Another year another book review and given my focus on the Roman Principate what better way to start the first book review of 2019, than to pick up my historical reading with a title I had been eyeing up for a while prior to picking this copy up in January, but was wary of ending up with another author rehashing the sources mixed with a generous lashing of unsubstantiated opinion, which many 'coffee table ancients titles' seem to end up being.
I am glad to say that Jason Abdale's offering does not, in my opinion, fall into that growing library but offers some interesting thought-through opinion mixed with an assessment of the primary and secondary sources and the archaeology story that has been revealed in the last thirty odd years since the discovery of the Kalkriese battle site by the late Major Tony Clunn.
Before launching in to offering my thoughts about this title I should just say that my own reading habits have taken a slight detour in recent months, since my last book review in October 2018, as I have taken the time to engage with J.R.R. Tolkien's Legendarium with The Silmarillion and The Hobbit read just before Xmas, and now up to half way through the six books covering The Lord of the Rings, with a lot of side reading using the material published by Christopher Tolkien covering the wider story and I have had a lot of fun in that process by listening to various podcasts on the subject in tandem with the reading, links provided below.
|My 2001 Film Edition copy of the six books in one from Harper Collins 2001|
That said I thought I would take the opportunity my recent sojourn in Southern Spain offered me, to try out something I very rarely do, that is to read two titles in tandem, and so whilst Lord of the Rings occupied the night-time slot, Four Days in September grabbed the other hours of down time in the day and I found myself gradually adapting to shifting my focus from Middle Earth to the forests of first century Germania with less and less trauma as both reads settled in to a pattern, allowing me to read the latter title within the week.
Anyway enough of this fantasy stuff, back to the historical reality of the first century Roman frontier of Germania and the four epic days of battle that occurred in 9 AD as a Roman army of three legions were brutally removed from the Imperial order of battle.
I tend to approach my historical reading, front and centre, from the perspective of an historical wargamer and thus my reviews are very much geared towards my intended audience, you dear reader, most likely coming from a similar perspective if you have ended up reading this blog.
Thus with my own collection of ancient Germans assembled and recently outlined in my plans for building my Pricipate ancient collection, the period covered by this book is very much in "my wheel-house", to use a phrase borrowed from across the pond.
Abdale's book was first published in 2013 and, as the author points out in his introduction, that this second edition benefits from the eradication of the two principle criticisms his first edition drew amid what was generally popular acclaim from the peer reviews, namely a thorough proof read to remove spelling and grammatical errors in the text and a re-writing of certain sections to make them easier to read and follow. I have to say that I was not troubled with either aspect in my read so can only conclude that a good job was done with this new edition.
The book lays out its stall in the introduction by pointing out that the seeds of the destruction of Varus' army in 9 AD lay very much in the twenty years preceding the battle and that with the destruction of elements of the Vth Legion in Gaul by raiding Germans and the loss of their eagle to them, to the vivid reports of the ferocity of Germans in battle with both Romans and Gallic allies, the Roman commanders of the period could have foreseen the troubles that lay ahead with their further involvement in trying to 'Romanize' the territory east of the Rhine; and that the appointment of Varus, an administrator rather than a military man such as Drusus or Germanicus, was not an appropriate appointment for a territory that still festered with resentment and potential revolt, just needing the right circumstances to provide the ignition.
That ignition point was reached when Arminius, the Cherusci tribal Prince now supposedly brought within the Roman fold by his appointment to the Equites of the Roman hierarchy and therefore entirely trustworthy enough to lead his own tribesmen in an auxiliary cavalry ala and act as a go-between/interpretor for his boss Varus. This position thus allowing him to build a network of conspiracy that would allow him to doom the 17th, 18th and 19th Legions and roll back Roman territorial gains made under Drusus.
All this background is well known from the Roman sources, but Abdale interweaves the general account with background data as to who the two principle actors were in this drama and what brought them together as well as bringing his own expertise in studying tribal history and culture with an emphasis on ancient European tribes, to look closely at the nature of the German tribes of this period and what aspects made them different, one to another.
This latter aspect I found very compelling from a wargaming perspective as I am interested in trying to move away from a 'vanilla' German army to one that allows the different tribal characteristics to be modelled.
Thus the profiles described had me imagining the cavalry based forces emphasised by the description of the Cherusci and Tencteri or the intriguingly disciplined fighting style of the Marcomanni with their professional standing army of 70,000 warriors and 4,000 cavalry, with Paterculus quoted that 'the army constantly drilled and was brought up to a Roman level of professionalism", or the hinted at fighting ability of the Marsi a small but possibly fierce tribe, their name derived from the Latin 'Mars, God of War' that despite its size warranted their selection by Arminius to receive a captured legionary eagle.
In addition to the descriptions of the German tribes Abdale assessed the state of the Roman army at this time and the likely organisation and look of the troops involved based on the sources and the archaeology, that confirmed a lot of my own thinking about the Roman army at this time, and the transitions in equipment and organisation that had or, likely-had, occurred by the time of the battle.
With the background to the history leading up to the battle covered and the analysis of the Roman and German factions and their leaders, Abdale then launched in to looking at the campaign leading up to the battle in the autumn of 9AD and his view of the likely route taken by Varus and why.
Explaining that the discovery of one of two mule skeletons at the Kalkriese battle site, had a bell around its neck that had been stuffed with grass to silence it. The grass was later analysed and found to have been gathered in the early autumn leading to the assessment of the fighting having taken place in early September of 9 AD.
The author points out that although the Kalkriese site has been officially declared the site of the battle since 1998 by German archaeological authorities, it is an error to imagine the battle taking place in just one area; as the fighting occurred along a route of march over four days and the majority of the battle area still remains undiscovered and very likely to remain so, given the changes to the terrain in the intervening centuries.
Thus the interesting ongoing debate just as with some other ancient battle sites, such as the Battle of Watling Street with our own dear old Queen Boudica, is where the fighting occurred and what route the opposing armies took on their approach marches. I found Abdale's proposal for the likely route taken by Varus very compelling and it will be a ready reference when I get into planning some walking expeditions for future visits to Germany to follow up the one we did back in 2017, with visits to Vetera (Xanten), Aliso (Haltern) and the Valkof (Nijmegan), see links below for the posts covering those visits.
The coverage of the battle gives a good analysis of the two forces and the problems each likely encountered getting their forces to the scene of the fighting and the likely break down of the control that followed such a confused period of fighting; with an interesting analysis of the likely fact that only abut ten thousand or less, of the potential fifteen thousand legionaries of the three legions involved actually took part in the battle and the infusion of reinforcements Arminius received at the end of the battle as word spread throughout the neighbouring tribes of the easy pickings awaiting anyone else keen to get involved.
Following the description of the battle in its various stages and its conclusion the author then looked at the aftermath with the revenge campaigns of Germanicus, together with his and Arminius' eventual deaths and the later ongoing policy adopted to Germania as a whole by Imperial Rome afterwards.
The books contents are laid as follows:
List of plates
1. Caesar Augustus
2. Publius Claudius Nero
3. Tiberius Claudius Nero
4. Drusus Claudius Nero
5. Gravestone of Marcus Caelius
6. The Hermannsdenkmal Monument
List of Maps
1. The Roman Empire, 15 BC
2. Germania, 15 BC
3. The Intended Route of Varus' March
4. The Battle of Teutoburg Day 1
5. The Battle of Teutoburg Day 2
6. Distribution of Artifacts found at Kalkriese Hill
Chronology of Events (two pages)
Introduction (two and a half pages)
Chapter 1 Rome
Chapter 2 Germania
Chapter 3 Varus
Chapter 4 Arminius
Chapter 5 Germania under Rome
Chapter 6 The Battle
Chapter 7 The Aftermath
The text is covered in two-hundred and nineteen pages with sixteen pages of notes linked to each chapter and seven pages of bibliography detailing primary and secondary sources referred to followed by a very handy two page index to the chapters.
I really enjoyed reading this book and I know that because time slipped by without my noticing as I delved further into it.
All my first preconceptions of what more can be said with the speculating about where, when and why the Battle of Teutoburg took place were quickly overcome as I found myself engaging with the points made by the author and, importantly for me, finding little gems of information that I intend to incorporate into my wargames.
The usual criticism of most military history books today can partially be levelled at this title with regard to maps, but only partially in that at least it has some and the ones it has are relevant to the text, so much so that I found myself reading Abdale's description of the likely route taken by Varus and the most promising site for Arminius to have launched his first attacks and cursing not having a map to give me a clearer idea of why that was the case only to turn the next page and find that map.
However the maps are black and white and show the bear minimum of detail as to where things were in relation one to another and I found myself wanting more in terms of the terrain and the proposed battle sites in relation to modern day German towns and rivers and had to refer to Google maps to get a clearer understanding.
I know from reading recent editions of Ancient History magazine and other articles that the debate as to whether Kalkriese is really part of the Teutoburg battle has re-emerged together with the search for Varus' likely jump of point, the fort of Aliso, with Haltern still being my preferred option until archaeology proposes another convincing alternative, but until our knowledge base moves on to another more convincing and compelling account of this most famous ancient clash I think this book will stand as a very interesting addition to the ongoing historical discussion.
I was fortunate to pick up my copy of Four Days in September from The Naval and Military Press for just £4.79 which is a sweet price for a brand new hard back book especially as the publishers Pen & Sword have it on for £19.99 and the best new hard back price from Amazon is, at the time of writing £5.23. Either way I was very pleased with my purchase and my copy is a useful addition to my growing ancients library.