Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Stick to Comedy, Terry. Please!

The series Barbariansrecently made the rounds of some dubious places on TV such as History International. It's hosted and written by Terry Jones, the fat one from Monty Python who has directed movies including Monty Python & the Holy Grail and Monty Python's Life of Brian and Monty Python's The Meaning of Life and played Brian's mum.

The series isn't quite as bad as the run of the mill History Channel stuff, but it's still pretty bad. Jones' point of departure is that the Romans considered anyone who wasn't a Roman to be a barbarian -- wrong: they didn't consider the Greeks to be barbarians, for example. In fact, the word "barbarian" derives from the Greek, and the Romans were in fact a lot less xenophobic than some of the Greeks. The localism of the Greek city-states persisted to a large degree through the political unification of the Persian wars and the Macedonian domination, and there was a lot of cultural variation from city to city within Greece. The Spartans, for example, showed a disdain and disinterest for the rest of the world far more extreme than Rome ever did. Rome adopted huge chunks of Greek culture, they welcomed the cult of Isis from Egypt, they eventually adopted Christianity from the East.

Not only is Jone's statement about Rome considering all non-Romans to be barbarians wrong, he also doesn't seem to realize that the word "barbarian" was one of the things which they took from the Greeks.

But the Celts, the Germanic tribes, the Huns, these were, in fact, as Jones states, referred to by the Romans as barbarians. And Jones is also right that our concept of these people comes in large part from Roman historians, and that these Roman writers tended to be one-sided and unfair.

Then, however, Jones presents a version of events which is at least as one-sided and unfair in the other direction.

For example: the remains of a broad and solid wooden road pre-dating the time of Roman contact has recently been discovered by archaeologists in Ireland. It crossed a boggy area where otherwise the unwary traveler might have have sunk to his death in the muck.

Jones points to this wooden road, and another similar one in Germany he's apparently only heard of but not seen, as evidence that the maligned Celts were in fact better road-builders than the Romans. Well, bullshit, Terry: you're comparing several miles of structure on one hand to many thousands of miles of Roman stone roads on the other, and although we can be sure that the Romans didn't build these fine broad wooden roads, we don't know it was Celts that built them either. It could have been Phoenicians, it could've been some civilization you and I have not yet heard of.

Over and over again Jones seizes on some artifact like this and hurries to assign the crudest possible Rome-bad, "barbarians"-good interpretation to it. He does nothing more than to replace one set of bigoted prejudices -- which, by the way, has been criticized and revised and corrected by serious historians for a long time already, and was not nearly as extreme in the ancient world as Jones, selectively quoting and spinning everything against Rome, would have you believe. Tacitus, for example, admired the Germanic tribes in many ways and held them up as an example from which Rome ought to learn -- with another. While scrunching up his face and grinning buffoonishly and bugging his eyes and so forth.

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