Roman Holiday

Barbarians week on the History Channel.

The other night on the History Channel, the amethyst sunsets and lilac jazz of a Cialis commercial gave way to an advertisement for one of the network’s own potency-restoring products. A hirsute fellow sat in a shadowy room. Before him was a hearty meal—a goblet of mead and a goose leg the size of a moose haunch—and yet, despite this bounty, he wept. A friend rushed in, his voice heavy with concern and piquant with an I, Claudius accent.

“What’s wrong?”

“We sack. We pillage. But for what? In a thousand years, who will care? No one—that’s who.”

“Oh, but you’re wrong,” came the consolation, “for I have seen a vision of glooorious prophecy. … ‘Tis called Barbarians Week.” And the voice-over verily confirms that this was the week to quit whining and feast on the exploits of “four tribes with nothing in common but their hatred of Rome.”

That’s actually a more academically proper use of “barbarian” than the History Channel intended when, in 2004, it so branded its airing of hour-long quasi-documentaries about Goths, Huns, Mongols, and Vikings. As we recall vaguely from our school days and can read clearly on Wikipedia, medieval historians use that word to describe groups that went sword-to-shield with the Roman Empire—a party to which both Genghis Khan and Eric the Red were rather late. But that is beside the point, and it seems almost a coincidence that Barbarians II, a sequel to that earlier ratings smash, busies itself with the Franks, Lombards, Saxons, and Vandals. The four shows primarily use the term “barbarian” in the sense of Conan the. All that matters is the vicarious plundering and the romance of battle.

Listen to the narrator. His voice booms as if Barbarians II were a very long movie trailer, and his script brings history to life with an italicized argot of rumbling clichés, venerable hokum, and comic-book intensifiers. “Fabled Italy will shake with the war cries of the last and fiercest of the Barbarian hordes. …They have no idea that their world is about to be shattered. … Soon, the Saxons will write their names acrossthe green British countryside—in blood!

Consider the graphics—goofy, almost deliberately crude. At one point, in the Lombards episode, the channel presents an illustrated map of Europe, and we see tiny icons of men on horseback moving east to crush the Gepids. It looks as if it’s an ad for mouthwash, and the Lombards of 567 A.D. were on a campaign against gingivitis.

Wonder at the talking heads. These are real professors from real universities. One hopes that the History Channel has interviewed them on its own turf, on stages designed to look like upper-middle-class living rooms. If that’s not the case, then either the profs have allowed the History Channel to redecorate their homes for this occasion or the new trend on campus is to accent your parlor with crossbows and human skulls. Sometimes, the scholars supply essential context and interpretation. Elsewhere, they do their best to usher myth right along: No sooner has a man from Marymount University finished saying that there’s no evidence for the historical existence of King Arthur than we see a strapping warrior prince by that name unsheathing his sword to battle the Saxons.

Barbarians prints the legend in a series of historical re-enactments. These are the heart of the event, and they’re nearly as kitschy as that glooorious promo spot—the hairy men in chain mail, the lasses picking flowers, all those green grapes on groaning banquet tables. When, in the Franks episode, the pagan—”fiercely pagan“—King Clovis grudgingly allows his Christian wife to hang a cross around his neck, he squirms like a sitcom hubbie having his tie knotted. When the Saxons double cross the Britons at the Night of the Long Knives, the slaughter occurs on a Stonehenge set that only Spinal Tap would envy. The attack isn’t even especially messy. Barbarians needs to keep things suitable for the purposes of burnt-out middle-school teachers, so, despite the vast body counts, the programs minimize gore and carnage to the greatest extent possible and then minimize them some more. This makes it a bit awkward when, for instance, the narrator talks about Genghis Khan sealing “his reputation as the bloodiest of all barbarians” while the camera captures a kid with an Elmo-red scrape on his arm.

Such are the weaknesses of Barbarians. They’re also strengths. The History Channel has come up with something undeniably corny and yet slightly awesome, a blend of hard fact and watery fantasia. It amounts to camp for straight men—something good for chasing an 8 p.m. scotch or spicing a bedtime cup of cocoa. Watching a handful of Vandals strike down a group of Sicilian farmers—victims who somehow didn’t see the assailants streaking across a field of grain until the very last moment—is a well-deserved and relatively dignified treat after a long and thankless day of sacking and pillaging back at the office.