Greeks, Romans and Barbarians


Televised history, at least in the UK, has a long tradition of throwing up interesting and thought provoking series, and the recent ‘Barbarians’ by ex-Python Terry Jones was one such. His central thesis was that we give the Romans far too much credit as a civilising influence, tacitly accepting that the ‘barbarians’ they conquered were ultimately better off due to the benefits of Roman law and stability. In fact, as he showed in numerous examples, their societies were just as advanced in many ways as the Roman model which superseded them. Jones stated that it was purely Rome’s military strength which allowed them to take over a large portion of the known world and, having won their wars, they then rewrote history in their own favour.

It was certainly an entertaining series, which put forward this alternative view of the Romans with great confidence, but do Jones’ ideas stand up? Is it fair to single out the Romans for such criticism? After all, there had been large authoritarian empires before which had crushed local cultures and brought entire populations under the control of powerful centralised authorities. There had even been powerful European empires in the centuries preceding the Romans, most notably that of Alexander the Great and his successors, though this had looked eastward into Asia rather than westward into Europe. We might also consider the Athenian empire of the fifth century BC, which was short-lived and limited in extent compared to that of Rome, but makes an interesting comparison. So, given these and other examples, why be so beastly to the Romans?

In fact, one of the surprising and depressing aspects of our historical past is how quickly ‘civilisation’ led to the establishment of large despotic regimes. From the time the first cities started to establish themselves some five thousand years ago, we have seen the rise and fall of a succession of empires in different parts of the world. The change from egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies of the paleolithic era to the urban-centred hierarchies of the bronze age was both sudden and dramatic, and the effects are still with us today.

Let us consider that early transition to ‘civilisation’: the archetypal hierarchical society of the ancient world was Egypt, and the outstanding monument to its social organisation – the Great Pyramid of Giza. Its very construction exemplifies the Egyptian state: an enormous volume of rock, laboriously collected and positioned with painstaking accuracy, supports a tiny pinnacle lifted high above the desert sands. The analogy with the way Khufu, the pharoh, was supported by the organised toil of his numerous subjects is impossible to miss. The ultimate irony of this incredible construction, of course, is that it is ultimately pointless since it was built to facilitate Khufu’s mythical journey into the after-life. Would his labourers have laughed or cried had they been confronted with the truth that their great project was an exercise in futility? Some of them, of course, may have realised that perfectly well at the time, and have simply shrugged and pocketed their wages – an attitude not unknown in our own day and age, of course.

With this in mind, it is difficult to see why Jones singles out the Romans as being particularly worthy of criticism. After all, if the Greeks had not defeated the invading Persian armies at the start of the fifth century BC, we might not have had any model of less authoritarian states against which to compare them. Quite how European history would have unfolded in that alternative universe is impossible to know, but it is a sobering exercise to think through the possibilities. And, staying with the Greeks, let us not forget that it was they themselves who were ultimately responsible for the withering away of the early shoots of democracy. The Greek world which the Romans came to dominate had already transformed into an imperial model – albeit a less successful one.

On the whole, though, I think Jones is probably right to argue for a rethink in our attitude to Rome. Who knows what we might have been able to learn from the many societies they conquered, had they not so thoroughly wrote them out of the records. And Rome itself was not always a good imperial master: those who lived under Roman rule in the latter days of the republic would hardly have thought themselves blessed by good governance, and the later empire – from the third century onwards – became a steadily less appealing place in which to live. Even in its better periods, woe betide anyone who got on the wrong side of the authorities – particularly if they did not have Roman citizenship.

A good measure of the intrinsic strength of the social model which Rome imposed on its imperial territories can be assessed by comparing it with that of the Greeks. The concept of the city state largely survived the long period of Roman rule, and Greek culture remained a strong force within the empire. So much so that when the empire began to separate into two independent halves under the strain of coping with endless crises, it was the eastern Greek half which fared better. Greek culture and society, which had grown up organically from the people, proved stronger than the top-down model imposed by the Romans. And to clinch the argument: which language survived as a living tongue into the modern world? Certainly not Latin, which as generations of schoolboys would agree is a language ‘as dead as dead can be’. Taking the long view of history, it has to be the Greek model which wins the plaudits.

Which brings us to our own times, and the analogy which is often drawn between modern American power and that of the Romans. It is an easy comparison to make – going back at least to Harold Macmillan’s suggestion that the UK should play Greece to America’s Rome – but is it accurate? Certainly there are aspects of the modern US state which are consciously modelled on Rome, but that is equally true of, say, France and Britain. The question is whether the course of American history over the last hundred years or so parallels that of Rome.

I have to say that I am not so sure: in fact I would go so far as to say that current US military endeavours have more of the feel of the short-lived Athenian empire. Like the Athenians, and unlike imperial Rome, the Americans have a vigorous democracy which is (usually) willing to scrutinise the policies and decisions of the government. Also, like the Athenians the Americans have an unshakeable belief in their own cleverness. This is not unwarranted, since they could not have risen to be the sole world superpower without it, but this same cleverness can sometimes lead them to overreach themselves – just as it did with the Athenians, and with equally disastrous results.

The great strength of Terry Jones’ book is to make us reconsider these ancient civilisations, and by doing that we gain new perspectives on our own world.

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