When I went on holiday this year, I took with me some archaeological books for a little light reading. One of them was particularly interesting: Barbarians: an alternative Roman History by Terry Jones and Alan Ereira, which is the book of the television series and is published by BBC Books. It is based on a very nice idea: writing the history, not of the Romans, but of the barbarians that surrounded them. Inevitably, since the book is taking the side of the barbarians, it will be biased against the Romans; but exactly how biased?
Terry Jones is an Oxford English graduate who is best known as a member of the Monty Python comedy TV series. He has also directed several feature films and written four books on Medieval England. Now, he tackles the Romans by taking a fresh look at the peoples who surrounded them.
The book begins with the Celts, and here, I fear, I must beg to differ with it somewhat. For much of their existence, the Celts were indeed ‘typical’ barbarians. However, in the closing century BC, they changed. Christopher Hawkes astutely saw this when he divided off the Iron Age A and B from the Iron Age C, and realised that later Celts were very different from earlier ones. What surely happened is that they went through the same revolution as the Romans had done: they discovered money, which subverted their barbaric society. They began to adopt many of the criteria of civilisation, and this is why, when the Romans conquered them, the Celts adopted the Roman way of life so enthusiastically.
Unfortunately the authors, like the academic sources on whom they rely, fail to realise this. The book treats the Celts as a homogenous whole, ignoring the changes they went through. So yes, it is quite right to point out the civilised nature of some of the later Celtic sites such as Bibracte — but this is because they were already adopting the town life and the habits of that of the Romans. Celtic eating habits might have been investigated, in that when the Celts became civilised, the Celts began to adopt the ‘Roman’ habit of individual plates, instead of eating from the communal cauldron — an enormous change in habits and customs.
The book also looks at the Coligny calendar, a series of bronze plaques excavated in central France in 1897, interpreted as a lunar calendar. The authors compare this with the calendar introduced by Julius Caesar in 55 BC, which needed slight amendments in the 17th century, but essentially remains with us up to the present day. However, the book maintains that this Julian calendar didn’t work all that well, as it had to be further revised at the end of the 16th century, thereby ignoring the amazing achievement of 1,600 years of working order that the Julian calendar had enjoyed. The Coligny calendar, on most interpretations, had only 354 days to the year, which meant that an extra month had to be inserted every two or three years. By contrast, the Julian calendar is much neater, with only February requiring an extra day every four years. It is pre-eminently practical, which is why it is still with us.
However, the book gets the Germans more or less right, recognising that they are very different to the Celts. Jones points out that, according to Tacitus, the Germans had no interest in money, whereas the Celts were fast becoming a money economy. This produced a very different society, though it is a pity that he quotes most of the evidence from Roman writers and ignores the findings of modern archaeology.
There is a very interesting account of the recent German excavations of the site at Waldgirmes, where a complete Roman proto-town has been excavated. The town may well have been intended to be the capital of a new province of Germania, until the disaster of the defeat of the Varus, in AD 9, put paid to all this. The chapter I disagree with most of all is when the book deals with the Hellenes, building them up as being ‘the most innovative scientific and engineering civilisation on earth; wherever they ruled, the Romans rejected the new. Nowhere is the dead hand of Roman stasis more clearly demonstrated than in its dealings with the Hellenic world.’
To illustrate this, the example of the Antikythera mechanism is used. The mechanism is a complicated series of bronze cogwheels, discovered underwater by a fisherman in 1900 and interpreted as a device for predicting the phases of the moon or eclipses for astrological predictions. This, Jones says, was well beyond the capabilities of the Romans. I must beg to differ. The mechanism may have been complex, but it was essentially used for astrological uses. In practical terms, it was far less useful than the geometric precision used to lay out Roman roads and Roman aqueducts, and to construct Roman buildings.
The book also maintains that upper-crust Romans disdained practical engineering. Again, I must beg to differ. For instance, the Romans invented concrete and constructed huge domes with it — the Pantheon, numerous baths, and the early Christian Basilicas, which far exceeded the technology anywhere else in the world. Their water engineering was also very advanced; the Roman water mill at the Barbegal in southern France, with eight successive waterwheels, produced power that was not to be seen again for another thousand years.
The chapters that work best are those on the barbarians from the East, including the Persians and later the Sassanians. We tend to neglect the barbarians from the east, but they were, in fact, by far the greatest threat to the Roman Empire. The history of the 3rd century AD cannot be understood unless one looks at the rise of the Sassanians, the last of the great Persian empires who were thriving at the very time that Rome was at its weakest.
Nevertheless, the Persians and Sassanians represented a highly stratified ‘feudal’ (Jones’ word) society: ‘The walls and stairways of Persepolis are covered in relief carvings of people from all parts of the empire bringing gifts, but their offerings are largely symbolic’ (page 175) — a classic example of gift exchange, the essence of a barbarian economy, very different to the market economy of Rome. The importance of status in daily life is also emphasised: ‘The Sassanians appear to have lived lives of elaborate courtliness, in which everyday behaviour was entirely dictated by status. Not only were the lowest status or youngest person the first to dismount and kiss the ground, but that person would also be expected to let anyone of higher status choose what colour to play at chess and make the first move’.
The authors compare this to Versailles, as evidence of nonbarbaric sophistication. Yet this highly stratified society is surely the essence of barbarism and the very opposite of the ‘open’ society of civilisation; and in fact, demonstrates the essentially barbaric nature of the Persians. It is important to emphasise the difference between barbarism and civilisation, and recognise the key criteria of gift exchange and a highly stratified society, which mark a barbarian society, compared with the market economy and an open society, that marks civilisation.
The final chapter looks at the Vandals, Huns, and Christianisation of Europe. The Vandals are presented as being ‘a not especially warlike nation of Germanic farmers whose history was one of migration under pressure’ but inevitably, the director of The Life of Brian concentrates on Arianism, which he describes as a tolerant form of Christianity. However, towards the end of the 4th century the Romans adopted Catholicism, an aggressively intolerant form of Christianity, and under Theodosius they set about destroying paganism and the Arians. Thus, Jones identifies Roman Catholicism as the final form of innate Roman aggression.
This book gives a valuable account of the barbarians that surrounded the Roman Empire, but how do the Romans come out? Terry Jones is, after all, the author of the most famous defence of the Romans in modern media, in the famous scene from The Life of Brian where the question is raised: What have the Romans done for us? The answer is then given: aqueducts, sanitation, roads, medicine, public health, wine, education, baths, law and order, and finally, reluctantly, peace.
I am looking forward to seeing Terry at this year’s Archaeology 2010 conference at the British Museum, and to hearing his Romans & Barbarians lecture in person. I am sure it will be a healthy debate!
This article first appeared in Issue 235 of Current Archaeology in October 2009.