Historical TV Review: Barbarians

Beware: This review will contain some spoilers, but as Barbarians is based on a factual episode in history, these spoilers are about two thousand years old.

Last year was a year of falling in love with history all over again. I can’t deny that History Indoors has been the biggest factor in this, helping me turn my academic passion for history as a doctoral student into an ardent desire to study many different areas of history that aren’t directly related to my field of “expertise”. Watching so many excellently accessible talks by fellow peers has been incredibly inspirational on this front.

However, Netflix and Amazon Prime have been worthy accomplices in hoodwinking me back into an obsession with history. Since the first lockdown began in March in the UK, I’ve finished Vikings, Roman Empire, Rise of Empires: Ottoman, Babylon Berlin, Deutschland 86 and The Last Kingdom. Alongside this, I’ve vicariously watched The Crown, Versailles and Outlander through my wife whilst I pretended to engage in another activity, only to be distracted by these shows. To this date I can confirm I haven’t gone square eyed just yet though.

Barbarians, available on Netflix. Source Netflix.

My latest haunt in feeding this addiction has been Netflix’s Barbarians (or Barbaren in its native German). Barbarians is a German-language production and is another example of a seemingly growing trend of foreign language TV proving successful with English-speaking audiences. Germany itself has already offered two hugely successful historical/period TV exports recently with Babylon Berlin (Weimar Republic Berlin) and the Deutschland 83 series (Cold War East and West Germany).

Netflix’s Barbarians situates itself in 9AD Germania and covers the historical episode of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest where German-born Roman general Arminius betrayed the Romans in leading a rebellion by the Cherusci and other local Germanic tribes. Many historians have seen this as a turning point in Roman history which repelled the Romans from Germania at the peak of the Empire’s power.

Roman history has been a recent favourite of Netflix. Roman Empire and Rise of Empires: Ottoman have both focused on aspects of the Roman (or Byzantine) Empire in a part-drama, part-documentary style where the storyline is interjected by historians adding their own narrative alongside the events on the screen. Barbarians is different however in being a straight-forward historical drama in the image of Vikings or The Last Kingdom.

As a non-classicist Brit with only a recent interest in Roman history, I had no idea about this period in Roman (and German) history and even less so how things panned out. However, as a semi-fluent German speaker and loather of dubbed TV, I promptly reverted the show’s audio settings to its native German and popped on English subtitles so I didn’t miss any crucial pieces of information.

A painting of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. (Public Domain)

Arminius (portrayed by Laurence Rupp) and Germany’s answer to Boudicca, Thusnelda (portrayed by Jeanne Goursaud), are both captivating characters, as is Thusnelda’s other love interest Folkwin (portrayed by David Schütter). The show cleverly weaves in the Germanic gods such as Woden, which will interest those like me who not only enjoyed getting to know the Norse gods of Odin, Thor and Freya in shows like Vikings, but also get a kick out of discovering new things about our wonderful English language: who knew that Wednesday is named after Woden (literally Wodens-day), who migrated as a deity with the Germanic Saxons before the English kingdoms were converted to Christianity?

I devoured all six episodes in under 48 hours – aided in part by having to self-isolate for 14 days, but also by the pace and intrigue of the show itself. There’s not a dull moment and the cinematography is polished, helping immerse yourself in the dark world of those Germanic tribes in the Teutoburg Forest two millennia ago.

My only critique of the show would be that it doesn’t achieve those “blood draining from your face WHAT” moments of shock like you get in Vikings, where the writers have completely deceived you and dropped a bombshell. Even as a viewer who didn’t know the history of the Battle of Teutoburg, Arminius’ betrayal of Rome doesn’t really come as a surprise and moments like Segester’s attempted foiling of the rebellion never really make you worry for the fate of the rebels’ plot, which as a viewer you can’t help but want to succeed against those nasty Romans.

Hermannsdenkmal, a monument to Arminius in Germany. (Wikimedia, Source: CC BY 3.0)

However, this doesn’t detract from some highly stimulating historical TV that will teach you about an under-represented period of Roman and German history outside the Classics field. As I’m largely a novice to the history of this time period, I can’t comment on the historical accuracy of the show. Upon further research however, I discovered that Germany sought to suppress the mythology that had grown around Arminius and Thusnelda after the Second World War due to its appropriation by pre-war German nationalists.

Barbarians is also only six episodes long, which is a less daunting commitment over the festive period than an already established show. Though I’m gutted that I have to wait for Season 2, I am safe in the knowledge that there is far more historical content for the writers to mine, and I have no doubt that subsequent seasons will cover Germanicus’ revenge for the Roman Empire and the fate of Thusnelda.

So, what are you waiting for? Go give it a go!

By Steven Bishop

Steven is researching the recent protests against statues of controversial historical figures across the world, focusing on the complex relationship between history and memory. His other historical interests include the history of the United States of America, especially the period from colonisation to the Civil War. He also have a burgeoning interest in local history and write about Colchester’s many heritage sites in Colchester United’s matchday programme.