When ancient barbarian civilizations are discussed, visions of violent droves of people with spears attacking cities often surface in the imagination. How many of these ancient peoples were evil and cruel, and how many were just victims of bad press?
Many myths about barbarians run rampant, with pop culture, cinema, and history favoring some civilizations over others. Did Mulan actually fight the Huns, and what were they really like? Were the Goths also barbarians, and did they wear black eyeliner? How much of the Black Legend was based in truth, and how much of it is... well... legend?
Everyone should be able to make their own judgment on which "barbaric" people deserve redemption.
Their Bad Rap: The Zulu people are savages who attack anyone who enters their territory. They have many taboo practices, such as polygamy and religious sacrifice, which are frowned upon by Westerners.
How They Got That Reputation: The Zulu people were demonized by white colonizers in South Africa. The Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 started when the British attempted to colonize Zulu territory and the Zulu people fought back. After they put up a good fight, the demonization of the Zulu culture and religion became widespread.
Why They Deserve A Second Chance: The Zulu are the largest ethnic group in South Africa, with about 9 million people as of the 20th century. The language of the Zulu people, isiZulu, is the most widely spoken language in all of South Africa.
The British wanted to invade Zululand in the 19th century for the sole purpose of making them slaves to mine diamonds in South Africa. When they rightfully fought back, losing after six months of carnage and the destruction of their home, somehow they gained the reputation of being the bad guys.Deserve a better reputation?
Their Bad Rap: The Vandals were Germanic nomads who were fierce, ruthless warriors, sacking Rome and defeating other previously unbeatable groups like the Huns and the Goths. They were so terrible that their name eventually came to be synonymous with criminal destruction.
How They Got That Reputation: The Vandals dared to mess with Rome, which was very unkind to those who encroached on its territory. The Romans were also very consistent with writing down everything that happened to them. They did not talk about the Vandals kindly - in fact, they established them as criminals who liked to destroy stuff for centuries to come.
Why They Deserve A Second Chance: The Vandals actually did their best to conquer territories with as little destruction as possible. In his book, A History of the Vandals, Torsten Cumberland Jacobsen describes how the Vandals were far less destructive than other invading groups of barbarians. They went out of their way to preserve buildings and didn't burn anything to the ground.
When they sacked Rome in the fifth century CE, they had conquered the surrounding cities to the point where Rome was pretty much helpless. The Romans were so sure of their defeat that they didn't even send out their troops, instead sending Pope Leo I to reason with the king of the Vandals, Genseric. They were granted access to plunder Rome, as long as they didn't burn anything or take any lives. The Vandals complied with the compromise, slowly taking anything of value from Rome without shedding any blood or destroying the city over the course of two weeks. They did, however, take some Romans back with them to their kingdom in North Africa to be their slaves, so they're not completely off the hook.Deserve a better reputation?
- Photo: Vikings / History Channel3
Their Bad Rap: The Vikings were godless heathens who destroyed anyone and anything in their path, especially priests and monks. This has resulted in many movies and TV series that have cemented the Vikings' reputation as fierce warriors with braided hairstyles.
How They Got That Reputation: There are many historical recordings of the June 843 invasion of the cities of Nantes, located in what is now Western France. Allegedly, the Vikings did away with every priest, monk, and churchgoer in sight.
Why They Deserve A Second Chance: Upon taking a closer look at historical evidence from both the Vikings and medieval Europeans, it becomes clear that the Europeans have a tendency to exaggerate their interactions with the Vikings.
The Vikings were not Catholics like the Europeans and therefore did not hesitate to kill clergy members if it meant defeating their enemy. It comes down to this simple fact: The Vikings attacked places where the people were more literate than they were, therefore the places they attacked have more detailed recordings of the events that took place. This skews the perspective in favor of the Europeans.
Professor Tom Shippey and author of Laughing Shall I Die: Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings put it perfectly: "Other Europeans were perfectly horrible as well."Deserve a better reputation?
Their Bad Rap: The Mongols were led by a vicious and cruel leader, Genghis Khan, who conquered huge expanses of the world through brutal and violent methods. Genghis Khan's savage pillaging lead to one in 200 men being a descendent of his today.
How They Got That Reputation: The Mongols conquered a massive amount of Eurasia in the 12th and 13th centuries, and they did it through violence and cruelty.
Why They Deserve A Second Chance: Genghis Khan was not the most morally sound leader ever, but he did unite the warring nomadic tribes into one, ruling over 1 million people in Mongolia. With new laws, weaponry, infrastructure, and organized military tactics, Khan led the Mongols to conquer and expand their empire across Central Asia, China, the Middle East, and parts of Eastern Europe.
While his personal choices weren't always great, he did advance society. Citizens of Khan's empire could practice any religion they chose. There was a greater spread of information throughout the empire, leading to advances in technology and medicine.
While Genghis Khan was the first ruler of the Mongols, his predecessors were arguably less violent and horrible and continued the growth of the empire and the innovation that came along with it. Under the rule of Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan's grandson, the inventions of paper, printing, and gunpowder spread along the Silk Road as did the expansion of agriculture, migration, and trade.
This innovation had a permanent effect on humanity, including the unification of Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. Under the Mongols, people migrated like never before, bringing with them different customs, religions, and knowledge. Scientific advancement spread throughout the empire. The Mongols even unified Russia, which, prior to their rule, was comprised of many small city-states. Russia as a unified force has not been defeated since.Deserve a better reputation?