Barbaric banter from former Python
JON WELCH If you thought Barbarians tended to be barbaric, Terry Jones would like to set you straight. The ex-Monty Python star, now a historical writer and TV presenter, reckons they could have taught the Romans a thing or two about being civilised. JON WELCH spoke to him ahead of his visit to Norwich on Tuesday.
What have the Romans ever done for us? It's a rhetorical question first posed in Monty Python's Life of Brian by a Judean rebel leader, trying to fire up his unenthusiastic troops.“The aqueduct,” came the first reply. “Sanitation”, ventured someone else.“Roads!”, “Irrigation!”, “Medicine!”, “Education!” “Health!”
But ex-Python Terry Jones, who directed and starred in that film, reckons the answer to the question might actually be: “Not as much as you think.”
The historical writer and TV presenter, currently hosting Terry Jones' Barbarians on BBC2, even makes the following controversial claim: “They held back science and technology for hundreds of years. They stamped out a lot of cultures.
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“When we look at the Romans compared to the Greeks and the Persians, they were not the great inventors.
“The Greeks and the Arabs had the great scientists and mathematicians. There's not a single great Roman mathematician. They were more interested in power and politics.”
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Terry, 64, will expand further on the subject in his talk at Norwich's Assembly House on Tuesday. “It's quite fun: about an hour's talk with me showing lots and lots of slides and rabbiting on about the Barbarian world and Attilla the Hun. It's quite jolly.”
He'll be arguing that despite their name, the Barbarians have had a bad press.
Far from being uncivilised and savage they were organised, motivated and intelligent and, in many ways, far more civilised than their Roman adversaries.
Take the Celts, for example. “The Romans hurled unwanted babies on the rubbish dump. The Celts had laws protecting young and old people.
“There was no such thing in Rome as public medicine. The Celts had a much more social organisation.
“And I'd much rather have been a Celtic woman than a Roman woman. Roman women were the property of their fathers until they were married, and then they became the property of their husbands.”
While the Romans were famed for their roads, always unerringly straight, the Celts beat them to it by 200 years.
Terry visited the Corlea Trackway in Ireland, a stretch of Iron Age roadway dating, made of giant oaken planks.
“You know the saying 'All roads lead to Rome?'” says Terry.
“Well, it was true - all their roads were spanning out to service Rome. With Celtic roads there was
no centre. They were all over the place.”
His TV series and accompanying book tells the story of Roman history as seen by the Britons, Gauls, Germans, Greeks, Persians and Africans.
It touches on East Anglian heroine Boudicca, who led a revolt against the Romans.
“She was a good example of a feisty, powerful Celtic woman,” says Terry.
“For the Romans it must have been embarrassing: they thought women shouldn't even be seen in public.”
So why have we tended to view the Romans as a great civilising power yet failed to acknowledge the Barbarians' achievements?
“I think it's because we held up the Renaissance as this great gift to civilisation,” says Terry.
“The Romans wrote the history because they were the conquerors, but the Romans never conquered Germany or Persia.
“Some Greek or Roman historians were critical of their own regime, however, and held Barbarians up as an example.”
Terry has long had an interest in history, even though his lessons at school were somewhat limited in scope.
“When I was at school we did five years of 19th century British political history. At A Level we did the same again. It was a shame.”
He believes schools don't do enough to bring history alive, and thinks it's “disgraceful” the subject is not compulsory post-14.
“I think people are really interested, but it gets educated out of us,” he says.
“It gets turned into a series of facts you have to learn: dates, kings, queens.
History is stories - tales about what people did and how they interacted. It's fun, it's funny, it's humorous.”
But he admits he didn't know much about the Barbarians until he started making the TV series.
“I thought it would be a great chance to learn,” he says.
“The great thing about doing TV shows is it's a chance to travel to places, find out about things and talk to top experts who tell you about their latest research for free. It's like doing a really concentrated course.”
Terry also sees disturbing similarities between the Roman empire and modern-day America under George W Bush.
“In the classical world Rome saw itself as the sole unchallenged superpower in the known world. It staged a series of pre-emptive strikes and would try and neutralise the countries around its borders to make them safe.
“Their 9/11 was the invasion of Rome by the Celts in 390BC. The Celts held Rome for six months but were eventually bought off by 1,000 pieces of gold.”
Filming for the series took Terry to Iran, currently the target of some US sabre-rattling.
“We were warned it was an dangerous, oppressive state and to be careful of stuff going on, but it's actually easier to get into Iran than America,” he says.
“There was anger against Iran's own government, but most people we spoke to said, 'Leave us alone to get rid of these people'. The whole concept of pre-emptive strikes seems to be a nonsense - and dangerous.”
Terry Jones' Barbarians is currently showing on BBC2 at 9pm on Fridays.
t An accompanying book of the same name, by Terry Jones and Alan Ereira, is available now, priced £18.99. Terry's talk on Barbarians will be held in the Music Room at the Assembly House, Norwich, at 6.30pm on Tuesday, April 6. Tickets, priced £3, are available from Ottakar's, 11-17 Castle Street, Norwich, call 01603 767292.