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Ralph Graves

Lost Eagles
Knopf, 1955


Good reading and good history, and the only Roman historical novel that I know that Ralph (yes, not Robert) Graves wrote, set in an interesting time and place and with a clear if episodic unity of plot. One could quarrel about the plausibility (in real life) of the main plot (recovery by one man of the 3 legionary eagles lost by Varus in 9 AD in the Teutoberg Forest and held by 3 different German tribes in 3 different places), but there is nothing historically impossible, and all the historical and geographical references seem right to me. It is 9 AD and sixteen-year-old Severus Varus, who had lost his soldier-father last year in Pannonia, is waiting with the other 4 top-qualifying young knights, at the starting line for the last event in this year’s competition, the long race, 7 laps in full military kit. He wants to make a good showing, for his own sake and for the sake of his late father and his grandfather, the senator Ateius Varus, watching in the stands. The elegant and arrogant Lucilius Libo is favored to win both the long race and the overall crown, as he has done before, but Severus has trained very hard this year to build up his endurance and knows he can come in at least second in the race, maybe even first. Severus’s victories that day set up a life-long antagonism with Lucilius, who does all he can to make life hard for Severus. This is made easier for him when news arrives that Quintilus Varus, Severus’ uncle, and his 3 legions have been wiped out by the Germans in the Teutoberg forest. Graves quotes from Suetonius’ Lives of the Twelve Caesars: “Augustus suffered but two severe and ignominious defeats, those of Lollius and Varus, both of which were in Germany. Of these the former was more humiliating than serious, but the latter was almost fatal, since three legions were cut to pieces with their general, his lieutenants and all the auxiliaries. When the news of this came, he ordered that watch be kept by night throughout the city, to prevent any outbreak . . . . In fact, they say that he was so greatly affected that for several months in succession he cut neither his beard nor his hair, and sometimes he would dash his head against a door, crying: ‘Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!’ " We don’t see the attack, but we see the effect when an exhausted soldier reports the disaster to Augustus. This also starts two elements of the plot line: the promise of Severus, who is with Augustus, receiving congratulations from him on winning the wreath, that he will recover the 3 eagles lost in his uncle’s defeat, and Severus’ social ostracism as a member of the Varus family. The 2 plot lines work together, because Severus no longer has a social life, or friends, so he spends his time training his body to endurance. He also buys German slaves, from whom he learns the German language (something no upper-class Roman would do) and German customs and fighting tactics, until he becomes quite fluent in the language and also adept with German weapons. A complication in his life at this time is his involvement with the beautiful but decadent Adonia, daughter of his grandfather’s good friend Polemius. Adonia almost derails Severus’ career (conspiring with or merely being taken advantage of by Lucilius Libo), but gets him out of the fix by an ingenious but disreputable ploy. Severus finally gets his commission from Augustus as a military tribune in the Twentieth Legion, stationed on the Rhine, one of only 2 of the 6 tribunes of that legion who pay any attention to military preparations. When news comes of Augustus’ death, and Tiberius’ accession (without a sufficient donative to the legions), the 4 legions in the area mutiny, imprisoning the officers and killing some of the harsher centurions. Germanicus manages to end the mutiny - and a recurrence shortly after --, but only (to the disgust of Severus and his buddy Junio) by giving in to all the mutineers demands. (The picture of Augustus was positive; that of Germanicus and Tiberius is negative.) Germanicus wants to cancel out the memory of the mutiny by sending half of the Twentieth on a late-season foray against the Germans, hitting and annihilating a series of small Marsi towns and villages. On Severus’ return to camp, he encounters the haughty Lucilius Libo again, tribune in a companion legion, and Lucilius mocks Severus’ Varian connection and his German ties. The 2 almost come to blows. When a German deserter is brought into camp and tells of an impending attack by the Tubantes and 2 other tribes on the legions’ march back, the German interpreter employed by Germanicus translates the message as saying that the tribes want peace and ask for an exchange of hostages. Of course, the deserter does not speak Latin and no Roman in the whole camp speaks German -- except Severus, who warns Germanicus about the translator’s treachery and the planned ambush. The ambush still takes place, but the Romans have been warned and manage to escape, though with losses on both sides. Severus wants to go on his own to look for the lost eagles, but Germanicus will go only so far as to put him in charge of some winter patrols and cautions him not to go far inland. Severus probes deeper and gets information about the location of the missing Varian eagles, one of which he knows is among the Bructeri. Then, as Germanicus is about to attack the Bructeri next season, some Chauci, who had hoped to fight the Romans, but a peace with their tribe had been concluded, ask to fight with Romans against the Bructeri so they won’t go home empty-handed. -- and they know where the hidden treasure house of the Bructeri is. It is a difficult campaign through the swamps, but Severus is the man that actually recovers Eagle number 1, and returns to Rome a hero, feted by all those who avoided him before and given, coldly, a golden crown for bravery by Tiberius, who is suspicious of Germanicus. But Severus tires of the social round and of people who seem not to care about Rome, and he returns as a senior tribune to the Twentieth on the Rhine. An entrenched German force on a hill inflicts heavy casualties on the legions, but eventually the Romans prevail and also capture some prisoners. Careful questioning and challenging by Severus elicits information from one of the captives that the Chauci tribe of Magh has one of the eagles, but Germanicus will not let him go after it. However, after some more Roman campaigning among the Marsi, a chieftain comes forward to appease the Romans and gain gold for himself by leading a Roman detachment under Severus to the spot where the second eagle is buried. Again Germanicus sends Severus home with an eagle, hoping to win from Tiberius a year’s extension of his German campaign, despite the heavy troop losses, but the Emperor will not support that or pursuit of the remaining eagle, despite Severus’ statement that he knows where it is. When Severus finds that Adonia has been banished to a small island for having intercourse with the German slave he gave her and the slave is due to be executed the next day, he slips the German a knife to commit suicide (and avoid torture) and learns from him the location of the tribe of Magh. It is now time (17 AD) for Severus to go undercover, to pass himself off as a Roman deserter. He travels through Germania in the dead of winter and appears suddenly one morning in the village of Magh. He has to fight a tribal champion to win acceptance into the tribe and has to go to war with the tribe of Magh against one of the tribe’s traditional enemies (an interesting, extended self-contained unit, with both humor and action), but he is always aiming to find out where the tribal treasury is hidden, to retrieve the last eagle. What he didn’t count on was falling in love with a woman of the tribe, Geyna, and not being able to marry her, because she was Magh’s niece, and not have her as an open lover, because fornication was punishable by death. We see a lot of the life of the German tribe and the family with whom Severus stays. Eventually, Severus become lovers. What happens to them and what happens regarding the last eagle once Severus discovers its hiding place occupies the last 47 pages. You’ll have to read them to find out, but they do include one last conflict between Lucilius Libo and Severus and this last section is the best part of a good book.. This book is rich in incident, background details and character. It reads well and also informs. Part of the interest is the contrast between Romans and Germans and between Romans of the old school and those of the new. Although this is an adult book, there is nothing in it that couldn’t be read and enjoyed by young adults. I recommend it highly. Fred Mench 7/99

- Fred Mench, 7/1/1999

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