Having established itself as a major superpower after the eventual conquest of Carthage, Rome had gradually expanded its empire, and once much of the Celtic territory of Gaul had been ‘pacified’, thoughts inevitably turned to the Germanic lands over the Rhine, some of which were brought under Roman control in the last few years of the first century BCE. Famously, however, these possessions were not to last, and when the governor of the province of Germania, Publius Quinctilius Varus (46 BCE – 9 CE), set out in 9 CE with an army including three legions to suppress a reported revolt, his force was skilfully ambushed and virtually annihilated over the course of the four-day Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, at modern Kalkriese. For the Romans this was a disaster by any standards, and during the battle Varus took the action expected of such commanders when they had disgraced themselves in this manner – he committed suicide.
This small set essentially concentrates of Varus himself, and his fate during this terrible battle. Here we seem him kneeling on the ground, which makes perfect sense as the ancient writers tell us that he committed suicide in the usual way, by running himself through with a sword. This was done by resting the sword on the ground with the point touching their chest just below the ribcage, and then falling forward, hopefully puncturing the heart, but in any event ensuring a fairly swift death. This figure does not have the sword (for obvious moulding reasons), but we can imagine him kneeling there, composing himself as he prepares to take his own life in abject misery. He is dressed in typical officer’s garb for a Roman officer, including much that was Greek in influence. His muscle cuirass has the extra shoulder reinforcement, he has leather pteruges at the shoulder and waist, and the cloth belt tied at the front. He has removed his helmet, and is correctly attired in all respects. He is depicted as bald or very short-haired, which for a Roman of 55 years would seem reasonable, although coins depicting him show him with plenty of hair still (there being no better images of him that have survived), so this impression of him is somewhat doubtful.
The man standing with sword raised is identified as a tribune on the box. Tribunes were officers more senior than centurions but beneath the legate. Some were young equestrians, there more to watch and learn, and were present as part of their career progression to ultimate higher political office. Although sometimes they did lead men in the field, many were little more than assistants to the legate, with more interest in a political future than a military one. However, they dressed the same as other officers, which is similar to the dress of Varus already described, though without the officer’s fabric belt. This tribune also wears greaves, which were common officer garb, and has a fine crested helmet as a further mark of his rank. His sword hangs from a baldric on his left hip, as it should, so he is accurately dressed. His pose, however, is worrying, because it puts us in mind of a scene sometimes placed in films and television where one Roman executes another by plunging a sword down the back, between the shoulders, piercing the heart. In fact, the usual method of execution in the Roman world was simply beheading, and we can find no good evidence for the downward plunge, but since the Roman writers say Varus took his own life rather than being executed, this cannot be a depiction of the end of Varus anyway. In that case, why is this figure here?
Figures three and four in our image are of ordinary legionaries – one running for his life, and the other having already succumbed to the German assault. They reflect the diversity of armour worn on the day quite nicely, as one has a mail cuirass while the other wears the more modern lorica segmentata. The helmet of the running man is a nice example of the imperial-Gallic model of the time, and both have their sword scabbard on the right and dagger on the left, so are correctly done. Both men have lost their swords and shields, which for the running man is probably deliberate to aid his escape. However, very few Romans actually managed to escape, though many were probably cut down in the attempt.
Linear-A sculpting is usually very nice, and these figures all have the usual high standard of clearly-defined detail and natural poses. The running man particularly impressed us, since the hobby is full of unsuccessful attempts to depict this action, but here the raised foot is not too high, his arms are in the correct position relative to his legs, and his looking back pose works beautifully as a man being pursued. Some of the seams on our examples were clean, but elsewhere there is a fair amount of flash, though nothing too terrible, and no excess plastic anywhere.
Whatever your views on very small sets like this, they often provide some useful command or ancillary poses that modellers would struggle to find in more traditional sets. Here however the utility of these figures is quite limited. The kneeling officer has relatively few apparent uses, and the tribune even less. The dead soldier is always useful of course, and the running man is a worthwhile figure too. Since there is no reason to think Varus died by execution in this manner (and the box does not make that claim, to be fair), this is a very odd set to understand, and not an easy one to put to other uses. The two legionaries are the pick of the crop, but the other two figures failed to captivate us.