After reading Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives, I was all hot to trot to dig into this book, with the tag line, An alternative Roman History. It was all of that, all right. Lots of it. Lots and lots of it. Lots and lots of blood, gore, fighting, destroying entire civilizations, obliterating entire cultures, slashing and burning, taking the people for slaves stuff. Whew. And all done by the ROMANS!
Turns out the barbarians weren’t really all that barbaric. Barbarian really just means stranger, it doesn’t mean one who pillages and rapes and destroys as he goes. That would be the Romans, thank you very much.
The book covers basically the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, over 700 years worth of blood, gore, fighting, destroying entire civilizations, obliterating entire cultures, slashing and burning, taking people for slaves. You know what? History sucks. By that, I mean the history of the human race. We totally suck. We are cruel, selfish, uncaring, and all about the collective me me me. It’s just so depressing reading about this stuff. Dreary and dispiriting.
Got some great civilization going on? Higher values? Technology? Beauty? Arts? OK, let’s rush right in and sack the place, rape the women, take the men — those that we haven’t killed — and make them slaves, all the while destroying the architecture, the culture, the arts, the beauty. Totally sucks.
Anyway, the whole premise of the book is
about all those peoples whom the Romans wrote off as uncivilized. It is a a chance to look at the Romans themselves from an alternative point of view — from the point of view of the people they trashed.
We’ve all been sold a false history of Rome that has twisted our entire understanding of our own history — glorifying (and glossing over) a long era of ruthless imperial power, celebrating it for the benefit of Renaissance tyrants and more modern empires, and wildly distorting our view of the so-called ‘Middle Ages’ and of the peoples whom Rome crushed and who were then blamed for its fall.
Nobody ever called themselves ‘barbarians’. It’s not that sort of word. It’s a word used about other people. In fact, it’s a term of otherness used to label (and usually libel) the peoples who surrounded their [the Roman’s] own world. The peoples whom they called barbarians became forever branded – be they Spaniards, Britons, Gauls, Germans, Scythians, Persians or Syrians. And of course ‘barbarian’ has become a by-word for the very opposite of everything we consider civilized.
An interesting, and very dense as in chock full, not dense as in hard to understand, book that I found difficult to read all in one go. I found it necessary to read a bit, digest that info, then go back and read some more, pause for reflection for a day or more, go back and read on.
If you are interested in the Roman empire, and the concurrent histories of the other civilizations surrounding it during that time period, you will like this book. It is not as lighthearted as the Medieval Lives book; the two authors have a bone to pick, with Rome and its culture and civilization, and with the Church as well. So it’s tone in spite of the occasional humorous line, is more somber, and the humorous parts tend to be more along the line of sarcasm, because it is hard to be blithesome about blood, gore, fighting, destroying entire civilizations, obliterating entire cultures, slashing and burning, and taking people to use them as slaves.
Sigh. Stay calm and solder on.
Carved sarcophagus depicting a battle between Romans and Barbarians, Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome,