• Ana Martin

Should I watch Barbarians on Netflix? Ask a Latin teacher.


Barbarians is the latest show on Netflix to take a covid-captive audience by storm. What makes it so special? Well, for a start, the Romans speak actual Latin!


You may have watched the trailer (see below) and wondered: is this any good for Latin learners? Take it from somebody who has managed to fit the whole series in 48 hours of a very busy life: this is outstanding TV entertainment. I genuinely do not see why anyone would choose not to watch it!


And now, as to whether it is any good for those learning Latin, I have put together 5 reasons why I think it will be a great use of your allocated screen time:


(Parents of younger viewers, NB: this is classed as a 16 in the UK, an age rating that excludes most GCSE students! But anyway, you do not need an excuse to watch great tv, and I am sure you will be very happy to have watched it on your own)

1. The use of Latin


As far as fiction filmed in Latin goes, this is in my opinion as good as it gets. Yes, there are those out there picking holes in it, and I am sure they can, but the Latin is beautifully pronounced, well articulated and easy to understand.


Would the Romans have spoken like that at the time? My answer is quite straightforward: who cares? Nobody seems too hang up on the fact that the Cherusci and Bructeri are speaking 21st century German to each other, so I suggest we just embrace the fiction and enjoy it for what it is.

Which leads me to my next point: historicity. Is it true to what happened?


Germania under the rule of Augustus

2. A stepping board to reinterpret the past


Does this want to be a faithful account of what happened? No. You will find plenty of historical inaccuracies, from Roman soldiers using stirrups to (apparently) the odd watch sighting.


But do not forget: this is fiction – you only need to look at their teeth and life expectancy to see that the aim of the series is not simply to explain what happened in the forest of Teutoburg!


Now that we know what this series is not, let us look at what it is: a fantastic opportunity to revisit a historical event and interpret it from a fresh perspective. The film probably tells you more about modern Germany and its difficult relationship with its past than it does about Roman military attire, but it is precisely this that makes it a worthwhile series to watch: as ever, history is an amazing mirror to hold.


Take the title: Barbarians. Who are those Barbarians referred to in the title? Is it the Germans, is it the Romans, or is it just a question thrown out there for you to ponder?


And here we are at my third point:


3. The role of women and family life


One of the innovative aspects of this series is the way it delves into the characterisation of women and their role in family and political life. This is a great starting point for those reading Tacitus to start asking: whose voices we are hearing when we read ancient literature? And if we are going to think about accuracy, where do Roman historiographers, particularly Tacitus, stand?


The series touches on the big issues of our time, and it is a fantastic invitation to look at the ways we engage with the role of women in the past.



Thusnelda and her people in Rome, shown off in a triumph

4. You will learn your facts


The beauty of a gripping show is that you do not forget it afterwards. Everyone should have at least some idea of what happened in the Teutoburg forest, what a Varian disaster (clades Variana) is and what Arminius and Thusnelda mean in the collective imagination. The acting is fabulous. You are guaranteed to remember at least some of what happened in Teutoburg after watching this.


For those interested in Germanicus after reading the Piso and Germanicus - classic GCSE set text in the UK, do not fret: I can see a second series coming, and I anticipate a big role going to Germanicus there.


5. This is great vocabulary revision


Not everyone knows both German and Latin, but for those who do, this is a superb opportunity to put your vocabulary learning skills into practice and have fun at the same time. The switch between the languages is fast paced and well-orchestrated, and the subtitles are very useful to give you a quick overview of what is happening.


Remember: the more you encounter a word in context the more likely you are to be able to understand it and, when needed, retrieve it and use it. Those revising for A Level or degree Classics courses can have a nice break from their vocabulary lists without feeling guilty.


Is there a reason why people might not want to watch it?


The film has been classed as a 16 in the UK, and the amount of graphic violence is not for those that do not like to see it on screen. In case anyone is worried about nudity, I find that they have been very careful with the angles and not much is revealed, which is interesting given how straightforward they are with the gore: expect decapitations.


Still unsure? Watch this:


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