The Barbarians at the Pallazo Grassi

Ernest Baert

Last month, the exhibition Roma e i Barbari, opened at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice.

The curator, Jacques Aillagon, a former French minister of culture, says that the aim of the exhibition is “to illustrate centuries of conflictual co-existence leading to the cultural integration of Barbarian populations into the pre-existing decided that assimilation was the best form of defence.”

The underlying but clear message is that we should not worry: if Europe assimilates all newcomers, things will be OK, even if they arrive in massive waves, because the Barbarians were nowhere as bad as historically depicted in the Roman propaganda. The Economist even comes up with the example of a seemingly peace-loving Attila forbidding his troops to sack Rome. Yet, when it comes to how much or how little things changed for the better when after the fall of Rome the were in charge, the Economist says merely “historical evidence became scarce. Unlike the Romans, the Barbarians did not build for posterity…”

So should we rehabilitate the Barbarians and review Rome’s futile attempts to control immigration?In How the Irish saved Civilization Thomas Cahill argues that when the Roman Empire fell apart and Europe descended into chaos, it was in Irish monasteries that classical texts continued to be copied and preserved during the dark period of the 5th and 6th centuries.

This is an interesting thesis which contradicts or complements politically correct wisdom that classical Greek texts came back to Europe via the Arabs, partly through Al Andalus, But the first half of the book, in which Cahill describes the mindset of your typical Roman and your typical barbarian around the fall of the Roman Empire is more relevant for the question above.

Image: Attila the Hun