Nobody ever called themselves barbarians. It’s
not that sort of word. It’s a word used about other people. It was
used by the ancient Greeks to describe non-Greek people whose
language they could not understand and who therefore seemed to
babble unintelligibly: “ba ba ba”. The Romans adopted the Greek word
and used it to label (and usually libel) the peoples who surrounded
their own world.
The Roman interpretation became the only one that counted, and
the peoples whom they called Barbarians became for ever branded — be
they Spaniards, Britons, Gauls, Germans, Scythians, Persians or
Syrians. And, of course, “barbarian” has become a byword for the
very opposite of everything that we consider civilised.
The Romans kept the Barbarians at bay for
as long as they could, but finally they were engulfed and the savage
hordes overran the empire, destroying the cultural achievements of
centuries. The light of reason and civilisation was almost snuffed
out by the Barbarians, who annihilated everything that the Romans
had put in place, sacking Rome itself and consigning Europe to the
Dark Ages. The Barbarians brought only chaos and ignorance, until
the renaissance rekindled the fires of Roman learning and art.
It is a familiar story, and it’s codswallop.
The unique feature of Rome was not its arts or its science or its
philosophical culture, not its attachment to law. The unique feature
of Rome was that it had the world’s first professional army. Normal
societies consisted of farmers, hunters, craftsmen and traders. When
they needed to fight they relied not on training or on standardised
weapons, but on psyching themselves up to acts of individual
Seen through the eyes of people who possessed trained soldiers to
fight for them, they were easily portrayed as simple savages. But
that was far from the truth.
The fact that we still think of the Celts, the Huns, the Vandals,
the Goths and so on as “barbarians” means that we have all fallen
hook, line and sinker for Roman propaganda. We actually owe far more
to the so-called “barbarians” than we do to the men in togas.
In the past 30 years, however, the story has begun to change.
Archeological discoveries have shed new light on the ancient texts
that have survived and this has led to new interpretations of the
past. In Roman eyes the Celts may have lacked battle strategy, but
their arms and equipment were in no way inferior to the Roman
army’s. In fact the Celts had better helmets and better shields.
When the Romans got to Britain they found another technological
advance: chariots. It may seem odd to those of us brought up on Ben
Hur that the Romans should have been surprised by chariots on the
battlefield, but that was the case.
The Romans had chariots, but the Britons made significant design
improvements and, as Julius Caesar noted, had thoroughly mastered
the art of using them. So how come the Romans built roads and the
Celts did not? The answer is simple. The Celts did build roads. The
“Romans-were-greatest” version of history made the earlier roads
invisible until recently. One of the best preserved iron age roads
is at Corlea in Ireland, but it was not until the 1980s that people
realised how old it is. It was known locally as “the Danes’ road”
and generally assumed to be of the Viking period or later. It was
not until the timbers were submitted for tree-ring dating that the
truth emerged: they were cut in 148BC.
However, the really startling thing is that wooden roads built
the same way and at the same time have been found across Europe, as
far away as northern Germany. The Celts, it seems, were
sophisticated road builders and the construction of these wooden
roads was no mean feat of engineering.
Oak planks were laid on birch runners and they were built broad
enough for two carts to pass each other. What’s more, Celtic road
building is not necessarily predated by that of the Romans. The
first important Roman road was the Appian Way, built in 312BC, but
the so-called “Upton Track” in south Wales, a wooden road laid
across the mudflats along the Severn estuary, dates back to the 5th
It is only now that historians are beginning to reassess the
sophistication of Celtic science and engineering. From early times
the Celts were the iron masters of Europe. A Celtic smith was
regarded as a magician, a man who could take a lump of rock and
transform it into a magical new substance — a cunningly worked steel
blade sharp enough to cut through bronze or ordinary iron.
The Celts’ mastery of metal technology also enabled them to
develop sophisticated arable farms. We know they had iron
ploughshares in Britain from about the 4th century BC because in a
shrine at Frilford on the River Ock, near Abingdon in Oxfordshire —
a site that was occupied from about 350BC — an iron ploughshare was
found under one of the central pillars where it had been buried,
perhaps as a votive offering. It is a fair guess that the temple was
one of the first buildings to be erected there and that the iron
ploughshare was offered at the time that its foundations were laid.
The Celts’ use of metal even allowed them to invent a harvesting
machine. Historians did not believe that it could be true until
bas-relief sculptures were discovered that apparently show just such
a contraption. It was a sort of comb on wheels that beat off the
ears of corn and deposited them in a container rather like the grass
box of a lawnmower. A replica was built and tested in the 1980s.
It has been easy to underestimate Celtic technological
achievements because so much has vanished or been misunderstood. Of
course, it was thoughtless of the Celts not to leave us anything
much in the way of written records — they should have known that the
lack of books putting forward their own propaganda would weight the
evidence firmly in favour of the Romans.
Western society’s enthusiasm since the renaissance for all things
Roman has persuaded us to see much of the past through Roman eyes,
even when contrary evidence stares us in the face. Once we turn the
picture upside-down and look at history from a non-Roman point of
view, things start to look very, very different.
© Fegg Features Ltd and Sunstone Films 2006
From Terry Jones’ Barbarians by Terry Jones and Alan Ereira to
be published by BBC Books on May 18 at £18.99. The book is available
for £17.09 including postage from The Sunday Times BooksFirst on
0870 165 8585. Terry Jones’ Barbarians begins on BBC2 on Friday May