‘Barbarians’ boldly rewrites history

The German Netflix series is a fresh take on a famous historic tale

Netflix’s ‘Barbarians’ brings Teutoburg to life.

In the year 9 CE, the Roman army fought an alliance of Germanic tribes in what would be known as the Battle of Teutoburg Forest.

Arminius, a member of the Cherusci tribe who had been closely allied with Rome, turned on the Romans to help his people. Thanks to Arminius, the Germanic peoples, despite being the apparent underdogs, achieved a decisive victory.

In 2020, directors Andreas Heckmann, Arne Nolting, and Jan Martin Scharf finally brought the iconic story of Teutoburg to modern audiences with Barbarians.

It’s a story that’s captured people’s imaginations for centuries—sometimes with unfortunate consequences. Due to its use in nationalist propaganda, the battle has become a sensitive and rarely discussed topic in modern German culture.

Barbarians’ directors have done a great job—the showmanages to be gripping and action-packed while maintaining a healthy level of nuance.

While the German tribes are the nominal “good guys,” they aren’t flawless. Many of them are willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead, even if that means betraying their own kind.

Conversely, for all the terrible things the Romans do, they’re not dehumanized, getting a handful of sympathetic scenes of their own. Overall, the series makes it clear that war is complex, messy, and not something to be glorified.

There are plenty of excellent individual characters, too.

A standout is Thusnelda—played by Jeanne Goursaud—Arminius’s childhood friend, who gets a more prominent role here than she’s had in previous retellings. She’s arguably the show’s true protagonist.

When the men of her clan fail to stand up to the Romans, Thusnelda takes the initiative to set things right, defying the gender roles of the society she lives in.

It’s worth noting there are many historical inaccuracies here—for instance, the Arminius of Barbarians is the adopted son of the Roman general Varus. Whereas in real life, the two had no such personal connection.

It’s a change I can live with because of what it contributes to the story. It adds a layer of emotional depth as Arminius is torn between his original family, who betrayed him and sold him to Rome in the first place, and the nation that loves him yet seeks to destroy his people.

Additionally, there are plenty of other elements of the show to keep the Classics student in me happy—it’s especially rare to hear spoken Classical Latin in a piece of mainstream modern media.

With all this said, the series isn’t without its disappointments.

One of them is the treatment of Thusnelda’s younger brother, Ansgar, who suffers a traumatic brain injury after being attacked by a Roman soldier. Thusnelda must then protect him from their parents, who are ashamed of their now-disabled son and want to “put him out of his misery.”

While I understand these harsh attitudes wouldn’t have been uncommon in this era, using a disabled character as a prop like this is still a cheap way to create tension and drama—and in a show that’s already full of those things, it feels especially unnecessary.

Ultimately, Barbarians isn’t for everyone.

Some viewers might be turned off by its grim and gory tone, while history buffs may scoff at its inaccuracies—but what it does, it does very well.

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