Barbarians: Ancient History, Reimagined

Laurence Rupp as Arminius in Netflix’s Barbarians. Credit: Netflix.

Barbarians: Ancient History, Reimagined

A Review of the New Netflix Series

By Sara Chopra, Margaret Dunn, and Olivia Wells

 

When we encounter reimaginations of ancient Rome on television or in theaters, we often find ourselves watching retellings centered around the exalted perspectives and stories of ancient Roman elites. Although recent decades have seen growth in the diversity of ancient perspectives presented on-screen – including enslaved voices, such as Maximus in Gladiator and Spartacus in Spartacus – mainstream television shows and films nevertheless continue to show very few depictions of non-Roman, non-elite, and non-male individuals and groups from antiquity.

This changed this past fall, when television saw the advent of a new take on antiquity: Netflix’s Barbarians, a German series sharing the story of the famous, and perhaps infamous, Battle of the Teutoburg Forest – all told from the perspective of the Germanic tribes who banded against the Roman legions in 9 CE, a shift from the Roman-centric lenses typically employed in peer television shows. With violence and sex rivaling that of Game of Thrones, rallying speeches in both German and classical Latin, and a high-energy, fast-paced plotline, Barbarians blends genres and challenges this traditional narrative in just six episodes. In late October, Netflix released the first season of the series to generally positive reviews from both television fanatics and academics alike.

As the three Articles Editors of Discentes, each of whom happens to focus on a different aspect of the ancient world – Sara reads classical languages and literature, Margaret studies classical civilizations, and Olivia dedicates her work to Mediterranean archaeology – we decided to watch Barbarians ourselves and share some of our own thoughts on the popular series. Should Barbarians be the next show on your winter break Netflix binge list? Our answer – yes. Read our full review of its first season below to learn why.

As avid consumers of all things ancient, especially contemporary media that connects with the classical world, the three of us were excited to see the show turn our expectations upside down in several notable ways. In a distinct departure from other series and films that we’ve watched – Gladiator, HBO’s Rome, the BBC’s I, Claudius, and Netflix’s Roman Empire, to name a few – the show’s protagonists, the titular “barbarians,” are neither Roman nor elite, as rural-dwelling members of the Germanic Cherusci tribe. Additionally, the producers also turn the tables on tradition by opting to tell a story not of – spoiler alert, for those unfamiliar with the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest – Roman defeat, but rather one of Germanic victory.

Barbarians, a work of historical fiction, follows three protagonists, Thusnelda, Arminius, and Folkwin – the former two are characters based upon real individuals from history. According to both the series and the historical reality that inspired it, Arminius was born into a Germanic tribe, the son of a Cherusci nobleman, before he was taken as tribute to Rome during his boyhood. Now an adult at the outset of the series, Arminius returns to Germania as an aide under General Publius Quinctillius Varus in order to collect tribute himself and suppress uprising Germanic tribes. The advent of Varus and his legions angers Folkwin and Thusnelda, Arminius’ Cherusci childhood friends, inciting them to hatch their own plan to defeat the Romans and secure victory for the tribes.

Placing narrative power in the hands of the “barbarians” – whose historical contemporaries Julius Caesar’s De Bello Gallico classified as weak and conquerable, and whose culture and customs other ancient Roman authors, scores of historians, and various contemporary depictions have invariably portrayed as inferior to those of the Romans – provides viewers with a fresh approach to both the well-known battle and the ancient Germani at large. Rather than serving an image of a distraught Augustus exclaiming “Quinctilius Varus, where are my eagles?” à la the BBC’s I, Claudius, this take on the battle allows crucial voices from history to tell their own stories. The subversion of the typical Roman-centric approach is especially underlined by Barbarians’ use of language – the show’s Germanic peoples speak fluent German, the native language of most of the characters, while its Romans speak stilted-sounding, buttoned-up Latin, a foreign and unfamiliar language that few understand. This stark contrast between the two tongues, casting the Romans as “the other” for once, speaks for itself – this narrative belongs to the “barbarians,” not the Romans.

Taking another step back, this story belongs to Germany, a country for whom the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest remains both an immensely significant and controversial moment in history. Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, extreme German nationalist groups have regarded the ancient victory as proof of white German supremacy, hailing Arminius as a nationalist icon; Adolf Hitler attempted to claim Arminius as his ancestor, drawing a twisted parallel with Emperor Augustus, the ruler at the time of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, who traced his own lineage back to the legendary Aeneas.

In crafting a show for a primarily German audience, Barbarians carefully toes the line between telling the historical truth – the tale of German victory – and serving as a potential call-to-arms for far-right nationalists. In a recent New York Times review of the show, Arne Nolting, one of the writers on the series’ production team, explained that creating a show centered around this contentious moment in German history was a purposeful effort to reclaim the historical narrative. “We didn’t want to be scared away and leave the subject to those forces we detest.” While Nolting and his co-creators made their positions quite clear with many large and notable creative decisions, they also took back this historical moment in seemingly small ways – intentionally casting brunette actor Laurence Rupp as Arminius, while not affecting the historical accuracy of the show, does take a dig at the German far right, who have often exalted Arminius as their blonde-haired, blue-eyed ancestor. Through this casting choice – as well by strongly emphasizing ancient Germanic folk traditions and Arminius’ identity as a Germanic-Roman migrant – the team behind Barbarians conveys both a historically-informed narrative and their own political and social messages without compromising either of the two.

The scope of Netflix’s Barbarians is manifold – it’s a war drama, a love story, a slice of history, perhaps a taste of fantasy, and, above all, a contemporary invitation to reconsider how we see the past. While, like its peer productions, it allows itself creative liberties and departures from historical reality, it does so thoughtfully and carefully, preserving the most important aspects of the truth while inspiring piqued audiences to seek out even more information about this moment from antiquity. Our final verdict? Add Barbarians to your winter break binge list, watch it in the original German and Latin, and give this new take on antiquity a try.

Barbarians is streaming on Netflix.

Already watched Barbarians? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

 

Sara Chopra is a junior from Princeton, NJ, studying Classical Languages and Literature, Ancient History, and Consumer Psychology.

Margaret Dunn is a sophomore from Pelham, NY, studying Classical Civilizations and English in the College.

Olivia Wells is a junior from Philadelphia, PA, majoring in Classical Studies, with a concentration in Mediterranean Archaeology, and minoring in History and French.

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