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Series / Barbarians Rising

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Not belonging to the great civilizations of Greece and Rome.
Foreign, strange or ignorant.
— the opening splash panel

Barbarians Rising was a four-part docudrama miniseries on The History Channel that aired in the summer of 2016.

The series focuses on the struggles between the Roman Empire as it rose and fell and the various indigenous tribal and nomadic peoples on its periphery, the so-called "barbarians", cutting between expert interviews and reenactments of the historical events by a strong cast of TV actors. Primarily told from the barbarians' point of view with Rome serving as The Empire, it follows a succession of leaders across four episodes:

  • "Resistance": General Hannibal Barca (Nicholas Pinnock) leads the army of the Roman Republic's regional rival the Carthaginian Empire in alliance with many Iberian tribes during the Second Punic War, but fails to strangle Rome in the crib despite brilliant victories in mainland Italy. After Carthage falls, a shepherd named Viriathus (Jefferson Hall) rises from the besieged tribes of Lusitania and becomes a Rebel Leader.
  • "Rebellion": The gladiator Spartacus (Ben Batt) begins a slave revolt against Rome, but fails. Later, as Caesar Augustus rapidly expands the new Roman Empire, the Roman-trained Cherusci chief Arminius (Tom Hopper) leads all of Germany in a massive uprising.
  • "Revenge": Arminius's revolt leads to Rome's first lasting defeat by a non-Roman people and halts its advance to the northeast. Boudica (Kirsty Mitchell) tries to throw Nero back into the sea to avenge herself and her daughters. And Fritigern (Steven Waddington), leader of the Goths, seeks shelter from the Huns in the Eastern Empire, but is betrayed by Rome and goes on the attack.
  • "Ruin": Fritigern's successor Alaric (Gavin Drea) serves Rome as a mercenary but is soured on their treatment of the barbarians. When he is crowned King of the Visigoths, he vows he will not rest until Rome abides by its treaty obligation and provides his people with a homeland. Part two of the episode is noticeably Perspective Flipped, with the collapsing Western Roman Empire now the defending heroes against the marauding hordes of Attila the Hun (Emil Hostina) and the political maneuverings of Geiseric, King of the Vandals (Richard Brake).

The reenactments bow to the Rule of Drama fairly frequently, though the website for the series usually notes these cases.

This miniseries provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Actually Pretty Funny: Arminius and General Varus get off on a poor foot due to Varus' bigotry, but then they have this exchange when Varus describes the Germans selling each other into slavery to Rome "for trinkets."
    Arminius: Is that what I am, is it? A trinket of Rome?
    Varus: What else are you? You climb to the highest rank of any barbarian in the Roman army, and yet the Emperor sends you back here?
    Arminius: Who am I to question the Emperor's wisdom? After all, you crucified 2,000 Jewish rebels in the Syrian uprising, and the Emperor saw it fit to send you here. Sir.
    Varus: (glances at him and starts chuckling) Careful, Arminius, I'm beginning to like you.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Cumelios was actually named Viriathus in real life, just like the other Viriathus. This was probably changed in order not to get the viewers confused with two important characters going by the same name.
  • The Alliance: A recurring trope given the power of Rome being usually too great for any one group of barbarians to handle by themselves.
    • Hannibal allies with the Lusitanians and a number of other tribes during his campaign in the Second Punic War. The Lusitanian and African cavalry in particular are critical to his victory at Cannae.
    • Arminius and Boudica both organize alliances of tribes that rise up against the Roman occupiers as one. Arminius succeeds, Boudica fails.
    • Flipped around in the final segment: Flavius Aetius organizes an alliance with the Visigoths to stand against Attila the Hun.
  • Artistic License – Geography: The lands of Tribola are portrayed here as cold, sinister forests. In real life, Tribola was located in Andalusia, the southernmost part of Spain, which has basically the same climate and terrain as northern Morocco.
  • Artistic License – History: Enough to have its own article.
  • Ax-Crazy: This is the Carthaginians's perception of the Lusitanians, so much that Hannibal and Mago discuss if they will be welcomed to their village to negotiate or just beheaded without a word. Fortunately for them, Cumelios and his people are just reasonable enough.
  • Black Vikings: Hannibal and the Carthaginian ruling elite came from Phoenician families, which would have given them olive skin and relatively Semitic traits. Here, they are played by black actors, possibly on the common rationalization that they were technically African citizens and thus "African = Black".
  • Blood Knight: Attila is portrayed as far more savage and outright evil than the other barbarian leaders: whereas they're portrayed as lighter-gray freedom fighters, he's invading from outside Rome and simply wants loot and slaughter. Emil Hostina plays him as bloodthirsty bordering on psychotic. This has the effect of making the Roman-Visigothic alliance gathered to stop him into the tragic heroes of the segment, in a reversal of the rest of the series.
  • Bribe Backfire: Spartacus tries to pay Sicilian pirates and merchants to ship his troops to Sicily so he can occupy it, but General Marcus Crassus anticipates this and buys them off first. Spartacus arrives in southern Italy to find his emissaries hanged.
  • The Caligula: Emperor Valentinian III during the Attila/Geiseric segment. He's incompetent as a ruler but still wants to rule, and as a result is paranoid that everyone is plotting against him. This leads to him murdering General Aetius after Aetius defeats Attila and then having his mother, the actual mastermind in the family, executed, leaving Rome bereft of any effective defense against the barbarians.
  • The Chessmaster: Rather than being a military or guerrilla leader like the others, Geiseric is depicted as this kind of villain. He plays the Western Roman Empire and Attila off against each other to weaken them, then sacks Rome himself.
  • Consummate Professional: No, Emperor Valentinian, Flavius Aetius has zero interest in overthrowing you, he's just trying to do his damn job and keep the Western Empire in one piece. Too bad Valentinian didn't believe him.
  • Cool Sword: Even if it is geographically displaced, the Lusitanians's falcatas are things of beauty, as well as very lethal.
  • Create Your Own Villain: Most of the revolts depicted occurred because of unprovoked, incredibly brutal acts of aggression committed by the Romans.
  • Decapitation Presentation: Arminius brings the head of a German chief who wouldn't ally with him to Varus, which serves two purposes: it silences a potential leak of information about Arminius's planned uprising, and assures Varus that Arminius is doing his job of punishing tribes who won't pay Rome's taxes. After Teutoburg Wald, Arminius ships Varus' head to Emperor Augustus. (This is Rule of Drama, though only partially: in real life, Arminius actually sent Varus' head to another German chief in hopes of getting his allegiance.)
  • The Empire: Rome serves this role in the series, conquering its way across Europe's barbarians, pillaging their treasure, enslaving their children, and disregarding treaties.
  • Evil Cripple: Geiseric walks with a cane due to a severe limp and is shown ordering purges in Carthage and masterminding the collapse of the Western Empire.
  • Fighting for a Homeland: Goth leaders Fritigern and Alaric lost their homelands in what is now Eastern Europe to the invading Huns and crossed into the Roman Empire under an agreement with Emperor Valens promising them resettlement. When the Romans betray their end of the agreement, Fritigern attacked and killed Valens at the Battle of Adrianople. In Alaric's adulthood, the Romans initially co-opt the Goths as mercenaries to help battle the Huns, but Alaric gets tired of waiting and sacks Rome, and is finally granted an independent kingdom in modern-day Aquitaine.
  • Genocide Backfire: Viriathus comes out of the Romans' punitive slaughter of the Lusitanians in revenge for their alliance with Hannibal decades earlier (it's directly referred to as an act of genocide by an interviewee). He was just a shepherd, but he escapes the slaughter and becomes a Rebel Leader. More generally, the resistance to Rome is almost invariably portrayed as provoked by Roman brutality.
  • Historical Badass Upgrade: In real life, Gaius Vetilius was very old and obese when he came to Hispania, to the point that he was killed by a Lusitanian fighter that could not believe such a slob was the Roman leader (as Hispanics usually believed firmly on Authority Equals Asskicking). In the series, he is middle-aged at most and looks very physically fit, and also does pretty well by himself in the battle of Tribola.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Ditalcus receives here a sympathetic backstory that does not appear in any historic chronicle, namely that he resents Viriathus for having his tribe and friends killed as a side effect of the latter's rebellion. It's implied this was the main factor in his betrayal of Viriathus, aside from his lack of trust on his campaign from the start. Meanwhile, the historical Ditalcus apparently betrayed Viriathus out of sheer opportunism and greed, and judging by the chroniclers's condemnations of him and his cronies, it is clear he didn't have any other reason that is worthy to know.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: No historical source ever talks about Scipio Africanus being dishonorable or bloodthirsty, at least not more than any Roman general of his time. However, the narration of the series describes him as "soulless", and he accordingly shows an unnerving Slasher Smile when talking about attacking Carthage.
  • Hold the Line: Hannibal's plan at Cannae is to use his lighter infantry to lure the Romans' heavier infantry in so he can then attack from the flanks with elite troops and cavalry. This requires their shield wall to hold off that of the Romans, or else they'll be butchered. It works.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: In the middle of the Battle of Teutoburg Wald, Arminius discovers Quinctilius Varus trying to commit suicide by stabbing himself with his sword, and helps him along by kicking the sword straight through him.
  • Kill It with Fire:
    • Boudica burns the three main Roman cities in Britain (located in the modern-day London area) to the ground with all their inhabitants.
    • Fritigern defeats a superior Eastern Roman army at Adrianople in part by building huge bonfires along their route of travel to overheat and dehydrate them. When Emperor Valens hides in a barn after his army begins to break, the Ostrogoths set the barn on fire and kill him.
  • Last-Second Term of Respect: In "Rebellion", Quinctilius Varus and current protagonist Arminius look on as German tribesmen offer children to their Roman overlords as slaves to cover their tax bills.
    Arminius: Is that what I am, is it? A trinket of Rome?
    Varus: What else are you? You climb to the highest rank of any barbarian in the Roman army, and yet the Emperor sends you back here?
    Arminius: Who am I to question the Emperor's wisdom? After all, you crucified two thousand Jewish rebels in the Syrian uprising, and the Emperor saw it fit to send you here. (Beat) Sir.
    Varus: (glances at him and starts chuckling) Careful, Arminius, I'm beginning to like you.
  • Meaningful Name: Cumelios's name means "stallion" in Lusitanian, and he wears a horsehair-shaped helmet.
  • Mole in Charge: Arminius holds the rank of equestrian in the Roman army and is put in charge of exacting tribute from the same Germanic tribes from which he hopes to encourage a revolt. This duty provides him with an excellent cover story.
  • Neck Snap: Reburrus does it to a Roman soldier.
  • Occupiers Out of Our Country: Viriathus, Arminius, and Boudica all wage war to drive Roman occupiers out of their homelands, though Arminius and the Germans are the only ones to succeed.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: The Battle of the Catalaunian Plains. Rome and the Visigoths succeed in breaking the Huns' advance and ruining Attila's reputation as an invulnerable leader, but their losses are so severe that Rome cannot hold its northern borders. To make matters worse, the resulting boost to Aetius' reputation and his previous efforts to save the Empire behind Emperor Valentian's back lead Valentinian to the conclusion that Aetius plans a Military Coup, so Valentinian kills him, depriving Rome of its most effective general in hundreds of years.
  • Race Lift: Hannibal and his family, who in real life were Semites with possibly some Spanish and Berber blood mixed in, are black here.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Both of Boudica's daughters are raped by Roman soldiers, as happened historically. This is the trigger for her Roaring Rampage of Revenge against Rome.
  • Soldier vs. Warrior: Rome's legions are famously one of the first-ever organized standing armies with codified tactics, and they're usually unstoppable in set-piece field battles as Boudica learns the hard way. With the exception of Hannibal, the barbarians are invariably portrayed as warriors and, as Arminius explains, their victories usually come simply from setting ambushes and never allowing the Romans to form up into a shield-wall: Viriathus and Arminius both destroy large Roman armies by trapping them against impassable terrain and outflanking them.
  • Vestigial Empire: Roman Empire by the time of Ruin began to decline from its zenith as their grip on their territories became loose and made worse when tensions flared up with the German tribes seeking refuge from Hun's invasion that caused many conflicts that further causes chaos within the empire.
  • War Is Hell: The series does not in any way shy away from the brutality of late Bronze Age/early Iron Age warfare.
  • Would Hit a Girl/Would Hurt a Child: Boudica's segment has her flogged and her teenage daughters raped by Roman soldiers. In retaliation, Boudica burns three Roman cities to the ground and slaughters the inhabitants to the last man, woman, and child, including personally setting fire to the Temple of Claudius with women and children inside begging for mercy. It then ends with one of Boudica's daughters being run down by a Roman cavalryman.
  • Wrestler in All of Us: A Lusitanian can be seen performing a powerslam on a Roman soldier during the Battle of Cannae.