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An exercise in historical "vandalism"?,
This review is from: Terry Jones' Barbarians (Paperback)
It doesn't take much to conjure an image of what barbarians represent in the modern psyche. The Huns, Vandals and Goths all paint lurid pictures in the modern mind and are synonymous with destruction, ignorance and violence. Much of this has already been countered in modern academia with historians and archaeologists working to present a more considered case for "barbarian" peoples, however there is a definite gap in modern accessible works for general readers to reconsider their views on barbarians. In that respect Terry Jones' work is a welcome addition to accessible works on the topic. There has been much change in general attitudes to the ancient world, Tom Holland has shown Rome as a gangster empire (Rubicon) and Ancient Greece as a rogue state (Persian Fire), whilst Richard Miles has made a strong case for Carthaginian credibility (Carthage Must be Destroyed). Against this revision of popular history, a work on barbarians is highly welcome.
It is therefore something of a shame that this work that promises much fails to deliver for a number of reasons. First is the literary style of the work, in making his case Jones perhaps overestimates the esteem Rome is held in (modern tastes are against empire, slavery and wars of aggression) and resorts to significant overstatement to make his points. This can be seen in the way in which he exaggerates the state of development of certain cultures (Dacia in particular) perhaps suggesting levels of sophistication that are beyond the reality of those cultures e.g. Dacia was certainly in the process of state formation perhaps similar to Archelaus' Macedon but was certainly unlikely to have been an outright kingdom. The way these statements are made are at best clumsy and inaccurate but also condescending.
Secondly there is an issue of what his argument actually is. There is an overriding argument that we are wrong to be dismissive of these "barbarian" cultures and that we have an overwhelmingly Roman view of history. In that he would be right, however it is hard to see what his other arguments are, other than a non-stop diatribe against Rome. The muddle of the work perhaps stems from his structure. Firstly he is very selective of which "barbarian" groupings he looks at - he largely ignores the Hellenistic successor states (Antigonid Macedon is mentioned in passing, but the Mithradatic kingdom, Seleukid Empire and Ptolemaic Egypt are ignored - the last being a puzzling exclusion given the Augustan propaganda against Cleopatra), whilst his inclusion of the "Greek East" is a rather artificial construct and his discussion of the Parthians and Sassanid Persians somewhat baffling. I make the last comment because it is through his discussions of the Sassanid Persians that his argument unravels, if his aim was to suggest that the Romans own conduct best conforms to what we actually think of as barbaric, then the Sassanid Empire is not the best advert for an alternative, whilst the discussion of the Huns is baffling; Attila will never be and can never be seen as an enlightened ruler. His righteous indignation stutters on the fact that what we can learn from the Sassanids and Huns is that the Romans actually found other cultures that could be as violent and aggressive as they were.
Third is the subject of religion. It is hard on reading this work to suggest that Terry Jones is entirely in line with modern scholarship on religion in history. Modern scholarship (Mary Beard/Jonathon North) has argued persuasively in favour of the vitality and belief of Roman religion. Jones seems to believe that all religion is pretext for cynical actions (which undoubtedly for some it can be), whilst his lack of comprehension of the issues around the Arian Heresy severely unbalance his work in the last 50 pages. Jones seems to be determined to attack the Catholic Church as every turn in the book, allying his views to Arians, Pelagists and Donatists. Whilst the Church does not have a spotless history, much of this attack is gratuitous and seems to make an organisation that was at this time loosely defined and decentralised, look like some dark centralised force. It is disappointing and a poor reflection on his scholarship that he writes in this way.
The book is still a reasonably interesting read; however its selectivity and confused/aggressive agenda perhaps make it an unreliable work. However it would make a useful introduction on to other works such as Jacobsen or Merills/Miles (A history of the Vandals or The Vandals, respectively), Heather (The Goths), Cunliffe (The Celts) or James (The Franks) to name a few.