Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Sympathy for Barbarians
Defeated (temporarily?), the Roman legionaries are stripped of their armor and humiliated: they are marched naked past the sacred grove. The heads of their generals are displayed on spikes; the children are mocking the once proud legion, their pride a contrast to the defeated soldiers. The women wail and cry out over the men who didn't return from the field of battle, and sing the praises of those who did.
In truth I'm not exactly sure what this is a picture of. I downloaded it years ago and haven't been able to retrace my steps. I'm guessing it's a classic 18th- or 19th-century engraving of a "barbarian" victory over Rome in Germania or Gaul, and probably a victory that was short-lived. But I find it fascinating because it's such a romantic view of a scene that seemingly stands the usual historical narrative on its head: the invincible Romans are being mocked and the savage barbarians are jubilant. It is said both that the victors get to write history, and that he who laughs last laughs best, but I wonder about how that is interpreted.
We are taught about the glories of Rome, about the civilization, albeit at the point of a sword, that it spread throughout Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. To be sure the Roman Empire, decadent as it may have been, has had a lasting influence on our culture, our civilization. But that's not the complete story. Because ultimately, after centuries of glory, as all empires do, the Romans fell. If you, like me, trace the blood of your ancestors across the Atlantic to Europe, that last generations of effete Roman nobility, those ones they are not our ancestors: those were the people thrown to the flames, their children dashed to the paving stones or thrown under the hooves of the advancing barbarian horde. The people who survived were the peasants watching from the field as the villas burned, or the ones eking out a life in the wild hills and forests.
As near as I can ascertain, my ancestors weren't kings or queens or lords or princesses, they were just people. But they did make it into the history books: read as the frightened nobles shriek "the barbarians are at the gates!" That's us they're talking about. My people. Now I'm not suggesting running through the streets with torches and pitchforks, or looting prep schools and throwing aristocratic children into fires or arbitrarily smashing the good things about our civilization. Living in a yurt doesn't look fun or practical to me. I'm just suggesting a little change in perspective.
In this age of politicians trying desperately to make sure they and their friends get to hang on to the money, to the power, to the right to control other people and take things away from them, it's worth remembering the lessons of the past. Empires fall. We barbarians win, in the end, every time.