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Series / Barbarians

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"Torn between the mighty empire that raised him and his own tribal people, a Roman officer's conflicted allegiances lead to an epic historical clash."

Barbarians (Barbaren) is a 2020 German historical drama TV series about the Germanic Wars created by Andreas Heckmann and loosely based on a true story.

The Roman Empire's rule of the Germanic tribes grows ever more tyrannical, demands for tribute growing and the brutality of the legionaries increasing. But the tribes are fractious and cannot agree on a course of action—they don't even agree they're all Germans. As tensions rise, three young people will decide the fate of Germany: Thusnelda, a headstrong young Cherusci woman; Folkwin, Cherusci warrior and her lover; and Arminius, the long-lost son of the Cherusci chieftain, raised as a Roman. But who is he really loyal to?

It can be watched on Netflix. The series was renewed for a second season, which came out in 2022.

Tropes in Barbarians include:

  • Antagonistic Offspring: At the beginning of the story, Thusnelda is already on bad terms with her parents, considering her father Segestes a coward and a traitor for wanting to make peace with the Romans and her mother an accomplice due to not standing up for her. It gets worse after her younger brother Ansgar is mentally broken by Roman soldiers. After Thusnelda marries Arminius and becomes a respected heroine among the Germanic tribes, she refuses to make peace with her parents, even declaring them outcasts so that they'll face hardships no matter where they go in Germania. Realizing that it's unlikely that his stubborn daughter will forgive them, Segestes and his wife eventually betray Thusnelda to the Romans in the hope of earning Roman citizenship and the right to raise Thusnelda's own son, Thumelicus, themselves. Instead, the Romans execute the treacherous couple while taking both Thusnelda and Thumelicus hostage.
  • Arranged Marriage: Thusnelda's parents try to marry her to Reik Hadgan for five horses. She flees before he returns to fetch her, so he threatens her parents with severe repercussions.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • Likely in order to make them more sympathetic to modern sensibilities, the Germanic tribes don't seem to practice slavery here. At the time and place, virtually all tribes and peoples in the world did, and the Germans weren't an exception.
    • The original name of Arminius is unknown, as "Arminius" seems to be a Latinized Meaningful Rename he got. Traditionally, his original or "true" German name is assumed to be Hermann (and he became a symbol of 19th-century German nationalism under that name), but the show names him Ari.
    • The historical Arminius was educated in Rome, but not as a sort of hostage extracted to sign a treaty as the series shows, but as a full-fledged Roman citizen. His tribe had been subjected by Rome for a long time before Arminius arrived, and there was simply no need for hostages by this point.
    • The series shows Publius Quinctilius Varus adopting Arminius as his son after he was taken from his tribe. In real life, Varus had no family relationship to Arminius, and it would have been difficult anyways given that Varus was not even in Germany back then; he first arrived in 9 AD, only two years before the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.
    • Despite Arminius’s barbaric origins, it is unlikely that an actual Roman Centurion like Metellus would have been so disrespectful towards a Praefectus and the adoptive son of a powerful Roman Senator and the commander of the legions stationed in Germania. Discipline in the Roman army was notoriously draconian and insulting or belittling an outranking officer would have been a serious offence subject to harsh punishments. This is partially justified as it is implied that Metellus is a battle hardened veteran, a category to which a certain leeway was granted even by the Romans. Still, the Roman society was organised around strong family bonds between the members of the aristocracy and networks of personal loyalties to the heads of the noble extended families. An insult to Arminius would have been considered an insult to Varus and that would have definitively been a step too far for anybody.
    • In the series, Arminius and Thusnelda marry before Teutoburg, while in real life they did so afterwards. Barbarians also makes Thusnelda a seer, while the real one was presumably just a noblewoman without any religious occupations.
    • Losing a Roman standard or aquilae was considered an incredible disgrace for the Romans, so the standards themselves would be heavily protected. It would certainly have not been possible to steal with with relative ease as in the series. It's true that three Roman standards were lost in Germania around this time, but they were lost due to the massacre of Teutoburg forest, not beforehand.
    • The series' version of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest takes less than a single day to end, when the principal Roman account is that it lasted three whole days, enough time for the Romans to even build fortifications during its course. Also, the portrayal of the battle itself shows the Germans as outnumbered, while in real life both sides had similar numbers.
    • Varus offers and then presents Arminius with a knighthood. The Romans didn't have knights, and the closest equivalent, to be an equestrian, was based solely on wealth.
  • Attempted Rape: Hadgan tries to force himself on Thusnelda in the first season finale, but she pulls a knife on his throat.
  • Bilingual Backfire:
    • A German mercenary Talio makes fun of the Romans in his own language just after Arminius has given him an assignment, not knowing it's Arminius's mother tongue. This gets Talio flogged.
    • Unsurprisingly averted when Arminius visits the Roman camp with Thusnelda later on. While she hurles insults left and right in her native language, he is quick to warn her when an interpreter arrives.
  • Black-and-White Morality: Downplayed. While the Germans are portrayed as rude and primitive, they are solidly heroic compared to the Romans, as they doesn't practice slavery, show much more honor and give value to freedom. In contrast, the Romans are predominantly greedy, de-humanizing conqueror types.
  • Cainand Abel: Flavus, Armininus' Roman loyalist brother, arrives in the second season to hunt down his brother.
  • Canon Foreigner: Folkwin Wolfspeer is an original character.
  • Cassandra Truth:
    • When Folkwin shares his name with a captive woman, she immediately dismisses it, and says Folkwin's head is stuck on a pike nearby. He then takes up Berulf's name.
    • Segestes arrives shortly after Varus gives the orders for the three legions to march on the Germanic tribes. He tells Varus that Arminius plans to betray him, and that Folkwin Wolfspeer is actually alive and a slave in their camp. Arminius plays it up as a joke, suggesting that he was somehow going to defeat fifteen thousand men with a token force, and that somehow the bandit that stole their eagle just also happens to be enslaved right there. Varus takes Arminius's side, and has Segestes thrown out.
  • Chekhov's Gun: After the eagle is stolen in the camp, Arminius finds a necklace with a wolf's tooth on it. He immediately checks his personal belongings and reveals a similar tooth. This is how he immediately knew who the culprits were and was able to track them down quickly. It turns out he was a childhood friend of Thusnelda and Folkwin, and was taken away by the Romans at a young age.
  • Cruel to Be Kind: Arminius forcefully takes away the sons of the Reiks with a heavy Roman presence as ordered by Varus in an attempt to suppress any attempts at rebellion. He reveals later that he never planned to send them to the Romans, and lets them reunite with their families later. It was mostly for show as a way to unite them together lest Rome continues to oppress them with tributary demands as well as manpower for their wars.
  • Crusading Widow: Marbod finally agrees to go against the Romans when they kill his wife while attacking the chieftains during their meeting.
  • Dead Guy on Display: After the theft of the Romans' standard, Folkwin's parents and siblings are killed and crucified when Segimer doesn't turn Folkwin in, with Varus forbidding the bodies to be taken down and buried under the threat of hanging until he's given the standard and Folkwin. The Cherusci defy the order in the next episode and get away with it thanks to Arminius.
  • Death Faked for You: After killing his Roman companions when having Folkwin at his mercy, Arminius decapitates one of Folkwin's deceased companions and lies to Varus that the head is Folkwin's, leading to the Romans believing he's dead.
  • Decapitation Presentation:
    • After Arminius gives Varus a head he claims to belong to Folkwin, it's put on a stake in the Roman camp.
    • After Varus kills himself in the midst of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, Segestes cuts off his head and holds in up as a gesture of the tribes' victory. The head is later on a stake when Arminius talks to it.
  • Defiant to the End: The Bructeri reik Gernot Rotbart turns down Varus' last offer to submit to Rome by spitting on the standard he's supposed to kiss, and he proceeds to calmly look Arminius in the eye when the latter is ordered to execute him.
  • Demoted to Extra: Flavus, Arminius' brother, is demoted to a mere mention.
  • Driven to Suicide: Varus' Villainous BSoD leads to him stabbing himself with the sword he gifted Arminius with.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Varus seems to genuinely value his adopted son Arminius. Realizing Arminius led the legions into a trap is so devastating to Varus that he takes his own life.
  • Everyone Has Standards: After the Bructeri host Folkwin and his companions, Reik Kunolf leads them to attack them in an effort to collect the bounty on Folkwin's head and kills his second cousin Berulf. Golmad expresses afterwards his dismay that they attacked their guests.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Metellus and Arminius have a brief moment of this where the two share old war stories. Metellus finds out that it was a cavalry charge led by Arminius that saved his legion in a previous battle, and the two share scars they obtained. Subverted when Arminius ends up killing him and his other Roman bodyguards to save Folkwin.
  • First-Episode Twist: The Roman officer Arminius being a German, and in fact the son of the Cherusci chieftain. It's foreshadowed a bit by having him understand the German language. Notably, the production avoids doing People of Hair Color like making the Germans mostly blonde and red-haired vs. the Romans being brunette as there are a lot of brunette Germans too, and so the actor for Arminius was cast in part because his black hair makes him blend into the Romans better, and because it doesn't match the traditional imaginary picture of Arminius as blond (like in the French comics series The Eagles of Rome), so the twist is saved for the end of the first episode.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The Battle of Teutoberg Forest is a real historical event, so the outcome is set. It's not a question of whether Arminius is going to switch sides and slaughter the Romans, it's about how he gets there.
  • Happily Adopted: Arminius loves his Roman father and wants to please him — at first.
  • He Knows Too Much: Arminius murders at the infirmary the only survivor of the group of Romans he chose to slay instead of killing Folkwin. He then realizes that the murder was witnessed by Talio who's wise not to try to rat on him.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: When the Bructeri attack Folkwin to collect his bounty, Berulf gives him and their companions time to escape by holding the door closed until he's stabbed through it with a sword.
  • Hollywood Tactics: When the Romans realize they are being ambushed they immediately throw down all their javelins and defend with short swords behind their tower shields, one or two lines deep. This formation is hapless; ambush or not the Romans knew better and the Germans have no problem using their javelins.
  • Honor Before Reason: When the Romans demand the Cherusci chieftain kiss their eagle, an intensely humiliating move, Thusnelda snaps and shoves him away, screaming, even though the Romans vastly outnumber the Cherusci and this cannot end well. The Romans attack and nearly kill both her and her little brother in retaliation.
  • Killed Mid-Sentence: When Hanno teases Eigil about marrying the latter's sister, a Roman spear is thrown through his neck in the middle of his speech.
  • Made a Slave: After Arminius and Thusnelda marry, Folkwin is captured and enslaved by Romans until he gets free during the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.
  • The Magnificent: As a boy, Folkwin speared a wolf to save Arminius, so years later he is known by such an epithet.
  • Mercy Kill: Unable to bear to see her son Ansgar living physically and mentally handicapped, Irmina tries to trick him into walking off a cliff, only for Thusnelda to save him at the last minute.
  • Never My Fault: Not once does Thusnelda for a second consider that Ansgar's crippling is the result of her above mentioned Honor Before Reason actions. YMMV if the show is trying to show that she hates the Romans so much she considers everything their fault or if they didn't think of having a few minutes of her blaming herself and being comforted.
  • Off with His Head!:
  • Period Piece, Modern Language: Antiquity-era Germanic barbarians speak in modern-day German whereas Ancient Romans speak in Latin.
  • The Queen's Latin: Notably averted. All Roman characters speak real Classical Latin, while the proto-Germanic that the Germanii presumably spoke is rendered as modern German.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: Arminius desperately wants to get reassigned to a different province, since he doesn't want to kill his childhood friends nor his Germanic kinsman. Unfortunately for him, Varus reveals that he wants Arminius to become a Reik, and lead one of the Germanic tribes to subjugate them under Rome's rule.
  • Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated: Folkwin is at first assumed to be dead, as there's a burnt body in the woods with a wolf-tooth necklace nearby when Thusnelda and Arminius investigate. However, he's revealed to be alive, and was taken captive by a passing Roman patrol. During his drunken bout with them, another captive tried to escape, but was killed and his body dumped onto Folkwin's campfire.
  • Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves:
    • After Arminius convinces Luco to tell him that Folkwin is hiding in the Dark Land, Metellus stabs him to death. He then quotes Caesar to Arminius: "I love treason, but I hate a traitor."
    • In the second season finale, Thusnelda's parents lure her and Thumelicus to Tiberius' clutches in exchange for a position in Rome. He has them both decapitated for their troubles and even uses the above-mentioned quote of Caesar as well.
  • Sarcastic Confession: Segestes arrives shortly after Varus gives the orders for the three legions to march on the Germanic tribes. He tells Varus that Arminius plans to betray him, and that Folkwin Wolfspeer is actually alive and a slave in their camp. Arminius plays it up as a joke, suggesting that he was somehow going to defeat fifteen thousand men with a token force, and that somehow the bandit that stole their eagle just also happens to be enslaved right there. Varus takes Arminius's side, and has Segestes thrown out.
  • Secret Identity: Folkwin takes up Berulf's name and identity after a captive woman claims that Folkwin's head was stuck on a pike nearby. He then shares the latter's backstory with her about being stuck in two different worlds due to his familial ties with two different prominent Germanic tribes.
  • Sickbed Slaying: After Arminius is told that one of the Romans he slaughtered to save Folkwin is alive, he proceeds to kill the survivor in the infirmary to protect his secret.
  • Tactful Translation: When Arminius presents his new wife Thusnelda to Varus, he translates her threats as compliments until the arrival of the interpreter Pelagios forces her to watch her tongue.
  • Talking to the Dead: In the first season finale, Arminius makes a heartwrenching monologue to Varus' staked head.
  • This Means Warpaint: The Germans sport various types of warpaint during the Battle of the Teutoberg Forest. Arminius does a Dramatic Unmask of his full-face helmet among his fellow Romans to reveal that he also has warpaint on.
  • Translation with an Agenda: Segestes is the only one of the Cherusci who can understand and speak Latin fluently enough in dealing with the Romans, so he translates for Segimer. When Metellus shows up to announce that Varus expects a tribute of "20 cows or 50 hundredweights of grain", Segestes relays this as "They want cattle and grain", which makes Segimer protest, and Metellus intimidates him into compliance. This early on, it's ambiguous if it's just a mistake, but as Segestes's ambitions to become Reik become clear it's apparent that he was trying to undermine or else make trouble for Segimer.
  • True Companions: Though they're at odds since Arminius is on the Roman side, Folkwin still saves him from Berulf, who was seeking vengeance against Arminius for having beheaded his uncle Rotbart at the Roman encampment. Arminius later returns the favor after he catches up to Folkwin's group in the Dark Lands. Instead of killing Folkwin, he immediately attacks and kills his Roman bodyguards.
  • Villainous BSoD: Varus enters one during the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest when he sees that Arminius has truly betrayed the Romans to the Germanic tribes.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: Despite living in the same place and having cultural similarities, the various tribes are all politically distinct and don't agree on whether they should risk fighting the Romans, which leads to a lot of arguing, even verging on violence. Some of them are even working for the Romans.
  • Wham Line: At the end of the first episode, a lone Arminius approaches Segimer, somehow having tracked down where the eagle standard was stolen. The final line in the episode ends with him speaking in German, "Hello father". The next episode immediately reveals he was in fact Segimer's son, and was taken away by Rome.
  • Wham Shot: In the first episode, Arminius finds Folkwin's tooth necklace on the ground. He then rushes back to his tent and opens a box, out of which he pulls an identical necklace, revealing that he was childhood friends with Thusnelda and Folkwin.