Terry Jones’ Barbarians (Episode 2: The Savage Goths): a subtle criticism of modern imperialism and colonialism

Terry Jones and Rob Coldstream, “Terry Jones’ Barbarians (Episode 2: The Savage Goths)” (2006)

Drolly narrated by Terry Jones, he of the Monty Python’s Flying Circus comedy troupe, this documentary uses a mix of computer animation, live dramatic re-enactments (done with relish), interviews, stills and handheld camera film featuring Jones himself to tell the history of Roman-barbarian interactions. The history stuff, dependent on scholarly research, is done well with Jones putting his own humorous and witty spin on the narrative. As it turns out, the documentary is actually less about the Goths’ dealings with the Romans and more about the Romans’ dealings with the various barbarian tribes to their north and northeast and what is implied by Roman military actions against some of these groups.

The episode begins with Alaric the Goth’s sacking of Rome in 410 CE after his people’s harrying of the borders and then the territories of the Roman empire beyond the Alps, in Germania and Gaul. Omitted is the early history of the Goths when first they arose in Gotland, off the coast of southeastern Sweden in the Baltic sea, and challenging the Svear people in central Sweden for control of southern Sweden in the first 200 years of the Common Era; the two groups had the Mother of all Dust-ups, of which there could be only one set of winners. The Goths’ subsequent history in continental Europe and the fact that the Swedes’ own name for their country literally means “Kingdom of the Svear” leave us in no doubt as to who the heavyweight champs were. No, most of the episode is taken up with the complicated relations that the Romans and Germanic peoples had: the two sides fought a great deal, that’s true, but the Romans also used Germanic warriors like Arminius as mercenaries in their armies, and there must have been peace treaties signed between different Roman provincial governors and bands of Germanic peoples, and trade between them and the Roman provinces when they weren’t fighting. The Roman practice of hiring individual barbarian warriors and tribal chiefs as mercenaries and spies might have been copied from the Greek practice of hiring Scythian warriors and archers as their mercenaries so it wasn’t an unusual custom; for one thing, the mercenaries were one conduit by which the Romans assimilated barbarian groups into their culture and society and rule them as client states or provinces.

The first half of the episode is taken up with the personalities of Arminius (the Latinised form of Hermann), the chief of a Germanic tribe, and Publius Quinctilius Varus, appointed by the Roman emperor Augustus as governor of the Germanic territory. Arminius allowed himself to be assimilated into Roman society and even earned honours from the Romans themselves but plotted to unite the various Germanic tribes to fight and throw off Roman rule. In 9 CE, Arminius led a group of warriors from six Germanic tribes to lure the Roman army, consisting of three legions, three cavalry attachments and six units of auxiliary soldiers, into an ambush and killed the lot; Varus who commanded the army committed suicide and his head was taken by Arminius who sent it on to the king of the Marcomanni, an important Germanic tribe, who in turn sent it on to Rome. This decisive battle (the Battle of Teutoburg Forest) determined the border of the Roman empire between Gaul and Germania along the Rhine river. Years later, Arminius fell out with the Marcomanni and various other Germanic tribal leaders and was assassinated by them.

Most of the second half of the episode is given over to the Roman conquest of Dacia in what is now Romania and in particular Transylvania. Here Jones follows an archaeologist who explains what is known of the Dacians and their culture. Although the Dacians were regarded as barbarians by the Romans, their society and culture were heavily influenced by Greek and Roman culture. Jones investigates the causes of the Roman hostility towards the Dacians: the Dacian religion, based on divine worship of their king, and the Dacian territory, rich in gold and other minerals, prove to be their downfall. A border dispute some time after 100 CE gave the Romans the opportunity to conquer and annihilate the Dacians completely and take over their territory. Dacia remained Roman territory for just over 100 years.

The Goths make their actual entrance under Alaric just under 10 minutes before the end of the episode that’s named after them. By the time these particular barbarians are at the gates of Rome, the Goths have actually been well assimilated into Roman life and culture and become Christians. The reason they came knocking at Rome’s door and barged into the city is that they had been unsettled from their territories by the Huns riding all the way from Mongolia and were thus refugees. Alaric treated the Romans fairly well and continued on to Calabria where he desired to sail to northern Africa but the ships that were to take him and his followers were battered in storms, many men drowned and Alaric himself died in Cosenza.

The point of the episode is that Rome itself was far more barbaric in its behaviour towards its tributary peoples than they towards the colonising power; the coverage of the Roman conquest of Dacia in particular is an example of early genocide. The underlying message is that the Romans were the ancient equivalent of the British in the nineteenth century and the Americans in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in coveting other people’s lands for their mineral and energy wealth and used the most piffling excuse (a border problem) to completely rout and destroy an entire nation who admired Greek and Roman culture. Not much has changed since the Roman empire fell, the episode implies: it is a subtle slap in the face of those supporting the US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan in the years before 2006.




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