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4.2 out of 5 stars
4.2 out of 5 stars

on 22 July 2006
In "Barbarians," Terry Jones and Alan Ereira finally answer the question posed in "Monty Python's Life of Brian": "What did the Romans ever do for us?" "The answer," according to the authors, "is not usually very nice."

Jones and Ereira explain that while there are many books setting out the history of Rome from the Roman perspective, there is no general history in English that tells the tale from the viewpoint of the so-called "barbarians." This book is their attempt to remedy this omission, and it recounts the history of Rome as experienced by the Atlantic Celts, the Germans (including the Dacians), the Hellenes (Greeks and Persians), the Huns and others who encountered the pointy end of Roman civilization. The message is that the Romans were not so much bringers of civilization as destroyers of advanced societies, not innovators but relentless conservatives who deliberately suppressed the hard-earned knowledge of the peoples they conquered. In Tacitus' famous phrase, the Romans had a habit of making a wasteland and calling it peace--at least until they encountered the equally ruthless Parthian and Sassanian empires.

"Barbarians" is "popular history" (it accompanies a BBC TV series), and the effort to tell the story from a non-Roman point of view sometimes lapses into exaggeration--for instance, I'm skeptical that the Greeks were really on the verge of an "industrial revolution" before being rolled by the Romans. Still, Jones (of Monty Python fame) and Ereira are witty racontuers--their latest book is a highly readble and surprisingly illuminating account of the ancient world that will raise the hackles of Romanophiles everywhere.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 2 August 2013
"Terry Jones' Barbarians" is the title of a documentary film presented by Terry Jones and first broadcast on BBC2 in 2006. It is also the title of a book written by Terry Jones and Alan Ereira (published by BBC Books in 2006 and 2007).

Terry Jones is probably best known as a member of Monty Python's Flying Circus (which was active 1969-1983), but he is also the author of several books about history and the presenter of several television programs about history.

Alan Ereira has worked with Terry Jones on several projects, including Crusades and Terry Jones' Medieval Lives.

The book and the film have the same structure. The film is divided into four episodes; the book is divided into four parts. It covers several Barbarian peoples: Celts, Dacians, Germans, Goths, Greeks, Huns, Persians, and Vandals.

The authors are openly biased against the Romans. They claim the positive achievements of the Romans have been overrated, while the Barbarians have been ignored or misunderstood.

They claim modern scholars and modern public opinion love everything about the Romans and blame the Barbarians for all the problems of the Roman Empire.

When they compare Romans and Barbarians, the topic (as well as the Barbarian people) is carefully chosen in order to "prove" that the Barbarians are better and/or more talented than the Romans.

One example is the question of women's rights, which is discussed in chapter III about the Celts in Britain. First the authors claim Roman women did not have any rights at all. Then they tell us about Boudica, Queen of the Iceni, and Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes. This is how they "prove" that Barbarians had more respect for women than the Romans had. But this argument is flawed for several reasons:

(A) Roman women did not have public rights. They could not vote, not hold public office and not serve in the army. But they did have private rights. They could buy and sell property, make a will, be the beneficiary of a will, and divorce their husband. These rights are not insignificant. Moreover, if a husband divorced his wife, he had to return the dowry he had received when the marriage began.

(B) Boudica and Cartimandua were members of the local elite. They ruled their tribes as queens, but this does not prove that ordinary women had the same rights as ordinary men in ancient Britain.

(C) The topic is not raised in chapters about other Barbarians. It is easy to understand why. If you study the question of women's rights among the Huns or the Vandals, you will not find any "ammunition" you can use against the Romans.

Another example is the question of technology and inventions, which is discussed in chapter VIII about the Greeks. The authors present the Antikythera mechanism, which is a unique product from the ancient world. They imply this device is ignored by modern scholars, which is not true.

Here is one example: it is discussed in the Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World (2008, 2010) pp. 744-746. Here is another example: NOVA has devoted an episode to this mechanism: Ancient Computer (season 40 episode 14, shown on US television - PBS - and released on DVD in 2013).

Jones and Ereira also mention Archimedes and the story of the burning mirrors, i.e. he was able to set fire to Roman ships using mirrors to reflect the rays of the sun. They attempt to demonstrate that this story is credible. The story is mentioned and rejected in the Oxford Handbook (page 138), and in my opinion with good reason.

Not everything is this book is bad, though. There are some good points as well:

** In chapter VI they demonstrate that the main motive for Trajan's wars against Dacia was economic.

** In chapter X they tell us about the Roman Emperor Valerian, who was captured alive by the Persian king Shapur I in 260.

But they also make mistakes. Here are two examples:

(1) A passage on page 117 about Dacia reads: "It is said that the great Emperor Augustus betrothed his five-year-old daughter to one Dacian chief, and was himself supposed to be interested in marrying the man's daughter."

They do not provide the source or the context for this anecdote. But they add the following words: "Whether the story is true or not, it gives some indication of the equality that was then perceived to exist between the societies of Rome and Dacia."

The source is Svetonius, Divus Augustus, chapter 63. The anecdote is part of the smear campaign Mark Antony conducted against Octavian (the future Augustus) during their civil war. The anecdote is not true and does not show any "equality" between Rome and Dacia: in fact, quite the opposite. Mark Antony circulated this rumour in order to show how low Octavian was ready to go. Because Jones and Ereira fail to provide the source and the context of this anecdote, they completely misunderstand it.

(2) A passage on page 126 about the images on Trajan's Column says: "there is no viewpoint from where you can observe them with the naked eye (and as far as we know never has been)..."

In antiquity the column was flanked by two libraries (one Greek, one Latin). The carvings on the column could be observed from balconies mounted on these buildings. It seems Jones and Ereira are not aware of this fact.

In some ways this book is a breath of fresh air; it provides an interesting perspective. It is a good idea to describe the history of the Roman Empire from the Barbarian point of view instead of the traditional Roman point of view. But the authors go completely overboard; they overstate their case.

For them the Romans represent only death and destruction, while the Barbarians stand for freedom and creativity, but this black-and-white image of the ancient world is not true. It is an oversimplified version of the facts as we know them.

If you read this book, you may like it, and you may enjoy the strictly un-academic style of writing. But please be careful. Do not believe everything they tell you.

Caveat lector!
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on 29 February 2008
I have to say that this was probably the best book I read last year. You obviously need to have some interest in history to get everything out of it but it is still extremely accessible. It is apparently a companion to a BBC TV series, but it can't have been advertised very much as I don't recall it. You certainly don't miss anything by not having seen it.

It is a history of what happened outside the Roman Empire and thus doesn't concentrate on the Empire itself (though it has fair bit of information to provide the backdrop) and sometimes comes across as biased against the Romans. However as it says in the intro, this is a concious stance taken to highlight the fact that most accounts of the period, and thus accepted "standard" history, are based on Roman writings very often full of contemporary Roman propaganda and so are themselves heavily biased in favour of the Romans.
The authors also highlight the unconcious prejudice of many modern historians in dealing with the period, particularly the technological achievements of non-Romans.

Aside the technical details this was just a great read, with many illuminating facts on people and races that are often portayed wrongly (The Vandals) or simply ignored (The Dacians). The occasional digressions were always interesting (the Roman legion captured and sent to Mongolia; the finds of clothing in ancient Chinese graves that were identical to Celtic clothing of a much later date), and the general style of the writing is as entertaining as Terry Jones always is. He also gives you a great historical overview of a period you won't have learnt about in school.

I can't recommend this book highly enough.
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on 12 January 2010
This book is really really great and should be read by anyone interested in Ancient History- although it's about proving that so-called barbarions were much more clever, efficient, modern and nice than their Roman enemies, it's actually a fairly good general acount of AD Ancient History because it describes so many different peoples at different times(although a few Roman enemies are missing, such as Carthaginians.) The style is much lighter and easier to read than most histories and it provides a whole new outlook of Romans using both what is common knowledge but often forgiven them on grounds of the times such as coloseums(butno other cultures at the same time had them...) and things less well known.

It also told me a lot I'd had no idea of about the rise of Christianity(it has a very strange relationship with Rome.)

So yes, basically you should buy this. It's the only ancient history book I've found that deals broadly with a lot of stuff instead of giving ridiculous detail to one aspect or being overly intellectual and unreadable to someone who isn't already an expert in the field.
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on 1 July 2013
First of all: I loved this book. It's really well written, funny without being goofy, and fully loaded of references so you can check the facts that appear within. Having said that, it also has a strong point of view, and it spills from every and each page.

If you read the book, you'll get three conclusions:
- Romans were an overtly cruel, arrogant and belligerant society that lived on sacking and looting its neighbors.
- The Catholic Church is an intolerant and fanatic group that provoked wars, destroyed culture and kept most of the bad customs of the Roman Empire.
- All that we know about what Romans and the Church called "barbarians" comes from Roman and Catholic sources, which are at least skewed, and sometimes pure propaganda.

Some of these opinions might agree with what you already thought, some might not. Be prepared to think about what you think you knew about those so called "barbarians": celts, greeks, persians (parthians), germans, vandals, goths and the huns.
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on 7 August 2014
Let me start with the mild annoyance. It was clear quite quickly that Mr. Jones, probably monika'd after the Roman republican poet Terence, holds the Romans in the same regard and esteem as the Khmer Rouge. The distaste is too often reiterated and whilst in the many comparative analyses the 'Barbarians' get explanations of historical context and background, the Romans are afforded these facilities very rarely.
On the positive side, we get wonderful views and examples, often presented with a witty epigram, covering virtually all of Rome's neighbours from 300BC to 450AD. For me the Celts, Dacia, Persia and the Parthians were especially well-rounded and well-explained as Mr. Jones inserted some good insights on the thought processes and ideals of these peoples, well backed up with archaeological and literary data.
Mr. Jones has asked some questions that needed to be asked and with a little bias has answered most of them with short, neat, sometimes uncomfortable answers.
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on 27 October 2015
An entertaining read...but judging by the latest archaeological evidence just that.
If not for Rome we would NOT have the way of life we enjoy in Europe and the US.
All I will add is a quote from Gladiator: 'I have seen much of the rest of the world; it is brutal and cruel and dark. Rome is the light.'...
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on 19 February 2007
The Romans were the all conquering, civilising super-heroes of ancient history. Or at least that is pretty much what we have all been brought up to believe. This book is an enjoyable and very readable counterpoint to that hypothesis.

Perhaps the key point to this book is not whether it is completely correct in all its assertions, but that this gives an alternative option to how the world was in those distant days. I have never considered the point of view of a Celt having his life turned upside down by some very violent chaps in togas. I did not realise that the Dacians were very happy in their peaceful world with its manufactured religion that gave them the basis for political stability and a hugely wealthy economy.

The explanation of the demise of the Roman Emoire into two parts, sometimes three or four, was useful and revealing. It actually makes you realise that the Romans were the same as all the other empires that came and went in those tumultuous ancient times, except that the Roman story survives.

The emergence of Christianity, particularly Roman Catholicism (the Arians never stood a chance!) is, in my opinion, probably the real reason that the history of Rome has endured as such a bright star. The Church selected certain customs and elements of the culture and preserved a selective history.

This book is a very welcome view from the recieving end of the Legions.
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on 26 May 2010
This book was written to accompany the BBC series of the same name.
The author adopts the alternative view that the Romans were the barbarians and the usual culprits,the Celts,Huns,Vandals,Goths etc. were the innocent parties.His main point is that the Romans only unique fearure, compared to other cultures was its professional army.
The book is divided into 4 sections the Celts,barbarians of the north, barbarians of the east and Vandals and Huns.Esch section details the life,culture and contribution that each of the "barbarian"cultures made.The book is well written researched and easily read.
There are good illustrations,notes, bibliography and an extensive timeline from 576BC-535AD.
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on 3 September 2006
As you might expect from a Terry Jones book it is highly entertaining as well as informative and the book is chock-full with attested quotes and facts. However you need to be a bit careful with some of the conclusions. True enough the Greeks had the steam engine theory down pat and were inventing vending machines but this was often after the supposedly oppressive Romans conquered them. Jones emphasizes the engineering achievements of the "barbarian" nations at the exclusion of Roman achievements - yet the Roman achievements were often far greater; it took 1,500 years for anyone to put up a dome that was bigger than that at the Pantheon in Rome. The art of making concrete was lost after the Roman period. And the phenomenal engineering achievement in taking aqueducts over dozens of miles to provide Rome (and other cities) with a consistent source of fresh water, something which evades many cities in the world today (and which certainly was not done by the Huns, Goths, Germans, Celts or any of the other "barbarian" races that Jones thinks superior to the Romans), is totally ignored.

Had the book's central thesis been that the Romans were a bit rubbish after the 2nd century AD, when religious dogma pretty much stymied original thought and continuity of rule was shattered by emperor after emperor after emperor, then he would have had a point; but the Romans' only real sin in the context of this book was being a couple of hundred years behind the Greeks, which is no shame as they pretty much invented democracy, comedy, mathematics, atomic theory, literary criticism and so on in about a hundred year period. The West did not catch up till around 1600.

There is a nice irony where Jones praises the Germans for fooling the Romans by making up fake lawsuits to lull the hapless Varus into a false sense of security and then destroying 3 legions at the Teutoberger forest. Yet throughout it is Jones that castigates the Romans for oppressing subjects without mercy; OK, the Romans did their fair share, but Jones gives them no credit for their attempts to have the Germans sort out their disputes in the comparative civilization of a lawcourt. (Jones lambasts the Roman legal system as being a product of a later era, but that ignores the evidence of the Twelve Tables, which are dated to around 5th century BC and include such fairly sophisticated matters such as witness transport, stays of payment, perjury and settlement. The fact that sources for Roman law over the next few hundred years are not great does not mean that there was no such thing. And of course the system was sophisticated enough to produce a great lawyer like Cicero; did any other civilization have as heroes people who did not fight?)

No, there is a reason why the barbarian races did not leave so much of a mark as the Romans. And that is that the Romans - at least either side of 1AD - were a great deal better than them.

But this is an excellent overview of what those other societies might have been like and puts the Roman world in its own context. Make your own conclusions and you cannot go far wrong.
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