Watching the hit Netflix series Barbarians can be an exercise in divided loyalties. On the one hand, the Romans are, along with their Greek muses, one of the wellsprings of Western civilization. On the other hand, as the excitement of an interconnected world gives way to the monotony of high-tech globalism, the particularities of local life become increasingly precious. A Roman bath in Bath was much the same as one in Rome, just as newly relocated Oracle employees will be sipping lattes in Austin that taste much the same as the ones they ordered in San Mateo. One finds oneself rooting for the tribesmen.
Barbarians is a German production centering on one of the most dramatic events in European history: the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 A.D., in which Germanic tribes under the leadership of Arminius came together to annihilate three Roman legions in the dense forests outside what is now the city of Osnabrück. The Roman death toll was 20,000, and most of the few surviving Roman soldiers disappeared into slavery. Roman ambitions of northern expansion never recovered, and the battle became the legendary stuff of German solidarity once later scholars rediscovered the accounts of Tacitus detailing the disaster. The battle left a permanent dividing line between Romanized language and culture in Europe’s west and south and Germanic-speaking peoples to the east and north.
A New York Times review spends most of its space reassuring anxious readers that the makers of Barbarians do not intend to play into German nationalist mythology, but rather that they made the series in order to “reclaim” the story from the German right, which understandably sees parallels between the battle of Germanic tribes against the Roman Empire and their own struggles against the perceived oppression of the European Union. To which the only proper response is: “balderdash.”
There is no reclaiming of anything in this production. The reason for making Barbarians is that it is a rousing tale of an underdog annihilating the northern army of the most powerful fighting force the world had ever seen, and its popularity shows the producers weren’t wrong. Think The Last Kingdom, but with the barbarians speaking German, the Romans speaking Latin, and the viewer reading subtitles.
The series gets a lot of history right. Arminius is correctly portrayed as a man who had reached knighthood and citizenship via his service in the Roman army but who used the trust he had built with the Romans to lure them into a dangerously extended line on narrow forest paths in a campaign to quell a nonexistent rebellion. Using his knowledge of Roman tactics and weaknesses to spring his trap and aided by rainy weather that hampered Roman movement, he weakened and demoralized the panicking Roman ranks with his hit-and-run tactics, forcing them to retreat into an even larger ambush on a spot of Arminius’s choosing. There really was a rival barbarian leader, Segestus, who tried to warn the Roman governor Varus that Arminius was a traitor, and the battles did begin with highly effective volleys of short spears, thinning the ranks before the main attack. The Teutoburg Forest battle itself is condensed into a single television-friendly melee, whereas in reality it was a complex military operation taking place over three long days of probing raids and traps, followed by systematic slaughter after Varus and other Roman commanders fell on their swords, leaving the legions leaderless.
Still, the historical record is thin enough that the producers could concoct a backstory with requisite personal drama, including a closer relationship between Arminius and Varus than the record indicates and an obligatory love triangle. There are nods to the current sword and sandal genre, with glimpses of nudity, sufficient bone-crunching violence, tedious pagan witchery, and a de rigueur anachronistic female warrior. The German dialogue is simple enough that even those with rusty skills won’t require much in the way of subtitles, while the Latin seems a bit mechanical but is deeply satisfying.
Whether one takes the James Delingpole view of unabashedly cheering on the barbarians because the Romans “had it coming” or a more conflicted view alternating between rooting for the plucky underdog and feeling horror at the forces of civilization being taken down by skin-clad berserkers, this is a series for our times.
In the end, Roman civilization did conquer the Germanic tribes, but in a way that neither a Roman commander nor a Germanic chieftain might have imagined. While each was calling on Mars and Thor and engaging in a battle to the death at what we now think of as the turn of a millennium, a subtle but powerfully transformative force had quietly entered the body of the Roman Empire: Christianity, the triumph of which would be as complete as it was unexpected.