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New light on the Dark Ages: Who are you calling barbaric?
Peter Popham

It is generally assumed that the tribes which overthrew Roman civilisation were a bunch of... well, barbarians. A new exhibition suggests that this is grossly unfair.

The end of imperial Rome is no great mystery. The empire was brilliant, proud and cultivated, an elaborately complicated society capable of great cruelty, great beauty, and technical genius of every sort: a society in which we see our own far-away mirror. But it grew rich, fat, decadent, lazy and too big to defend. After slow centuries of decline, in the 5th century the defences crumbled and the barbarian hordes – the opposite of everything the Romans stood for, their dreadful Other – poured in.

Why it happened is a matter of endless scholarly debate. Edward Gibbon started it, and while still revered for the scale of his research (and by many for his diagnosis), dozens of others have added their own interpretations.

But now a vast new exhibition in Venice's most important museum, Palazzo Grassi, at the opposite end of Piazza San Marco from the Duomo, asks us to look at the cataclysmic end through a new pair of spectacles.

Rome collapsed, the barbarians poured in, and the Dark Ages got under way: that's the "1066 and All That-style" breakdown.

But what if the barbarians weren't all that barbaric after all? What if the black/white, good/bad, God's chosen versus axis of evil, neo-conservative type explanation for this historical event is just as much state propaganda as the claim that Saddam Hussein was an hour away from bombarding us all with nuclear missiles?

The new exhibition asks us to consider this revolutionary hypothesis, but it has not been plucked out of thin air. With the exception of the genuinely terrifying Hun, who came roaring across the steppe on their ponies and sacked the city of Aquileia in 452, all the other barbarians beating at the door of Rome had been around for a long time: the Visigoths and Lombards in northern Italy, the Ostrogoths in Spain, the Franks in what is now France and Germany.

Their intercourse with the mighty empire had continued for centuries, war and peace alternating, barbarians brought into the Roman armies, tempted within the pale of empire. In fact, one of the most persuasive explanations for the final collapse was that the Romans had grown too dependent for their imperial defence on treaties with these fickle outsiders.

But what the new exhibition lays finally to rest is the notion that the barbarians were barbaric. True, they were often blond, worshipped their own gods, lacked cities with sewerage systems, heated floors, bathhouses and aqueducts. Often they were nomads. But the idea that they were in some absolute sense less civilised was Roman state propaganda. Crueller than the Romans? Hardly possible. More violent, more militaristic than the most militaristic state in history? Hard to conceive.

Once one steps back from the paranoid them-and-us, self-and-other way of looking at it, one sees that rather than the cataclysmic end of a great civilisation and its replacement by the forces of darkness, something far more compelling and creative was under way: the creation (as the curators of this exhibition put it) of Europe as we know it, welded together by Christianity, and with deeply rooted memories of Roman heritage which make dramatic returns to our collective consciousness every few hundred years: during the Renaissance, for example.

"The Barbarian kingdoms," writes Jean-Jacques Aillagon in the catalogue, "gradually drew a new political map of Europe, dividing it between the Ostrogoths and the Lombards in Italy, the Franks in western Germany, Belgium and France, the Visigoths in Languedoc, Aquitaine and the Iberian peninsula."

He continues: "If Europe was born in Athens, Jerusalem and Rome, many of its roots also lie in the peoples of the north and east of the European continent." The aim of the exhibition, he writes: "Is to reveal the profound and subtle mix between Graeco-Roman and Germanic roots from which European culture stems.".....Article conts (-)

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