He still sometimes muttered to himself, going through a declension or conjugation, but he made himself understood--and he followed what Romans said to him. Pannonian, on the other hand, was only gibberish to him--and to the Romans as well.