"There is a soldiers' marching-ballad"
The Battle of Teutoburg Forest
Public DomainThe Battle of Teutoburg Forest - Credit: Otto Albert Koch

The ballad itself is Grave's own, though composed in the irreverent style of the ballads that Roman soldiers are known to have sung at triumphal processions.

It refers to the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD, where General Publius Quinctilius Varus lost three entire legions (18,000 men plus auxiliaries) along with his own life.

Suetonius, in The Twelve Caesars, records that in the aftermath of the disaster Augustus 'was so disturbed that, for months at a time, he let his beard and hair grow, and would hit his head against the door, shouting: "Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!"'