Romans And Barbarians – Part 2

Barbarian Invasion of the Roman Empire

Roman literature contains many instances of barbarians being led by their emotions and not considering the consequences of their action. This is presented as an uncivilized trait, marking the difference between Roman and barbarian. For example, in his account of the revolt of Boudicca, Cassius Dio (c.AD160-c.230) includes a supposed speech by the Roman general, Paulinus who, despite being outnumbered by Boudicca’s men, reassures his troops that “(the Britons’) boldness is the product of a recklessness bolstered by neither arms nor training”. Consequently, the well-armed, well-trained, and strategically superior Roman army crushes the rebellion.

Cassius Dio summarises the differences between the two armies as they face each other: “the natives with much shouting and threatening warsongs, the Romans in silence and order”. Further comment on the barbarians’ behaviour comes from Tacitus (AD56-117) who says the southern Britons, like the Gauls, display “the same hardihood in challenging danger, the same cowardice in shirking it when it comes close.” Behind this derogatory remark is the assertion that the Romans faced danger bravely and despised cowardice.

Roman discipline on the battlefieldThe Romans prided themselves on their orderliness, particularly on the battlefield. Writing about themartial habits of the Britons, Tacitus remarks upon the difference between the Roman army and the somewhat chaotic fighting style of the Britons, observing that “nothing has helped us more in fighting against their very powerful nations than their inability to co-operate.” He says not only have they split themselves into separate warring factions to their disadvantage, but they tend to fight in separate groups, leaving themselves more vulnerable to attack. Tacitus’ detail that the barbarian nations are “very powerful” maximises the glory of the Romans and emphasises the importance of good battle strategy and training.

In contrast to Britain, where the natives face the Romans in battle for the first time, Tacitus writes about the revolt of Tacfarinas, a Numidian auxiliary in the Roman army who deserted and waged a prolonged revolt against the Romans in protest against the imposition of tax and Roman military recruiting. Unlike the hapless Britons, Tacfarinas had had the advantage of Roman military training and he uses those skills against the Romans themselves, training groups of vagabonds and marauders to become soldiers organised into army units and formations. Although Tacitus is at pains to describe in detail the tactics successive Roman governors use in order to quell the rebellion, we can infer Tacfarinas was a match for them and amassed a large following of Numidians and Mauretanians.

Barbarians were strange and unreliable

In Latin literature, unreliability and passion are frequently attributed to barbarians; particularly Africans and Carthaginians. The Romans may have acquired their prejudice against “strangeness” from the Greeks centuries earlier when the Greek playwright Euripides assigned a capricious and passionate nature to the foreign princess Medea. The poetic tradition of qualifying each character with their lineage or origin prompts the reader to expect individuals or groups to behave according to type. Accordingly, in The Aeneid, Virgil (70-19BC) hints at Dido’s untrustworthiness: “For Venus felt uneasy about her hospitality/And Tyrian equivocation” and a few lines later we are reminded that Aeneas has been seduced by “Carthaginian Dido”.

About a hundred years after Virgil, the writer and statesman Silius Italicus echoes him in his description of Carthage as “treacherous”. Similarly, Iarbas, king of a Libyan tribe, is depicted by Virgil as having a very passionate nature. Virgil’s reminder that he is “son of Ammon by a ravished African nymph” comes immediately before the description of his zealous devotion to the worship of his father, Ammon/Jupiter. To a Roman audience, his fervent and embittered reaction to Dido’s rejection (“Driven out of his mind by that bitter blast of rumour”) therefore probably came as no surprise.

Barbarians were like wild beasts

Barbarians are at times portrayed as being like wild beasts in more ways than one. They are seen as exotic and mysterious, yet in need of control. For example, Cassius Dio puts into Boudicca’s speech the Romans’ view of Britain which they saw as a land across the sea and far from the centre of the Roman world. Tacitus attests the ferocity of the Britons during the Boudiccan revolt: “they rushed to slaughter, hang, burn and crucify” although we are not told exactly who was on the receiving end of their violence but that it was an act of desperation by a people who, according to Tacitus, seemed prepared for ultimate defeat.

Cassius Dio, writing more than a hundred years after the revolt, states that the Britons behaved like “lawless and godless wild beasts” and that they meted out particularly “atrocious and bestial” treatment to some of the Roman noblewomen. Although both accounts seem to be rooted in fact, by Cassius Dio’s time some portrayals of the Britons may have become distorted although, of the two authors, he appears to be the less concerned with propounding his own ideas within the historical account. The only way barbarians could hope to survive seems to have been by submitting themselves to Roman rule within the formula of civitas, colonia and client kingdoms while adopting at least the trappings of Roman culture.

However, the overall description of the Britons’ ferocity is akin to that of wild beasts when cornered and the Romans’ determination to bring the Britons under control is reflected in the ritualised domination of “outsiders” (whether human or animals) in the amphitheatre where dangerous animals and people were presented as a spectacle ultimately controlled by the Romans themselves. Under Augustus, the games had evolved to become a means of “articulating power and cultural identity across society.” Therefore we can conclude that the Romans would have equated uncivilized barbarians with the wild beasts and criminals all of whom deserved to be subjugated by Rome.