Terry Jones` Barbarians (DVD)

Review by Ursus

Had I not been committed to reviewing these DVDs for UNRV, I might have taken a hammer to them halfway through and gladly forgotten about the whole thing. In seeking to present "the other side of Roman history" and rescue Europe's other peoples from Roman propaganda, Terry Jones demonizes Ancient Rome as a brutal oppressor whose only real legacy lay in cultural genocide. Inverting an unjust bias against those who propagated it does not reverse the original bias; it only adds to the distortion of history. Jones` Barbarians is - to employ terms Mr. Jones would appreciate - poppycock and codswallop.

Barbarians is a four desk set. Disk 1 looks at the Celtic tribes. Disk 2 surveys the early Germans, the Dacians, and the Goths. The third disk explores the Greeks and the Parthians and Sassanids. The final disk closes with the Huns and the Vandals. These discs basically follow Jones on archaeological locations, alternating between delivering serious dialogue and comedic one liners on the cultures in question. Mr. Jones interviews various scholars and experts at key moments (though he has a habit of talking over them). Finally, you have useless scenes of actors in period costumes; they represent ancient figures such as Attila the Hun or Julius Caesar, but they say nothing and simply stare at the camera while Jones delivers a monologue.

Barry Cunliffe, a renowned archaeologist in Celtic studies, served as series advisor. In addition, Jones interviewed such other experts as Miranda Aldhouse-Green and Peter Heather. Given the caliber of these officials, you would think the series would be top notch. But it isn't, because their expertise is used only to bolster the barbarian record or to denigrate Rome's. Jones is basically playing a game I have seen other revisionists play. When the Romans say something negative about a given culture, it is treated with extreme skepticism. When the Romans say something positive about the culture or negative about themselves, then it is treated as gospel truth. This is a double standard of the worse kind.

Let us take the Celts, for instance, the subject of the first disk. Caesars` The War on Gaul painted them as ignorant savages, obviously portraying them in a negative light to further his own war against them. An hour is spent trying to overturn these assertions. But then Caesar's own comment that he exterminated or enslaved two million Gauls is taken at face value, even though this surely must have been exaggerated to boost Caesar's own credentials with the voters back home.

As for some of the assumptions on the Celts overturned by Jones, they go a bit far. The Celts are described as more advanced than the Romans because they built wooded plank roads which supposedly existed before the Roman roads. I'm not sure if Rome's ruler straight roads constructed of brick and stone are anyway inferior to the wooden roads of the Celts. In any event, Jones says the Celts used these roads to link their cities in a peaceful trading network. He then uses laws from Medieval Ireland to "prove" that Celts 700 years earlier placed a primacy on caring for the very young and the very old, a practice he contrasts negatively to Roman infanticide.

A peaceful trading network backed up by laws for social justice and social welfare sounds more like a humanist vision of the European Union than anything from the ancient world. While the Celts were certainly not primitives, Jones leaves out the fact they were just as apt to raid or seize their neighbor's land as to trade with them, or the fact they liked to decorate their doorways with heads severed from their enemies. And because gold mining sites were discovered in Gaul, Jones makes the claim the Caesar's war was nothing more than a gold mining expedition (and here I thought Caesar conquered Gaul because he was an ambitious politician, not because he was greedy).

It doesn't get much better as we progress through the four disk set. Let's take the third disk, partially devoted to the Greeks. Jones drones on for quite some time about Hellenic intellectual achievements. He claims that he was taught in school that the Romans were the harbingers of all civilization and was shocked to find out that another culture exceeded Rome's scientific advances. I'm not sure what education Mr. Jones received, but I don't think anyone who has read more than a few books on the classical world will be surprised to discover that the Greeks were better at pure science and abstract intellectual matters than the Romans. Given that the Romans tutored their children with educated Greek slaves, and sent their young men over to Athens and Rhodes for their higher education, I don't think the Romans themselves would have a problem acknowledging Greek intellectualism. Disk 3 is nothing but a boorish straw man argument.

Jones says Rome, rather than being a civilizing agent, is responsible for nothing but the destruction of other cultures and for eradicating our knowledge of the ancient world. The only real achievement of Rome, in his view, was their own propaganda of themselves which they passed down through history - and which he has thoughtfully overturned for us, noble chap that he is. The barbarians were peaceful, clever folk in some ways more advanced than Rome. The Romans were the real barbarians, brutal and ignorant.

I'm sure most of you reading this will have some sense of Rome's contribution to the world in the form of law, government, architecture and engineering, literature, philosophy and the like. And I am sure most of you will be aware of the degree that Romans consciously imitated their Hellenic neighbors in many of these matters. It is therefore beyond me how Jones can accuse Rome of having no real achievements, and of single handedly eradicating the intellectual heritage of the ancient world.

A criticism I saw leveled at Jones' series is that it has more to do with modern politics than the ancient world. An upstart superpower whose overbearing influence is resented by older and more culturally advanced civilizations - are we talking about Rome or America? But I honestly saw no overt allusions to modern politics. I'm told they exist in a corresponding book on the series - but I haven't read it, nor after watching this four hour fiasco do I intend to. I can only judge the DVDs by what I saw onscreen. Regardless of whatever alleged political agenda Jones may have, the DVDs are bad enough to be condemned on their own merits.

The history of the ancient world's other peoples deserves to be illuminated, and it deserves to be rescued from hostile Roman bias where such bias exists. But these disks are neither instructive nor especially interesting. The on-location scenery can be nice, and Jones admittedly has a knack for one liners. But reading a book (for example) on the Celts by Barry Cunliffe or Simon James would furnish far more erudition and objectivity on the matter than Jones can muster, and they do so without turning Rome into an ancient Third Reich.

Those reasonably educated in the ancient world will easily be able to spot the lies and half-truths touted by Jones. My concern is that the younger and more ignorant out there will be taken in by Jones' humor and charm and internalize this distorted view of history. Instead of watching Jones the so-called historian, they would actually do better to watch Jones the comedian and his former comrades.

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