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A Never-Ending Battle

11/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Michael Kaplan The author of Chances Are and Bozo Sapiens writes about where it all went wrong

On this day exactly two thousand years ago, on a narrowing track between impassable bog and high hills, the cultural destiny of Europe was changed forever. At the end of a long running battle in the sodden wilderness, the remains of three Roman legions came up against well-prepared defensive earthworks: the barbarians had learned much from their technologically advanced opponents.

From the tops of these walls, Teutonic warriors shouted insults in the military Latin they had learned as Roman auxiliaries. The only way out was through; the exhausted legionaries took up the familiar disciplined formations that had seen their city prevail so often to conquer an empire. Not this time, though: a few escaped, many were captured and enslaved, most were slaughtered in the dark and rain-swept valley. The disaster was complete. Hearing of it weeks later, the Emperor Augustus pounded his head against a wall, shouting: "Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!"

What was Varus doing? How could he have been so foolish as to commit his whole force of 15,000 men to a march in single file through unknown country? His fault was trust: believing that the foreign had become the familiar. Romans had been fighting, negotiating, and trading in this part of Germany for half a century. Varus himself was less a general than an administrator: he had spent the summer, not in campaigning, but in settling disputes between Germans using Roman legal procedure.

The barbarians seemed to be catching on; it wouldn't be long before they became willing subjects and the boundaries of Empire could shift yet further East. So when a presentable young German chieftain, Arminius - a man who had spent his childhood in Rome - mentioned a small local uprising that might conveniently be quashed on the way back to winter camp, Varus said, in effect, "lead on." How was he to know that Arminius was fired with a vision of unifying the tribes, was leading him into ambush, and would suddenly turn against him where the terrain was most difficult?

Later German myth-making has turned this into a battle between the free and manly traditions of their nation and the decadent imperialism of the Latins (for whom read "the French"). The popular name "Hermann" is a back-translation of Arminius, whose mighty sword-wielding statue still towers over the supposed site of the battle (actually about forty miles away). The truth is more complicated but no less decisive. The Romans eventually returned, defeated Arminius, sowed discord among the tribes, buried the bones of their fallen, and recovered their three lost eagles. But they had lost any enthusiasm for subduing the poor and difficult country between the Rhine and the Elbe; this would be left to the barbarians, proud but exasperating, to fight over among themselves.

Had it not been for Varus' defeat, Romance languages would have been spoken right up to the lands of the Slavs; Germanic tongues, including the precursors of English, would have become as rare and isolated as Gaelic. The Roman ideal of shared citizenship defined by common law, military organization, and domestic engineering would not have had its most formidable enemies a mere two weeks' march from its largest cities. The largely Germanic Middle Ages, so mystical, pious, and violent, might never have happened. It was a moment that changed the world.

You don't need reminding what else occurred on this day, eight years ago; and the parallels are worth considering. We remain in danger of making the same mistakes the Romans made. The hijackers of those planes, like Arminius, were superficially marked by the civilization they wanted to destroy; it would be easy to assume that because young men from very different backgrounds wear jeans or listen to Western pop that they have accepted the less tangible but more important aspects of our way of life - this is Varus' error.

Similarly, we can assume that the troublesome lands where our plans bog down are not worth dealing with - that we can withdraw behind some mental frontier and leave them to it. This is the error of Varus' successors. If we believe our ways worth preserving we must remain fully engaged with those who don't - making our case like advocates, watching our backs like soldiers.

If you enjoy such tales of human fallibility, you will find a new one every day on my sister site, Bozo Sapiens. See you there.

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