Friday, June 16, 2006

Terry Jones' Barbarians

[Revised on 30/06/2006.]

For the last four weeks, Terry Jones has been giving television viewers a revisionist view of the peoples who lived outside the Roman empire. Traditionally, we have been taught the Roman version of these 'barbarians' - that they were uncivilized savages who needed to be brought the values of Rome. As Jones says in an article in The Sunday Times, "It is a familiar story, and it's codswallop."

Now up to this point, I'm in some sympathy, though it's hardly as ground-breaking as press releases suggest. Yes, the Celts and Germans and Persians achieved a great deal, and we should not denigrate those achievements just because sources from the Roman empire condemn these people. To that extent, some of the criticism levelled against him has missed the point. I'm talking about that along the lines of "if the barbarians were so great, how is it that we have the Roman culture to admire, not theirs?" This simply shows that those individuals have bought into the Roman propaganda that Jones rails against.

But Jones goes further. In order to drive home his point, he ends up demonizing the Romans, portraying them as nothing but destroyers and conquerors. As a result, he ends up giving a picture which is just as much codswallop as the story he is railing against.

I don't want to go through everything I objected to in this series, but here's a representative sample:

The first programme looked at the Celts. Well, for a start, a lot of modern archaeological thought disputes the notion that there was such a people as the 'Celts' - it's seen as an artificial view imposed by the Romans. But Jones is happy to talk of a "Celtic empire". Differences between individual tribes within the Celtic world, differences which, according to our sources, were important to the invasion of Britain, are overlooked. Instead, Jones' Celts do nothing but trade with each other, and acknowledge the wise leadership of the Druids.

I often wonder about the Druids. According to Caesar's account, the Druids were independent of the political structures within the tribes. Anyone familiar with the reigns of Henry II and Henry VIII of England should know that enormous problems could be caused by a religious establishment whose first loyalty lay outside the political unit they were operating in. Perhaps many of the elites of Britain, those that had chosen to adopt the trappings of Roman culture (and they did exist, even before the conquest of AD 43), weren't too sad to see the back of the Druids.

Not so in Jones' view. For him the Druids were heroes of nationalism. The stories of human sacrifices found in Tacitus are dismissed as Roman propaganda. Now, I'm open to the possibility that Druidic human sacrifice is an exaggeration of the sources. Aldhouse-Green does say it was hypocritical of Roman writers to moralize about Druidical sacrifice whilst overlooking gladiatorial games, and there's some truth to that (though here and elsewhere in the series the degree to which Roman writers criticized the Games was somewhat elided). One can describe the execution of prisoners as part of the gladiatorial games as 'killing in a ritual context'.*

It's not the same, however, as suggesting that the Roman writers made it up. And one needs to note that other Tacitean stories, such as the presence of wild women amongst the Druids as the Roman army advanced on Mona, are accepted quite happily by Jones. My point is not to dismiss the notion that Roman sources exaggerate, but to argue that one can't pick and choose what one considers exaggeration and propaganda simply on the basis of what one would like to be true. This review of Jones' book points out that Jones states that Caesar's motivations for attacking Gaul are distorted (almost certainly true), but accepts Caesar's figures for how many Gauls he killed or enslaved (which are almost certainly inflated to reflect well on Caesar).

This is an attitude to Roman sources I've seen before in pro-Celtic treatments - there is an understanding that the ancient writers cannot be taken on trust, but that becomes a justification for indiscriminate cherry-picking from them. If the evidence suits the picture wanted, it is accepted; if it doesn't, it's propaganda, or just overlooked entirely. Approaches to Boudicca provide good examples of this. Cassius Dio tells us that when her army burnt London and Colchester, captured women were hung up by their breasts. That's unpleasant, so sometimes gets dismissed, but Dio's description of Boudicca, as a tall, fair-haired woman with a harsh voice, is often repeated without question, because in 2006 such a woman is not a frightening prospect, but someone we might quite admire. But for Dio this appearance makes her as much a monster as atrocities in London. Meanwhile, the burning of Verulamium, a city of Romanized Britons rather than a Roman creation such as Colchester or London, often gets overlooked (Jones does so).

This cherry-picking seems to extend to the talking heads used. Quite a lot of archaeologists and historians are talked to. But not many of them are scholars working on Rome, as opposed to mediaeval or Celtic scholars. Jon Coulston and Peter Heather turn up in the second programme, and Heather's in the fourth a lot - but there are none in the first and second. This results in an unbalanced story. I'd like to have seen someone with good knowledge of Roman society asked to comment, some who could point out, when Miranda Aldhouse-Green states that you'd never find in the Roman world a woman with as much wealth as the woman buried at Vix in the Bourgogne, that this simply isn't true.

For a start, there are the imperial women like Livia Augusta and Agrippina the Younger. These women were influential in their lifetimes, and in Livia's case, honoured after her death. Lower down the social scale, there is the Pompeian priestess Eumachia, who paid for a portico on the forum at Pompeii out of funds she controlled, and had a monumental tomb. There wouldn't have been many women like this, but I doubt there were many rich Gallic women like the Vix 'princess' either. What Jones and Aldhouse Green are doing is comparing exceptions in the Celtic world with the norm in the Roman. But if one wants to prove that the condition of women was better in the Celtic world than in the Roman, it is necessary to compare norms.

The position of women in Roman society was rather more complex than the picture of automatic subordination to men put forward in the programme (it is notable that the programme uses up-to-date research on the Celtic world to attack an outdated view of the Roman empire that goes back to the 1950s). For the Celtic norm, we are poorly informed. Jones' programme adduced evidence from Irish laws of the seventh century AD to tell us about the position of women in Celtic society in the first century BC. I am not altogether convinced. Early mediaeval Irish society was not the same as first century BC Gallic or British society, and whilst it might be possible to postulate some continuity, any not supported by contemporary evidence must be conjectural. A friend who knows these sources rather better than me concurs, and suggests that selective reading of the Irish evidence is necessary to justify 'feminist' views of what that society was like.

There's a lot of wishful thinking employed by a certain type of feminist scholar, that seizes on anything that might suggest a certain society had a far more enlightened attitude to women than previously thought. Bettany Hughes, in many ways a first rate television historian, has a bit of a blind spot when it comes to this, and is always searching for the strong powerful woman. So she presented ancient Sparta as a liberated society in that respect, whereas I feel that if you actually look at the 'freedoms' enjoyed by Spartan women, they were almost all geared towards making them more efficient baby factories.

I don't, of course, have anything against feminism - in fact it's an idea of which I wholeheartedly approve. Nor do I object to feminist scholarship - I think it's important to illuminate the lives of women, especially as many male scholars would still rather look at something else. I have argued elsewhere that we still need a feminist archaeology. What I object to is reading in to the evidence attitudes that simply aren't there. I don't think it empowers women to represent ancient societies as less patriarchal than they actually were.

Unfortunately, this sort of special pleading is found throughout the series. The third programme looked at the Greeks and Persians. Well, for a start, the Greeks weren't barbarians. They were part of the same culture as Rome, and the Romans knew this. Jones is happy to describe the Greek historian Polybius as Roman, but the Antikythera mechanism, found in a Roman ship in an area of the Aegean that at the time of sinking (c. 80 BC) was part of the Roman empire, is 'barbarian'. Jones aligns the Greeks with other eastern barbarians such as the Persians and Parthians - but no Greek would have accepted such an alignment.

Jones further over-simplifies by comparing the Roman empire with the Achaemenid Persian empire of the sixth to fourth centuries BC. Why? Because he wants to imply that Achaemenid institutions and attitudes to government persisted in Rome's enemy Parthia.

Firstly, the Parthians were not the Persians. They invaded Iran, conquering it from the Macedonian Seleucid kingdom. When the Parthian empire fell, it fell to Persian nationalism, as personified by the Sassanids. Secondly, whilst it is true that the Achaemenid empire had great tolerance for local customs, they were not tolerant of revolt, and were an expansionist empire. The Cyrus Cylinder, which Jones makes great play of as an early 'human rights charter', does, one must not forget, result from Persian military conquest of Babylon. And political power was confined to an Iranian elite, to which outsiders could not gain entry. Greeks or Egyptians could make some progress, but as with most empires, they would soon hit a glass ceiling. There was one empire in the ancient world that didn't act like this, where elites of conquered territories were incorporated into the overall ruling elite, and were granted access to high ranking positions, perhaps even the throne itself. What was that empire? Oh, yes. Rome.

Jones has an agenda, of course, one some right-wing commentators predicted early on, and which emerges most strongly in the programme on the 'barbarians' of the east. That agenda is the equation of ancient Rome with the modern United States. So, the Roman occupation of north-west Europe is a 'war on the Celts', and he talks of how the Romans came a cropper in the Middle East, just as the Americans are now doing (Jones doesn't say this out loud - he doesn't have to). (Here, Jones has his cake and eats it - the Parthians beat the Romans because their values were utterly different from Rome's, whilst the Sassanians prevailed through being exactly the same as the Romans, only more so.) As it happens, I tend to agree with Jones' opinion of the foreign policy of the Bush administration. But this simplistic equation helps us understand neither Rome nor America.

A number of people, such as A.A. Gill in The Sunday Times (again) have compared Barbarians to Boris Johnson and the Dream of Rome; so I will too. First of all, most of these commentators seem to have missed the point of Johnson's series - it seems to be assumed that Johnson was, in Gill's words, using "Rome ... as a symbol and argument for European union". That's not my reading at all. Johnson admires ancient Rome, and is an enthusiast for the idea of European union - but the thrust of Dream of Rome was to show that Rome is actually not a good model for a united Europe, and the problems that have arisen when it has been so taken. Be that as it may, for all his admiration of Rome, Johnson is never sentimental about it. Jones, on the other hand, is sentimental about the barbarians. And so he falls into the trap that awaits many a sentimental scholar, of attributing to barbarian societies qualities - being peace-loving, non-sexist, socially-responsible, etc. - that they think make up a society they would want to live in. It's remaking ancient society in our own image, and we should be much more wary about this than people often are.

I should say that I've not much patience with apologists for the Roman empire either, people who tolerate and argue away aspects of Rome that they wouldn't accept in more modern imperial states. We can't reach a fair assessment of the Roman empire if we distort the facts, from whichever direction.

As a result of his attraction towards the barbarians, Jones ends up being unfair to the Romans. It's right to emphasize the brutality of the final settlement of Dacia, but it's unfair to reduce the Dacian Wars to a single campaign, overlooking that the Dacian king Decebalus came to terms with Rome, which he immediately repudiated, prompting the brutality of Trajan's Second War. It's right to emphasize that the Arabs preserved much of the scientific learning of Greece, but unfair to pretend that the Romans did nothing but try to destroy knowledge, overlooking the contributions made by the great libraries of the Roman world. It's unfair to portray the Romans as fundamentally against knowledge and learning for its own sake, or to overlook the contributions of the Latin poets.

The irony at the heart of this series** is that, for all his rejection of Roman values, Jones is locked in a model of historiography created by the Romans. The model is one in which we define ourselves in relation to the Other, the people who are everything we are not and would never want to be. The Romans put the barbarians into the role of the Other, demonized them, and romanticized themselves. Jones simply swaps the model round, demonizes the Romans, and romanticizes the barbarians. But if we're ever to truly understand the so-called 'barbarians', we need to reject the model altogether. We need to understand that Alaric the Goth's sack of Rome may not have been the act of utter destruction that tradition asserts, but nor was it quite the polite sightseeing tour that Jones implies.

I don't want to suggest that Jones' programme is entirely without value. It's certainly useful for alerting people to evidence about the various barbarian cultures that they may not otherwise know about. But it is very, very one-sided. One might say that it's being 'revisionist', but I don't think being revisionist should allow programme-makers to get away with being one-sided and wrong-headed, and manipulating the evidence. Those involved, such as Jones, who is usually a reasonable scholar, and advisor Barry Cunliffe, who is a great archaeologist (if wrong about the first Roman landing in Britain), really ought to have known better.

* I'm going to hedge my bets on the archaeological evidence for killing in a ritual context in Celtic society that might be derived from, for instance, the well-known bog bodies. Human sacrifice is one possible explanation of what happened to Lindow Man et al., but I'm not sure the evidence is clear enough to say it's the only explanation.

** Another, lesser, irony, is the way Jones' words get undercut, for anyone with their own knowledge, by the images on the screen. Trajan built most of the Rome we see today, he says, as the camera pans over the Forum Romanum, an area entirely devoid of Trajanic building. When Jones is talking of how the Roman Catholic church took on the Latin language from the Roman empire, a Catholic priest is shown holding up a book emblazoned with an Alpha and an Omega.


Alex Bordessa said...

I found the Rome-bashing a bit tiresome, to say the least. It was way too black and white. But as for Sir Barrington Windsor Cunliffe, for he is made so in today's honours, I'll not have a bad word said about him :-)

Tony Keen said...

Cunliffe is a great archaeologist, which is precisely why he ought to know better. (He's wrong about the Roman landing in Britain, though.)

Carla said...

I've been away and haven't seen either the first or fourth programmes (though hopefully they are on the video waiting for me), but I saw that second and third programmes and thought that Terry Jones was presenting a deliberately revisionist view. He said at one point that he'd been taught at school that the Romans were the great civilising power in Europe in general and Britain in particular (the 1066 And All That view of British history), and I thought he was using the series to present an opposing view. I thought he might have said that explicitly in the first programme (which I haven't seen yet), but from your description it sounds as if he didn't.

I wonder if it was thought that presenting a one-sided anti-Roman view would make better, 'sexier' TV than a more balanced approach? Rather like the Timewatch documentary on Alex's Roman skeletons?

Tony Keen said...

I don't think being revisionist allows you to get away with being one-sided and wrong-headed, and manipulating the evidence.

Gabriele C. said...

But one sided and controversial goes well for TV. We had this mess some years ago about that guy who said Charlemagne was a fake made up by Otto I. He got a lot more TV time than feedback by serious historians who treated him like the nutcase he was.

Well, Jones doesn't seem to be a nutcase, but he knows how to sell himself on the media, obviously. (Have to wait until the program finds its way to Germany.)

The Master said...

I haven't seen any of the series, but I did purchase the book last week. Reading your article, it seems to address many of the points you've raised, especially about things Jones has ignored or simplified. It's also thoroughly sourced.

Since when was TV History supposed to be subjected to any great scrutiny anyway? Glossing over things is part of its nature, because its designed to fit the program slot and appeal to a wider audience. You might as well decry the history taught in schools up until A-levels, which is much of the same thing.

Still, Jones is known for getting a bit carried away. There's a wonderful bit in Chaucers Knight where he spends pages analysing the list of battles that the knight has taken part in, using it as a large element in supporting his idea of the knight as a mercenary. He fails to consider that Chaucer wrote poetry, and that it is more than likely the names of the battles were chosen simply for how they rhymed and scanned.

Tony Keen said...

Yes, TV history can't address issues in the same depth as a book can. But this doesn't mean it should simplify to the point where it actually distorts and presents a false or one-sided picture. The moment you say 'it's only TV, it doesn't matter' or 'it's only A-level', you're comitted to a process of dumbing-down. It does matter, because for some people this will be their only exposure, so it is important that it is got right.

Simon Fielding said...

I found this series as creaky as Jones's cringeworthy Guardian 'polemics' which do his political opinions no credit at all. A pity, because he is a fine scholar; his book on Chaucer's Knight is a masterpiece.

danfield said...

just watched terry jones barbarians this morning and found its one sided views simplistic and his comparison to USA really quite irritating