Nine: A Song of the Varian Disaster

My telling of the battle of the Teutoburg Forest, in the year 9 CE. This song was commissioned by Sigismund of the Basternae at the Potomac Celtic Festival in June 1999, and first sung at Pennsic XXVIII in August 1999. I’m not opposed to other people singing this in non-commercial contexts, with proper attribution (to Etaíne na Preachain, if you’re singing at a reenactment event). I don’t have a recording to offer, but I’m thinking about it. EDIT (Aug. 12, 2015): Wait, I do have a recording! Video by Tim Morin (thank you!!), taken at Tir Thalor’s open camp at Pennsic 44, Sunday, Aug. 1, 2015. The lighting is a little crazy (campfire + torch + moon + light bouncing off a helmet…) but the sound and atmosphere are right on.

I wake from vivid dream, my heart all a-drum.
I stood among black trees, hung with garlands bright,
Livid in the gloom of a forest deep:
Chalk-white blooms, crimson-streaked.

I’m called Arminius. I’m a citizen of Rome.
I was made a knight by the emperor’s own hand.
Quinctilius Varus is the legate I serve
As deputy, here on the German frontier.

As a boy I left my homeland for schooling in Rome;
I learned to speak their tongue, learned how they behave,
But Varus is a creature of Rome through and through:
He does not know a thing of barbarian ways.

Rome did not sweep over this land all at once.
It crept in by degrees, here a road, here a town.
One thread at a time can make a strong web, and
Once it is built, it is hard to tear down.

Varus is a fool. He believes that these tribes
Are sub-human creatures with voices and limbs.
He sits there in judgement and taxes them dry—
And I find I can no longer stand idly by…
…For Armin is my name; these tribes are my kin!
It was here, in this land, that I drew my first breath.
My loyalty to Rome can be shed as easily as a toga;
My blood will not be overcome.

Silken threads can be ignored, or brushed away,
Or may make a garment soft and pleasing to wear.
If they’d chosen to weave silk, Rome could have wrapped us up,
But Varus forged us chains of Roman ways.
We are fine smiths as well, but the links we now forge
Are alliances to fight the imperial threat.
We will pay no more tribute! Obey no more laws
Forced upon us at the point of a short Roman sword!

One evening, as I feasted with Varus himself,
He asked for my counsel, and I saw my chance:
“These natives are getting a bit out of hand.
Let us go and show them just where we stand.”
Three legions left camp at morning’s first light
To begin their campaign, to show off their might,
To quell a rebellion that had not yet hatched.
I rode ahead to prepare their fate.

The Teutoburg Forest has the perfect spot.
I know they’ll come this way. I told them it was safe—
But here the trees are dense, and the low ground is bog,
No good for wagon-wheels or gear-laden pace.
The tribes gather here, hidden well in the brush
And we wait, as the column snakes slowly along,
Limping through marshland, tangled in trees—
With no smooth Roman road, they are forced to their knees…

…And now comes the hand of the gods to our aid!
A thunderstorm blows up, rain so thick they can’t see.
The ground turns to mud; the wind wails through the trees.
They can’t hear us approaching, and they cannot flee.
Like lightning we strike! Deadly quick, here and gone.
The legions cannot form their walls of shields:
The trees grow too close to allow them to move
In the grand tortoise-blocks that would hinder our spears.

There’s no end to our rage! We will not rest until
We have cut them all down, cut them down where they stand.
Three legions strong—fifteen thousand, at least—
Are crushed in the fist of our mighty warband.
Varus is dead, by his own craven hand.
His head is my gift to a neighboring tribe,
To show them: The legions can be overwhelmed, that
We are the high mark of the empire’s tide.

I know more will come. They’ll be hot for revenge.
They will not leave their eagles here in our hands.
But when they do return, they will have to march through
That forest where we fought them, and took back our land.
How great will be their dread, when they see that dark place!
For we honored it just as our war-gods request:
A nightmare in the gloom—nailed to black trees,
Chalk-white skulls, crimson crests.