An Audiobook Review: Quo Varus?


Give Me Back My Legions!

By Harry Turtledove

Published by Tantor Audio

Read by Simon Vance

The Book:

 

Harry Turtledove may be one of the greatest storytellers currently writing. Unfortunately, this is not one of those stories.

The very first sentence includes the name “Publius Quinctillius Varus,” so anyone who has ever studied Roman history, or just watched I, Claudius, should know where the whole story is going. And if you are one of them, for the most part, you would be right; this is the story of the Battle of the Teutoberg Forest and the events leading up to it.

There has been no shortage of authors, both of histories and fiction, who have covered this subject, so why Harry Turtledove has chosen to do so as well is way beyond me, but he has and I did actually listen to the whole thing in spite of wanting to stop my MP3 player and listen to something else.

I normally like Mister Turtledove’s work. Sometimes I might think it was a little long-winded after the fact, but I do generally enjoy it while it goes on. Not this time. The story was horribly repetitive. We are reminded constantly that not only is Varus in charge of Germany because Tiberius is busy putting down an uprising in Pannonia and that Arminius seems to remind Varus of his own son, but that the Germans rose up against the Romans because of taxes, which they considered theft.

Interesting notions. The first is true enough, Tiberius and Germanicus were busy in Pannonia at the time, but the rest? No ancient writer mentions that Varus might have been fond of Arminius for any reason. Arminius was, indeed, a trusted advisor to the Roman Governor while in secret he worked on uniting the German tribes against Rome, but the comparison between Arminius and the younger Varus is strictly Mister Turtledove’s invention. And Taxes? Well, as far as I know the rebellion in Pannonia was over taxes, but most historians attribute the German uprising to a reaction against Varus’ himself.

Apparently Varus was hated due to his own tyrannical cruelty to captive Germans. He did not hesitate to crucify insurgents. So while I am sure no one in Germany was happy about being taxed by the Roman governor (seriously , who in their right mind actually likes giving their hard-earned money to the government?), I suspect having family members hung from a cross really set them off.

Anyway after three years of Varus’ governorship, everything goes right for Arminius and he and the combined tribes of German ambush the three legions under Varus’ command and massacre them – only a relatively few men escaped. The description of  the lead up to the battle and especially the battle itself, however falls far short of the descriptions  we have of it. Historical documents suggest that Arminus reported an uprising in northern Germany and that Varus marched his legions northward in order to put the rebellion down swiftly. They were then ambushed while en route to the supposed rebellion while the column was stretched out for up to twelve miles, camp followers, baggage trains and all.

In Turtledove’s version Arminius cleverly convinces that Varus should take a more northern (and considerably longer) route back to the Rhine because it will be drier that way. Drier? Really? We know the Romans were not happy with the conditions in Germany, but marching out of the way to quell a rebellion makes more sense than being squeamish about a little mud.

Interestingly, Mister Turtledove left out the interesting fact that Segestes, the father of Arminius’ wife, Thusnelda, was also his uncle by virtue of being the brother of Segimerus (Arminius’ father). Segestes is known to have warned Varus of Arminus’ treachery, so no love was lost between uncle and nephew. There is some question as to whether Arminius stole Thusnelda away from Segestes before or after the battle, but before is as likely and also a possibility for why Segestes was at odds with Arminus.

I do not know how the German tribes of that time saw cousin marriages, one’s father’s brother’s daughter might have been too close a relationship… or not. The Romans did not seem to mind, but it is interesting to note that a bride in ancient Germany did not come with a dowry, and in fact, just the opposite was the case, the prospective husband was expected to pay a bride price. As Segestes was a nobleman,  Thusnelda’s bride price should have been high and if Arminius really did just elope with her, then he might never have paid Segestes what he felt he was due. No wonder he might have held a grudge against Arminius and it would have been a far stronger reason that those attributed in the book

And if repetition of a datum makes it important, then the most important point in this book is that Romans use olive oil in the same way that Germans use butter and that both people consider the other’s choice to be disgusting. No wonder they went to war. I can just hear the battle cries resounding in the Teutoberg Forest;

“Butter!”

“Oil!”

“Butter!”

“Oil!”

“Butter!”

“Parkay!”

With all this making fun one might have at least thought it might at least have been an interesting book to listen to, but sadly it was not only boringly repetitive, the story dragged from start to finish. So, not only did I know what was going to happen, I was treated like an idiot – why else keep repeating that stuff about olive oil and butter if the author did not think I was smart to remember that otherwise? – and the story was very slow moving.

The final straw may have been in the author’s afterword when he admits he made up a lot of details that do not appear in the histories, but then goes on to say that he did not have to worry about whether it was real because he was writing fiction. Fiction, yes, and I admit there are times  when an author of historical must fill in details that are otherwise unknown, but I believe it is important to only use plausible details that fit in with the milieu of the place and time, that is what makes it historical fiction. Changing important facts to fit a mold you like better is roughly the same as fudging scientific data to fit a pet theory rather than admitting the experiments disproved it.

My conclusion: perhaps Mister Turtledove should stick to the alternative histories he writes so well and which are far more flexible than pure historical fiction.

The Audiobook:

 

Simon Vance does a spotty job of reading this book. In general, he was pretty good. I have certainly heard a lot worse, but his choices of accents were jarring at some times and just plain strange at others. The noble Romans all sounded vaguely British, which I admit I’ve said is generally to be expected – blame the BBC if you wish – Can you imagine “I, Claudius” done in Brooklynese? The Germans certainly did not sound Germanic, more like mid-western Americans most of the time. And the Greeks? Not sure what he was thinking; the Greeks all sounded like Fritz Feld – the German-American character actor best known for his trademark; slapping his mouth with the palm of his hand to produce a popping sound.

Those accent choices really marred the recording I thought, but had the story been more interesting I doubt I would have counted off for them very much. The story should have been interesting. The Battle of the Teutoberg Forest was a key turning point in Roman history and after that Rome stopped trying to permanently occupy Germany, preferring, instead to rule there via client monarchs. This was a very interesting moment in history. Too bad the book did not do it justice.

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