Chronicles of the Barbarians: Firsthand Accounts of Pillage and Conquest, From the Ancient World to the Fall of Constantinople, by David W. McCullough, Times Books, $35.
We have met the enemy, and he is us. Does anyone believe that the blood ancestors of today’s Western civilization are the Greeks and Romans of ancient history? Don’t count on it. The far more probable truth is that today’s white Europeans and North Americans are the direct descendants of the victorious Goths, Celts, Thracians, Scythians, Gauls, Huns, and Vikings of ancient memory.
The northern invaders of Greece and Rome were more numerous and, in the end, certainly more successful militarily than the classical Mediterranean civilizations. And anyone who reads the accounts that have been selected by author David McCullough will certainly discover that those Romans and Greeks were far less numerous after an encounter with northern invaders than they were before such a clash. Rome and Greece perished, and the barbarians thrived. They seized and adopted Western civilization. It is for that reason that this book is an important reference source. It describes Western civilization’s true descent.
Chronicles of the Barbarians provides descriptions of a central event in early European history: the gradual conquest and absorption of Greece and Rome by northern tribes. According to the author, the word “barbarian” likely comes from the Sanskrit word for “stammering.” The message in this word choice was that the invader could not communicate. In short, he was a foreigner speaking an unfamiliar tongue. McCullough also points out that as early as 390 B.C.–eight hundred years before the commonly accepted date of the sacking of Rome–that city was taken, albeit briefly, by the Celts. For the next one thousand years, European history was, in many respects, the story of a great struggle between ill-educated, trouser-wearing invaders and the more sophisticated, robe-clad cultures that hugged the Mediterranean littoral.
For the most part, McCullough uses near-contemporary accounts of these invasions. Authors include Herodotus on the Scythians and Thracians; Diodorus Siculus, Livy, and Polybius on the Celts; Julius Caesar on both the Germans and Britons; Tacitus on the Caledonians; and Procopius’ description of the Goths. Claudian, Priscus, and Jordanes describe the Huns and the battles against them. The Vikings are seen through accounts from The Annals of St. Bertin and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, A.D. 994-1016. Juvaini is quoted on the march of Genghis Khan. Other accounts describe the Mongols and Tartars. The book ends with accounts from the Crusades, appropriately subtitled “Infidel Against Infidel.” These include the writings of Robert the Monk and Usamah Ibn-Murshid.
Illustration is an important part of this book. Twenty-eight well-chosen and informative color reproductions of art works and sculptures accompany the text and depict how the barbarians were thought to have appeared or how their actions were remembered.