Terry Jones talks about barbarians

Tuesday 10 October (2006)

terry jones

It’s the Cheltenham Literature Festival at the moment, and when I saw that my favourite member of Monty Python, the erstwhile Terry Jones, was giving a lecture based on his new book and television series Barbarians, I had to go. Luckily the ticket was only £3.50! And the evening was complimented by a surprise visit from Sally’s brother Scott, and his girlfriend Lisa.

Anyway we took our seats in the Everyman Theatre and awaited the arrival of Mr. Jones. Soon enough he arrived, and immediately embarked on a very interesting lecture. The word ‘barbarian’ for example – did you know that it was a word used by the Greeks to describe anyone who couldn’t speak Greek? Because those people didn’t speak, they just went bar-bar-bar-bar-bar and thus they were barbarians. The Romans then took the word and used it themselves, in a kind of linguistical coup d’etat, and eventually it came to mean any persons who were, basically, uncivilised.

The really interesting thing about it all is that I have assumed, like many, that the Romans were the civilised people and the nations they invaded were the lands of barbarians, who really, in the long run, benefitted from the invasion. Jones paints a quite different picture however, as he tells us that the Persians and the Germans (the only two regions of the known world which resisted Roman invasion) were actually far more civilised people. Even the Celts were credited with laying the foundations of the famous Roman roads.

Perhaps his most interesting conclusion was that, contrary to popular belief, the Romans and their invasions across Europe didn’t advance civilisation and technology but rather set them back, by as much as a thousand years. It’s really quite an interesting view of classical European history, and as Jones delivers his points so passionately and entertainingly, it’s hard not to believe every single word he says.

I thoroughly enjoyed his Medieval Lives series for the BBC, and I now intend to find some episodes of Barbarians on UKTV History. I might even pick up his book sometime, although my studies are quite intensive at the moment and I wouldn’t have the time to read it for a while. Still, extremely interesting! If you’re into your Romans, check it out.


6 Responses to “Terry Jones talks about barbarians”

  1. Rabinowicz Henri Says:

    Is it possible to buy a copy of the tv serie “The barbarians”

  2. Grant Hay Says:

    Terry Jones has a jaundiced view of Rome. This is understandable as any modern educated liberal humanist is bound to get mighty squeamish about the trail of wreckage in bodies and cultures left in the wake of the juggernaut. The point to remember is that people of that stamp were in mighty short supply 2000 years ago. The main difference between Rome and most of the competing cultures, was that Rome was more stubbornly determined over the long haul and had a genius for eventually stumbling across reasonably efficient methods of organization on a large scale. To suggest that Rome was a “baddy” and that every people they conquered were shining examples of tolerant pacifism is clearly revisionist tosh. The phrase to bear in mind here is “Compared to what”? Rome was bloody in its treatment of the conquered compared to whom? The endless list of conquerors from the Babylonians, Hittites, Assyrians (especially Assyrians), Persians and Greeks who were all in the habit of not just decimating (killing a tenth), but completely annihilating whole cities which dared to resist or which revolted after being taken. Rome was an unjust and illegal invader of others lands compared to whom? Well, all of the above with the addition of Egypt, the Hebrews in their day (fairly short), Celts (including those poor Gauls), Goths of various stamps, Anglo Saxons, Danes, Jutes (in fact all the Scandinavian lot) plus the never ending and numberless hordes of nomadic tribal people continually pressing south and west from the steppes of central Asia. The Romans invented the war of prevention long before George “Dubbya” ever thought of it. They invaded their Latin / Etruscan / Samnite neighbors to prevent themselves from being overrun by these warlike and opportunistic people. The Italy Rome inherited was already in the process of being colonized by Greeks and Carthaginians. When these colonies called on their allies for support against Roman control and “interference”, Rome got dragged in to a series of large scale foreign wars of conquest which were probably never envisaged at first. This was pretty well true right up to the end of the Republic and into the start of the “pax Romana”. You could argue (as Jones does), that the invasion of Dacia was Trajan’s cynical and grasping ruination of a cultured and peace loving people. But only if you were unaware that Dacia was a very powerful and menacing kingdom which had to be bought off continually in order to stop it from raiding over the Danube into Roman territory. What the Romans gave us was: a) A conduit of information and civilization from the Fertile Crescent and classical Greece into our own modern age. b) The memory of the pax Romana, which was the first time in human history when large numbers (7,000,000 odd) of people had the security of living in an empire which was powerful enough to let at least four generations live safely as civilians without having to fight for their survival on a regular basis. Jones seems to overlook also that there are very many known examples of people clamouring for entry into the empire and once in, Romanizing themselves as quickly as possible in order to claim the privileges of citizenship. It’s impossible to say what the world would now be like if Rome had not existed. But it is easy to imagine how Western civilization as we know it would never have come to be without Rome.

  3. jie4him Says:

    Mr. roman lover any strong empire will benefit any people living in that empire. I’ts not confine to rome itself. The best example is the parthian empire with it’s feaudal system allowing more freedoms to it’s citizens than rome. But the point is Roman acted like a barbarian to it’s neighbors as it was stated in the video. If there’s so much barbarians in Rome’s eyes then why not look upon itself? she couldn’t be one sided in labeling people. Anyway who send people to the lions for fun huh? That empire has a penchant for barbaric games FYI. Rome is nothing more than pseudo-civilized iron empire with an ego-centric mentality of its own. Now you may have something about Dacia but you cannot say the same thing with the celts whom rome conquered for selfish reasons. So please mr. roman lover you can’t convince us of these Roman contribution to humanity. save it to yourself.

  4. Melanie Says:

    A glimpse of history shows the romans were truly barbaric by modern standards, but then, as has been said… so were many others. However, what most find barbaric was that Rome claimed to have lofty ideals (like modern America) but dismally proved that it was one law for them and one for the vanquished. Why did so many revolt if they were truly benefiting from being Roman?
    Consider Spartacus’ revolt, the revolt in Jerusalem, the brutality offered to Boudicca because her husband dared to leave the romans only half his estate in his will. Herself flogged, her daughters raped, no wonder she led a revolt against the invaders.
    The Romans are the ancient equivalent of the modern totalitarian dictatorships in terms of their brutality. If Nazi Germany had won the war, no doubt people would be praising them 1000 years from now.

  5. John Archer Says:

    ‘as Jones delivers his points so passionately and entertainingly, it’s hard not to believe every single word he says’… – What a load of crap! Jones is a buffoon. He can’t even deliver his lines clearly – he lets his sentences die on the last word so that often you can’t even make it out. His overacting and ludicrous posturing is so ridiculous it’s almost unwatchable. As for his blind anti-Romanism, that’s just an extension of the prevailing anti-westernism that is so fashionable at the BBC and other pseudo-intellectual institutions. I’m not going to joust with a jester on the merits of Roman technical achievement, his is too risible an idea to be dignified with argument. Oh and by the way, if he were a local in the Iran he so obsequiously crawls to, as a homosexual he’d be hanged from a crane. Very civilized.

  6. John Says:

    The series is excellent.

    Rome probably did enormous damage to technical and scientific progress. Their emphasis on and dependence on slavery meant that they could live in luxury based on making humans into robots. This has nothing to do with anti western attitudes. Had Gaul been left alone, certainly the Greeks you’d have seen an industrial revolution 500 years earlier than it did.

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