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Terry Jones' Barbarians    by Terry Jones & Alan Ereira order for
Terry Jones' Barbarians
by Terry Jones
Order:  USA  Can
BBC Books, 2006 (2006)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Terry Jones' Barbarians accompanies a new BBC2 series to give us a fresh - and rather surprising - perspective on 'over 700 years of history on three continents' that led to the development of Western civilization. I enjoyed reading this tome at the same time as watching the HBO-BBC Rome series. The book begins with a Barbarian Timeline stretching from the reign of Cyrus I in Persia (c.576 BC) to the Byzantine conquest of Ravenna (AD 535), then continues Introducing the Goodies and Baddies.

Jones and Ereira call the book 'an attempt to reconsider the vast numbers of European and Asian peoples who have been written off as the villains of history - the Barbarians - and, at the same time, to re-evaluate those paragons of civilization: the all-conquering Romans.' They dig into the Roman fear of Barbarians (the term essentially means others, people who aren't Romans), whom they viewed as 'incoherent tribes of violent savages', but who actually lived in societies that were often more advanced than that of Rome.

Four areas of the ancient world are covered - the Celts, Northern Barbarians (Germans, Dacians and Goths), Eastern Barbarians (Hellenes, Persians and Sassanians), Vandals and Huns. (Note that negative connotations of terms like goth and vandal have permeated modern languages.) Did you know that the Celts 'were leaders in the development of wheeled transport' (in particular war chariots) and used harvesting machines? That they built wooden roads in 148 BC? That Celtic smiths were the iron-masters of Europe? That, according to Plutarch, Caesar's armies killed a million people in Gaul, which had gold reserves that Rome wanted (in Britain it was silver)?

Heading north of Rome, we find a German society, which archeological evidence portrays as 'remarkably egalitarian', with little private ownership of land and major decisions made in a folk-moot. East of the Germans were the Dacians. This literate, socially advanced kingdom, 'one of the wealthiest in Europe' - with a remarkable religion (Zalmoxism) - was annihilated by Rome. The authors go on to tell us that, despite popular myth, the Goths did not destroy Rome or massacre the population, but were led by a Christian who had been a commander-in-chief of the Roman army. They tell us that the Vandals were deeply moral and that the Huns turned away from Rome at the Pope's request.

This book states that 'Rome established its Empire by destroying other civilizations.' The authors write sorrowfully of the loss of the writings of the Druids, the advanced engineering of the Hellenes (including early robots), the egalitarianism of the Germans, and the religion of the Dacians. After Christianization of an Empire filled with cultural differences, they contend that 'Christianity's most enduring gift to the world was to demonize those differences as 'heresy'.' They describe the conversion of the Empire to 'Christian Trinitarianism, known as Catholicism', stating that the Catholic church gave us history, transforming Europe's ancestors 'into savages fit for children's tales. That is how Barbarians were made.'

The authors tell their tale with spirit and humor that make what could be dry facts totally fascinating. I especially enjoyed reading about female leaders like Celtic Boudicca, Persian Zenobia, and the intellectual Hypatia of Alexandria. There are also intriguing parallels between the Roman Empire and recent U.S. policies - both trained foreigners in more advanced military techniques, which were later used against them. There is much to be learned from the barbarian past in this absorbing popular history.

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