Eagles at War | Ben Kane | 2015 | Preface/Arrow | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book
In AD 9 there was nothing routine about taking an army into the Teutoberg Forest but commander Varus could have had little idea what lay in wait for his three legions when he led them east of the Rhine. Varus’s orders were to consolidate Roman control in this dangerous Germanic border region, to show Rome’s might, assert its authority. But history tells us of the disaster that followed. Varus would be betrayed. His close adviser Arminius, a Romanised German, was friend in name only. He secretly united the Germanic tribes and together they turned the Teutoberg Forest into a place of ambush, terror, blood and slaughter. Varus’s legions lost their eagles, their sacred standards, swiftly followed by their lives in Rome’s most infamous defeat.
I have been fascinated by the story of Varus and his lost eagles since I was a child – I remember watching I, Claudius with Brian Blessed shouting out Augustus’s famous cry ‘Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!’. Since then I’ve read what I can, followed the archaeological investigations which finally managed to tie down the place of ambush to a site transformed by earthworks of entrapment, and I’ve been waiting for a novel to bring the Battle of Teutoberg Forest to life. I was thrilled when I heard that Ben Kane was tackling the subject and now that I have read it, staying up late into the night to finish it, I can tell you that Ben Kane has nailed it. My expectations were through the roof, there would have been no blame if not met, but Eagles at War is a book I’ve been waiting for and it is outstanding.
We know the history of what happened in the Forest, we know the fate of most of the men who entered it. We know much of why it happened and we also know something of what happened afterwards when Augustus became fixated on revenge. But Eagles at War succeeds brilliantly because he puts us into the hearts and minds of these men – not just the Romans, but also the Germans, not just the Roman leaders but also their foot soldiers, the men who were terrified out of their wits by the war cries of Germans hidden within the trees, who fought back to back in the trampled mud and died one by one, picked off by an enemy they could barely see. Ben Kane takes us down the ranks, down the line of the marching soldiers, from Varus, the naive general, to Tullus, his experienced centurion, to Piso and his tentmates, the rank and file of the Roman army, scrambling for their lives. From these fascinatingly different perspectives we see the battle from all sides – including the enemy’s point of view. We know from the beginning the plans of Arminius, we watch his plan form, falter and then come to fruition. We meet the Germans digging the ambush ditches, we witness the squabbles between the tribes, and we feel their hatred of the Roman invaders. Brutality will be rewarded with brutality. There will be no mercy.
Suspense is keenly felt throughout. For much of the first half of the novel we see what life is like on this Rhine frontier. The routine, order and normality of military life provides a perfect contrast to the chaos and terror that is to follow in the second. I particularly enjoyed the scenes when we watch at work the units trained to hunt and capture wild animals for the amphitheatres of the empire. We see bridges being constructed, the infrastructure of Roman rule being built, bridging the Rhine, edging roads into the forest. Tullus is a great character – strong, no-nonsense, honourable, experienced, and worth his weight in gold to Rome’s commanders. Watching him at work with his men, and also watching them at work and play, makes the tragedy to come even more unbearable and bitter. One surprise is how much I came to feel for Varus. I felt very badly for him indeed.
Eagles at War reads like a grand epic of disaster, building up to its historical climax while maintaining the tension and drama throughout. When the ambush comes, it is spellbinding. Ben Kane knows what it’s like to march like a Roman soldier and his expertise and practical knowledge comes to the fore. He also knows the site of the battle and he paints its landscape vividly, bringing the past into the present. The battle scenes, which are absolutely astonishing, reminded me of when I watched The Deer Hunter as a teenager, giving me a similar sense of terror and expectation. This is quite a compliment because I haven’t read or seen anything from then until this which gave me that same pungent sense of the horror of war.
Eagles at War is the first in a trilogy. This fills me with excitement. The ending of Eagles at War is completely satisfying. It sets the stage perfectly for what is to come. This is a complex, crucial time in the building of Rome’s Empire. It would never be the same again and it’s not a subject that deserves to be rushed. Ben Kane has done it justice, producing a breathless, thrilling read. I have always enjoyed Ben Kane’s books but, for me, without doubt, Eagles at War is his finest. It is completely focused and superbly structured, its intimate moments mixing well with its grand historical vista. This is historical fiction at its best. Bravo, Ben!