Hunting the Eagles

Written by Ben Kane
Review by Lynn Guest

In A.D. 9, the German tribes, led by Arminius, ambushed and massacred three Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest. The legions’ revered eagles were captured, and it was one of Rome’s worse defeats. In A.D.14, Centurion Tullus and a few other survivors are part of a vast army determined to avenge the massacre and re-capture the eagles. Their leader is Germanicus, a great general and a match for the wily, charismatic Arminius. But many of the legionaries have grievances: no pay and brutal officers. Mutiny is brewing. As for Arminius, he must keep the quarrelling tribes united. The consuming passion of the aging Tullus, demoted and disgraced, is to avenge his murdered soldiers and retrieve their eagle.

Tullus and Arminius are three-dimensional characters, each convincing in his determination and each keeping our sympathy for his cause. Tullus’ conflict with his superiors echoes Arminius’ frustration with his fellow chieftains. The other characters are serviceable rather than colourful. Many are real: Arminius and his wife, Germanicus and several Roman officers. Even Germanicus’ son, baby Caligula, turns up. The language is modern military and appropriately robust, yet the sense of period – Roman life and attitudes in the 1st century – is excellent. The hardships on the German frontier are well done, as is the isolation of legionaries in the provinces. Women do not figure except as whores. The picture of German tribal life is also fascinating, and I could have done with more of it. Although Kane’s main interest is in the Roman Army, he is meticulous in balancing both sides. Daily routine, weapons, hierarchy, battle plans and superstitions are lovingly detailed but thank heaven for the glossary and the efficient map. Highly recommended for Roman history buffs.