[22 March 2004]
In popular understanding, the word “barbarian” describes an uneducated, primitive and savage member of one of the nomadic tribes that in ancient times left a path of destruction across Asia and Europe. According to this definition, the barbarian’s only goal in life is the sacking and pillaging of towns and empires. Produced by The History Channel, Barbarians explores the origins and exploits of the Vikings, the Goths, the Mongols and the Huns, dedicating a 45-minute episode to the rise and fall of each of these tribes. Barbarians presents these nomadic tribes as complex historical populations whose influence on world culture extends beyond their violent battle tactics.
Still, the highlights of Barbarians are the exciting reenactments of these encounters. As shown in the behind-the-scenes featurette included on the DVD, Emmy Award-winning documentarian Robert Gardner and his crew paid close attention to minute details of historically accurate garments and locations. Unfortunately, even though interviews with scholars are intercalated with these reenactments the series’ content doesn’t live up to its visuals; Barbarians suffers from a reliance on well-known facts found in any encyclopedia.
In spite of this shortcoming, Barbarians challenges some common misconceptions about these tribal nomads. For example, while popular culture focuses on the brutal methods of warfare employed by the barbarians, the equally savage practices of their more “civilized” enemies are often ignored or trivialized. Barbarians makes clear that the Vikings, the Goths, the Huns and the Mongols, after years of oppression, fought back against tyrannical and imperialistic forces.
The case of the Goths is the most dramatic. This tribe traced its roots back to a peaceful group of farmers who were attacked by the Huns, and who left their ancestral lands after the promise of protection given to them by the Roman Empire. However, the treacherous Romans sent the Goths to concentration camps, where they only found slavery, hunger and death. Once free, the Goths’ eventual pillaging, sacking and massacre of Roman towns can be taken as a justifiable act of self-preservation.
For all their exploitation and oppression and after years of brutal conflict, the Romans finally gave the Goths a portion of their Western Empire as payment for the suffering they had endured. The Goths populated these lands and forged a great kingdom that extended through most of Western Europe. After years of nomadic life, the Goths became “settled” and created the distinctive “gothic” style that deeply influenced the art and architecture of the western world for several centuries.
The Goths were not the only tribe to have significant influence on the “civilized” world. As Barbarians reminds us, the Vikings made huge advances in ship design, which enabled them to be the first Europeans to arrive in America, and the Mongol territory that stretched across most of Asia allowed trade between Europe and the Far East.
While most of these accomplishments resulted from the social and economic dynamics that characterized these nomadic societies (sailing and trading routes), one should not ignore the important roles played by their leaders. Barbarians argues that Attila (Huns), Harald Hardrada (Vikings), Aleric (Goths), and Genghis Kahn and Tamerlane (Mongols) were not only excellent strategists and soldiers, but also farsighted and talented leaders. Hardrada and Genghis Kahn realized the benefits of promoting trade across their vast empires, while Tamerlane was an art lover who spared the lives of his enemies’ artists and engineers to create a multicultural pool of talent with his own realm.
Even more, as suggested in Barbarians, the history of the tribes is intimately associated with the achievements of their leaders. Consider how the rise and fall of these tribes went along with the comings and goings of Attila, Hardrada, Aleric, Genghis Kahn, and Tamerlane. Thanks to them, the barbarian tribes were able to conquer great lands and influence the rest of the world. However, as soon as these leaders died, so did the power and influence of their empires. And this may be the most distinctive characteristic of these tribal societies. Western history did not end with their deaths.