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What Did the Romans Ever Do for Us?
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.