One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. It's all a matter of perspective or, in the words of an American politician, it's all a matter of whether you're "with us" or "against us."
The same is true of the word "barbarian" which derives from a Latin word which refers to the unintelligible sound of a foreign language perceived by its listener as gibberish. The Romans, likely copying from the Greeks as they did in so many ways, applied the term to virtually foreign speakers, dividing the world clearly into "us" and "them." The term is most closely associated today with a handful of foreign armies that invaded the Roman Empire at various points during its vast dynasty.
"Barbarian" is hardly a value-neutral term either. The word conjures up images of foul-smelling, poorly-dressed illiterate brutes or perhaps current California governors. I'm pretty sure there's a difference between the two. Today, we know that the Romans represented Western civilization while the depravations inflicted by the swarming barbarians were largely responsible for plunging us into the Dark Ages.
Or do we? Terry Jones, of Monty Python fame, offers a different take on these knuckle-dragging savages of lore in his entertaining and informative BBC series "Terry Jones' Barbarians" (see, his name is even in the title.) The series is comprised of four episodes in which Jones hosts a revisionist take on history's most loathsome barbarians like the Celts, the Goths, the Huns and the Vandals. What Jones discovers in his investigations is radically different from the standard historical account which shouldn't be a surprise since these accounts come from the Romans who had a slight bias in telling only one version of the story.
Take Attila the Hun, for example. What a piece of work this man described as the "scourge of God" must have been, what with the raping and the looting and the killing and all the big nastiness. Attila was a ferocious military leader for sure, but according to Jones he was hardly a monster leading a faceless horde of marauders. The Huns were not even a single group, but rather a hodge-podge community/army that many Germans, uneasy under the Roman yoke, were eager to join. While Attila was set on global conquest (he claimed to have had a spiritual vision that predicted his dominance) he wasn't interested in engaging in the wanton slaughter that characterized most Roman military campaigns. He was more of a racketeer than a mass killer; the Romans paid him a massive annual bribe that amounted to protection money in order to leave them alone. When his army invaded Rome, he abruptly turned back after a meeting with Pope Leo most likely because the Pope caved into all of Attila's demands.
The series also focuses on the scientific and cultural achievements of some of these alleged barbarians. The Celts, for example, had developed sophisticated calendars and an advanced society. Jones also takes great pleasure in skewering Roman arrogance. The Romans got so cocky at their height they even referred to the Greeks as barbarians, an evaluation they had to reconsider when the Roman fleet attacked Syracuse only to be repelled by the ingenuity of a lone Greek scientist by the name of Archimedes. Naturally, when the Romans finally breached the city walls after a lengthy siege, instead of taking advantage of a brilliant mind, they simply slaughtered Archimedes on the spot.
The series spans most of the European continent, with Jones' presence the constant holding everything together. He comes across as both witty and friendly, and articulates his anti-Roman, pro-barbarian position quite persuasively. "The Barbarians" is a thoroughly enjoyable journey through an alternate history that should probably be more mainstream.
Each episode is approximately 45 minutes long. The four episodes (two on each disc) are: "The Primitive Celts," "The Savage Goths," "The Brainy Barbarians," and "The End of the World."
The episodes are presented in their original 1.33:1 full-screen aspect ratio. The transfer is no better than adequate, but what do you really need for a television series like this? The transfer is also interlaced which means you will see some instances of combing and occasional softness in the image.
The DVDs are presented in Dolby Digital Stereo. No subtitles are provided to support the English audio.
"The Barbarians" serves up a satisfying blend of humor and information in order to argue a single focused thesis: "The Barbarians weren't as barbaric as we all think." Jones is a great host for a series that is a cut above the typical historical cable fare we've all become used to. You'll never think of barbarians the same way.