Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 3, 2008

Terry Jones’s “The Barbarians”

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:05 pm

Now available from Netflix as well as viewable online, Monty Python alumnus Terry Jones’s “Barbarians” is a superlative exercise in historical revisionism. As this 2 DVD set makes abundantly clear, the real barbarians were the Romans, not the people they robbed, murdered and raped. The first disk looks at the Celts and the Goths, while the second takes up the Persians, the Goths and the Vandals. On almost all criteria associated with “civilization”, the Roman Empire comes off looking atrocious. The central point that Jones keeps hammering away as narrator and writer as he travels about Europe in pursuit of the truth is that history is written by the winners. If American and British history has a triumphalist and self-vindicating character, so does Roman history.

By correcting the record, Jones implicitly helps to undermine the imperialist mindset of today, which by no accident appropriates many of the themes of the Roman Empire. Within the walls of the civilized world (New York, London, Paris, et al), there is reason and goodness; outside that world (Baghdad, Tehran, Khartoum), there is nothing but insanity and evil. This worldview is virtually the same that the Romans put forward as an excuse for their conquests. As Jones points out, the real motivation for the conquests was the desire to control gold and other precious resources, not to “civilize”.

For those of you who were inspired by Cliff Conner’s ground-breaking “People’s History of Science,” you will likely applaud Terry Jones’s determination to set the record straight on who was the real scientific pioneer, “civilized” Rome or its “barbarian” enemies. It turns out that the real scientific breakthroughs were taking place in the Celtic territories, which ranged from Ireland to Eastern Europe, before the Roman conquest. We learn that Rome set out to colonize the Celts because they had immense supplies of gold that was extracted from the earth using advanced mining techniques that were unknown to the Romans. The Celts also created roads all across Europe that linked trading centers. While none of their cities were as large as Rome, they were every bit as “civilized”. And they certainly did not have wild animals eat people in coliseums for “entertainment”, the precursor to today’s football games.

Just like George W. Bush today, Julius Caesar launched the Gallic Wars against the Celts in the name of self-defense. Unless the Celts were stopped in Gaul, they might invade Rome. It turns out that Julius Caesar was motivated much more by the desire to resolve a long-standing problem of public debt in the Roman Empire than anything else. He even used a bogus casus belli to muster support for his invasion. He claimed that it was necessary to “rescue” the Helvetii people who were being threatened by the Celts. As masters of propaganda, the Romans clearly provided lessons in how to manipulate public opinion to Woodrow Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, Tony Blair and others in the modern epoch.

The Celts were also far more humane in how they treated their own citizens. One of the many renowned archaeologists interviewed by Jones shows artifacts that reveal the elevated status of women in Celtic society, who enjoyed political power and wealth of a kind unknown in Imperial Rome. The Celts also looked after children, the weak and infirm, and the elderly in a way that anticipates the modern welfare state. Meanwhile, the Romans were content to throw unwanted infants on garbage heaps.

The Persians also come across as much more enlightened, as well as superior military tacticians who repelled Roman invasions repeatedly. The Parthian Dynasty was particularly civilized as it created an Empire that rested on totally different values than Rome’s. Those who lived within its borders paid tribute, but they were never brutalized as were those subject to Roman rule. Indeed, the Parthians anticipated the Ottoman Empire in its willingness to allow political and cultural diversity to prevail. The determination of the Romans to forcibly assimilate conquered peoples is much more of a forerunner to British and American norms.

The connection to today’s world is unmistakable as Jones pointedly refers to the Parthians routing the Romans in Mesopotamia, i.e., the land that became Iraq. He also travels about modern Tehran and interviews Iranians who clearly identify with their Parthian ancestors. As military innovators second to none, the Parthians taught the Romans that they were not the master race, a lesson that perhaps the Romans of today have still not learned.

The Goths and the Vandals are probably the two “barbarian” groups that have the worst reputation in terms of ushering in the “Dark Ages”. The standard historical presentation is that after Rome was sacked in the fifth century Europe descended into a pit of superstition and depravity. It took five hundred years to recover from this abysmal state. Jones corrects the record by showing that the Huns never even entered Rome and were persuaded to turn back by Pope Leo. As for the Vandals, they simply took control of Carthage in the same period, which had been a Roman colony, and thereby denied Rome a traditional source of wealthy imports extracted by force from North Africa. Without this steady flow of resources, including grain and gold, the Empire began to shrivel and die–an obvious lesson for today.

Despite Jones’s background with Monty Python, “Barbarians” is played pretty straight except for the occasional clever barb. If he does not refer to the Roman Empire of today, it is only because he expects the clever viewer to make that connection themselves. There is no doubt, however, about what Jones thinks of the Julius Caesar of today. This was written on the eve of the invasion of Iraq:

I’m really excited by George Bush’s latest reason for bombing Iraq: he’s running out of patience. And so am I!

For some time now I’ve been really pissed off with Mr Johnson, who lives a couple of doors down the street. Well, him and Mr Patel, who runs the health food shop. They both give me queer looks, and I’m sure Mr Johnson is planning something nasty for me, but so far I haven’t been able to discover what. I’ve been round to his place a few times to see what he’s up to, but he’s got everything well hidden. That’s how devious he is.

At the end of disc one, Jones quotes the words of a Celtic general as found in the writings of Tacitus. Although Tacitus was a Roman, he was not above allowing one of the “barbarians” to make an eloquent case for his people. It includes the famous dictum: “They built a wilderness (or solitude) and call it peace”, an apt description of Iraq today.

To us who dwell on the uttermost confines of the earth and of freedom, this remote sanctuary of Britain’s glory has up to this time been a defence. Now, however, the furthest limits of Britain are thrown open, and the unknown always passes for the marvellous. But there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace (ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant).

9 Comments »

  1. Snapshot Window Feature removed! It looks like so. I am glad you dropped that feature.

    Comment by Ajit — January 4, 2008 @ 4:20 am

  2. Terry Jones was solidly anti-war from the word go. he has also written a fascinating book about Chaucer’s death.

    Comment by Doug — January 4, 2008 @ 11:27 am

  3. and in case anyone has not seen it, his Crusades was an excellent series as well. The eye opener for me in Barbarians was the section on the Dacians, still don’t know enough about them. Now I confess to sleeping through the one year of compulsory Latin I had to do on entering secondary schooling but I prefer the version I heard as a kid “they make a desert and call it peace”. Maybe we should choose a suitable date and celebrate each year the “fall” of the Roman Empire as the removal of a barrier to human progress.

    Comment by Henry Monroe — January 5, 2008 @ 12:11 am

  4. Good post. One glaring problem however. You wrote:

    “Just like George W. Bush today, Julius Caesar launched the Gallic Wars against the Celts in the name of self-defense. Unless the Celts were stopped in Gaul, they might invade Rome. It turns out that Julius Caesar was motivated much more by the desire to resolve a long-standing problem of public debt in the Roman Empire than anything else. He even used a bogus casus belli to muster support for his invasion. He claimed that it was necessary to “rescue” the Helvetii people who were being threatened by the Celts. As masters of propaganda, the Romans clearly provided lessons in how to manipulate public opinion to Woodrow Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, Tony Blair and others in the modern epoch.”

    Actually, the casus belli was the defence of Roman “allies” in Transalpine Gaul, the Allobroges, FROM the Helvetii, who were themselves migrating due to pressures, primarily from the Germanic Suevi to their north. The Helvetii had the choice of two routes. They chose the “easier” route, and Caesar found a ready excuse to launch himself (and Rome) into a profitable (and politically useful) war in Free Gaul.

    The Helvetii torched all of their habitations, and moved en masse into the territory of the Aedui, Ambarri, and Allobroges, who appealed to Rome for help as the Helvetii pillaged their way westward (remember, this was a MASS migration – all of half a million men, women and children, plus livestock, and belongings, so the demands for supplies were notable).

    That aside, I’m intrigued by the Jones DVDs. My first major was in Celtic Studies, and there have always been a treasure-trove of facts that get ignored in the search for the “glory of rome”. The celts, in as much as you can identify them as such, were also the major trading power in Europe for some time. Their domination of the salt-rich areas of the Alps, and the transport routes between the Mediterranean and Baltic that passed through that area, made them a considerable force.

    The Romans also had a political ‘reason’ for jumping at a chance to conquer Gaul. The ‘terror gallicus’ (stemming from the invasion and occupation of Rome by Celtic tribes around 390BCE) remained a useful stick to beat people with, and a victory in Gaul carried considerable prestige, as well as profits.

    Finally, on Tacitus. While he may well have been quoting a Briton, it is generally thought that a good part of what he wrote was directed at what he regarded as the degeneration of Rome. To portray the “barbarians” as more noble and ‘civilised’ than most Romans was a sharp barb to his contemporaries and rivals.

    Comment by Duz — January 22, 2008 @ 1:54 am

  5. I’d be interested to know which gold-related “advanced mining techniques that were unknown to the Romans” the Celts used and where. I ask because I know that in Celtiberia there were certainly unique SILVER-mining techniques being utilised, but haven’t heard of the ones for gold.

    Comment by Duz — January 22, 2008 @ 1:59 am

  6. It actually might have been silver. I was just taking notes from the movie, not from a book.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 22, 2008 @ 7:49 pm

  7. I have only read the book, but my impression was that, while Jones points out the historical revisionism which presents ‘Romans vs neighbours’ as ‘civilisation v savages’, his account can also be unbalanced at times.

    There isn’t space or time to discuss the whole matter but as an example, take his claim of the Parthians’ military superiority. He describes the Parthians’ routing of Crassus and then concludes that this shows that the Romans were ‘no match’ for them, ignoring the later Roman victories and failed Parthian invasions of Rome. In reality, a natural boundary existed in northern Mesopotamia beyond which it was hard for either side to maintain a long-term foothold. Rome invaded under nine separate leaders, capturing the Parthian capital on three occasions. The Parthians also invaded on several occasions, but overall were less aggressive because they were almost constantly engaged in the suppression of rebellions, civil wars, and wars on their eastern borders. The only lasting result of any of these invasions by either side was a Roman victory; the conquest of part of northern Mesopotamia by Trajan, a permanent loss to Parthia which was enlarged under Lucius Verus in 165. To say that Carrhae proves the Romans were no match for the Parthians is simply untrue.

    It is a good point that the view of the Romans as the light of civilisation fighting against barbarian darkness is very simplistic, but the reverse claim is just as bad.

    Comment by s — February 7, 2008 @ 3:18 pm

  8. I really enjoyed the barbarian program and thought that it contained much truth. At the same time I think that the program is simplistic (as any four hour program would have to be to cover such a broad scope of history) While I have no doubt that the Celts did take care of their people as Terry states, they also practiced human sacrafice and were head hunters. While this might seem a paradox to us, that is just our perspective.

    I think the truth is that both Romans and Celts did things which we would find familliar, appealing and worthy of respect and things that we would find repugnant.

    I know that the program is making a point, that the barbarians were not as “barbaric” as we have been lead to believe and Romans as civilized. Both were alien cultures to ours and we should be very careful in making value judgements.

    Comment by john anacker — February 19, 2008 @ 4:15 am

  9. […] how Roman domination came to an end. I’d been interested in that topic again since watching Terry Jones’ excellent series The Barbarians, which revised the traditional picture of hordes of uncultivated barbarians coming over the borders […]

    Pingback by Martin’s Booklog » The Fall of the Roman Empire - Peter Heather — February 15, 2009 @ 1:18 pm


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