Barbarians, Season 1
Reviewed by Katrin Thier, independent scholar
[Contains mild spoilers]
The recent release of Barbarians season 2 on Netflix (German: Barbaren; 2020–) invites a rewatch of the first season of this Roman-period historical drama set in northern Germany. At this point, I should probably apologize for sharing my musings in this forum, as the setting appears to disqualify the show from being medieval by the very definition of the European Middle Ages as post-Roman. However, in spite of its early setting, it contains much that is familiar from medievalist drama. Some of this is in the conventions of storytelling - when the Romans ride into the village to demand tribute, it is a scene familiar from more than just the various adaptations of the Robin Hood legend. On another level, the show also deals with a national myth of the kind that otherwise often hearkens back to the Middle Ages, and which is traditionally associated with this mode of storytelling. And last but not least, the early Middle Ages of northern Europe provide a ready source of material to fill in the substantial gaps in our knowledge of the non-Roman peoples of earlier centuries.
The plot is set just over 2000 years ago, during the expansion of the Roman Empire to the north-east, across the Rhine and into regions that are now largely part of Germany, where indigenous resistance culminates in a major battle that annihilates three Roman legions. This battle is a matter of historical record and was a key part of a series of events that eventually established the Rhine as a boundary of the Roman Empire, shaping the further history of the region.
It probably works in the writers’ favour that very little is known of the events surrounding the battle, providing much scope to fill in the blanks without much risk of colliding with recorded history directly. The surviving accounts fill a handful of pages, and except for one short piece, these were all written at least a century later, by writers with their own political agendas (the Annals of Tacitus being the most prominent among them). A small group of the show’s central characters have been taken from these texts: Arminius (Lawrence Rupp), his father Segimer (Nicki von Tempelhoff), his wife Thusnelda (Jeanne Goursaud) and her father Segestes (Bernhard Schütz), his brother Flavus (so far only seen in flashbacks as a child), and his adversary Varus (Gaetano Aronica). Everyone else is fictional.
It probably also helps that the series rides a wave of English-language offerings such as Vikings, The Last Kingdom, and (Roman-era) Britannia, in which the past is presented as an essentially alien world, at the same time ancestral and (attractively) exotic, far closer to the medieval-inspired fantasy worlds of Game of Thrones than to the reality of the viewers’ lives. And while the general dearth of information can be a blessing for the plot, it can also be a curse when it comes to making the setting credible, and this is where the series relies most heavily on the medieval – or on established perceptions of what the medieval should be.
Visually, this is fairly overt: most of the Germanic characters look like they have wandered over from an early medieval reenactment event. Which is not necessarily a bad thing; it makes much of the clothing look more believable than the costumes in some other shows in the genre. Noticeably, Barbarians is much lighter on leather and furs (although use of the latter increases with time). Instead, some cues have been taken from Tacitus’s ethnography Germania, such as cloaks pinned at the shoulder, and bare-armed women’s dresses, but the gaps in the written record are largely filled in by a generic “medieval everyman” look of trousers and tunic (to the point of ignoring relevant archaeological evidence for the period in question), but tempered with some items that seem to owe more to the 1960s than to antiquity (like the sheepskin vest in episode 1). The hairstyles follow the familiar “barbarian” stereotype of beards and long hair also seen in other shows of the genre, here contrasted with (historically plausible) short-haired and clean-shaven Romans. But although a simple combination of long hair and beard should appear timeless, many of these are cut in more inventive ways that would not look out of place on a 21h century street (or re-enactment event). What does look out of place, by contrast, is the authentic ‘Suebian knot’: a hair knot on the side of the head worn by a small number of (mainly background) characters, and actually attested from the period in both texts and archaeology.
A more successfully alien past can be found in the world of religion, but where Vikings and The Last Kingdom cast paganism against Christianity, this is not an option for Barbarians, which is set at the same time as the gospel stories. Instead, Germanic religion is contrasted with Roman rationality (channelling modernity). While the supernatural underpinnings of Germanic life are hinted to be real, even if this is sometimes awkwardly realized, the Roman gods are ineffectual, and Roman science and technology are portrayed as largely irrelevant, and in the end, defeated.
Some aspects of Germanic religion in the series are clearly based on the classical texts (especially Tacitus), but again, the information is sketchy and open to creative interpretation. Tacitus’s repeated reference to the high status of female seers allows the series to largely sidestep the shieldmaiden stereotype: while Thusnelda is portrayed as a competent fighter (and accepted as such), her claim to leadership comes from her (alleged) connection to the gods and the resulting gift of prophecy. Tacitus also identified two deities, which are generally taken to be forerunners of the gods now most widely known in their Scandinavian guises as Odin and Thor (to fans of Vikings and Marvel alike). This apparent continuity (backed up by other sources, textual and archaeological) allows the writers to import more detail from the mythology surrounding these deities in medieval texts, such as Odin’s sacrifice of an eye, taken from later Scandinavian texts. This seems legitimate in the context of dramatic license, especially as the series uses the name forms Wodan and Donar, taken from related medieval languages of what is now Germany, so more appropriate to the setting of the plot.
Language on the other hand, is used to create both familiarity and difference. The consistent use of Latin by Roman characters has been widely commented on; by contrast, the use of modern German on the Germanic side establishes the non-Roman point of view of the narrative: the viewer is expected to readily understand one side while relying on subtitles for other, in a way that occasional Old Norse and Old English ‘flavour’ scenes in other shows cannot achieve. The specific identity of the modern language is immaterial; German is primarily just the language of the country in which the show was produced. That said, the accents (even of the Austrian lead) are northern, as appropriate for the geographical setting; and when Germanic characters pronounce Latin as it is still taught in German schools, Varus comments in disgust; his own pronunciation is based on a more recent academic tradition (familiar to modern British learners), and is delivered by an Italian actor. Medieval influence can be seen in the names of several (though sadly not all) of the fictional characters; these have been taken from attested names in various medieval Germanic languages (e.g. Berulf, Folkwin, Ansgar, etc.). The most unfortunate exception is Arminius himself, for whom we only know this Roman by-name, which has no recognizable Germanic origins. The solution to just call him Ari somewhat grates, as it is so obviously not in synch with the more complex names of other characters. However, the alternatives would have been either to make up something completely different, which would have created unnecessary distance, or to fall back on a longstanding (though linguistically untenable) association with the German name Hermann (Middle High German Heriman)– which poses a rather different problem.
This is because there is a significant further angle to the very existence of this series: for all the global reach of Netflix, which doubtlessly had to be considered in its conception, Barbarians is a German production, written first and foremost for a German audience. Germany has had a complicated relationship with the story of the battle and its characters: there is no medieval tradition, but since the scarce Roman accounts were (re)discovered in monastic libraries in the late 15th century, they have provided material for countless adaptations, focussing variously on the individual characters and on grand politics, with the protagonist being renamed Hermann from an early date. The collaboration of disparate Germanic tribes against an overwhelming Empire also supplied a focus of national identity for a politically disparate German people, first during the Reformation against the Roman Church, and later more politically in the resistance against invasion from Napoleonic France. The story also played a part in the eventual formation of a unified German state in 1871 - before being made complicit in the country's worst crimes in the mid-20th century. And while its historical significance made it impossible to ostracize it entirely, after 1945 it was deliberately pushed back into the realms of historiography (or at least, non-fiction), with the Roman name of Arminius (rather than Hermann) largely reinstated. Against this background, the series needs to be read as another step in an ongoing process of reclaiming an abused national myth, made possible by international trends in historical drama.
Arguably, the rehabilitation of the material began in 1970 with a detailed reassessment of the scarce historical sources, including the new suggestion that the battle was not the result of a highly coordinated campaign, as it had traditionally been presented, but a revolt of Germanic military units within the Roman army - two narratives which the series manages to interweave into a consistent whole. When in the late 1980s, a major battle site of the period was discovered in Northern Germany, it was quickly interpreted as the location of this battle, and while this claim remains contested, it helped to (re-)capture the public imagination: to many German viewers, the ceremonial mask Arminius wears during his first scene is instantly recognizable as a reproduction of the most spectacular find. But despite this renewed interest, the bimillenary celebrations in 2009 were low-key and marked by exhibitions designed to educate about Roman history and the pitfalls of myth making: recasting this particular tale as fiction is still a risky undertaking.
The writers elegantly deal with one of the more difficult aspects of the tradition, the nationalist notion that the many Germanic ‘tribes’ had always been part of a one larger people, unitedly standing up to an external invader. In the show, the concept of a Germanic people is only mentioned once in the German dialogue, at a gathering of leaders, who mock the Romans for using a single name – because they clearly can’t tell them apart. The German dialogue here uses the word Germanen, which now exclusively denotes the ancient peoples (as opposed to Deutsche, members of the modern nation); however, this distinction is obscured by the use of ‘German’ in the English subtitles. Otherwise in the German dialogue, the various Germanic peoples are referred to by their separate (and historically recorded) names, with only the Romans falling back on (Latin) generalizations.
The writers have taken care to refer back to the framework of history by references to the surviving texts, grounding the fiction and lending credibility, even though changes have been made even to this scant material. An example is the marriage between Arminius and Thusnelda, whom he is reported to have abducted at an unspecified point in time, but after she had already been ‘promised to someone else’. The intended husband is given his own subplot, using information Tacitus provides about marriage arrangements, but while the eventual match with Arminius in the series is primarily political, Segestes mutters that his daughter has been stolen – tying the plot back to its source.
Beyond this, the fictional part, which makes up the majority of the plot, concentrates not on grand politics, but on the lives of individuals, and especially on the motivation for the lead himself. Arminius is presented as an individual caught between two cultures, that which he had been born into, and that which he had known for most of his life. He and his brother are shown (in flashbacks) to have been brought to Rome as child hostages, one of several historiographical theories to explain their presence in the Roman army. The series adds the idea that they were fostered by Varus himself, adding a personal dimension to events, which serves to override more abstract questions of cultural identity: on one level, Arminius is forced to choose between one family and another. In addition, his personal ambitions of leadership are firmly established before his defection and remain unchanged: after first working for his advancement as a Roman officer, he then succeeds in becoming the head of his own people (for which the series uses the reconstructed word reik), and eventually talks of kingship, of leading more than one group.
In the end, the battle feels more like a stepping stone towards this aim than the decisive event as which it has often been presented – and again it feels as if this was a deliberate choice. Although it features the hyperviolence and fantasy elements that are prerequisites for the genre, the battle is over surprisingly quickly (while the ‘original’ is thought to have lasted several days). It is also largely presented in hindsight, with Arminius’s reflections after the event as voiceover narration, again bringing history down to a personal level. The final cliffhanger further reminds us that the battle is not the end of the story, neither for the fictitious characters, nor in the historical records. The new series (which I am avoiding until I have finished writing this) has plenty of plot threads to pick up, along with the well-recorded Roman reaction. And Tacitus’s account of Arminius’s confrontation with his brother, who remained loyal to Rome, is unlikely to go ignored.
 near-contemporary: Velleius Paterculus, Roman History 2, 117-19 (Latin: https://www.thelatinlibrary.com/vell2.html); later especially: Tacitus, Annals 1, 59-62 (English and Latin: https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3atext%3a1999.02.0077), Cassius Dio, Roman History 65, 18-23 (Greek: https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3atext%3a2008.01.0593)
 for an archaeologist’s opinion, cf. (in German): https://www.faz.net/aktuell/wissen/archaeologie-altertum/archaeologen-schauen-serie-barbaren-varusschlacht-auf-netflix-17025446.html
 Old Saxon and Old High German, respectively
 for an English-language discussion of some aspects of the reception history cf. Martin M. Winkler (2016), Arminius the Liberator - Myth and Ideology, Oxford University Press.
 Dieter Timpe (1970), Arminius-Studien, Heidelberg: Winter.
 on the debate cf. e.g. (in German) S. Burmeister (2015) ‘Die Örtlichkeit der Varusschlacht: Eine anhaltende Kontroverse’, Archäologie in Deutschland (Sonderheft: Ich, Germanicus), 17-23. (https://www.jstor.org/stable/26321966)
 alii pactam, Tacitus Annals I.55: for Latin and English versions cf. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0078%3Abook%3D1%3Achapter%3D55
 if it existed, this would be related to Latin rex ‘king’ and Old English rice ‘realm’.