Graves, Ralph. The Lost Eagles.

NY: Knopf, 1955.

Graves was primarily a print journalist — eventually editorial director and managing editor of both Life and Time magazines — but he also wrote a few novels along the way, most of them now forgotten. This was his second book and his only historical, set in the Rome of Augustus and Tiberius, and featuring Severus Varus, cousin of the unfortunate Quinctilius Varus, who lost three entire legions at Teutoberg Forest in 9 AD.

Since this constituted nearly half of all the Roman troops on the Rhine frontier, it’s a major disaster, and everyone blames the Varus family in general. Young Severus, the product of a stern and patriotic family that still believes in the Old Republic, vows to recover the three legions’ totemic eagles, which have sacred status, and under advice from a scholar who is an old family friend, he undertakes to learn everything he can about the German enemy, including the language — which no other Roman officer would deign to soil his tongue with.

That’s the set-up, along with Severus’s on-going feud with the cold-blooded Lucilius Lipo, and his recurring encounters with the old scholar’s daughter, Adonia (a thoroughly bent young woman). We follow Severus for several years in his service as a tribune in the army of Germanicus (adopted son of Tiberius and heir to the throne, who is set on the impossible task of conquering Germania), as he constantly seeks information on the whereabouts of the hidden eagles, and as he develops a greater and greater dislike for what he regards as the decline in Roman morals and social attitudes. And Graves takes the opportunity in the last third of the book to contrast the German way of life with Rome’s supposed civilization.

I first happened on this entertaining adventure early in high school, only a few years after it was published. Recently, I read a new historical account of the massacre of the legions at Teutobergerwald and was reminded of Graves’s novel. It took me a while to identify it (I couldn’t quite remember the author or title, only the plot) and to locate it (thanks to Inter-Library Loan yet again), but it was worth the effort. If you enjoy historical fiction set in the Classical world, I can promise you’ll enjoy this one.

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