Terry Jones’ Barbarians (Episode 1: The Primitive Celts): demonstration that victors write history to flatter themselves and demonise others

Terry Jones, “Terry Jones’ Barbarians (Episode 1: The Primitive Celts)” (2006)

This droll history lesson delivered by former Monty Python member Terry Jones examines the complicated relationship the Roman empire had with the ancient Celts whom they more or less subjugated and assimilated over several hundred years and finds that this relationship was even more complex than at first appears and the distinction between “civilised” and “uncivilised” all but collapses. Conventional wisdom that says the Romans were civilised and the Celts were barbaric and savage is turned on its head as Jones discovers that the Celts were more organised and cultured than they have been credited with simply because they didn’t have or use writing to the extent the Romans did. They were unable or unwilling to write their history so the Romans did it for them – not in their favour of course.

Visiting museums and archaeological sites in Britain, Ireland, France and elsewhere in Europe, and talking to scientists and other experts, Jones discovers that the ancient Celts had extensive metal-working industries and trade networks extending throughout their territories across Europe from Spain to the Balkans and Turkey, and traded with their Roman rivals. He discovers the Celts had also developed sophisticated road-building techniques to assist their trading. Interestingly the Celts’ trading and road transport networks reveal their societies to be very decentralised, a possible indication that they valued political and social egalitarianism in which no one city dominated and every city and town was equal, in contrast to the Roman civilisation in which all roads and networks literally led to Rome.

A section in the documentary dealing with the burial of a wealthy and powerful Celtic woman in France leads Jones to discover that Celtic societies treated men and women equally; his trip to Ireland leads him to research ancient Irish laws which confirm that not only did ancient Irish women (and by implication ancient Celtic women) enjoy social equality with men, they also enjoyed economic equality in that they could inherit property, divorce their husbands and keep property after the divorce.

A running narrative is the clash between the forces of Julius Caesar (Rome) and Vercingetorix (a chieftain of the Arvenni tribe of Celts in Gaul), presented as a struggle between two very different and polarised worldviews, one of which was to die and to be distorted by the other worldview as bloodthirsty, violent and savage.  Jones points out that it was Caesar who took Vercingetorix as hostage and treated him cruelly, imprisoning him first, then publicly displaying him before having the Celt strangled to death. One group of Celts singled out for demonisation by Roman propaganda was the druids who were portrayed as sinister witch-doctor types presiding over mass human sacrifices that involved burning hundreds of people in wicker-man statues, hanging people or drowning them; the reality more likely was that humans were offered as sacrifices only in extreme situations of famine or hardship, and that the Romans slandered the druids as they were the political, social and cultural elite in their societies and it was necessary to paint them as wicked in order to break the Celts’ resistance to Roman rule and to teach people who were already vassals of the Romans that it was pointless for them to revolt against Rome as well.

The episode makes the point that history is written by the victors to suit themselves and more often than we’d like to think serves as propaganda to stifle rebellion and keep vanquished people psychologically enslaved so that their lands and resources may be seized by the victors for their own use. This message has much relevance for the world today as it stands on the brink of major warfare in the Middle East that may spread to northern Africa and central Asia. People across the world are being exhorted to support US-led NATO intervention in Syria by propaganda that paints Syrian leader Bashar al Assad as a criminal who must be removed and replaced by a new government that will bring democracy and freedom to Syria. Russia and China, which have objected to al Assad’s forced removal by foreign forces, are being portrayed in the Western press as authoritarian societies hostile to democracy and freedom. Uncomfortable facts such as the United States’ past interference in Middle East politics during the 1950s which among other things helped to bring the Ba’ath Party to power in Syria and Iraq and enabled Hafez al Assad (Bashar al Assad’s father) and Saddam Hussein respectively to seize control and rule as dictators are ignored. The fact that Libya remains in chaos and its achievements under Colonel Muammar Gadhafi’s rule (1969 – 2011) have been destroyed or are being run down by Islamists after NATO intervention is also forgotten. If we don’t wish the 21st century to be one of unending New World Order violence, destruction and widespread poverty under a small and privileged elite, then we must resist the Western propaganda and the people, institutions and countries behind it. Unfortunately the BBC which made “Terry Jones’ Barbarians” series is one major institution peddling such propaganda.

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