Arminius: The Limits of Empire by Robert Fabbri

Corvus | 2017 | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Arminius by Robert FabbriAlmost thirty years have passed since Rome’s greatest military disaster – the slaughter of three Roman legions by Arminius in the Teutoburg Forest, deep in Germanic territory on the other side of the Rhine. The deaths of thousands of men is outweighed by the shame and dishonour Rome suffered by the loss of the legions’ standards, their eagles, and also by the fact that Arminius had been a man deeply trusted by the highest levels of Roman society. The commander of the legions, Varus, had trusted Arminius with his life and that was exactly what Arminius – or Erminatz as he was known among his Germanic Cherusci tribe – intended and that was to be prove Varus’s greatest mistake.

Thumelicatz paid the price for his father’s, Arminius’s, ambition. Sold into slavery, he has spent years fighting as a gladiator in the amphitheatre of Ravenna. But now, after five years, he has won his wooden sword of freedom and, at last, is free to return across the Rhine to his home – after he has completed some bloody business of his own, that is. Some time later, Thumerlicatz is visited in his Cherusci home by a small party of Romans. THey are on the trail of the last of the missing eagles. Two have been recovered but one is still lost to Rome. Thumerlicatz has his own reasons for listening to their arguments as to why he should help them with their mission. And it provides him with the perfect opportunity to tell these Romans the story of Arminius, as set down in scrolls in his own words. There are people among that company of listeners who have their own pieces of the tale to add and the resulting story transports them all back across the years to those terrifying four days when the forests of Germania resounded with the battle cries of the tribal warriors and the screams of the doomed Romans.

Robert Fabbri is well-known for his superb Vespasian series of novels but with Arminius he presents a stand alone novel that in many ways represents a sidestep from Rome’s Fallen Eagle, the fourth of the Vespasian novels. It depicts events that had a profound impact on Rome during the 1st century AD and beyond, events which helped shape the empire and define its northern borders for decades. Rather unusually, after a thrilling prologue that depicts Thumelicatz in the Ravenna amphitheatre, much of the novel takes place during one day, when Thumelicatz has his slaves read his father’s scrolls to his Roman guests. We are told the story of Arminius’s life, from his childhood and early life in Rome as almost part of the Imperial family, to the Battle of Teutoburg Forest and beyond, complemented by interjections from those who listen to the tale. The audience includes people who were there at the events described and this adds other layers, as well as immediacy, to the unfolding extraordinary story.

Although the action is largely narrated to us, rather than presented in a traditional novelised fashion, it still has the power to grip us, the reader, just as much as it does the listeners in Thumelicatz’s company. It does take a few pages to get used to but the story of Arminius is an incredible one, even before the battle takes place. His relationship with the Imperial family of Augustus and Livia and their adopted sons is absolutely fascinating and, for me, was the highlight of the novel. The shaping of Arminius is a compelling subject and it includes a whole range of other themes, including the rights and wrongs of empire, Roman militarism and tactics, the challenge of establishing borders, and the relationship of Rome to the conquered. But it also raises as many themes about the Germanic tribes. Their behaviour and attitudes towards one another seems just as aggressive and unstable as their attitudes towards Rome. And their barbarism and cruelty is no less effective and shocking than Rome’s. In fact, after reading this, at least as it’s presented here, I’d say it’s even more so.

Because the novel mostly comprises Arminius’s own words, he is the dominant character and the most developed. We are given enjoyable glimpses of others, notably Varus and Lucius, but this is Arminius’s tale. The second half of the novel was, for me, not always an easy read. The battle was a horrendous one. It doesn’t take much to imagine the terror that the Romans must have felt before most of them suffered an agonising death. The ones who died in battle were the lucky ones and Robert Fabbri doesn’t spare us the horrific violence that was done to these men. I must admit that this was too much for me and it actually gave me nightmares. This attests to the power of Fabbri’s prose (he is a wonderful writer) but I struggled through some of these sections. But Fabbri captures brilliantly and powerfully the sheer awfulness of this prolongued Roman agony in the forest. I particularly relished all of the detail of the planning that went into it as Arminius works to pull his grand scheme together. This is so well described by the author.

Robert Fabbri is a master of 1st-century Rome. His depth of knowledge and insight into the imperial military and political machinery of the time shines through his Vespasian series and also illuminates Arminius. The tantalising glimpses of Augustus, Livia and Tiberius really stand out, just as they do in the Vespasian novels. This, though, is Arminius’s story, explored in depth and with feeling, and the result is an astonishing tale that I don’t think will ever lose its fascination and is here treated with great skill. If you have any interest at all in Roman military historical fiction you will not want to miss this depiction of the most infamous battle of the age.

Other reviews
Vespasian I: Tribune of Rome
Vespasian II: Rome’s Executioner
Vespasian III: False God of Rome
Vespasian IV: Rome’s Fallen Eagle
Vespasian V: Masters of Rome
Vespasian VI: Rome’s Lost Son
Vespasian VII: The Furies of Rome

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