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Monday, August 2, 2010

Terry Jones' Barbarians: An Alternative Roman History by Terry Jones and Alan Ereira

Disappointed. Sorely disappointed.

I was perusing my local bookshop and I found Terry Jones' Barbarians: An Alternative Roman History. I was excited by the endorsement on the back cover from a historian that said, "I wish all historical books written by non-historians were so informed and all books by historians so well written." Good enough for me - I grabbed it up and eagerly started reading, looking forward to reading this work by the creator/host of one of my favorite history-based documentaries, The Story of 1.

Boy, was I disappointed.

First of all, neither Jones nor his co-author Alan Ereira are trained historians (neither am I, but I have an appreciation for expertise in an area and how that makes the commentary more accurate) and it clearly shows. Right off the bat (p. 13) they attack Julius Caesar and belittle Romans in general for falsely describing the true nature of the elk (Romans were told of exotic animals by natives and they duly recorded the descriptions, usually false or exaggerated - this happened throughout the Roman era - Jones must not appreciate an inquisitive nature...) and then questions Caesar's ability to describe the Gauls (p. 14) because if Caesar cannot properly describe an elk, what can he describe? Cheap shot, but a warning as to the nature of the book.

Terry Jones
The book is based on a simple premise - the barbarians that surrounded Rome were more sophisticated and advanced than most histories of Rome give them credit for. To their credit, Jones and Ereira do make this point early and often. But, rather than just making that point they repeatedly go after the Romans as being the real barbarians filling the book with snide comments about how the Romans destroyed science for more than one thousand years (pp. 152-5) and did little but destroy, loot and maim. Rather than build up the barbarians, they embark on a strategy of tearing down the Romans to make the barbarians look better by comparison. It's cheap history and does not work well. Note, I am not asserting that Rome was morally superior to their "barbarian" neighbors. Clearly, Rome had horrific, barbaric habits such as the gladiatorial games and a very willing tendency to knock their neighbors about for their cash. But, this book pushes it too far.

Other problems:

On page 194 William Cowper is given credit for writing the beloved hymn Amazing Grace. This was written by a friend of Cowper, John Newton. The story of this hymn was the subject of a recent motion picture (also called Amazing Grace). and has been recounted in numerous anti-slavery histories for generations. I'm astounded they (and the editors) were so ignorant of the famous and touching story behind the hymn - it inspired the end of the slave trade by the UK and turned the Royal Navy into the world's largest abolitionist force.

Augustine of Hippo
But, then again, maybe I'm not surprised. On matters of theology Jones and Ereira show an astounding lack of sophistication. They write extensively on Augustine of Hippo but cannot grasp basic matters such as "Original Sin"(p. 229). My 10 year old can explain it with more depth and understanding than these two educated gentlemen. They also fail to grasp the meaning behind Augustine's comments on the sack of Rome in 410. Augustine notes the relative decency of those barbarians under Alaric (for the most part they did not loot churches or the religious items of civilians and they respected churches as sanctuaries). They mockingly summarize Augustine's thoughts on the matter as "It was Christ who bridled their ferocity and made them act so mercifully - for of course, Alaric was a Christian." (p. 133) They summarize the idea correctly but do no understand why it was correct. Augustine was noting that the spirit of Christ restrained them, as it should any true Christian. The fact that they were Christians is the reason that the churches were respected as sanctuaries. These men are certainly entitled to their opinions but if they cannot grasp the rather basic arguments behind them they should keep those opinions to themselves until they are prepared to write intelligently on the matter.

Archimedes. Please, can we all just agree that he was a genius but he did not invent a ship-burning mirror array? (pp. 148-9) Jones and Ereira note (correctly) that Archimedes could have invented a mirror array that, given time, could start a fire by aiming it's intensified light at one single point for an extended period of time. The problem - the array would have been aimed at MOVING ships - ships that moved up and down by bobbing about in water while they were also moving forward into Syracuse harbor. Most modern computer aided targeting systems would have a hard time aiming at one single pinpoint on a ship in those conditions. How do you thing a group of uneducated slaves would do with manual aiming?

They also credit Archimedes with a defensive technique (using cranes to drop weights on opponents) that was used during the Sicilian campaign of the Peloponnesian War hundreds of years earlier, ironically, also at Syracuse.(p. 148)

How about the famous Baghdad batteries? Let's bring out a device that no one's really tested (they do work as batteries if you fill them with modern chemicals but not time-appropriate chemicals), everyone's pretty sure was just a storage vase and claim they were used to electroplate with gold if wires that were not invented at the time were used. Besides that, use it as a chance to bash the Romans as the goons who killed off the people who invented and used electricity (p. 168), thus setting civiilization back by more than a thousand years. Did the Romans kill of the steam engine and vending machines? Why, yes they did, those barbarians! (pp. 153-154)

Jones and Company go to great lengths to demonstrate that the Romans were not the only ones with laws, since the Romans have a great reputation as being the great lawgivers of the ancient world. True enough, the Romans did not invent the concept of "law." But, they did two important things. 1) in the ancient world they applied a uniform system of laws over a vast geographic area. This uniformity was a great boon for trade, much like free trade zones and the European Union have been in the modern world. 2) The West's legal system is based on Rome's emphasis on property rights. Think it's not important? If you've ever sued someone over a car crash - that's because your property was damaged by another. It is a very Roman concept to want to collect for damages to your property. These are not concepts that can be blown off with a few cutesy phrases if this book is really meant to be taken seriously.

To make it all the worse, the last pages, the ones detailing the long slip and final fall of the Western Roman Empire are so dreadfully dull to read that I had to force myself to finish.

In sum, there is a bit of good information here but it is buried in so much half-truth, speculation, mis-information and misundertanding that I am torn as to whether I should try to sell this book or just dispose of it.

I rate this book 1 star out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon here: Terry Jones' Barbarians: An Alternative Roman History

Reviewed on February 19, 2010.

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