Barbarians and other savages from my neck of the woods: a review of the new Netflix series

Featured image from What’s on Netflix

In the following I will offer a review of the recently released show Barbarians (Barbaren) on Netflix. Barbarians (2020) was created by Andreas Heckmann, Arne Nolting, and Jan Martin Scharf and has so far aired for one season. Before we journey to the landscape around the Rhine’s tributary river the Lippe and the battle of Teutoburger Wald, we must make a detour to Ultima Thule. More specifically, I will take you to the landscape that the Roman historian Tacitus described as “an island in the northern ocean” in his descriptions of northern Europe in Germania, c. 98 CE. That is: my home country Denmark.

A prehistoric museum in Ultima Thule

Just south of my Danish hometown Aarhus there is a quaint manor that has been in the hands of several prominent aristocrats in Danish history. It is nowadays known as Moesgård and throughout my childhood, teens, and most of my adult life, its old barns were display rooms for the prehistoric exhibits at Moesgård Museum. Today, all exhibits have been moved to a big fancy modern building that has been constructed next to the old manor complex from 1778. The last patriarch to own it was Thorkild Dahl, who was a prominent politician with a strong interest in history and enlightenment. He worked tirelessly to create a historical museum in Aarhus, and he reconstructed multiple Bronze Age and Iron Age burial mounds on his land. 

The manor and its land were bought from Dahl’s daughter in 1960 by Aarhus Municipality. The local Aarhus government proceeded to transform the entire estate into a historical and recreational site, with a prehistoric museum. The landscape around the reconstructed burial mounds was augmented with prehistoric buildings and an Iron Age environment. Parts of the forests have been replanted with period-correct growth from the Ice Age through to the Viking Age. There is also a small Viking Age village environment with a reconstruction of the Hørning stave church. Aside from that, the area includes one of the best beaches in the country, and, needless to say, generations of my townsfolk have been going there to enjoy nature, learn about their country’s past, and bomb the bus shelters with runic graffiti. This is also the location of one of Scandinavia’s largest annual Viking moots for modern re-enactors and Viking enthusiasts.

The Iron Age archaeology of Ultima Thule

The museum features some of the coolest archaeological finds from the Scandinavian Iron Age, c. 500 BCE to 700 CE. Yes, not just Denmark, all of Scandinavia. One prominent inhabitant of the museum is the human bog sacrifice, the Grauballe Man, who has been on display there in a glass case since before I was born. The human bog sacrifices, often called “bog bodies,” are a standard feature of archaeological remains from the Iron Age. Humans, animals, items and food were sacrificed to the lakes in Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and Germany throughout this period. These special preservation conditions in the southern Scandinavian and northern German marshes, combined with the 19th and 20thcentury energy needs that led to peat digging in bogs, have provided us with so much awesome material from that period. To me, going to see these items and visit the Grauballe Man, lying there with fully preserved skin, hair, and a curious facial expression, was almost like visiting a grandparent.

Another unfathomably cool thing at Moesgård is the Illerup Ådal collection. This is one of the biggest hoards of warrior artifacts from the Iron Age. It contains more than 15,000 original items from the period 200–500 CE. Peak Iron Age awesomeness! Just south of Illerup Ådal by Skanderborg, some 18 miles outside of Aarhus, another such site has been located: Alken Enge at Mossø. This area presents a very similar archaeological site with some 1,000 sacrificed warriors from the first century CE. These poor warriors who met their end in a lake in Denmark presumably came from Norway and were defeated in a major battle. The Danes then proceeded to treat their northern neighbors’ bodies in various bestial ways, propping skeletal remains on sticks and whatnot. If there ever was a Valhöll (hall of the battlefield), this would be it. I had the honor of being invited on a tour of the site by the head excavator back in 2009, and it was truly a spectacular find, based just on what I saw in the excavation trenches.

The items from Illerup Ådal and Alken Enge are evidence of very advanced craftmanship. Maybe not as refined as the Roman and general Mediterranean craftmanship of the time, but the smiths, wood and bone workers, cloth weavers and other crafters who had been involved in creating the items were most certainly accomplished in their skills. Similarly, if you take a stroll through the backyard of the Moesgård manor, pass the Thai house that was gifted to the Danish queen by the king of Thailand, cross the little forest road and the meadow on the other side, you will reach a horse pen and a reconstructed Iron Age house. If you are lucky enough to get there on a day where the house is open to the public, you will pass through a door that has an ingenious fix on it. In order to fix the problem of draft through the split planks, the door had been reinforced with wedges between the planks and intricately fitted sticks on the outside. Some time back in the Iron Age, there was a carpenter who knew what he was doing.

What is Ultima Thule anyway?

You may be wondering why I am using the term “Ultima Thule” for a country that has a modern name. Well, the land of Ultima Thule is a general designation by Mediterranean cultures, even Near-Eastern cultures, for northern Europe. It originates in Greek cartography and was adopted by Roman historians, medieval geographers, and Muslim scholars alike. Barbarians like the Goths, Gepids and Heruli, whose histories were recorded by late Roman historians like Jordane and Paulus the Deacon, were said to come from “up there.” If you dive into a study of Classical, Late Antique, and Medieval European geography, you will quickly realize that this elusive “Thule” moves farther and farther north with the development of geographical knowledge through the ages. Today, “Thule” is an Icelandic beer and the American airbase in Qaanaaq in northern Greenland, which inherited the name from a trade station that was built there by Knud Rasmussen in the early 1900s. 

Thule really just means “we have no clue what’s over there” in European geography and, in the same way, this applies to the inhabitants of the area designated under that name. This is why there has been so much discussion about the “Thule” that the 6th century Heruli reported that they came from. Was it in northern Germany? Poland? Denmark? Sweden? We still do not know for sure, but I would personally venture the guess that it was in the general area of southern Scandinavia … and thus I have not said too much.

The point about Thule is that it is home to the barbarians. The uncivilized tribes that needed to be subdued. It is no wonder that the Danish-Inuit explorer Knud Rasmussen named his trading station in the far north of Greenland “Thule.” It was built among the northernmost Inuit, who had only been formally contacted in the beginning of the 1900s. Rasmussen’s purpose was to “civilize” these “savages.” This was generally also the imperial Roman attitude to the peoples north of their borders, whether they were Galli, Cherusci, Chatti, Suebi, Picti, Aesti, etc. That attitude is fleshed out (beaten like a dead horse) in the show Barbarians. Now, you are probably wondering what my long rant about a Danish museum and the mythical site Ultima Thule is all about, but bear with me. Let us examine what is good and bad about the show Barbarians, and maybe it will become clearer:

OK, so what’s good about the show?

  1. Well, it is cool that we finally get a show about the early Germanic period in Europe. There is so much potential for awesome fiction based in northern and eastern European history. The Viking stuff has been ridden pretty hard over the last decade, but to be honest, that is in my opinion the least interesting story to tell about the whole circum-Baltic area.
  2. The Roman armor, the military camp, the clothing, the culture and religion, and their fighting styles are not far off, and it is pretty cool that they are speaking Latin. Plenty of people have already pointed out that there is a disconnect between the Germanic peoples speaking modern German and the Romans speaking Latin in the show, but to be fair to the creators of the show: it is much easier to get a manuscript in Latin down, than one in proto-Germanic. There are plenty of specialists in Latin and there is plenty of material available in the language. With proto-Germanic you would have to get ahold of specialists like me, pay us a lot of money, and have us create a viable form of proto-Germanic for your show, specifically, because we do not really know what their language sounded like at that time. Aside from a handful of inscriptions and words available in eclectic sources, we have to make shit up … I mean reconstruct the Germanic language(s) of the early period (that is: qualified-making-shit-up).
  3. Some of the Germanic warriors have a so-called Swabian knot in their hair, an attestable custom of tying your hair among Germanic peoples in the first centuries CE. Tacitus describes that the Suebi (Swabians) would tie their hair in knots like this. Tacitus also claims that other tribes would use it, but only rarely, and only in childhood. Two individuals from the period 70–220 CE have been found in Schleswig, near the towns Osterby and Dätgen, carrying knots in their hair. These knots have been interpreted as Swabian knots.
  4. I guess that it is also a bit cool that they use an actual early Germanic word for the title of ruler of the different Germanic tribes: reiks. Of course, it is a Gothic word that is first really attested in the 300s CE, so 300 years later than the events that are depicted.
  5. Aside from that, I imagine that the storyline can be enticing for some.

And…

Now that I have described the good things about the show, allow me to offer some criticism:

  1. On the negligible end of the scale, I will point out that it is irritating to see that the show’s creators have decided to use a variety of names that etymologically span some 1000+ years. Ansgar is a decidedly medieval Old Saxon name, so from c. 800–900 CE; Ari and Egill are Old Norse names. They belong in the period 1000–1300 CE but can be dated back to the 700s CE. The name Folkwin could work as a Saxon or Scandinavian name from perhaps the 500s CE or so. There is one downright egregious name: Hanno. Hanno is a Phoenician name from North Africa … 
  2. Just like Vikings, the Last Kingdom, and pretty much any other fiction about northern Europe that takes place in illo tempore—as we say in the study of religion—that undefined, almost mythical, distant past that nobody remembers anyway, this show exploits people’s lack of knowledge about the era to the fullest. This is incredibly disappointing. You may have been wondering why I spent so much time describing a prehistoric museum in Denmark in the beginning of this blog post about a Netflix show: well, when you have grown up with these awesome artifacts and historical narrations of precisely the period that the show Barbarians attempts to portray, it is very disappointing to see how the Germanic tribes are portrayed as even less technologically advanced than they actually were. From the bog bodies that we have found, we have a generally good idea of the appearances of these peoples. We know what their dress looked like. We know what kinds of jewelry and weaponry, even combs and other personal items, they had. We know what kind of hair and beard they had (a lot of clean-shaven men, actually). So, what is up with the guy with the goat skull for a hat? What is up with all the weird outfits? The neckbeards and semi-mohawks and mullets? What the hell is going on with the war hammer and unmanageable axes? And all the other “standard barbarian look” that we also see in Vikings and the Last Kingdom? Will we ever have a decent production of historical fiction that just makes use of all the cool stuff we already have from thousands of archaeological finds across northern Europe, and does not attempt to make any northern European from the time before 1500 CE look like a crust-punker from an 80s movie?
  3. On a similar note: earlier in this post, I described how a cunning carpenter in the Iron Age had fixed the draft in his front door with wedges and other entrapments. I doubt this carpenter was the only one north of the Rhine who was capable of such carpentry in the Iron Age. So, why does it look like the Germanic villages in Barbarians were constructed by a crew of chimps with Conan the Barbarian as their foreman?
  4. Why are these Germanic peoples depicted as poor medieval villagers? There are plenty of very wealthy sites from this period, where we have found elaborate gold deposits and plenty of artifacts traded from Rome and Greece and elsewhere. Why are these tribes depicted as isolated, poor, disorganized? Northern Europe was trading with Egypt and the Near-East in the Bronze Age. What is this nonsense?
  5. On the subject of tribes: five houses and a couple of families make it out for a tribe? Doubtful.

    All this laziness in recreating the cultures of the Germanic peoples comes with the territory of venturing into “Ultima Thule” to depict the Germanic savages. The makers of the show Barbarians are doing nothing less than copying Greek and Roman historians like Tacitus, who did their best to represent the peoples north and east of the Rhine as savages. However, where excuses can be made for ancient historians, I am not sure the same can be done for the makers of modern movies and TV series. If they can recreate Roman artifacts, dress, armor, and culture relatively accurately, why are the northern Europeans stuck in some Mad Max universe?

In conclusion:

This grumpy scholar blogger gives the show three out of six hearts ripped out of the chest cavities of Thusnelda’s enemies.

1 Comment

  1. Yeah, I was wondering about the Thule introduction as well – but I got your point. Indeed, I was also back and forth with it. As a “Westphalian” having grown up in the region of teh Teutoburger Wald that story is of course what we grew up with. Not always with the most accurate of descriptions. However, a lot has been found during tha last 20 years or so. So some of the story as shown in the series I found pretty interresting as they try to reflect the current view on what happened. – To some extend. I also found a very modern German funny, specifically the way they speak, compared to the roman Latin. But I also liked the Latin sounding pretty Italian interresting (as in school we learned a very hard literal pronunciation of Latin instead).

    But then you are right with the acuratesse of the picture shown when it comes to the Germanic peoples. I also was wondering how small the Cherusci were consiting basically of a handful of houses…. The village not protected, a bit like the Asterix Village without the fence. It is a pitty since we have so much knowledge about those times…

    However, it was a somwehat entertaining show anyways….

    Like

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