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Greetings everyone! On January 26, 2021, I conducted my first ever public lecture as a historian when I delivered a talk for the Queens Public Library via WEBEX concerning the Great Illyrian Revolt, a massive uprising which took place against the Roman Empire from 6 to 9 AD. The lecture was recorded on the host’s personal computer, and she sent me the link to the video, but I didn’t know how to download this video file onto my own computer until a few hours ago. After some very frantic computer work, here it is! The video lasts for a just a tad longer than an hour and twelve minutes. I hope you enjoy it.
If you like this lecture please purchase a copy of my book The Great Illyrian Revolt: Rome’s Forgotten War in the Balkans, AD 6-9, published by Pen & Sword Books in 2019.
The date of January 16, 7 BC is important for both Roman and German history.
Ten years earlier in the year 17 BC, three German tribes crossed the Rhine and raided Gaul, which was controlled by the Roman Empire. It wasn’t long before the barbarians ran into a Roman cavalry unit and forced them to retreat. Pursuing them, the Germans stumbled upon the commander of the 5th Legion, Marcus Lollius, and in the skirmish, the Germans captured the 5th Legion’s eagle. This event would provide the pretext for a Roman invasion of Germania (1).
A map of the Germanic tribes, circa 15 BC. Illustration by Jason R. Abdale, 2013.
In 13 BC, Caesar Augustus dispatched his 25-year-old stepson Drusus Claudius Nero to lead a military campaign against the Germanic tribes. An experienced commander who had won some fame in the conquests of Rhaetia and Vindelicia, the invasion of Germania would be a prestigious commission. He arrived on the Rhine River that same year and surveyed the situation, collecting as much information as possible. Throughout the following year, he built a series of forts along the Gallic side of the Rhine to serve as staging posts, he stockpiled supplies, and he accumulated a mass of intelligence from his scouts and recon forces. After he felt that he had enough men and enough info, he was ready (2).
In 11 BC, Drusus Claudius Nero designated Fort Vetera (modern-day Xanten) as his operation headquarters. Rome’s campaign to conquer western Germania began that year when Drusus’ men intercepted another Germanic raiding party that had crossed into Gaul, and beat them so hard that the Germans were forced to run. Afterwards, Drusus and his soldiers crossed the Rhine – the first time that a Roman army had crossed the Rhine since the days of Julius Caesar – and proceeded to lay waste to the land. In a single campaign season, he defeated four German tribes (3).
In the Spring of 10 BC, Drusus’ men once again attacked the border tribes, and then advanced inland. His troops pushed as far east as the Weser River, but they had to stop because they had run out of supplies. As the Roman army marched back to their winter quarters, they were ambushed by a large force of Germanic warriors. The Germans inflicted heavy casualties upon Drusus’ army and came very close to completely destroying it. However, the barbarians were cocky and believed that this would be an easy victory, but Drusus rallied his forces and they fought their way out of the ambush. Drusus led the survivors back to safety, but the Germans pursued them and harassed them the whole way. Despite this loss, the overall campaign was a success. Drusus returned to the city of Rome during Winter to give an account of his actions. Impressed with what he had accomplished so far, it was decided that a triumphal arch was to be erected in his honor. (4).
In the spring of 9 BC, Drusus was once again in action against the Germans. He spent the whole of that campaign season fighting against one tribe, the powerful Chatti tribe that occupied a large piece of southwestern Germania, and who may have been the third-strongest of all of the Germanic tribes. By the end of the campaign season, they were still not yet subdued (5).
In the spring of 8 BC, defying bad omens for the coming year, Drusus resumed his fight against the Chatti and pushed further eastwards towards the Elbe River. Once he reached this point, he and his men turned back, but disaster struck when Drusus was thrown off of his horse and broke his leg. The injury quickly became infected. After languishing for thirty days, Drusus Claudius Nero died of gangrene at the height of his glory. His body was brought back to Rome for a hero’s funeral, while his loyal soldiers erected a monument to him in Mainz, which can still be seen today. It was also decided to posthumously award him the honorific agnomen “Germanicus”, a name that would be borne by all of his male descendants (6).
The Drusus Monument, located in Mainz, Germany. Photograph by Carole Raddato (September 5, 2013). Creative Commons Attribute Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
Drusus’ untimely death did not put a halt to Rome’s military operations in western Germania. With Drusus dead, his older brother Tiberius took command. At first, he was more interested in consolidating and controlling the territories that Drusus’ men had taken the previous year. Tiberius and his troops went up and down the country during that winter, subduing the tribes and suffering minimal or no losses (7).
Members of Legio V Macedonica, an ancient Roman re-enactment group based in Russia, march through the snow. Image courtesy of Legio V Macedonica, used with permission.
Finally, the Germanic tribes decided that they had enough. The Roman poet Ovid states in his Fasti that, after many years of war, the western Germanic tribes surrendered to Tiberius Claudius Nero on January 16, 7 BC. To commemorate the peace treaty, Tiberius ordered the construction of a shrine to the goddess Concordia, the goddess of peace, harmony, and friendship. Cassius Dio relates that for the rest of 7 BC, all of Germania was quiet. In the year 6 BC, confident that everything in Germania had been taken care of, Tiberius retired to the island of Rhodes (8).
Bust of Tiberius Claudius Nero. Museo Archaeologico Regionale, Palermo, Sicily. From Wikimedia Commons, public domain image.
Unfortunately, the German barbarians’ surrender to Rome on that winter day did not create a lasting peace. In the year 1 AD, the Germanic tribes revolted against the Roman military occupation of their land, a revolt that would take three years to suppress (9).
In the year 10 AD, the year following the disaster at the Battle of Teutoburg, the old temple to Concordia which lay within the city of Rome, and which had been built many years earlier and had fallen into disrepair, was restored and re-dedicated. This effort was funded using the spoils of war that had been taken in battle against the Germans and the Illyrians. Tiberius Claudius Nero was the one who performed the dedication ceremony, and the names of both he and his dead bother Drusus were inscribed upon it (10).
This temple that’s mentioned in the writings of Suetonius and Cassius Dio might be the same as the “shrine” to Concordia that Ovid is referring to, but I doubt it. Ovid specifically states that Tiberius built a shrine to Concordia specifically in response to the surrender of the German tribes on January 16, 7 BC, which brought peace to that region of the world. I find it a bit off-putting for Tiberius to have dedicated a shrine in direct response to establishing peace with the Germans the year after the Germans massacred three Roman legions in the region of Teutoburg; some people might find such an action to be exceptionally tactless. Therefore, I believe that the shrine and the temple are two separate structures: one established immediately after the peace treaty was made in 7 BC, and another that was restored and dedicated in 10 AD.
- Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 54, chapter 20; Gaius Velleius Paterculus, The Roman History, book 2, chapter 97.
- Adrian Murdoch, Rome’s Greatest Defeat. Sutton Publishing Limited, 2006. Pages 31-33.
- Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 54, chapter 32.
- Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 54, chapter 33.
- Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 54, chapter 36.
- Ovid, The Heroïdes, or Epistles of the Heroines; The Amours; Art of Love; Remedy of Love; and, Minor Works of Ovid. G. Bell, 1893. Page 503; The Germanic Tribes, episode 1 – “Barbarians against Rome”; Livy, Periochae, from book 142; Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 55, chapters 1-2; Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, book 3, chapter 7; book 5, chapter 1.
- Gaius Velleius Paterculus, The Roman History, book 2, chapter 97.
- Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 16; Cassius Dio, The Roman History, Book 55, chapters 6, 9.
- Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 53, chapter 26; Gaius Velleius Paterculus, The Roman History, book 2, chapters 104-106.
- Cassius Dio, Roman History, book 56, chapter 25; Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, book 3, chapter 20.
- Dio, Cassius. The Roman History, book 53. https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/53*.html.
- Dio, Cassius. The Roman History, book 54. https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/54*.html.
- Dio, Cassius. The Roman History, book 55. https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/55*.html.
- Dio, Cassius. The Roman History, book 56. https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/56*.html.
- Livy. Periochae, from book 142. https://www.livius.org/sources/content/livy/livy-periochae-141-142/#142.1.
- Murdoch, Adrian. Rome’s Greatest Defeat: Massacre in the Teutoburg Forest. Sutton Publishing Limited, 2006.
- Ovid. Fasti, book 1, January 16. Translated by A. S. Kline. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkOne.php.
- Ovid. The Heroïdes, or Epistles of the Heroines; The Amours; Art of Love; Remedy of Love; and, Minor Works of Ovid. G. Bell, 1893.
- Paterculus, Gaius Velleius. The Roman History, book 2. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Velleius_Paterculus/home.html.
- Suetonius. The Twelve Caesars, book 3 – “The Life of Tiberius”. https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/Tiberius*.html.
- Suetonius. The Twelve Caesars, book 5 – “The Life of Claudius”. https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/Claudius*.html.
- The Germanic Tribes. Episode 1 – “Barbarians against Rome”. Directed by Alexander Hogh. Kultur International Films, Ltd., 2007. DVD.
September 9 to 11 of the year 9 AD is often attributed in modern sources as the date for the legendary Battle of Teutoburg, more commonly known as the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest – except the battle lasted for four days, not three, and it was fought in a forest only on the first two days of the engagement. But how accurate is this date? Very rarely do the primary sources provide precise dates for historical events. In fact, if you take the pains to read through all of the ancient documents that mention and describe this important battle, you will be struck by something puzzling and shocking – no ancient source mentions when exactly the battle took place.
So, if that is the case, then why is it commonly perpetuated that the Battle of Teutoburg was fought specifically from September 9 to 11?
The oldest reference to the Battle of Teutoburg taking place on September 9th to the 11th is dated to the 19th Century. Found within an issue of Appleton’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art is an article entitled “Decisive Battles of History”, dated to January 7, 1871. Within this article, the un-named author provides a list of battles of historical importance, with some being provided longer descriptions than others. The Battle of Teutoburg is placed upon that list, and of it, the article mentions the following: “The battle of Teutoburg, on the 9th, 10th and 11th of September, 9 B. C., between the Germans, led by Hermann, and the Romans, under Varus” (“Decisive Battles of History”. Appleton’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art, Volume 5, Issue 93 (January 7, 1871). New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1871. Page 20). Where the author of this article managed to obtain these dates is unknown, since, as mentioned before, no primary source gives exact dates for the battle.
These dates were repeated in A Popular History of Germany, Volume 1, written by Wilhelm Zimmerman and published in 1878. In a chapter devoted exclusively to this battle, Zimmermann writes “The battle took place on the 9th, 10th, and 11th days of September” (William Zimmermann, A Popular History of Germany, from the Earliest Period to the Present Day, Volume 1. Translated by Hugh Craig. New York, Henry J. Johnson, 1878. Page 57). Again, Zimmermann provides no sources for this information.
These dates seem to have been forgotten until the 1990s, when the battlefield was discovered and a thorough archaeological survey could be made of the site. Among the items found was the skeleton of a mule and around its neck was a bell that had been stuffed with straw…straw that had presumably been collected from nearby, in order to keep the bell from ringing. It was this find that enabled forensic analysts to give an approximate date of the battle.
In my own book about this battle Four Days in September: The Battle of Teutoburg, I state the following…
“It is common knowledge among ancient and military historians that the battle took place in the year 9 AD, but during what time of year? At the excavation of the site, the skeleton of a mule was found with a bell around its neck. The bell had been stuffed with straw, presumably to keep it from making noise. Forensic analysis of the straw showed that it had been cut in late summer or early fall, placing the battle in late September (Peter S. Wells, The Battle that Stopped Rome (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2003), 55). So, not only did the battle’s date have a year, but also a month – September of 9 AD. The battle is popularly conceived as being begun on September 9, 9 AD, but this is a date that seems to be chosen at random. Forensic evidence places the battle at late summer/early fall, which would make it fall somewhere in late September, not early September” (Jason R. Abdale, Four Days in September: The Battle of Teutoburg, Second Edition. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2016. Page 128.
- “Decisive Battles of History”. Appleton’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art, Volume 5, Issue 93 (January 7, 1871). New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1871.
- Abdale, Jason R. Four Days in September: The Battle of Teutoburg, Second Edition. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2016.
- Wells, Peter S. The Battle that Stopped Rome: Emperor Augustus, Arminius, and the Slaughter of the Legions in the Teutoburg Forest. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2003.
- Zimmermann, William. A Popular History of Germany, from the Earliest Period to the Present Day, Volume 1. Translated by Hugh Craig. New York, Henry J. Johnson, 1878.
Today is March 17, Saint Patrick’s Day. While people all over the world celebrate everything that it means to be Irish, things would have been different two thousand years ago. Tradition states that Saint Patrick died on March 17, but we don’t know for sure if he did indeed die on this day, or was born on this day, or whatever. That being said, if Ireland’s patron saint really does have nothing to do with this particular day, then why did the Church place Patrick’s feast day on March 17? It was common practice among the Catholic Church to take pre-existing pagan holidays and give them a Christian spin in order to gain converts and to suppress previous religious beliefs.
So what was so important about March 17 that made the Catholic Church want to Christianize it? March 17 was important to the ancient Romans for three reasons. Firstly, this was the date of the Feast of Mars, the ancient Roman god of war. The god Mars actually had several days held in his honor (March 1, March 14, March 17, and March 23), but March 17 was regarded by the ancient Romans as THE feast day of their god of battles. Secondly, March 17 was the date in which Roman adolescent boys ceremonially crossed the threshold of manhood. Picture an ancient Roman version of a bar mitzvah, and you get the idea. Thirdly, March 17 was the day of the Liberalia, a festival dedicated to the spirit of freedom. “Liber” was one of the titles that was given to the god Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and celebration, and thus was a Roman parallel of the ancient Greek god Dionysus. Bacchus Liber was, therefore, the god of freedom, licentiousness, and unrestrained behavior. On this day, people were uninhibited by normal social conventions, and I imagine that the Catholic clergy would have been shocked by a lot of the casual care-free behavior of the revelers.
Let’s turn our attention first towards Mars. Most people who are familiar with Roman civilization are pretty confident that they know who Mars is – he’s the Roman god of war, the parallel of the ancient Greek war god Ares. However, it’s more complicated than that. For starters, Mars wasn’t even a Roman god – he was an Etruscan god named Maris that the Romans adopted into their pantheon. Secondly, he wasn’t a war god, not at first anyway, but he gradually became associated with that role. I think I can explain it better here…
“Perhaps the god most identified with Rome was the war-god Mars, since Mars was the father of Romulus, the founder and first king of Rome. Originally a god of fertility and agriculture, based upon the Etruscan god Maris, he slowly became a war god, which may be due in part to his duty as a protector of fields and pastures – in other words, he guarded the homeland. As Rome’s borders expanded due to the frequent wars against its neighbours, the homeland expanded with it, and Mars’ job as a guardian of Roman soil took on greater importance until he became a full-fledged god of battles” (Jason R. Abdale, Four Days in September: The Battle of Teutoburg, Second Edition. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, Ltd., 2016. Page 6).
Now that we know Mars’ background, let’s survey the rituals that are associated with his feast day on March 17. For many of my posts, I have used Ovid as a key reference because his book Fasti concerns explanations of key events in the Roman calendar; he regrettably died before he was able to complete it. You would think that the worship of one of the Roman pantheon’s main gods would be a focus of particular interest for him. However, intriguingly and puzzlingly, Ovid makes no mention whatsoever in his Fasti of any significance that March 17 held for the war god Mars. Instead, we have received most of our information concerning Mars’ feast day from the writings of Plutarch and Marcus Terentius Varro.
March 17 was the day of the Agonalia of Mars. In a previous post, I explained than an agonalia was a holy day in which live animal sacrifices were conducted, usually a ram. So we already know from the name given to this ritual that a ram would be sacrificed to Mars at some point during the day. I find it an interesting coincidence that the astrological sign of the ram is Aries, which is similar to the name of the ancient Greek war god Ares, which many regard as a synonym of Mars.
Plutarch provides us with the most information regarding the rituals of the Agonalia of Mars. In his work The Life of Numa Pompilius, he describes the rituals that were practiced by the priests of Mars. Numa Pompilius was one of the fabled kings of Rome, and his claim to notoriety was that he invented many of Rome’s religious practices. One of these was the establishment of a priesthood dedicated to the worship of the god Mars. This was the Salian Order, derived from the Latin verb salit meaning “to jump or leap”. So they were, literally, the Leaping Priests. Please restrain yourself from making any Blackadder jokes about the Jumping Jews of Jerusalem.
The celebrations opened with the entry procession of the priests. Leading the way was the high priest of Mars, the Flamen Martialis, who carries the sacred Spear of Mars. Behind him are twelve priests of the Salian Order, garbed in short purple cloaks, a broad belt studded with brass, a metal helmet with a chinstrap and capped with a metal spike, and they carry a dagger and a bronze ancilia shield. The shield itself was curvilinear, almost like a figure eight. Look at the Battersea Shield, and you get an idea of what it looked like. As these men advance, the Salians leap and dance, striking their daggers against their shields and chanting out songs. From the description, it almost sounds like something tribal, and one gets the idea that this might have been a very archaic ritual that was performed by the primitive inhabitants of Italy centuries before this (Plutarch, Life of Numa Pompilius, chapter 13).
Speaking of archaic things, we have some information about the song that these twelve priests chanted. The Carmen Saliare, also known as the Carmine Saliorum, was a chant sung by the Salian Priests on this day. Written in Archaic Latin (that is to say, a very primitive form of Latin), only a couple of fragments have survived, recorded by Marcus Terentius Varro in his book De Lingua Latina, “On the Latin Language”…
“Cozevi oborieso. Omnia vero ad Patulc[ium] commisse[i]. Ianeus iam es, duonus Cerus es, du[o]nus Ianus. Ven[i]es po[tissimu]m melios eum recum…Divum em pa cante, divum deo supplicate”.
“O Planter God, arise. Everything indeed have I committed unto (thee as) the Opener. Now art thou the Doorkeeper, thou art the Good Creator, the Good God of Beginnings. Thou’lt come especially, thou the superior of these kings… Sing ye to the Father of the Gods, entreat the God of Gods” (Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 7, verses 26 and 27. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Pages 292-295).
Remember that I had mentioned earlier that Mars started off as an agriculture god and gradually became associated with warfare? Invoking him as “Planter God” is a reference to this. Anyway, back to our description of the Agonalia ritual. After the entrance procession has ended, the priest offer prayers to Mars, and then they sacrifice a white ram to him – sacrificial victims were almost always colored white.
So much for the holy rites offered to Mars. Now let us turn our attention to the ritual of coming-of-age and of the ceremonies held in honor of Bacchus. The two of these are related, or perhaps the transition from boy to man is in relation to the feast of Mars, which seems more likely. Ovid himself was uncertain as to why the ceremony of manhood was held on this day. One hypothetical explanation that he gave was that since today was the day of freedom, graduating from a boy to man granted you freedoms that you didn’t have as a child (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 17).
Once you turned 16 or so, the boy would take off his bulla, the small leather pouch that hung around his neck which held good luck charms (note the strong similarity here to the customs of some of the Native American tribes, in which a “medicine pouch” was carried with them for protection and strength). Now that he was no longer a child, he would not need these things to keep him safe. The gods had safeguarded him through his youth. Now, he was a man, and he would have to look out for his own well-being. He then put on the toga virilis, “the toga of manhood” (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 17). As recognized adults, they were now eligible for military service. No wonder that the Liberalia and the Feast of Mars occurred on the same day.
Now that he had graduated to manhood, it was time to party. On March 17, a feast was held dedicated to Bacchus. The festival may have had its origins in ancient Greece. “In March the Greeks celebrated the FEAST OF BACCHUS and carried his statue to a temple in the Keramicus” (Samuel Fales Dunlap, Sōd: The Mysteries of Adoni. London: Williams and Norgate, 1861. Page 127).
The poet Ovid hails Bacchus’s feast, one dedicated to the spirit of Liberty:
“Liber (the god or spirit of freedom), before your birth the altars were without offerings, and grass appeared on the stone-cold hearths. They tell how you set aside the first fruits for Jupiter, after subduing the Ganges region, and the whole of the East. You were the first to offer up cinnamon and incense from conquered lands, and the roast entrails of triumphal oxen. Libations derive their name from their originator, and cake (liba) since a part is offered on the sacred hearth. Honey-cakes are baked for the god, because he delights in sweet substances, and they say that Bacchus discovered honey… Father Liber loves honey: its right to offer its discoverer glittering honey diffused through oven-warm cakes” (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 17).
The poet Ovid goes into considerable length to describe the celebrations associated with Bacchus Liber. The person who presided over the day’s festivities was an old woman crowned with a wreath made of ivy leaves. In the past, but not in Ovid’s time, games were held in the city of Rome in honor of Bacchus; he further comments that the date of these games were moved to April 19, the date of the Cerealia, and the games themselves switched to being dedicated to the agriculture goddess Ceres. In reference to the story of Bacchus discovering honey, on March 17 vineyard owners would go into town to sell honey cakes to the people (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 17). For the Romans, honey cakes was the food traditionally eaten on March 17, similar to the way that we often associate certain holidays with certain dishes, including corned beef, cabbage, Irish soda bread, and beer on Saint Patrick’s Day.
- Abdale, Jason R. Four Days in September: The Battle of Teutoburg, Second Edition. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, Ltd., 2016.
- Dunlap, Samuel Fales. Sōd: The Mysteries of Adoni. London: Williams and Norgate, 1861.
- Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 17. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkFive.php.
- Plutarch, Life of Numa Pompilius, chapter 13. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Numa*.html.
- Varro, Marcus Terentius. On the Latin Language, book 7, verses 26 and 27. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938.
Hello everybody. I am happy to report that I have received hundreds of congratulations messages from people all over the world regarding the publication of my latest history book The Great Illyrian Revolt: Rome’s Forgotten War in the Balkans, AD 6-9. This book is available at many major retailers, and to further encourage purchases, the book is on sale! I highly encourage you to take advantage of these offers while you can because I don’t think that they will last for long.
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Good news. I have received word from my publisher that my second history book The Great Illyrian Revolt has been officially released to the public. Those who reserved orders for it will be receiving their copies in the mail soon. Furthermore, I also see that the book is on sale 20% off. If you want a copy and you want to take advantage of this offer, you can order it directly from the publisher Pen & Sword or you could order it from Amazon. A quick scan through the internet has shown that other book companies are selling it too. If you are into ancient Roman history or military history, or if you know somebody who’s into this, then order a copy right away while the sale offer is still available.
Two years ago, the first edition of my history book Four Days in September: The Battle of Teutoburg was published by Trafford Publishing. Since then, my book has been taken on by a well-known military history publisher based in Britain called Pen & Sword Books. Now, the book’s second edition, which is much more accurate and full of new information that wasn’t available two years ago, has been released. I just received my complimentary author’s copies of the books in the mail today, and I’m happy.
If you or somebody that you know likes ancient Roman history, German history, or military history in general, then order a copy of Four Days in September: The Battle of Teutoburg, 2nd Edition today! Available on Amazon!