GIVE ME BACK MY LEGIONS!
by Harry Turtledove
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Harry Turtledove’s historical novels range from his tales of the ancient Greek mariners Sostratos and Menodemos to his depiction of the massacre at Fort Pillow. In Give Me Back My Legions! He turns his attention to the Battle of Teutobergwald in A.D. 9. Focusing on Publius Quinctilius Varus, the Roman governor who was attempting to pacify Germania and Arminius, the Germanic leader who sought to push the Romans out, Turtledove creates to major protagonists whose relationship changes the world.Most of the characters in Give Me Back My Legions! are historical figures, from Varus and Arminius down to Lucius Eggius, a Roman in Germania, and Thusnelda, Arminius' wife. However the focus of the novel is on Varus and Arminius, who Turtledove portrays as differently as possible. Varus is shown as a competent governor who allows his prejudices about Germans in general and a superficial resemblance between his son and Arminius to cloud his judgment. Coming from the rough-and-tumble politics of Rome, Varus appears somewhat naive when he arrives in Germania. On the other hand, Arminius is one of the barbarians the Romans look down on, despite having achieved Roman citizenship. Trained in the Roman army in Pannonia, Arminius applies everything he learned from Rome to his effort to oust them from his homeland.
Turtledove's set up allows him to show a wonderful dichotomy between the two civilizations that have come into conflict. Scenes between Roman centurions and German tribesmen show that even when they are speaking the same language, they are not necessarily passing ideas back and forth. The Romans can enforce the collections of taxes, as Caldus Caelius does to Ingaevonus, but the Romans can't demonstrate the benefits of paying taxes to the Germans who view it as robbery. Even when the Germans adopt Roman culture, the Germans don't always realize they are taking on the trappings of the Romans. However throughout the novel, fundamental differences persist between the two cultures.
It is those differences that form the basis of Give Me Back My Legions! and also give the novel relevance to today's world. Varus and Arminius may speak the same language, but their views of the world are so different that they can not be reconciled. In this way, they could represent Western culture and Islamic culture, or Democrats and Republicans in the United States, or any other group which finds it difficult, if not impossible, to achieve a common understanding. Although a few of Turtledove's characters realize that the sides need to work on a common vocabulary, notably Lucius Eggius and Segestes, however they are not only in the minority, but are essentially powerless to influence the events around them.
While the narrow focus of Give Me Back My Legions! may leave some readers wanting to see more of the Roman and German world at the beginning of the first millennium, by staying close to the story of Arminius and Varus, Turtledove can provide a more coherent and cohesive story that sticks close to its point. His characters are well drawn and different enough that they stand out from each other, even when they ostensibly fill similar niches in the story.
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