CENTURION: THE LOST EAGLE OF VARUS
I wrote what exists of this story with my longtime friend, Jim Rose, who died two years ago. Jim was incredibly well-read in history, and he's the one responsible for my interest in ancient Rome. We tried to write this story together in 2002 by telephone and email—I was living In Oregon at the time, and he was in Michigan. It took a couple of weeks to write what we wrote, then Jim got caught up with other things and we never finished it. Sadly, the next year Jim died in his sleep at the age of 44. The reasons that I'm posting this hunk of story are 1. I think it's a good story, and the basis of it is true, 2. It bears some interesting similarities to the TV show, "Rome," that is presently running on HBO.
Oct. 15, 2002
It is 41 AD in the great city of Rome, whose population of a million people will not be equaled again until London at the start of the Industrial Revolution eighteen hundred years later. Rome is at the very pinnacle of its enormous power, and Claudius, a 50-year old sickly, twitching, cripple with a speech impediment, has surprisingly become Emperor upon the murder of his predecessor, the insane Caligula. In fact, Claudius was acclaimed “Caesar” by the Praetorian Guards simply because he was the last surviving male member of the family that had been governing Rome for so long, that no one could conceive of anyone other than a Julio-Claudian as head of the State. In spite of his physical shortcomings, Claudius actually has surprised one and all by performing his duties quite well in his first six months, and revealing he was in fact a brilliant and, more important, shrewd man. Rome happily settled back into its daily “business as usual,” which it hadn’t enjoyed in over seven years. The last three years of Tiberius’s reign and the whole four years of Caligula’s were best left forgotten
One of Claudius’ first official responsibilities as Rome’s religious leader, the Pontifex Maximus, is to preside over the sacrifice ceremony commemorating the massacre at Tuetoburg. This is a horrible day of shame for all Romans and only the 31st anniversary—it wasn’t all that long ago, and clearly within Claudius’ fifty-year memory. The massacre at Tuetoburg was when German barbarians slaughtered twenty thousand Roman soldiers, making it the second worst military disaster in Rome’s seven hundred year history. There are still many living relatives of dead soldiers, as well as the few old survivors that made it back to tell the tale.
Rome’s streets are jammed with moaning and weeping citizens. Hundreds of thousands of men and women, all dressed completely in black, make a striking contrast to the vast expanse of white marble—built during the reign of Augustus—which the people now fill from forum to forum. A low, almost inaudible, but still pervasive keening fills the air, from the great mansions of the ancient aristocracy high on the Palatine Hill, to a dank dilapidated pub in the depths of the Subura, the lowest class part of town, where a Roman soldier named Publius Varus sits at the bar desperately drinking. In fact, Publius is well on his way to being very drunk.
Claudius, preceded by his Lictors who clear a path through the densely packed streets, leads a sad procession of Senators and generals to the large marble temple commemorating the massacre. The black cloth of these official mourners is trimmed in purple, to denote their noble status. At the very back of the Temple is a life size set of heroic statuary, depicting the legions' desperate last battle in the forest. In front, set securely into deep round holes drilled in to the floor, are the two eagles recaptured so painstakingly by Tiberius, almost twenty years before. The eagles rest atop five-foot poles, clutching a ball just big enough for them to perch on, underneath which is a two foot wide plate that is engraved with the letters “SPQR.” The pole and the entire piece is plated in silver. Each legion has its own eagle, and they are venerated as embodying its history and its honor. No eagle has been lost in battle since Hannibal invaded Italy, more than two centuries before. Now, there are two silver eagles surrounded by wreaths—the sort Roman legions carry at the head of their armies—standing in a place of worship intended to accommodate three eagles. One eagle is missing, and its absence is as obvious as it is unendurable.
The Orator, a tall thin man in his sixties, steps up and tells the sad tale of the Massacre at Tuetoburg, a tale that Claudius knows better than anyone else there, even the old veterans themselves. Claudius knows more than the story of the battle, he knows of the decisions that preceded it, and the consequences that followed.
In the 36th year of the reign of the Consul, Tribune, and Imperator, Augustus, thirty-one years ago, three legions of Roman troops—fifteen thousand legionaries, plus auxiliaries—commanded by Publius Quintillius Varus, were lured into the dense, haunting forests of Germania, across the Rhine from the rapidly civilizing province of Gaul, to the place known as Tuetoburg. Twenty thousand soldiers, marching single file on a narrow track between the mountains and in a dense forest, suffered a deluge of rain which rendered the soldiers' leather shields too heavy to lift, and the archers' bow strings useless. Unable to deploy on open ground where they would have been invincible, nearly all twenty thousand soldiers were slaughtered by German barbarians. Not only did three legions perish that day, but the three eagles representing each legion were taken by the German tribes. When Varus realized all was lost, he fell on his sword, a luckier fate than those legionaries who were captured and burned alive.
Since the days of Hannibal, nothing like this had ever occurred to a single Roman legion, let alone three! Many believe the shame and horror of this tragedy contributed to the death of Augustus five years later. There are others who claim that Augustus’ decline began when he had to exile his daughter, Julia, for such lewd and lascivious behavior that she broke every single one of her father’s morality laws, even going so far as to participate in a late-night orgy atop Rome’s most hallowed political terrain, the Rostra. Not only did this incite similar excesses in others, it also succeeded in making Augustus a laughing stock in the eyes of the old nobility, whose acceptance he craved and whose acquiescence he required in the new government he was creating to replace the defunct Republic. So, Julia was exiled to a lonely, barren rock in the Mediterranean and Augustus shed a father’s tears, but not nearly as many as he shed for those lost legions of Varus, whom Augustus himself, against his better judgment, had been responsible for appointing. And to make matters worse, he had done so at the behest of his dour, gloomy stepson Tiberius. For Augustus, who had devoted his life to serving Rome, the knowledge that he shared responsibility for such a disaster was simply too much to bear. As he saw it, a lifetime of labor was destroyed in an afternoon. In his dying days, the broken old man was rumored to wander the halls of his enormous Palace, raging to the ghost of his long-dead general, “Quintillius Varus, where are my eagles?”
Upon succeeding his stepfather, Augustus, Tiberius immediately assembled a large force of legions, invaded Germania, and amazingly retrieved one of the captured eagles, albeit at a loss of more than seven thousand more soldiers. A temple was constructed in Rome and the captured eagle reverently placed in the first of three slots drilled into the marble floor. Four years later Tiberius repeated the process and, incredibly enough, recaptured one more of the eagles, this time at a loss of nearly eight thousand more soldiers. The second eagle was placed beside the first in the still new-looking temple.
Twenty-nine years passed. Tiberius, at first distracted by cares of State, then finally too old to venture the hazards of war again, died without retrieving the third eagle. Tiberius died raving mad. Some of those close to him felt that Tiberius’ madness began with the massacre at Tuetoburg since he was the one who had recommended Quintillius Varus for his command. And everyone knew that the missing third eagle never stopped plaguing Tiberius for the rest of his life.
So the marble of the temple commemorating the massacre yellowed and cracked, and vines and moss found a new home there, even though it was immaculately maintained by the public slaves, under the supervision of the City’s Procurator. But the third eagle still remains missing, the empty slot like an open wound, a constant source of pain nurtured by sorrow, humiliation, and an insatiable urge for revenge.
Claudius begins the ceremony, which quickly goes awry. The white bull to be sacrificed is not properly drugged, so it begins to thrash about before Claudius can properly offer the beast by cutting its throat. The result is a blood spattered Emperor and mourners, and a rattled Claudius then mispronounces several words of the ritual. According to Roman custom, this is enough to demand that all the participants return to their homes, purify themselves, put on fresh clothing and meet back at the Temple to endure the entire ritual over again.
As Claudius limps through the privy quarters of the Palace, shedding layers of blood spattered clothing as he goes, and waits for the slaves to arrive with bowls of hot, scented water, his mind is focused on one thing, which he haltingly expresses to his two principal aides, Pallas and Narcissus: “I d-d-don’t e-ever want to ha-have to do this h-h-horrible thing again!”
Pallas tries to explain the importance of a member of the Imperial Family presiding over these ceremonies, only to be cut off by an enraged Claudius.
“It wasn’t M-MY family that c-c-caused this disaster, but our association with its re-remembrance will eventually cause people to forget that. The blame should belaid pu-publicly…publicly at the feet of the family who is responsible, and that’s the Varii. Didn’t Quintilius Varus have a s-s-son now serving in the legions?”
“Yes Caesar. He is currently unattached, but reports to the commander of the City garrison.”
“Well, find him, and bring him to me in time for an audience either after dinner or f-f-first thing tomorrow morning.”
The Praetorian guards do not find Publius Varus in his barracks. Nor in the training yard, nor the camp baths. The guards are informed by several of Publius’ comrades that this is a particularly bad day for Publius, as the shame of his family becomes a matter for public display, and he’s probably at a pub somewhere getting drunk. One of the soldiers adds, “And don’t look for him at a place where he’s likely to be recognized. No one from that family wants to be recognized today!” The guards thank the soldiers and head out.
Eventually, Publius is located at a cheap dive of a pub in the Subura, and is so drunk he has to be carried out. The guards take him to a nearby fountain, toss him in, and wait until he is sober enough to climb out on his own.
Publius, now wearing a fresh uniform, is brought before the Emperor, who has just returned from the successful completion of the memorial ceremony. He salutes and stands at attention, “Caesar. My family and I deeply apologize for this shameful day.”
Claudius nods, “I’m s-sure you do, P-Publius Varus. You’re probably the only person in all of Rome that feels w-worse about this than I do. Would you agree?”
Publius nods, “Yes, Caesar. And my mother and sister.”
Claudius sighs, “Indeed. I’m sure they don’t enjoy this day anymore than we do. And that’s why I’ve had you s-s-summoned here. I have a mission for you, young Varus.”
Publius salutes again, “Yes, Caesar. Anything.”
Claudius points directly into Publius’ face. “You’re going to find out where that third eagle is.”
Publius nods, looking skeptical, “Yes, Caesar, but . . . how?”
Claudius coughs. “I’ve g-g-given this some thought. Now, there are over ten thousand Germans living in Rome at this moment, and I suspect that at least one of them knows where that eagle is. Find that person and you’ve found the eagle.”
Publius nods, “Yes, Caesar.”
“Get out of that uniform. Disguise yourself. Your commanding officer will be informed. I’ll also give you one of my German g-g-guards to help you. The two of you will infiltrate the German section of the City, find the person or persons who know where the third eagle is, and have them brought here for interrogation. Do you understand?”
Claudius furrows his brow. “You keep saying that, Publius Varus, but do you really understand?”
Varus nods. “As well as anyone in Rome, Caesar.”
Claudius nods. “That’s what I wanted to hear. Then proceed at once.”
“Yes, Caesar.” Publius Varus salutes, turns smartly and leaves. Claudius watches him go.
Varus enters the grounds of the barracks that house the city garrison. Roman soldiers are busily training as Varus walks by. He enters the barracks building and crosses to a specific bunk. Several other soldiers, in various states of undress, watch Varus go by.
One soldier turns to the others and offers, “It’s a bad day for the Varii.”
All the other soldiers chuckle and nod, seconding the thought. One of them adds, “That’s truly an understatement.”
Varus steps up to his bunk and begins collecting his personal belongings, which amount to very little.
One of the soldiers asks, “Varus, where are you off to?”
Publius shakes his head. “I can’t talk about it.”
The other soldiers shake their heads and look impressed.
A fully uniformed soldier steps up to Varus, salutes, and says, “The commanding officer requests your presence in his quarters.”
Varus nods, salutes back, and follows the messenger out. The other soldiers watch them go, looking at each other and wondering what’s going on?
The commanding officer, a thin, tall, forty year old hawk of a man, reads the order before him. Varus stands at attention, but out of uniform and holding a little bundle.
“So young Varus, you have mysteriously been seconded to the German Guard. The gods only know why since you are clearly not German, however, since this order comes directly from the palace, it is obviously not my place to understand it, just execute it. Good luck, and I hope you have taste for beer.”
Varus salutes. “Thank you, sir.” The commanding officer hands Varus the small scroll containing the order. He takes it, turns and leaves, also holding his small bundle of belongings.
Publius Varus walks through the bustling streets of Rome as the sun begins to set. Anything he could possibly want to buy is for sale somewhere around him. Multitudes of people of all colors, shapes and sizes fill the streets.
Publius feels underdressed being out of uniform, and without a sword.
Publius steps up to a building with two tall, muscular, blond German guards at attention outside. He hands one of them the scroll. The guard reads it, and passes Publius through the gate. “Ja. Go through.”
The commander of the German guard steps up and meets him. He speaks with a German accent.
“I am to give you one of my men, ja? My best man. To go off and do something I don’t know.”
Varus nods. “Exactly.”
The commander points at a particularly large blond guard sitting at a table. “Then I give you Helmut, ja? He’s strong and he’s smart.” The commander points at Helmut, who quickly gets to his feet and he is really big. Six foot three and muscular. He steps before the officer, comes to attention, and salutes.
“Helmut. You go with this man here. You do what he says.”
Helmut salutes. “Yes, sir.” Helmut glances at Publius and immediately registers dislike in a flick of his blond eyebrow.
“Dismissed. And good luck to you both, whatever it is you’re doing.”
Publius salutes him. “Thank you, sir.”
Publius and Helmut leave the German barracks.
That evening, Claudius dines with only his aides, both freedmen. Pallas and Narcissus, formerly slaves to Claudius’ family, who are entirely devoted to their former master, as they are to the sizeable fortunes both are acquiring by virtue of their proximity to the center of power. At this point in Claudius’ reign, both men equate their own best interests with that of Claudius.
A few minutes into the meal, as the three lie on their couches and await the next course, Pallas ventures to raise the subject of young Varus.
“Caesar, forgive my persistence regarding this matter, but I still fail to see why, of all the possible candidates, you commissioned Publius Varus to recover the lost eagle. Surely there are hundreds of officers more qualified and experienced to command such a difficult mission.”
“My dear Pallas,” replies Claudius, helping himself to his favorite dish of mushrooms swimming in eel sauce, “You fail to grasp the subtleties of the situation. What will happen if Varus succeeds, and returns with the eagle?”
“He will be received as a hero, Caesar, and the stain on his family’s reputation will be erased.”
“And,” Claudius asks, “What if he fails?”
“His family will be twice dishonored, and the name of the Varii will never be disassociated from the Tuetoburg disaster.”
“Which means that my family’s role in the affair will be forgotten, or at the very least overshadowed. Until I can restore the State to a sufficient condition of health where the old Republican institutions may be revived, we must live with a dynastic government, however distasteful I may find that. And unless the dynasty is healthy and respected, the State will relapse in chaos and chronic civil war. In brief, we must deny our political rivals a single weakness to exploit against us. And the memory of that damn massacre is just such a weakness, particularly as the populace is reminded it of it every twelve months. We’re safe for the moment, as I believe the grief we saw manifested today will preclude any would-be Emperor from making political hay on this day. But just wait a few years, when the grieving has subsided, and people will be more amenable to finger pointing and blame. I won’t have those fingers pointed in my direction, not until we have a functioning Republic and I can return to the Senate and the Assemblies the extraordinary powers usurped by Augustus. The dynasty must remain above reproach until then, which shall be no easy task following the damage inflicted by my nephew Caligula. If Cassius Chaearea had had his way, every Julio-Claudian would have been assassinated with Caligula. That fool, Cassius! What did he think he was going to replace us with? Or had he even thought at all? Typical soldier . . .” Claudius says with contempt, as he indulges in a dish of peacock stuffed with lamb.
“But Caesar,” remarks Narcissus, “What if Varus’ success is greeted with such jubilation that he himself becomes a contender for the Imperium?”
“Aah, Narcissus, for as long as you’ve lived in Rome you still haven’t managed to shed your Greek way of thinking, you still fail to understand how Romans think, how we prioritize things and assign credit, blame and responsibility. Of course Varus will receive recognition, not credit but recognition for his exploits. But for seven hundred years, it has always been the commanding officer, in this case me, who enjoys the credit, the responsibility for the success. And if he fails and never returns, who shall ever be the wiser? Certainly no tongues that we cannot silence. Or, perhaps as I said, it will behoove us to publicize Varus’ failure, and divert the public’s wrath to yet another generation of Varii. Now, have I sufficiently enlightened you?”
“Your patience and forbearance are exceeded only by your intelligence, Caesar.”
Claudius has a great appetite from all of his exertions of the day, and greedily digs into the fine meal before him.
Publius and Helmut sit at a table at the back of a tavern. The dishes of a finished meal sit beside them and now they both drink, Publius wine, Helmut beer. Publius finishes his story.
“ . . . And Caesar believes that someone in Germantown knows where the third eagle is. And you and I have to find this person or persons and bring them to the palace. At the direct order of Caesar.”
Helmut nods, understanding the severity of the issue. “Then we must find ‘zis person, or persons, no matter what. Perhaps you don’t understand, I am with Caesar’s most elite personal guard. If he orders it, then I must do every’sing in my means to accomplish it. So, what have you mind?”
Publius shrugs and sighs. “I was hoping you might have an idea.”
Helmut takes a big slug of his beer, then wipes off his foam mustache. “Who would know?”
Publius nods. “Right. Who?”
Helmut thinks for a moment, then waves his big hands. “The Cheruscii, for sure.”
Publius sighs, “But they’re all in Germania.”
Helmut shakes his head. “Oh, no, there are some in Rome.”
Publius is stunned. “There are Cheruscii living here in Rome?”
Helmut nods. “Not so many, but some. They’re not supposed to be here, but they are anyway.”
Publius furrows his brow. “How do you know?”
“I’ve heard them,” states Helmut.
Publius is confused. “What do you mean?”
“Romans can’t tell the difference between the German tribes, we all look the same to you.”
“You mean you look different to each other?”
Helmut nods. “A little. But everybody talks different. The Cheruscii talk quite strange, and to another German it’s very obvious. And I’ve heard them around since I’ve been here in Rome.”
“So where are they?”
Helmut shrugs his huge shoulders. “I don’t know. I almost never leave the barracks or the palace grounds.”
Publius mulls over his wine, trying to organize a number of ideas careening through his mind.
“You know, Helmut,” says Publius, “In spite of what is generally spoken about my father, he was a career military man, and was not likely to be taken by surprise by a mob of barbarians.” Helmut winces. Publius sees that he has inadvertently insulted his new comrade.
“Barbarians, you say?”
“What I meant was—”
“—These barbarians did wipe out three legions of Rome’s best soldiers. These barbarians must have known something about fighting, yes?”
Publius nods vigorously. “Most certainly. But there must be more to this story than has been written into the Annals. I’m sure that with your wide military experience you know better than anyone what it takes to destroy three legions. Please give me your thoughts on this subject.”
Helmut leans back in his chair, and Publius can tell that his small dose of flattery has produced the desired effect.
“Well,” begins Helmut, “there was always talk that the Cheruscii leader at the time, Herman, who was known in his youth as Arminius, joined the legions as a young man and won his Roman citizenship. He’s rumored to have actually commanded a cohort during the Pannonian War. Anyway, he deserted the legions to return to Germany and not only to drive the Romans out, but hopefully become King over all the Tribes by using the military techniques he learned from the legions. It was recognized that his knowledge of your tactics would give the Tribes their only chance against a full compliment of Legions. And obviously it worked.”
Publius asks, “And what happened to this Herman after the massacre?”
“I think he was assassinated when his plans for tribal conquest became known. But, I’m not really sure.
Publius scratches his chin thoughtfully. “We’re going to need a cover story. Who are we and why are we skulking around Germantown?”
Helmut nods. “And why would we be working together?”
“Right. Why?” asks Publius.
Helmut thinks. “You know, Germans love pretty stones, like amber and Lapis Lazuli and Tiger’s Eye.” He holds up his hand and he wears a bracelet of pretty green stones. “We believe they bring good luck. What if we were selling them?”
Publius nods. “That’s good. The Gauls like pretty stones, too.” Helmut nods his head. “Okay. Then let’s go to the Gallic part of town and buy some stones, then come back. That way we’ll have proof of our profession, but we won’t give ourselves away.”
“Good,” says Helmut.
Publius stands. “Come.” He tosses a coin on the table and strides purposefully out of the tavern. Helmut quickly finishes his beer and runs after him.
Publius and Helmut walk through Germantown, stopping and drinking at every pub they pass. Most of these pubs don’t even serve wine, which causes Publius to break down and drink beer, and have to look like he’s enjoying it, too.
“You like the beer?” asks Helmut.
Publius smiles painfully. “Good.”
Helmut holds up a pitcher. “More?” He fills Publius’s mug, they toast and drink. They’re both getting sloshed. Helmut says, “Y’know, for a Roman, you’re not so bad.” Publius replies, “Thanks. For a barbarian you’re not so bad, either.” Helmut slaps Publius on the shoulder in a friendly way.
The two men show their colorful stones to the Germans sitting around them, and actually begin to sell them. And they go from one German pub to another to another, drinking beer and showing and selling the stones.
As the sun rises Publius and Helmut find themselves seated on the edge of a fountain out on the street, completely hammered and looking disappointed.
Publius shakes his drunken head. “Well, we don’t know anymore than when we started.”
“Yes we do,” says Helmut.
Publius looks up. “Oh, yeah? Like what?”
Helmut grins. “You can drink beer like a German.” He opens his huge hand revealing a bunch of coins. “And we also made twelve sesterces.”
Publius sighs. “Yes, but we paid fourteen secterces for those same stones. We’ve utterly failed.”
Helmut stands and offers Publius his big hand. “Come, we’ll get some sleep and start again.”
Publius takes Helmut’s hand and stands up, then the two drunken men stagger away across the road to the nearest inn and procure themselves lodgings.
Helmut and Publius pub-crawl through Germantown, again. They show their stones, take money, laugh, eat sausages, drink beer and more beer.
Finally, a thin tall man with a large Adam’s apple, pushes his through to the bar, sees the stones and says with a sing-song accent (like a Swedish accent), “Hey, those a-stones are quite a-beautiful.”
Helmut’s eyes widen and he whispers to Publius, “Cheruscii.”
The man asks, “So, then, how much are dey?”
Publius says, “One secterces each.”
The man looks surprised. “That’s a-pretty cheap, ja? I’ll take dat one.” He points at a Tiger’s Eye. Publius pushes it toward him and the man hands him a coin. He picks up the stone and admires it. “It’s-a very beautiful, ja?”
“Maybe some of your friends might want some,” suggests Publius. “Got any friends here?”
The man nods and points. “Ja. Dem. Let’s show dem.”
Publius and Helmut follow the thin bony man over to a table where four men sit drinking beer. The man introduces them.
“Dey have some very a-pretty stones, ja. Look.”
Helmut dumps a small sack of stones on the table. All of the men’s eyes light up like they’re seeing something magical. As they each pick up a stone and express its beauty, they each have the same sing-song accent as the first man.
“Ja. Very-a pretty.”
Helmust whispers to Publius. “They’re all Cheruscii.”
Publius smiles widely. “Gentlemen, let me buy you some beer.’
They all smile. “Ah, goot, more-a beer.”
As they all drink massive quantities of beer and admire the stones, Publius excuses himself to go urinate.
Later, Helmut, Publius, and the five drunk Cheruscii men all stumble out of the pub onto the street. They find six burly centurion guards standing and waiting for them. Publius points at the men, the centurions unsheathe their swords and surround them. The men look back feeling betrayed.
Publius says to the centurions, “Take them to the palace to be interrogated , at Caesar’s direct command.”
The centurions salute, then hustle the German men away.
Publius turns to Helmut and smiles. “Let’s get cleaned up and report back to Caesar.”
Helmut also smiles, and nods. “Ja. We’ve done well, Publius Varus.”
Publius and Helmut, both now bathed and back in uniform, step up to Claudius, who is seated at a table writing. Both men stand at attention. Pallas lurks in the doorway.
Claudius looks up and asks, “So, have you found someone for me to interrogate?”
Publius and Helmut look at each other in confusion. Publius says, “Yes, Caesar. They were brought to the palace this morning.”
Now Claudius looks confused. “Why weren’t they brought to me?”
Publius says, “You said they were to be brought to the palace for interrogation.”
Claudius nods. “Correct. So who’s interrogating them?”
Pallas adds from the doorway, “The Praetorian Guard, Caesar. I don’t believe that any of them has cracked yet, but they certainly will.”
Claudius closes his eyes and rubs his aching head. “Quickly, Pallas, get these men from the guard and bring them to me. Before they’re all dead.”
Pallas nods, “Yes, Caesar,” and hastily slips away.
Claudius turns to Publius and Helmut, looking pained. “This was my m-m-mistake. I wasn’t c-c-clear. And now men’s lives may have been lost due to my inability to communicate my thoughts. The responsibilities of power, gentlemen. Pay attention and learn.”
The Cheruscii men, now numbering four instead of five, and looking like they’ve been through hell, are brought before Claudius. The Germans throw hateful looks at their betrayers, Publius and Helmut, who both feel bad and wince. Claudius looks the men over.
“So, you are of the Cheruscii tribe? Is that true?”
They all look defiant and aren’t talking.
“Come, come, gentlemen. I’m sorry you were interrogated as you were, but if I don’t get some cooperation soon I’ll make sure what you’ve already gone through will look like nothing.”
One of the Cheruscii men with a flat nose asks, “What-a can you do to us? Kill us? So vat.” He spits for emphasis.
Claudius smiles. “Kill you? I don’t want to kill you, unless I have to. Besides, if I wanted you dead you’d already be dead. And no spitting in my palace, if you please.”
“If you don’t-a kill us, what can you do?” asks Flat Nose.
Claudius scratches his chin. “Well, let’s see? I could have the first-born male of every German family living in Rome killed, how would that be? Or, what if I deport every German living in Rome back to Germania, including you four, and I make sure that everyone knows it was because of you? That would be effective, don’t you think?”
The Cheruscii men all blanch, looking sick to their stomachs. The man with the flat nose asks, “You would-a really do that?”
Claudius nods. “Yes, I would. Or you can help me accomplish my goal, and I’ll make sure you live out the remainder of your days in Rome as wealthy men.”
The Cheruscii men look at each other, then Flat Nose speaks for them all. “What do you want to know?”
Claudius looks straight at them. “Where is the third eagle?”
The men all look at each and shrug, that’s easy. “Tuetoburg.”
“Where in Tuetoburg?”
“In da mountains.”
Claudius persists. “Where in the mountains?”
Flat Nose raises his hands, palms up. “You’ll-a never find it.”
“No,” says Claudius, pointing at Flat Nose, “But you will. You four are the guides.” Claudius points at Publius. “And you are the leader of this mission, young Varus.” He points at Helmut. “And you are second-in-command. Take whomever else you think you might need, but not too many. Not more than ten. This is a secret mission, do you all understand? You will go into the mountains of Tuetoburg, where these men will show you, retrieve the third eagle, then return by this day a year from now. For you Cheruscii men, we will keep all of your families as hostage until you return, just in case you think of changing your minds along the way. They will be well treated, but don’t let them down.” Claudius turns to Publius. “Young Varus, this is your chance to right this wrong for both your family’s name and Rome. Don’t fail either of us.”
Publius and Helmut both salute sharply. “Yes, Caesar.”
The centurions holding the Cheruscii men let go and step away from them. They are free. Publius and Helmut march out of the palace and the Cheruscii men follow along.
Claudius turns to Pallas and Narcissus, who look back somewhat skeptically. Claudius shrugs, “It could work.”
Pallas nods. “Possibly, Caesar.”
Publius and Helmut sit at the back of the same pub where they first went. Helmut drinks beer and Publius drinks wine, and is clearly enjoying it.
“Ah, good Italian wine.”
Helmut asks, “You didn’t like the beer?”
Publius shrugs, “It’s all right. Sadly, though, I see a lot more beer in my future. Now, let’s get down to business. Since we have no idea what we will be encountering along the way, nor what accomplishing this mission will actually take, we need to put together a small force that can handle any contingency, but can’t be any larger than ten men.”
“Including the three Cheruscii,” adds Helmut.
Publius looks a bit shocked. “You think?”
Helmut raises his big shoulders. “That’s how I understood it.”
Publius says, “I was thinking ten men, plus them. Maybe we should ask for clarification.”
Helmut frowns. “Caesar didn’t seem to appreciate it when he wasn’t understood.”
Publius remembers clearly and nods. “Right. Ten in total, including the Cheruscii. I have four men in mind. With me and you that makes six, then the three Cheruscii make nine.”
Helmut grins knowingly. “I have the last man.”
Publius stands, tosses a coin on the table and heads out.
Helmut guzzles his beer, exiting hastily with a foam mustache.
Publius and Helmut stand at attention before Publius’ commanding officer, Nomen Temporarus, and watch his hawk-like face as he reads the official order from the palace. Temporarus finally puts down the scroll.
“Fascinating. So, have you decided which of my men you intend to take with you on this secret mission of yours, of which I can know nothing, nor even speak of?”
Publius nods. “Yes, sir.”
“May I ask who?”
“Yes, sir. First is Titanius Maximus . . .”
A line of twenty soldiers on the training ground practicing with swords and chopping at wooden dummies. They are being instructed by a short, compact, extremely muscular and hairy man.
“. . . He is perhaps the most skilled swordsman in Rome, he is a soldier of vast experience having served on many campaigns, and I quite frankly like him.”
Temporarus nods. “Yes, I’ve campaigned with Maximus. He’s a first-rate soldier. I got him his appointment here, by the way. And the others?”
“Well, then there’s Lucullus Trikinosis . . .”
We see Luculllus Trikinosis, a thin man with big eyes, as he points at a map and several soldiers pay attention to what he’s saying.
Publius continues, “. . . He is the finest tactician I’ve ever met. He has a great intellect, and knows all of the battles of the past.”
Temporarus nods. “Once again, I agree. Trikinonsis is indeed a keen intellect. “
Publius says, “Then there is Coitus Interruptus—“
“—Interruptus?” interjects Temporarus. “He’s nothing but a troublemaker. He’s impudent and undisciplined.”
Publius agrees. “He is that, but he’s also very courageous. You see, I’ve campaigned with him. He has nerves of iron. There’s no man I’d rather have at my back.”
“Please, take him,” says Temporarus. “Anyone else?”
Publius nods. “Yes, sir. You.”
Temporarus’ eyes widen in astonishment. “Me? You must be joking.”
Publius shakes his head. “No, sir. Not if you want to go, and if you don’t mind being under my command, that is.”
Temporarus looks stunned. “But why?”
Publius shrugs. “You’re a fine soldier, certainly one of the best I can get, and you’re also a very experienced engineer.”
Temporarus nods. “That’s true. I’ve built roads and bridges all over the world. But why is that important?”
Publius shakes his head. “I don’t know. I’m simply trying to foresee all possible contingencies.”
Temporarus stands and puts out his hand. “I’m not as young as I once was, but I’d be honored to accompany you on this mission, Publius Varus. As well as take orders from you.” Publius and Temporarus shake each other’s hand, each grabbing the other’s forearm. “Now, can you tell me where we’re going?”
Publius smiles. “No. Put your affairs in order, we’ll be leaving in a few days.”
Temporarus salutes, “Yes, sir.”
Publius and Helmut salute back, turn and leave.
***This is as much as Jim and I wrote, but we had the rest of the story worked out. Publius, Helmut and their team, including the Cheruscii men, all travel undercover in civilian clothes, and make their various ways to Germania, then hook back up. They are lead along the route the three Legions took, then to the place where the Legions were slaughtered. There are still traces of the 30-year-old battle that can be seen. They are finally lead to a mountain lake, are informed that it’s very deep, and that the third eagle is at the bottom. Everyone tries to think of way to get to the bottom of a deep lake, but can’t. Publius’s former commander, Nomen Temporarus, the engineer, instead suggests draining the lake, which they then set about doing, by means of a somewhat complicated rig of pulleys, ropes and levers. The lake drains, and there at the very bottom, stuck in the muck, is the third eagle.
As the team heads back with their prize, they are ambushed. They fight desperately, but lose. Several of them are killed. Publius and Helmut are taken prisoner, but along the way Helmut escapes and runs off into the thick woods. Publius remains a prisoner for a long time, all the while concocting a daring plan of escape.
Back in Rome, it’s a year later and once again time for the ceremony commemorating the Massacre at Tuetoburg. Once again, as Rome’s religious leader, the Pontifex Maximus, Claudius must preside over the sacrifice of the white bull. And once again, he screws up the sacrifice and must do it a second time. Everyone in Rome rolls their eyes in disgust. Covered in blood, Claudius mutters, “What happened you, young Varus? Where’s my third eagle?” Narcissus and Pallas exchange a look and shake their heads.
Publuis Varus makes his escape from the Germans. Along the way he steals back the third eagle, then creeps off into the night. He ends up sneaking his way across Europe, going from one hiding place to another, getting into fights, always guarding his pack, becoming dirtier and more bug-eyed with each encounter.
A year after that, when it is now the third time that Claudius must preside over the ceremony of the Massacre at Tuetoburg. He makes his way to the temple, through the crowds of angry, disgruntled Roman citizens, who really don’t want to watch their beloved Emperor mess up this service again. Right as Claudius nears the temple, a dirty, bloody, crazy-looking man, Publius Varus, pushes his way through the crowd holding a leather pack. He kneels before Claudius, lays the pack at his feet and falls over unconscious. Claudius opens the filthy pack, pulls out a heavy item swathed in rags, unwraps it and it’s the third eagle. He holds it up for the crowd to see. Everyone goes wild with happiness. As the procession continues into the temple and Claudius sets the eagle in its slot beside its two mates.
Outside the temple, Publuis Varus is being tended by women, who are wiping his face and forcing some wine down his throat. Hundreds of people stand around marveling at this semi-conscious man on the ground.
A Roman soldier pushes his way through the crowd and up to the Publius—it’s Helmut, back in uniform doing his job. He’s been back in Rome for over a year. He kneels beside his friend and comrade in arms.
Helmut says, “You did it. You got ze eagle.”
Publius nods. “We did it, my friend.”
Helmut smiles and helps his friend to his feet. “Yes, we did.”