Terry Jones is a barbarian part I: A new rant

T
Reg: But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, viticulture, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
PFJ Member: Brought peace?
Reg: Oh, peace? SHUT UP! – Monty Pythons life of Brian (as if you needed me to tell you that).

Terry Jones is not a historian, he’s a very naughty (and smug) propagandist.

Hello all and welcome to my first “review” of a TV series, Now growing up I watched a lot of documentaries, especially history documentaries (it helps that we had cable/have cable for most of my young life) and thus it is unsurprising that I’ve seen my share of absolutely terrible ones, in large part courtesy of the history channel but if you were to ask me which history documentary I despise above all others, I would not reply with one of the many conspiracy theory or American propaganda or macabre Nazi fetish world war II doco’s that are the virtually exclusive fair of the history channel….at least when their making a pretense of covering, you know…..history.

This is in part because these all quickly blur together and it quickly becomes difficult to identify one from another, also they are generally so cheap, poorly made and just so transparently ridiculous that they can become funny and are in any case not to be taken seriously- their audience is minimal and in the case of the crazy conspiracy theory ones (aliens, Nostradamus etc), one is tempted to think that those credulous enough to fall for them are somewhat beyond help (bad world war II doco’s are often more insidious but are alas a dime a dozen).

No my most detested doco is partly so because it hits closer to home by which I mean it bastardizes an era of history I’m deeply passionate about, the doco in question is a well funded, well produced¬† documentary series airing when I first saw it on BBC knowledge with a celebrity presenter and writer noted for his sense of humor and consulting some of the most prominent historians in their fields, notably for me Peter Heather (in two episode’s) a very influential scholar in the fields of late Antiquity, particularly on the so called barbarian tribes and their influence on the late Roman empire and vice versa. The 4 part series of documentaries in question is called Terry Jones’ Barbarians, and as you might have guessed from my continuous dropping of his name (you know aside from the fact that it’s in the doco’s damn title) is written and presented by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame (Jones also co-wrote a book to accompany the documentary, and while I’m normally against burning books if as seems probable it is much like the series a little page out of the nazis book (you know…one of those they didn’t burn…) might be in order, thanks history channel!) and came out in 2006.

Now let’s get this out of the way, Monty Python’s the Holy Grail and the life of Brian are two of the funniest films I have ever seen and are works of comic genius. Jones has every right to be proud of his work on those films and much of the rest of his career as a comedian (aside from those two films I find the Pythons very hit and miss, even as far as comedians go but there’s definitely lots of good stuff there).

There, we can move forward now, so what’s this series about? well on the surface it is and purports to be a work of revisionism that views (and very loosely tries to tell) Roman history from the perspective of the barbarian- the infamous other, as well as investigating several of these so-called barbarian cultures, peoples and/or states and attempting to overturn negative biases against them (no attempt is made to overturn any pr-existing positive bias’s) which are traced back to the Romans.

I say on the surface because what the series is really about is the politics of our own time, Rome was the greatest Western power of it’s time and has become the dominant symbol for the very concept of empire in Western culture, holding that distinction for over a thousand years. In Terry Jones elaborate and confused metaphor, as in so many others it is a stand in for the dominant power of the present day (especially in the West): the United States of America (with a little bit of the Catholic church throw in for good measure at the end). The barbarians naturally represent the more enlightened, cultured and peaceful (and socially equitable, of course) Europeans…..well we certainly haven’t seen this before, I wonder where this is going to go? Sarcasm may indeed be the lowest form of wit but at least that means it qualifies, whereas this theme and metaphor is so overdone that it requires no imagination whatsoever.

In terms of structure the series is divided into 4 roughly hour long episodes each focusing on different barbarian groups and their interactions with Rome, the first episode covers the Celts, the second the Goths and other so called Germanic peoples as well as the Dacians, the third covers people’s Terry Jones calls the “brainy barbarians” (though according to him by comparison to the Romans everyone seems to look sophisticated), namely the Greeks the Parthians and Persians (we’ll get to the problems with this), the 4th and final episode deals with the Huns, the Vandals and fall of the Western Roman empire.

Before we dive headfirst into this vomitorium you should know if you don’t already that I’m approaching this series from a Roman bias, Rome is my primary historical interest, it is the state I know the most about and I am a definite Romanophile,.I believe that for all their many faults Rome often comes out shining compared to its contemporaries and indeed many cultures that came afterwards, you don’t become the longest lasting state in history without doing something right, it would in short these days not be inaccurate to call me a Roman apologist and as such I have my work cut out for me because contrary to Terry’s portrayal of this series as a mind-blowing work of revisionism, whereby Terry for the first time shatters the dominant view of the Romans as enlightened bearers of civilization and the greatest state of Antiquity. Terry is hardly the first to try and knock the Romans down a few pegs or even the first to outright demonize them (that said he takes it incredibly far at times, if he has any claim to originality it is in this, at least in far as mainstream well-known products are concerned), especially at the time it came out.

In Western society as stated earlier Rome has come to represent the very symbol of empire and after the second world war and decolonization, we in the West by in large and particularly those of a scholarly bent decided we hate empire’s, the US, the great Western Empire of our tine’s invasion of Iraq (still relatively recent as of 2006) further intensified those anti-imperial sentiments and added an extra political dimension, the comparison with Rome was obvious and Rome’s very success came back posthumously to bite it. The ancient world was a violent place and the great majority of states then (and since) owed their existence and expansion to violence, Rome however was particularly successful and particularly influential in regards to Western society so it gets stuck with the odium. As such anti-Roman popular documentaries aimed at the impressionable and largely anti-American youth of Britain, Europe and the commonwealth were common around the time Terry’s effort came out, many (like Terry’s) presented by the BBC such as “Carthage: the Roman holocaust”, Britain BC, it’s sequel Britain AD (to an extent) and the docudrama “Ancient Rome- the rise and fall of an empire”.

There now you know where Terry’s coming from and where I’m coming from what and so in my next installment I can get down to ranting about the first two episodes.

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Samuel Runge

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