In the year 15 CE the Roman commander Germanicus stood in a forest in what is now modern Germany and surveyed a scene of horror. All around him was the wreckage, human, animal and material, of a catastrophic defeat suffered by Roman arms six years earlier. Three legions plus numerous auxiliaries and non-combatants under the leadership of Publius Quinctilius Varus had been virtually annihilated by Germanic tribesmen as they attempted to retreat back across the Rhine to relative safety, and their bones still lay scattered across the landscape. It was one of Rome’s worst disasters, but for the German tribesmen who took part it produced the desired result – Rome would soon decide the limit of her empire was the Rhine, and Germania would never be part of the Empire.
The disaster of the Teutoburg Forest was essentially a series of attacks over a number of days on a large Roman column as it moved through German territory. Soon after the attacks began the Romans found themselves in a terrible position, taking many casualties and finding movement difficult. As the days wore on, the Romans took increasingly desperate measures, abandoning the baggage train and then the wounded, yet all were fearful of being captured by the enemy. They believed that captives would be tortured and sacrificed, and many, including Varus himself, took their own lives rather than fall into captivity. It seems likely that these fears were justified, and this set from Linear-A, although labelled ‘command’, is at least as much about the aftermath of that terrible battle as it is about the German command.
The aftermath of any battle is never a pretty sight, and the grim realities of war are rarely portrayed in this hobby, so perhaps it is as well that occasionally we are reminded of its true horrors. This set certainly does that, but the first few pictured figures are rather more conventional. They begin with a warrior stripped to the waist and wielding two long swords, which looks very dramatic but as we have said before, using two weapons at once is very difficult and something largely confined to the movies. Certainly controlling two full-length swords like this would be both difficult and not very effective, so we highly doubt the likelihood of this pose, assuming he is meant to be in battle. Next we have someone for whom the battle seems to be over. This man is oddly twisted as he runs to our right but looks directly at us. As well as his normal equipment he carries a large jug, and has a Roman military belt with sword draped over his right shoulder, so appears to have done well out of looting the destroyed column, as many doubtless did. Third is a man holding aloft his sword and shield, perhaps in celebration of the success. He is well-dressed, and the mere fact that he has a sword tells us he is a man of some means as swords were not very common. Finally we have someone for whom the battle has not been so successful, as he is on hands and knees and holding his stomach. Wounded men such as this stood little chance of recovery, and any significant wound to the trunk would always be fatal.
The second row seems to suggest the religious aspects of the Germanic tribes, for it contains several figures in long robes which are neither typical Germanic dress nor fighting costume. We assume these men look after the spiritual side of Germanic society, and while the first is perhaps just speaking to the men, the group in the middle is of two such men forcing a Roman captive against a rock. Since this unfortunate has already been stripped of his armour and had his tunic removed to the waist, he looks like a candidate for ritual sacrifice. Lastly we have a dog running; it would seem reasonable that some German nobility would bring a dog.
As you can see, the third row is the most grim. It starts with a downed Roman being set upon by a Germanic warrior, which must have been all too common in the confined spaces of the Teutoburg Forest. Next is a Roman soldier impaled against a tree, held there by a broken pilum, a Roman sword and an arrow. Reports at the time speak of men nailed to trees, so this too seems likely, although his assailants have managed to penetrate his segmented armour with the sword, which must have been extremely difficult. Finally the most gruesome piece, and perhaps the sort of sight Germanicus saw for himself. We have a man with hands tied behind his back and fully impaled on a stake. Little remains of this individual apart from his skeleton, although there are a few fragments of clothing and, bizarrely, plenty of hair on his head.
The final row shows the poses for which there is only one in each set, and starts with a well-dressed man wearing mail armour and a helmet, so clearly an individual of wealth as he also has a sword. This makes a good officer figure, but the man next to him is of more humble origins, although he has been incredibly lucky in his battle, for he has got his hands on one of the three Roman eagles that were lost during the fight. He also holds some sort of agricultural implement in his right hand, perhaps one of the tools with which the Romans attempted to breach the barricade on the final day of the battle. The third figure holds up a severed head, doubtless a fate many Romans met, including their leader Varus after he committed suicide. The last figure is again very well dressed, wears a mail tunic and is clean-shaven. This is likely to be Arminius himself, leader of the Germans, encouraging his men to fight or celebrating his victory.
It is a varied and imaginative selection of poses, and for those that like their wars as neat rows of soldiers advancing across a battlefield this brings a gritty reality that some may find distasteful. Although we have reservations about the first two poses in the top row, all the rest and both realistic and appropriate. They are also very well animated, particularly the two multi-figure pieces, which must have been much more complex to design yet have been very well done. These are not the sort of poses you will need many of in any battle scene, so it is as well that they come in their own set, but we would have liked to have seen some form of Germanic standard and perhaps someone blowing on a horn too.
The sculpting is very nice, with faces full of character and good detail on surfaces such as the mail armour. The few shields included have the boss or central spine, but no design engraved on them, which is good too. The texture on the tree stump is very good, but the rock is far from convincing and looks exactly what it is – a lump of clay or wax with numerous straight-edged indentations, far from the rounded lump you would actually expect. The only separate piece is the standard, which fits adequately into the cupped hand of the figure in the bottom row but needs gluing. Most of the figures have some flash, and in places this is quite extensive (especially on the downed German), but there is very little hidden extra plastic and a good job has been done of making realistic poses that do not seem at all flat.
The usual Germanic costume of tunic and trousers is seen on these figures, some of whom also wear a cloak or outer garment, sometimes of animal fur. Since the weather at the time of the battle was stormy such extra clothing is very likely. The two German poses wearing mail armour have already been discussed and would be particularly wealthy men, or perhaps some of those that actually betrayed the Roman Army on that day along with Arminius. The Germans have good facial hair and have their hair tied in knots on top of or to the side of the head, which is fine. Their weapons are spears and axes, but also a high proportion of swords since this is a command set and not representative of the whole tribal host. As with the weapons, the shields are varied but all are correctly done, although about the men in the second row we can only say they look reasonable as we do not know how such non-combatants would have dressed.
The two Romans depicted here also look correct for the period. One wears mail and the other segmented armour, which is known to have been worn at that battle. Our only concern is the helmet one wears, which seems to have reinforcements across the crown that we could not positively confirm for this date.
This set certainly has poses you don’t find in most sets. The conventional poses of well-dressed men holding aloft weapons in triumph or signal are useful and fairly standard, but the scenes of the treatment of Roman prisoners are certainly unusual but still perfectly valid. It is a set with plenty of activity, and conveys well the frenzy with which many an ancient battle was fought. Some of the subjects chosen for the sculptor must have been quite a challenge, but the results are very good – even the skeleton is well done. The amount of flash in some places is a let-down, but other than that this is a collection of figures that may not be of interest to everyone, but tells a dramatic story accurately and very well.