Recently, the latest production of Netflix on the subject of ancient Rome appeared – “Barbarians”, which certainly encouraged many to watch, and me personally to buy access to the Netflix platform. Was it worth it and is the plot consistent with the historical truth? What will we find in the six episodes of the series?
Note: the text may contain a spoiler for some of the readers.
The film starts by showing the tribal life of the Germans. We are moved to the extremely wild for ancient times areas of the present central Germany, where lives a large tribe of Cherusci. Its leader is Segimer, who, like many other leaders of the Germanic tribes, is forced to pay tribute and taxes to the Romans. Segimer does not believe that an open revolt against the Roman legions will be effective; what is more, the tribes are at odds, and the calamities of recent years and the shed blood force him to humbly submit to Roman power.
The submission of Segimer and other tribal leaders is not accepted by the younger generation – incl. Thusnelda and Folkwin Wolfspear. Both, together with their companions, decide to sneak into the Roman camp and steal the golden legionary eagle. In this way, they want to humiliate the Romans and motivate their people to fight.
Varus, who is the governor of the province, orders the reclaim of the eagle. To do this, he sends his “son” (sic!) Arminius to retrieve the eagle and restore glory to the legion. Arminius is a Romanized German who was taken captive as a child as a security for the peace between the Cherusci and the Romans. Ari – as his people call him – is the prince of his tribe and the son of Segimer. Moreover, in his youth, he was a friend of Thusnelda and Folkwin, which puts him in a rather uncomfortable situation. After years of living in Varus’ house in Rome, adopting the Roman culture and fighting in auxiliary troops, he largely feels a greater bond with the Empire than with his former tribe. He feels betrayed by his father who gave him to the Romans.
Finally, he manages to retrieve the eagle from the village of Cherusci, and then go again on an expedition to get the head of his friend Folkwin. For the first time, Arminius is unable to fulfil Varus’s order and returns to the camp with the head of another barbarian. Successive events gradually begin to convince him that he has more values in common with the Cherusci and that his origin will never allow him to achieve anything more than the role of leader of the tribe in Germania. Moreover, Varus makes it clear that he was educated for this role from an early age, and that Rome and its splendour are not given to him.
Arminius is undergoing a transformation and gradually incites his cavalry squad to disobey the Romans. He stands on the side of his tribe and, already as the leader of the Cherusci (after his father’s suicide), he seeks to unite the tribes and deal a blow to the Romans. He takes Thusnelda as his wife, who holds the position of a prophetess among God-fearing Germans. Segestes, the aristocrat of Cherusci and father of Thusnelda, refuses to accept the fact that his daughter was taken from him without his agreement; moreover, he is against rebellion. Segestes goes to Varus personally to reveal Arminius’ betrayal. However, Varus does not believe the words of the Germanic aristocrat and agrees to Arminius’ plan – to punish the tribes that did not want to put their princes “under the protection” of the Romans as a guarantee of peace.
Arminius leads Varus’s punitive legions through the Germanic forests to finally lead them onto an uncomfortable route that forces the army to stretch a long distance. Mud, numerous obstacles and traps set by rebels make the fight difficult. Legions are completely wiped out within 3 days, and Varus commits suicide. The last scene is symbolic and I will allow myself not to reveal it. The expansion of the Romans eastward was stopped by this event.
What is true and what is fiction?
The main historical sources for the events in question are, first of all, the “Annals” of Tacitus, the “Roman History” of Cassius Dio and the “Geography” of Strabo. We will find there the characters of Arminius, Thusnelda, Segestes, Segimer and Varus. Arminius was indeed entrusted to the Romans as security for peace with the Cherusci; he went to Rome with his brother Flavus. Arminius, thanks to his merits in the auxiliary troops, achieved the status of equality and received Roman citizenship. Arminius did take Segestes’s daughter as his wife, but not before the battle, but a few years after these events. He did so against her father’s consent. It is also true that Segestes was a traitor and warned Varus about Arminius’ plans, which the governor did not believe. Indeed, Segestes asked Varus to capture him and Arminius, even if he refused to believe him. Arminius became the leader of the Cherusci and united the tribes against the Romans while preparing an ambush. He persuaded Varus to march with the legions on an unknown route that would allow for quick intervention against “rebellious” tribes; however, as it turned out, it was an ambush that resulted in the complete annihilation of three legions.
The film correctly presents the names and divisions of the Germanic tribes. The battle itself actually took place in a presented way, but it lasted much longer, which a viewer who does not know the facts may not know. It is also true that not all tribes immediately took part in the ambush; only news of successes in battle encouraged some tribes to attack. Thusnelda’s participation in the battle is fictional, but the presence of women alongside Germanic men in the wars is attested by Tacitus. Varus was indeed about to commit suicide and his head was cut off.
Arminius did not become an enemy of the Romans, once he was in the army of Varus. Based on the sources, it can be assumed that Arminius may have had a hidden hatred for the Empire from the moment he was put under protection in Rome. Arminius was not the adopted son of Varus but merely served under his leadership in Germania. Arminius did not receive the title of equites from Varus, much before he came to Germania. There was no theft of a legionary eagle at this time; this type of event had taken place much earlier, and the action to recapture the sign was commanded by Drusus the Elder, father of the later emperor Tiberius. It is also fictional to portray Thusnelda as a fortune teller. Arminius did not know Thusnelda before the battle, and their feelings were to be sincere. Interestingly, Tacitus reports that Segestes was also supposed to betray his daughter, whom he gave into captivity to Germanicus. Arminius had to bear it very hard. Thusnelda in captivity bore him a son, a certain Thumelicus, who died as a gladiator in the arena. Thusnelda, in turn, was led in the triumph of Germanicus in Rome in 17 CE, and then – according to sources – was to be treated well.
Other characters, such as the disabled brother or beloved of Thusnelda – Folkwin Wolfspear – are the creators’ invention.
How do I rate the series? Personally, I really liked the fact that the actors who play the Romans speak Latin and the barbarians speak German. Naturally spoken German is a modern version, but for the average viewer, it is a flavour that gives a better experience of watching the cultural differences that certainly prevailed in those days. Frequent misunderstandings due to the lack of knowledge of the other party’s language or bold retort of the Germans make the events comic.
Scenography and costumes in my opinion are at a high level. Also, the actors selected to play the roles, especially Varus and Arminius, did a great job.
The series, compared to many other titles of this type, is distinguished by the fact that it largely follows ancient sources. Some plot elements, such as Arminius’ rebirth, or personal conflicts, give the film an emotional feeling. There are also elements of betrayal, jealousy, love, personal and moral conflicts.
What offended me the most, however, was the completely unnecessary depiction of Arminius as the adopted son of Varus – which is complete nonsense and meaningless. Moreover, in my opinion, the most important moment of the film should be the ambush in the Teutoburg Forest. I must admit that I waited with bated breath to see the defeat of the Romans. In my opinion, in fact, the battle scenes and the tragedy of the situation in which the legionaries found themselves could make the film extremely good. In the end, the creators of the series showed fights (often in slow motion) with Arminius’s speech in the background, which was extremely short compared to the rest of the film. I suspect that such a clear shortening of the battle scenes was simply due to financial shortages. What a pity! Additionally, I didn’t really like to present the Romans clearly as expansionist and evil.
To sum up, being a supporter of historical films, consistent with the historical truth, I can consider “Barbarians” a good film. There are a few elements that would require significant improvement, but it certainly won’t hurt anyone to watch the series.