Made in the same vein as other Netflix historical-drama shows like ‘Rise of Empires: Ottoman,’ ‘Roman Empire,’ ‘The Last Kingdom,’ and ‘Troy: Fall of a City,’ ‘Barbarians’ chronicles the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, in which the decisive victory of the alliance of the Germanic tribes against the occupying Roman forces permanently ceased the further expansion of the empire into the Germanic territory. The story predominantly focuses on Arminius, a Germanic man who served as an officer in the Imperial army before changing sides and joining forces with the people of his native land.
Although the story is primarily told from the perspective of the Germania tribes, that doesn’t mean that the Roman point of view has been completely ignored. In fact, by casting Italian actors to portray Roman characters, the showrunners Arne Nolting, Jan Martin Scharf, and Andreas Heckmann ensured that these characters would have as much complexity as their Germanic counterparts. They also added an extra layer of authenticity by having them speak Latin. SPOILERS AHEAD!
Barbarians Plot Synopsis
When Ari (Laurence Rupp) was a child, he and his younger brother Flavus were sent to Rome by their father Segimer (Nicki von Tempelhoff), the chieftain of the Cherusci tribe, to have peace between the empire and his people. In Rome, the brothers were brought up by Publius Quinctilius Varus (Gaetano Aronica), a nobleman of considerable power and influence. Ari became Arminius and received a military education. He later joined the Imperial army and eventually became a high-ranking officer.
The series opens with Arminius returning to Germania to serve under his adoptive father, who has been appointed the governor of the newly-established Roman province of Germania by the emperor (Caesar Augustus). Shortly after his arrival, two of his childhood friends, Thusnelda (Jeanne Goursaud) and Folkwin Wolfspeer (David Schütter), steal the eagle standard of one of the legions stationed there. Arminius discovers that the people of his own tribe had stolen the eagle and goes to retrieve it.
After a brief reunion with his father and friends that quickly turns violent when some agitated villagers attack him, Arminius manages to leave with the eagle. However, he gradually realizes that the citizens of the empire would never regard him as one of their own. He becomes the new reik (chief) of the Cherusci people following his father’s death and takes Thusnelda as his wife.
While outwardly being loyal to Varus, Arminius brings together the warring Germanic tribes under one alliance with his wife’s help. In September of 9 CE, he leads Varus and three Roman legions into a carefully laid trap in the Teutoburg Forest. In the ensuing battle, the Imperial army is completely wiped out, and Varus commits ritual suicide by falling on a sword.
‘Barbarians’ is not your garden variety patriotic TV show that is supposed to tickle the sentimentality of the people of its country of origin. Granted, it does depict the cruelty and horror that the Germanic people suffered in the hands of their oppressors, enunciating their need for self-governance. Still, it also earnestly shows that the tribes don’t treat each other any better. There are constant infightings, feuds that go back generations, and a general distrust of each other.
Indeed, it’s a testament to Arminius’ inherent leadership qualities as well as the mystical aura that Thusnelda has as a seer that they manage to forge the alliance. Even then, there are detractors. Before joining the battle, Thusnelda’s father Segestes (Bernhard Schütz) and Reik Hadgan (Sergej Onopko) wait until it is clear which side will emerge triumphant. After the battle, the showrunners take time to underscore that the perceived heroes of the story are no less cruel than their former oppressors.
The prisoners of war are murdered indiscriminately, and there is even a scene that contains cannibalism. This reinforces the show’s main point that, although we are supposed to root for this group of people, they are ultimately driven by their own sense of morality and social conduct. Therefore, the application of modern sensibilities on them, or the Romans for the better, is erroneous and unfair.
A Traveler Between Worlds
As the child of parents belonging to two different tribes, Berulf often describes himself as “a traveler between worlds.” After his death, Folkwin briefly uses his name as an alias while he was a captive in the Roman camp. He then uses that phrase to describe himself to a fellow captive. In reality, that description applies to Arminius much more than the two of them. He was forced to leave his home, family, and friends when he was just a child and was brought up by a stranger.
In time, he learned to love Varus and started idolizing him. He fell in love with Rome itself, as Germania became a fragment of a long-forgotten memory. However, when Arminius comes back to his homeland, those memories come rushing back, and he has no choice but to deal with them. His original home starts to pull him back toward itself, as he simultaneously realizes that a proper Roman citizen will always see him as an outsider, no matter what he has sacrificed for the empire.
This reluctant acknowledgment ultimately leads Arminius to become the leader of the clandestine alliance and marshal his people toward an open rebellion against his adoptive father and home. He becomes briefly uncertain when Varus informs him that the emperor has named him a Roman Knight and presents to him, the official sword of the order. This is something that he has wanted since he was a child. Quickly sensing his dilemma, Thusnelda warns him that he has to make a choice. Ultimately, Arminius remains a traveler between worlds as the series ends, belonging to neither.
In an incredibly symbolic scene, Arminius’ adoptive father uses his Roman Knight sword to kill himself right in front of him. Later, Folkwin, still filled with hate and anger because of Arminius’ marriage to Thusnelda, rebuffs the other man’s proposal to serve at his side and threatens to kill him. Despite liberating his people from the yoke of their oppressors, he is as much an outsider among the Germanic people as he was among the Romans.
A Sacrifice for Wisdom
Although it initially started as a sham to convince the tribes to join their cause, Thusnelda increasingly embraces her role as the seer as the series progresses. Just before the battle, when the tribes start to have doubts, she reverts to religion to keep them together. Like Odin, she sacrifices an eye to gain wisdom about the battle. It’s the religious nature of this incident that convinces the tribes that they are on the correct course.
Thusnelda has always been a free-spirited and assertive woman. After the battle, she becomes ambitious as well. She is very much aware of what it will mean for her if Arminius is declared king, and she has already started to entertain the prospect in her head. Folkwin can sense that and calls her out on it. But then it is revealed that she is carrying Folkwin’s child. When and if Arminius discovers this, there will be ramifications for everyone involved.
What Future Holds
To the Germanic people, wolves are the bringer of destruction. Odin himself will be killed by Fenrir the Wolf during the events of Ragnarök. For the Romans, however, the wolves are sacred. It was a she-wolf that milked and protected the twin founders of Rome – Romulus, and Remus. Throughout the series, this has been used as a plot device, with the wolf representing the Roman forces in Germania. In the closing scenes, amid all the celebration, Arminius has the recurring vision of a wolf again, indicating that Rome will come back for retribution.
The series ends with a shot of a rider with Varus’ decapitated head in his hand. This can mean one of two things. Historically, Arminius sent the head to Maroboduus, the powerful king of the Marcomanni, to show him that the Romans can be defeated and request him to join the alliance. Maroboduus rejected the offer and gave it to the Romans. The series can follow this historical sequence of events, or it can simply skip Maroboduus and depict that Varus’ severed head had gone directly back to Rome for burial. Either way, we are going to have the answer when ‘Barbarians’ returns with season 2.
Read More: Is Barbarians a True Story?