Becky Hewlitt looks forward to Terry Jones's revisionist series about the Roman empire
What did the Romans do for us? Roads, coins, baths, towns, civilisation? Not according to Terry Jones in his new television series Barbarians. Over four weeks he seeks to examine the traditional view that the Romans rescued us from brutality and were missionaries for a far superior way of life.
"I felt there was another story to be told," said Terry, back from his travels through Gaul and Germania. "I had my prejudices and assumptions about the period but I've always thought it important to reconsider the past and not accept any one absolute truth."
Indeed, the first programme, The Primitive Celts, made me review my whole opinion of Rome as the civiliser, and consequently how I've taught it for the past 10 years. It opened my eyes to the genocide committed in the name of the Roman empire and the great disservice history has done to the "brutish" people of non-Roman Europe. Have we been too swift to classify the Romans as "goodies"? Perhaps they deserve to be seen alongside the Nazis as those who sought to destroy other cultures and bend the truth to suit their own ends?
The book accompanying the series explains that the word "barbarian" comes from the Ancient Greeks, to describe people whose language seemed like babble. The Romans believed that anyone who was not Roman must be inferior.
The familiar story is that the Romans civilised savage hordes and held them at bay as long as they could.
Jones, however, calls this "codswallop" and goes on to explain that "the unique feature of Rome was not its arts or its science or its political culture. It was that it had the world's first professional army." Rome did not rescue the rest of Europe from a dark age - they subjugated the people for their own ends and stole their best ideas.
Terry Jones starts the series by asking: "Why did the Romans hate the Celts so much? What did the Celts have that the Romans were bothered about?"
Through the examination of archaeological evidence and discussion with experts at sites in Ireland, France and Britain, he discovers that the Celts were far from the "villains of history".
They had developed an elaborate calendar which could predict the sun, moon and tides for hundreds of years, they imported huge flagons of the finest wines from Italy, and they wore expensive jewellery. Evidence of a 2,000-year-old roadway in a dark corner of an Irish farmhouse has even been discovered.
"In fact, Celtic society was much better," Terry explains. "Women had power, whereas in Rome they were chattels of menfolk; and children were cared for, as were the mentally ill."
Roman habits such as the exposure of unwanted infants and the deaths in the amphitheatres would have been abhorrent to the family-centred Celts.
The series continues with The Savage Goths and the surprising character of Herman the German, the legacy of The Brainy Barbarians, and The End of the World, exploring the fall of the empire. Throughout, a mix of dramatic representations, computer graphics and interviews with academics brings Jones's arguments to life. It is a more serious and highbrow series than his earlier Medieval People but he keeps a lightness of touch that holds the interest. His enthusiasm is contagious and as I watched I certainly wanted to learn more.
The accompanying book is a weighty and academic work, but it would be perfect for anyone wanting to find out more about the period and the people covered in the series. It has a superb range of illustrations and a bibliography that would guide any independent research you may wish to do.
In Alesia, near modern Dijon, Caesar surrounded the Gaul Vercingetorix and his followers. After weeks of siege, with their food beginning to run out, old men, women and children crossed the no-man's land between the opposing factions, begging the Romans for mercy. Caesar refused to open the gates and Vercingetorix's men had to watch as their families starved to death.
Who was barbaric here?
Barbarians is a fantastic series. It challenges us to rethink our attitude towards a period many of us have taught in the same way for many years. It is academic yet accessible, funny in places and moving in others. Most importantly, it encourages us to review our teaching in the light of new findings, keep our thinking fresh and avoid falling for Roman propaganda, even if we still admire some Roman achievements.
Terry Jones has certainly inspired this teacher. Would he ever consider teaching Roman history himself? "I admire teachers. It must be a terribly tough job performing to the same 30 people over and over again. I'd be far too terrified!"