“We might do well to lower our profiles and our voices.”
The old soldier squatted down and leaned back on a pine trunk.
“There is a lot to tell about what happened in that forest ten years ago, and much more to guess at. How much history can a young girl want to hear? I’ll make it brief.”
Locusta lay down on her side, but propped on one elbow.
“No, I want to hear all. Your words won’t be wasted. I forget nothing, ponder everything. That’s how I am.”
“I suppose that even in the Morgarita Forest you’ve heard the story of the lost legions. A Gaul should find it a tragedy, if for reasons different from those of a Roman patriot. As a Gallic soldier in the armies of Rome I’ve always known that Germans will likely ravage Gaul before Rome. Should the tribes ever get tired of slaughtering one another, this province will feel what I have felt in soldiering beyond the Rhine.
“In any case, when the events took place my loyalty was to my legion, far more than to any place or people. That’s how it is when you spend your life shoulder to shoulder with comrades in a coordinated force which is truly one, whose standards survive the lives of its individuals through centuries. But these are things hard to explain.
“The annihilation of three choice legions! Unthinkable, yet it happened, and in the space of days, with barely a hint of the real danger before the event…except for the man in charge, who had more than just a hint. For such an unlikely disaster to happen, blunders, lies, arrogance, treachery, gullibility and stupidity were needed, and in abundance. I was only there at the start and in the aftermath – for reasons I’ll explain – which is why I’m alive. Few can tell you more than I, and I know only a part of the colossal folly which Emperor Augustus was still bewailing on his death bed.
“Two men were at the centre of the story.
“One was Varus, supreme commander of the three legions and governor of Germania. He was not a complete fool, having chosen the side of Augustus in the civil war, married a daughter of Agrippa – half sister of the Lady Agrippina – and made good use of his various terms of office. As governor of Syria he pacified the region and made himself rich. A couple of thousand crucifixions are said to have quietened down the Jews when they got restless after the death of King Herod.
“While we were with Varus in the west, most of our armies were busy on the other side of Rome’s empire, dealing with the great revolt of Pannonia. The present emperor was there in the east, as was Germanicus – with less success than some might think. So the three legions of the Rhine were of utmost importance to an empire whose power was drastically stretched. Varus, like Augustus then and like General Germanicus now, thought it a good idea to impose Roman power in the usual way: by force, taxes and the introduction of Roman commerce, laws, amenities and so on. Of course, Germanicus has his way of making it seem good and plausible and even nice, wants to raise the Germans up after he’s belted them harder than anyone’s been belted. I think the present emperor, Tiberius, is a bit wiser…but he’s not anybody’s darling is he? Poor old sod.
“So there we were in Germany under Varus, well beyond the Rhine, extracting taxes from tribespeople who had little idea of producing surpluses for export or tax and no idea of central government. Where Roman laws are cruel, theirs are kind; where Roman laws are kind, theirs are cruel. The Roman world is dry and well-lit and ordered; the German world is damp and without…without edges and definition, if that makes sense. A German’s voice comes from his throat, as if every utterance is also an emotion, never just a thought. Ah, but the truth is I don’t understand them…which gives me more understanding than General Germanicus, who still dreams of a Romanised Germania.
“The other main character in all this was Arminius. He was a German prince who had been taken to Rome as a child, as security for his father’s continued loyalty to Rome. Not only did he adapt, he became a successful officer, a citizen of Rome and then an eques, a knight. That’s about as high as a foreigner can go in the Roman world, unless you’re Cleopatra. From this you’ll conclude that Arminius, whom the Germans call Herman, was no ordinary fellow. Nor would you be surprised to learn that Varus brought him back to Germany as a trusted officer with local knowledge and contacts.
“The question I cannot answer is: What was in Arminius’ mind? Was he simply treacherous? I know that nothing could ever make me disloyal to my legion, whatever I thought of Rome. But Arminius was a German, not a Gaul, and he led a Roman cohort of German cavalry.
“Was he disgusted by the treatment of his countrymen at the hands of Roman masters? Roman cruelty was not worse than German cruelty, but it was foreign, incomprehensible cruelty, legalistic and measured like grain or money. Perhaps Arminius came as liberator. Perhaps.
“More likely, judging from his recent actions, he was a capable and fiercely ambitious young man who saw the chance to be king or emperor of Germany, having risen as high as he could in the Roman world. He had fought in Pannonia, knew of many eastern potentates and empires before this present Roman empire. If there had been kings and emperors in the east, if there were still eastern monarchies at least partly independent of Rome, why not a kingdom in the west, a German empire even? If that is what he thought – and still thinks – then he is a courageous and gifted madman who knows less about the German mind than do I.
“Mad or not, Arminius was daring, cunning, and he was lucky.
“With autumn deepening it was time for the legions to transfer from the middle of Germania, back to winter quarters near the Rhine. It was a matter of a straightforward and well-provisioned march through easy country. The position I occupied was special: quartermaster in charge of all monies and valuables. My reputation for honesty was well-earned, I am also both vigilant and suspicious, an ideal treasurer.
“I rode, in carriage or on horseback, in the middle of my legion, supported by reliable men I had hand-picked over the years. We had a special formation for marching, with extra men, a couple of them were chosen youths whose vision and reactions were perfect and who had no other job than to watch constantly from the main transport vehicles; getting past my men to that treasure was one of the hardest things an enemy or marauding force could attempt.
“In camp one night, Arminius came to Varus with a story of a minor revolt occurring nearby, on the other side of some forest. He suggested that it might be worthwhile for the army to divert through the forest, called Teutoburg, and deal with the troubles, which they could do easily. When Varus asked if there were any foreseeable difficulties at all, Arminius assured him that the road through the Teutoburg was good and that weather was likely to be favourable. Because of the modest scale of the revolt, there would be little loss of time in getting to winter quarters by what was simply an alternative route.
“The rest may seem incredible, but it happened. Firstly, Arminius offered to go ahead both to scout and occupy the flanks with his German cavalry, used to such terrain. Varus agreed to this.
“On the very same night, Segestes, a German chieftain and strong Roman ally, heard of the plan and warned Varus that Arminius was himself planning a major revolt, and had already joined many of the tribes in a confederacy. The Teutoburg was a trap.
“Varus was a vain man to whom losing face, even for a second, was like losing a limb. Going back on a decision was weakness, as far as he was concerned. On top of some necessary Roman arrogance, he was conceited and a snob, and could not bear the thought of a German dependent prince like Segestes dictating policy or strategy.
“Yet on this occasion, so great were the stakes that he might well have reversed his decision.
“The stubborn character of Varus explains in part the colossal stupidity of marching a Roman army into the worst possible terrain and doing so on the word of a man openly accused of treachery. He thought he knew Arminius, he certainly knew nothing of the forest.
“Somebody else may have swayed Varus.
“Merens was a tribune who served as quartermaster-general, and as such he was my administrative superior during troop movements. He controlled all supplies, treasure, baggage, weaponry and so on. His expertise on terrain and transport was never doubted, and his influence over Varus – and just about everybody else – was strong due to his remarkable gifts and captivating character. He was one of those men who rule wherever they go, regardless of actual rank. He had the appearance of a Greek statue, even in middle age, and his charm was such that he never left any man feeling lessened by an encounter. The spell he could lay on Varus he could lay on the meanest slave. All wanted to serve Merens, accommodate him.
“One man alone was unconvinced by Merens: a vigilant and suspicious army treasurer who had spent a lifetime recruiting probity. Me! (My Latin name is Probus, incidentally.) I was fond of my superior, responded to his wit and charm like everybody else, felt the power of what Greeks call his charisma…but for some reason I knew I would never have chosen him to join our treasury ranks and stand guard alongside me. Perhaps it was the company he kept closest about him, drinkers and bully boys who were apt for anything, men he alone could control. He often joked that he kept these men in tow because he missed his Molossian hunting dogs. On more than one occasion regimental justice was not meted out because the offender was one of Merens’ “pack”, as we called them.
“Exceptions were made for Merens, and Merens made exceptions. That did not sit well with me. The legion is order and precedence or it ceases to be the legion. No, I liked the man – loved him perhaps – but he did not sit well with me. I suspect Merens knew it, despite his constant praise and cordiality toward me and the perfect efficiency I put into serving him.
“The most loathsome bully in his entourage was a thug nicknamed Molossus, because of his resemblance to one of that breed of dog. He was a decanus, a soldier who commands the smallest unit of an army, a tent party; he had been seconded into Merens’ personal service and had a name for extracting taxes nobody else could extract. That made him useful to both Merens and Varus. Varus had despoiled Syria during his governorship, but still craved money. The difficulty of getting money out of Germans enraged him; anyone who could lessen that difficulty found favour with him. I do not know what dealings were done between Merens and Varus, but I’m sure there were plenty. What could I do? I did my job perfectly, and insisted my men do theirs perfectly.
“Why did Varus send his eventual destroyer on ahead to protect his flanks? Why did he steer three superb legions of the Emperor Augustus into the Teutoburg Forest and toward their doom? After he had been told by Rome’s closest German ally that it was a trap and that Arminius was a traitor?
“I have often thought that only one person had the position close to Varus and the mesmerising persuasiveness to move him against all sense and reason. Up till today that person’s possible motive may have occurred to me, but I have put it out of my mind, as too improbable…and too dishonouring. Besides, that person lay dead in the forest, like all the others. But who else could have persuaded a Roman supreme commander to walk the best army in the world into an obvious ambush…and into the only terrain where it could possibly be beaten?
“Progressing toward the Teutoburg we could see columns of smoke rising beyond it. We naturally thought that rebels or bandits were ravaging a settlement somewhere. The smoke was actually from remote garrisons and watch towers which Arminius himself had captured and burnt. He had not only destroyed all means of discerning his movements and those of his German confederates, he had also made a good show for us. The smoke convinced Varus of the need to act against the fictitious minor revolt beyond the Teutoburg, while the actual revolt was enormous, and lay waiting within the forest.
“Three days after Arminius had gone ahead with his his cavalry, the entire army took a turn into a dark place from which it would never emerge.”