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When my kids were young I used to tell them stories. Not just the traditional fairy tales and stories for kids that we all know and have heard many times, although some of them are still wonderful, but also the ancient myths and legends from thousands of years in the past. My kids loved the Greek myths and never tired of hearing them as well as the old Celtic myths and Scandinavian sagas.
I was a good story teller and if I was reading to them out loud I would use whatever accent was appropriate and try to give different characters different voices. I played up the drama to the hilt and they were rapt listeners.
I would often tell them stories of famous historical events or battles and there were some they never tired of hearing. One of these was the story of Teutoburg Forest in 9CE where an alliance of Germanic tribes utterly destroyed three Roman legions in a single terrible ambush.
I would always start the story by talking about the Roman Commander, Publius Quinctilius Varus, a wealthy patrician from the very elite of Roman society, and as ruthless and brutal a military commander as ever appeared in history. Varus had a nasty reputation, even among the Roman soldiers, for torturing and crucifying enemy soldiers in abundance and slaughtering civilians in conquered areas just to show them who was boss. The Roman Senate loved him, which ought to tell you something about those guys. The Romans had a policy of taking the sons of conquered leaders and sending them off to Rome at a young age to be “Romanized”. They firmly believed that once exposed to the glory that was Rome, the young men would be so entranced by the superiority of life as a Roman that they would never once consider returning to their barbaric tribal way of life. To be truthful, it often worked out that way, although there are some notable exceptions, particularly in the case of Arminius, the teenage son of a Germanic Chieftain. He went to Rome, was educated, given a military command, and the gift of Roman citizenship, something the Romans considered the end all of everything. He became so thoroughly Romanized that he was greatly admired by the government and military. At the age of 25 he was sent as a commander and advisor to Varus in his campaign to conquer German territory east of the Rhine. When Varus was about to set out with his 3 legions, the 17th, 18th, and 19th, for his winter camp, Arminius came to him with the news that there had been an uprising of a German tribe and they had attacked a Roman outpost. He advised Varus to take a shortcut through the Teutoburg Forest to retake the outpost. Old Varus thought this was a great idea and off they went, the 3 legions, all their gear, and a gaggle of camp followers. Little did he or anyone else guess that Arminius was not really the friendly Romanized barbarian they thought he was. In actuality, he had been patiently, carefully, and brilliantly planning his revenge from boyhood and in his role as advisor and ambassador for Rome, had actually managed to convince the waring tribes to band together long enough to thrash the Romans and drive them out of the territory east of the Rhine River. To make a long story short, when the Roman legions were slogging along the ridiculously narrow trail through the forest through torrential rainstorms, spread out over 15 – 20 kilometers with no scouts, and none of the famous Roman military discipline and formation, the Germanic tribes attacked them from the thick forest and high ground on either side of the trail and decimated them. The estimate is that 15,000 to 20,000 Roman legionnaires were slaughtered in the attack. Varus committed suicide and fell on his own sword, the appropriate Roman response to having totally messed up and lost 3 entire legions due to one's own arrogance and stupidity.
I would tell this story with great drama and fulsome descriptions of the dark narrow trail through the forest, the pouring rain, the impenetrable mist, the impassable mud, and the terrible quiet just before the attack. My kids would sit utterly spellbound through the entire tale, even when they had heard it multiple times. I always ended the story by telling them how Caesar Augustus, after hearing the news back in Rome, wandered grief stricken though the empty halls of his palace, stopping only to bang his forehead against a marble column and cry out, “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions”. I think that description may have been their favorite part.
My daughter and her fiancé are currently backpack touring Eastern Europe for a month on one of their great adventures. The other day I received an email from her as follows:
Mama:
We are going to Teutoburg to find the legions.
Love,
Katie
Never underestimate the power of a great story told well.
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