chapter  5
45 Pages

BEYOND THE NORTHERN FRONTIERS

First, the obligatory note on terminology. The choice of descriptive names for the peoples beyond the frontiers is subject to all kinds of debates under several headings. Some scholars prefer the Latin gens to identify a specific people, usually with the cautionary footnote about the problems of trying to impose a close definition on an entity so diverse as to defy such a process. In this work, the similarly imprecise words ‘tribe’, ‘tribesmen’ and ‘peoples’ are used where others would employ gens. On a more emotive issue, the use of the term ‘barbarians’ has to be explained. It has acquired an unsavoury aspect nowadays. Its derogatory tone implies inferiority, or at least an inherent value judgement condoning inequality, separating acceptable groups of people (us) from unacceptable groups (them). Throughout history, such ideology has usually meant that the latter groups (them) have no share in the same rights and benefits as the former (us), which in turn implies that the unacceptable groups can be exploited or disposed of in any manner currently fashionable among the acceptable ones. Superiority is a comfortable human goal, but it is rarely achieved by striving ever onwards and ever upwards, allowing room for all people to achieve the same goal; instead it is usually achieved spuriously by self-delusion, by finding another group to look down upon, sometimes within the community, but more often outside it. In the Roman world there were many sub-groups of ‘us’ and ‘them’ whose interests were in conflict with each other, besides the wider-ranging ‘us’ and ‘them’ of the Romans and the so-called barbarians, and superimposed on the contemporary Roman view there is the modern view, which by force of circumstance must milk the available evidence and fill in the gaps in order to reconstruct the mindset of the Romans and their neighbours. The relationship between the Romans and the barbarians has been variously depicted according to fashions of time or place, from the days of Julius Caesar to our own era. When writing about any historical period it is impossible to shake off every vestige of the all-enveloping mantle of contemporary attitudes to

produce an absolutely impartial account. Judgements creep in, evaluations are formed, all based on upbringing and subjective experiences. Thus there are many subtly different barbarian and Roman worlds in the literature of the last two centuries.1