Barbarians: Rebellion and Resistance to the Roman Empire

Written by Dr Stephen P. Kershaw
Review by Nicky Moxey

I went to the kind of school where we learned Roman history via Latin lessons, and I’m afraid that Roman history has failed to excite me ever since. Stephen Kershaw’s Barbarians was therefore a revelation. The premise is interesting in itself – how the definition of barbarian changed across time, from anyone whose speech was foreign to the Greeks (making the Romans immediately suspect), to the acceptance of the indisputably barbarian warlords who became Rome’s last Emperors. Even if you know your Rome, I’m certain that this treatment would be of interest.

The book covers the full timescale of the Roman Empire through the lens of its encounters with barbarians, discussing how Rome was changed and usually enriched by the experience; and how barbarians were often used as role models for lost values. So we have, for example, Hannibal, Viriathus, and even Spartacus described as noble savages, epitomising the strength, cunning, and leadership that the contemporary historians saw as lacking in the generals sent to oppose them. Each chapter describes an encounter with a people and its leaders, and the stories are fascinating – I sat up many a night until I’d reached the bitter end of a chapter; but what absolutely astonished me was the history I’d slept through – three Punic Wars? I’d come across Vercingetorix and Boudicca in other contexts, but what happened on the Italian mainland was just as interesting as the doings in far-off Persia. And Egypt! I had no idea that there were multiple, and multiply incestuous, Ptolemies and Cleopatras. No wonder that bit wasn’t on the school curriculum!

This is that rare thing, a meticulously researched reference book that manages to be a truly absorbing read. It is well furnished with maps, footnotes (at the end of the book, so not intrusive), and an extensive bibliography.