Harry Turtledove (better known for his alternative history novels) takes the reader back in time to a truly watershed event for the Roman Empire - the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in Germany - in his latest page-turning and entertaining read, Give Me Back My Legions: A Novel of Ancient Rome. It was a turning point because, although the Romans had lost battles before, they had never lost one so decisively, with three entire legions slaughtered by the people they sought to tame and bring into the fold of their empire. It also marked a psychological turning point for the Romans in that they learned that they were not invincible, that they could not always succeed in imposing their will upon every nation of the world. It was a difficult, costly lesson to learn, with ramifications that affect us even today.
If Rome had been successful in conquering Germany, who knows how much history would be different? Perhaps they would have developed a Romance-type language, as Italy, France, and Spain did, instead of German. There likely would never have been a World War I or II; the wars would have likely been fought by different countries under extremely different circumstances, at the very least. These various outcomes might make an excellent alternative history novel, if Turtledove or someone else wants to hypothesize about them in books yet to be written. For now, we have the authorís fictionalized take on what really happened to Emperor Augustus Caesarís legions under the inept control of the Roman politician Publius Quinctilius Varus.
Far from being dull, drab, and uninteresting, as people sometimes feel about historical accounts, Turtledove makes the drama of the fate of the three legions extremely vivid. He gives the characters personality quirks and imagines possible motivations for their behaviors and actions, making it easy for his readers to relate to them. Itís a novel of the underdog triumphing; supposed barbarians - under the command of the bookís hero, Arminius, a prince of the Cherusci, one of Germanyís tribal clans - prevailing through strategy, planning, and luck over one of the mightiest powers in the world at that time . Hey, who doesnít like to root for the underdog - at least if youíre not at the wrong end of the sword in a conflict against them, as the Romans were during the bloody battle of the Teutoburg Forest.
Arminius learned his knowledge of strategy and tactics firsthand from the Romans. He served in Roman army and even gained Roman citizenship because of his length of service with them. All the while, though, he dreamt of the day when he could use his knowledge to help defeat the Romans and drive them out of his country for good. Of course, itís one thing to desire something like the destruction of oneís enemies; itís another to transform those desires into reality.
The road to eventual success is not an easy one for Arminius. He has to convince his countrymen and his own father, Sigimerus, of the possibility that Germany can achieve victory over the seemingly indestructible Romans when so many others have failed. Also, he has to do his plotting and planning under the noses of Varus and the legions. He earns Varusís trust to such an extent that the Roman governor, entrusted to tax the country and make it a loyal possession of Romeís, believes Arminius is an example of how a barbarian can be transformed into a civilized and obedient servant of Rome. He sticks with that view over the often vociferous opposing opinions of his own officers, who compare Arminius to a snake in the grass. It ends up costing him, Augustus, and Rome as a whole dearly.
Iíve read quite a few of Turtledoveís novels, but nowhere close to all of them. Heís a prolific author, and I came somewhat late to his works. This is the first one Iíve read where he takes an actual historical turning point and writes a fictionalized account of it. Heís written one other novel that Iím aware of in which he takes a similar approach to history, Fort Pillow. If Fort Pillow, set during the Civil War, is close to being as well-written and as entertaining as Give Me Back My Legions: A Novel of Ancient Rome, Iíll have to add it to my reading list.
Give Me Back My Legions: A Novel of Ancient Rome is a must-read for Harry Turtledove fans and a splendid introduction to his writing for anyone unfamiliar with it. If you like accounts of real historical events and books with plenty of intrigue and action, Give Me Back My Legions: A Novel of Ancient Rome is one that you wonít want to miss. Itís a hard-to-put-down story that will start you thinking of history in a whole new light - and turn you into a Turtledove fan, if youíre not one already.