For the Joy of Reading: Hunting the Eagles

The problem for any author who writes about the Julio-Claudian Roman Emperors is that the Robert Graves novels, “I, Claudius” and “Claudius the God” are unforgettable.   And if they are not haunted by the books, then they are by the Derek Jacobi TV series of the books.   Or at least that is what I think until I remember that the TV series was some 30-40 years ago, and that hardly anyone has read the books nowadays.   So if this review leads a few people to the Robert Graves books, the this review will have done some good.

Ben Kane deals with the Robert Graves problem by concentrating on an event that is peripheral to Graves’ story, but which was pivotal in the history of the Roman Empire, and therefore of Europe.   The defeat and destruction of three Roman legions in the Teutoberger Forest determined the history of the continent.   The Roman border was fixed at the Rhine for the next four centuries, until it was overwhelmed by invading German tribes.

“Hunting the Eagles” is about the aftermath of the death of the Roman General, Varus, and his three legions.   The Roman Emperor, Augustus, wanted revenge.   But this required careful planning and there were other matters to be dealt with, such as a rebellion along the Danube frontier in Pannonia.   The Emperor’s heir apparent, Tiberius Caesar, put down this rebellion and came to Rome to celebrate his triumph.   That is the start of the book, and how we are introduced to the major characters, Tullus, Fenestela, Piso and Vitellius and later to Germanicus Caesar, who is to command the Roman war of vengeance, and his wife Agrippina and their baby son, Gaius Caligula.

The other major character is Arminius, the German leader who rallied the various tribes to oppose Varus, ambushed him and inflicted such a crushing defeat that only a few hundred legionaries survived, and Varus himself was killed.   Most of the German characters are Arminius’ family, and we know about them because they are mentioned by Tacitus in his accounts of the history of Imperial Rome.

This is the second book in the “Eagles of Rome” trilogy so we will have met some of these characters before in “Eagles at War” and we will meet some of them again in “Eagles in the Storm” to be published next year.   This second book is set mainly in the barracks of the Roman imperial army along the banks of the Rhine and also in the German settlements on the east bank of the Rhine, or in the forests and bogs that were not farmed by the Germanic tribes.

Anyone who objects to barrack room language will not like this book.   It is however set in a barracks and Ben Kane has a deft touch in making his readers realise what it must have been like to be a legionary who survived the dreadful massacre, thirsting for revenge and hating Arminius with a visceral loathing.   Kane makes you understand the men that he puts before you as a reader.   He also makes you understand the German’s fury at the invasion of their lands, and their hatred of Roman imperial arrogance.    You could change the time and the location, and it does not take any imagination to grasp how invaded peoples feel about their invaders.

Kane marches you through the mud and the gloom of the German forests.   He terrifies you during the fighting.   He makes you feel the relief when the fighting is over.   You grasp the grievances and the anger.   You understand the political machinations, the tactics and the strategy of the commanders.   You learn that a good non-commissioned officer can make all the difference.   You march to war with the men, not the generals.   This is not a comfortable read, but it makes non-combatants like me have some understanding of the realities of close combat and wat.

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