Tales of the Barbarians: Ethnography and Empire in the Roman West
by Greg Woolf
Published in 2010
Thibault’s Score: 2/5
I had heard about this book, and expected something completely different. I had expected a very archeology-focused account of the various ethnic groups in the Roman Empire. I expected a large quantity of genetic studies such as the ones done by the Roman DNA project. I assumed that there would be a large body of material evidence such as studies of pottery, clothes, food, and other objects typically associated with ethnic identity. Instead, I found a political essay where a modern leftist academic calls the Romans racist and bigots.
The author uses virtually no archeological or material sources. Instead, he relies purely on the written record. He correctly points out the many ways that this written record is extensively flawed, but doesn’t do much more.
I also found that the author makes numerous absurd assumptions which rot the entire work at the core. First and foremost, Greg Woolf assumes that all of the stereotypes that the Romans had of barbarians were untrue. He little explanation or proof that the stereotypes are factually incorrect, but proceeds to explain over the next few hundred pages why these stereotypes of barbarians served the Roman state.
I had very high hopes for this book, because I am very interested in understanding the demographics and ethnic mixtures that existed within the Roman Empire. I wanted to learn about who the Romans were, which ethnicities they came from, and which ethnicities they became. I wanted to read about the slow, then rapid, immigration into the Empire. I wanted to learn about “Romans” who had three or four barbarian grandparents who had worked their way up the hierarchy and eventually came to control the empire. I wanted to read about the lines between Roman and Goth being blurred, about Gaelic “French” people becoming Gallo-Romans, about Roman integration, and about rape or intermarriage.
Instead, I got a completely unscientific communist attempt at smearing the Romans. This book was explicitly written with the attempt at “de-colonizing” Roman history, which is ridiculous, as modern concepts of colonialism or racism don’t match up at all with the realities of the ancient world. Judging historical figures on the basis of modern ethical classifications is always a futile act.
I do not recommend Tales of the Barbarians.
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