Barbarians (History Channel)
A&E Video // R // $39.95 // February 24, 2004
Review by John Sinnott | posted February 24, 2004
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The Series:

I find myself tuning into The History Channel more and more often as time goes by.  I've always been interested in the past, and they usually broadcast high quality shows that give a good, if brief, overview of a subject.  While the shows usually present a topic in black and white, staying away from any ideas that may be currently debated in historical circles, the programs are not meant to replace an in depth analysis, just give you a taste of the subject.

That is exactly what Barbarians does.  It gives a good outline of what happened when barbarian tribes fought with civilized Europe and Rome.  This four part series looks at a different barbarian group each episode.  While there is a thread of sensationalism running through the show, there is enough information to make up for the attempt to get ratings.  The shows on this two-disc set are:

Vikings:  This show examines the Vikings 300 year reign of terror.  Known as the "Ban of the Dark Ages," the Vikings started plundering in the late 700's.  Living in an area with little tillable land and a short growing season, there were too many people for the land to support, so some tribes built boats and went off in search of food and wealth.  Their long boats rode high in the water, so they could navigate rivers that brought them to the interior of Europe.  The show chronicles their major conquests, and what eventually happened to these fierce northern warriors.

Goths:  Most of the barbarians in this series turned to war either out of necessity for food, or as a means of increasing their power.  That wasn't so for the Goths.  They attacked for vengeance.

The Goths started out as quiet simple farmers.  But when the Huns invaded their land in the later part of the 4th century, they turned to the Roman Empire for protection.  It was their hope that they could join the empire in exchange for troops for the Roman army.  Rome allowed some of the Goths to enter, but forbade others entry as a means of showing their authority.  The Goths that were allowed to cross into Roman territory were not treated well.  They were put into camps and not given food.  When food was available, they had to sell their children into slavery to obtain even the poorest scraps from the Roman soldiers. Eventually they are told that if they can make the journey to Marcianople, there will be food for them there.  It is a long hard journey, and the weak die along the way.  When they finally arrive at their destination, the gates are barred and they are denied entry.  This is the last straw.  They attack.  This is the start of raiding campaigns that will eventually reach Rome itself.

Mongols:  The Mongols ruled over the largest empire the world has ever known.  Spreading from the coast of modern day China all the way to Europe, the Mongols carved their huge empire at the end of the 12th century.  This episode examines their starts on the steeps of Mongolia and their migration westward.  It chronicles the rise of Genghis Khan, and his ruthless form of warfare.  The show also discusses another Mongol ruler, Tamerlane, who was even more ruthless than his idol, Genghis, and expanded the Mongol empire even further.

Huns:  In the fifth century, a group of barbarians on horseback came out of the east and laid waste to large areas of the Roman Empire.  It is uncertain where the Huns came from since they were migratory and left no written records.  But once they reached the civilized western world, they made a huge impact.  This chapter shows the rise of Hunnish power, how the Romans paid them a yearly tribute and gave them a large amount of land in what is present day Hungary, and the rise of Attila the Hun.  It shows the extent of their conquest, and discusses the reasons why their power waned.

This was an interesting series.  The production values were high for a made for cable series.  The battle reenactments, while on a much smaller scale than the real battles, did a good job recreating these ancient wars.  They used their budget to great effect.  The village and camp sets had a realistic feel, and looked authentic (to my untrained eye at least.)

The show wasn't all just battles and wars; there was a good bit of analysis in each episode.  Why the barbarians started their attacks, the tactics they used, and why they were so successful are all discussed.  While it didn't go into great detail, they only had 45 minutes for each show after all, there was enough information to give the viewer a good overview of the time and peoples examined.  I do wish that there had been more of a summing up at the end.  There were similarities between the four races that were examined, but these were not discussed in detail.

The major complaint I had with the series was that it was a tad sensationalistic.  There was a little too much time spent on the terror the barbarians inflicted. There was much too much hyperbole in each show's introduction that catered to people's baser instincts.  The fact that Attila the Hun "drowned in his own blood" is not an important part of the story, but it was prominently mentioned.  It is ironic that they resorted to this tactic, since the people most likely to be drawn in by such tactic are probably not watching The History Channel in the first place.  If you can look past this attempt to get ratings, the show is solid and worth a look.

The DVD:


The stereo mix was very nice for the show.  It was clear and there was no noticeable hiss or distortion.  While the sound on the battle scenes wasn't dynamic and forceful, the quality was sufficient to convey the sounds of war.  The sound effects, arrows whizzing by and the like, were sometimes mixed a little higher than my tastes, but that was a minor quibble.  A solid sound track.


The widescreen video was not anamorphically enhanced, but looked nice nonetheless.  The colors were reproduced well, and details were visible in the dark scenes.  There were a few instances of aliasing, and parallel lines would shimmer when the camera moved across them, but these digital defects were fairly minor.

The Extras:

There are two extras on this set.  On the first DVD, there is a 'making of' featurette, Behind the Shield.  This 20-minute short has an overview of the series, and a look at the production and some of the problems they encountered.  The second DVD has the episode of Biography that looks at the life of Genghis Khan.  This 45-minute show examines the life of the Mongol ruler in more detail.  They spend a good amount of  time on his early life, before he rose to prominence.

Final Thoughts:

This was in interesting set of shows.  I didn't know a lot about the people and times examined before I viewed it, and learned a fair amount.  While there is a bit of sensationalism, there is also enough substance to make this a worthy series.  Recommended.

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