Another Goodreads review – this time Terry Jones and Alan Ereira’s Barbarians. I’m planning a novel set in the late Roman Empire, so this year’s challenge will have a lot of Roman stuff. Apologies for those of you uninterested in things Roman. Blame Goscinny and Uderzo. It’s all their fault. Also, while I seem to be crawling along with my reading, it’s the reviewing that’s taking the time. I will try to speed up, or at least not go on so much.
Enjoy your reading, folks!
Barbarians is a revisionist retelling of Rome’s relationship with the peoples it came into contact with, that the Romans called ‘barbarians’. It seeks to show that these peoples were not ‘barbaric’ in the way that we understand the term today.
Jones and Ereira have not so much written a history as a sustained polemic. It begins by listing the things that we associate with Roman greatness: roads, laws, the Julian calendar. Also listed is the chariot. Unfortunately, I never got to study Latin at school, but no-one that I know with an interest in the period would consider the chariot as something peculiarly Roman. They going on to (correctly) talk about Caesar’s encounter with chariots during his two invasions of Britain. He noted that they were sturdy and aggressively driven. But here they are almost elevated to the status of a wonder weapon. This is ironic because the Romans were unfamiliar with the chariot as a weapon of war because they went out of use as a weapon of war elsewhere hundreds of years earlier. They were good for moving men swiftly to battle, but an effective weapon of war they were not.
This is doubly ironic because the information about their use comes to us from Caesar. Yet Caesar is derided as an unreliable chronicler of the Gauls because he described the elk as a creature that slept standing because their legs have no joints (a story he got from the Germans). It’s true that Caesar is not someone to take at his word. Why do so here?
There is lots of distinctly wobbly interpretations. They describe the quite sophisticated laws of the Celts, and note that Roman and Celtic law served different societies. No argument there. But Roman law was not based around paterfamilias, though it was an important component of it. It was largely to regulate property relations, though, like the Celts, there were also many laws that regulated socio-political functions. It’s doubtful that Archimedes’s mirror that could burn ships was actually deployed. The issue is not so much that the mirror couldn’t be built, but that it would likely be ineffective against a target that moves.
It’s also unlikely that Rome set back civilisation hundreds and hundreds of years because of the inventions that it effectively quashed. It’s true that the Romans did not make use of the many inventions that came out of the Greek world in the second and first centuries BC (and they list some of these). But the rulers of Rome, like the rulers of societies around then, made their wealth from exploiting slave labour. At the height of its power, some historians estimate that for every Athenian citizen there were three slaves (of course this doesn’t count women and foreigners). The inventions that they laud might have taken off at some point, but it’s likely that there would need to have been social upheaval within those societies for those devices to replace slave labour, rather than being a supplement.
It might seem from the above that this book isn’t worth reading, but this isn’t the case. I would say that the faults that they ascribe to the Romans are true. But they weren’t exclusive to the Romans. The Romans succeeded, and the others did not. Because there is much that they get right that often isn’t told. The dynamism of the middle-late Republic and early Empire was based on its success. Economic growth in the ancient world tended to be extrinsic rather than intrinsic. That is, your economy grew fastest by nick stuff from someone else. For Rome, military triumphs brought treasure and slaves into the economy. Once the Empire stopped expanding, inflation took hold. By the fifth century the city stopped being the administrative and economic focus for the elites, which doomed the state as the burden of tax shifted downwards.
This is not so much a history as a sustained polemic. Rome is cudgelled for killing cultural diversity, yet the end of the West is surely at least in part the result of different socio-cultural milieus going their own way? This book may annoy, but it remains thought provoking, and that surely was its purpose. In one sense, it’s a survey of all the peoples of the Mediterranean and Near East. No, the Romans were not universally good guys. But other peoples were not either. Some of Rome’s heritage is surely worthwhile. I am still in awe when I visit Bath or the Pantheon.