Eagles at War by Ben Kane

Review published on April 23, 2015. Reviewed by JJ Redfearn

Nudge Reviewer Rating:

In around about 1530 Martin Luther held Arminius as a great wartime leader. In the 1870’s Herman, the same Arminius with a modernised name, became the pre-eminent historical figure of the newly formed Germany. In the 20th century his statue became a revered Nazi site for a kind of modern pilgrimage. In the late 1980’s the battlefield where Arminius had destroyed Varus, three legions and, temporarily at least, the Romans’ expansion plans in northern Europe was rediscovered a few miles north of Osnabruck.

In 9AD that Roman army was ambushed returning to the Rhine. The fight lasted several days on a running battlefield that stretched up to a mile wide and fifteen miles east to west along narrow tracks through bog and forest. They were attacked from sand and earthen walls designed to pin and enfilade them: evidence from one side shows they counter-attacked the defences; lack of evidence on the other suggests they failed. Arminius’ strategy had placed the Roman heavy infantry in a position where they could not form up and could not escape: warriors who fought primarily as individuals wiped them out. The Teutoberg Forest ranks with Cannae as one of the greatest defeats the Roman legions ever suffered.

Eagles opens with Arminius, once a Roman hostage but now a Knight of the Empire, leading auxiliary cavalry for Varus, the governor of Germany. His dislike of Rome and everything about it is carefully hidden and Varus trusts him implicitly. The focus gradually moves to Tullus, a long serving senior centurion in the 18th. Tullus has been around a bit and almost immediately starts to distrust this smooth spoken yet somehow too worthy commander.

The plot and action moves swiftly through the summer’s tax-raising expedition. What with Romans not being quite universally loved or completely unreservedly admired by the locals and Roman taxes being just a smidgen less so, tensions rise. Tubero, an arrogant and inexperienced 17 year old Roman noble, fuels the fires nicely while Arminius indulges in some dangerous but exceedingly cunning subterfuge. By the time the legions start back towards the Rhine everything is ready and waiting for them in the depths of the Teutoberg forest. Serious action is set to begin.

Tullus wasn’t so sure that Arminius was a great wartime leader. More of an evil conniving scheming sadistic traitor. Eagles’ centrepiece is in the convincing battles and skirmishes along the road, with slingshot and javelins flying in from nowhere as ambush after ambush smeared away the Roman forces. There are nice details of what it was like to don and wear kilos of chainmail, heavy helmets, waterlogged shields with sopping leather covers (it rained a lot in the Teutoberg forest), all the while slogging through miles of muddy tracks. Then, already exhausted, to try and fight against hit and run attacks while unable to form up to face them.

Well worth its place on the Roman warfare shelf.

 

JJ Redfearn

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