If you go into the woods today
9/9/9 wasn’t good for Rome. OK, they didn’t know it was 9. They thought it was 762 or DCCLXII or thereabouts. Actually the Roman system of dating years was so chaotic that there’s almost no telling what people might have called the year. But they knew what to call the day: the “Clades Variana” or “Varian disaster”. Because on that day the 17th, 18th and 19th legions led by Publius Quintillius Varus were ambushed and destroyed in the Teutoberg forest by one “Arminius” or Hermann, a Roman-trained German. The Romans never really resumed their advance into Germany. And I’m sorry they didn’t.
I know, I know. Imperialism has an evil name. And Roman imperialism had many critics including in Rome itself. It was a famous Roman historian, Tacitus, who commented acidly as Rome was rising to its mightiest status that “they make a desert and call it peace”. But it is precisely because of that self-critical spirit, so essential to the West and so conspicuously absent elsewhere, that to this day the world is markedly different inside and outside the Roman Empire.
I don’t mean literally within the boundaries it occupied at its height, the entire Mediterranean basin, France, part of Germany and most of the British Isles. I mean in those lands still fundamentally shaped by it, which is basically Western Europe and those places settled from Western Europe, with a big asterisk even on the bits overrun by Islam and later recovered.
In many ways German is the problematic part. Or at least was from the time “Germany” was reunified down through the mid-20th century. But there was always an important difference between north-eastern “Prussia,” which dominated reunified Germany until the 1945 partition, and the western and southern parts that were more, well, laid back.
Don’t take my word for it. Ask Konrad Adenauer, the great West German Chancellor (in office 1949-1963) who oversaw his nation’s reintegration into the community of civilized nations. He had to travel to Berlin frequently in the 1920s because as Mayor of Cologne he was a member of the Prussian state council, the upper house of its parliament. And whenever they crossed the Elbe River he would draw the railway car curtains and mutter something like “Now we are in Asia”. And this division that so troubled him goes back to Rome, and to the Clades Variana.
According to the always colorful if not necessarily reliable Suetonius, when the Emperor Augustus heard of the disaster, he banged his head on the walls of his palace, shouting “Quintili Vare, legiones redde!” (Latin being a splendidly concise language, it translates as “Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!”) Varus was in no position to do so, having committed suicide at the end of the battle. But while Rome fairly quickly got more legions and even recovered the lost standards of the 17th, 18th and 19th, they never again used those numbers in their order of battle. And they never resumed their advance eastward.
To be sure, the Teutobergwald is some 300 km west of the Elbe. But it sits on the Weser, well east of the Rhine. And Rome’s cultural influence generally penetrated some distance beyond its formal borders, getting weaker as you went. And because the Clades Variana, which as so often sounds even worse in German (variously the Schlacht im Teutoburger Wald, Hermannsschlacht, or Varusschlacht), stopped the Roman advance eastward permanently at the Rhine, the West did for a long time stop somewhere in central Germany.
As with the failure of Western influence to penetrate further in other directions too, and in this case with particularly ominous consequences in the 20th century, it is much to be regretted. Quintili Vare, legions redde indeed.