Sunday, February 3, 2013

Story of the Week: Barbari

Vercingetorix Throws Down his Arms
at the Feet of Julius Caesar,
Lionel Royer (1899).
"Barbari," Andrew Miller's historical fantasy in issue sixteen of Silver Blade, is a humorous and poignant consideration of modern man's chronocentrism and misunderstanding of historical figures. Narrated by Julius Caesar, the story is a report to the Roman Senate on Caesar's campaigns in the Rhineland. He reports on his interactions with a most curious tribe known as the Nazii who occupy a luxurious country villa which appears then disappears at intervals of a few days. Caesar meets with the Nazii three times.

At his first meeting, Caesar talks with a scholar who explains why the Nazii are there. Caesar considers the man's claims outlandish but listens politely.

“It would be idle to try to deceive a man of your intelligence, Caesar, so I’ll speak plainly. We’ve traveled here from a future time. The natural forces I’ve unlocked are so strong that they have the power—always at a particular point in my experiments—to jar us out of our normal location in time and space. We always travel the same distances: a little more than thirty meters and a little less than two thousand years. And after a certain interval we get pulled back again, like a plucked string returning to its original position.” 
Still with an indulgent smile, I said that the scholar’s story was very interesting, and complimented him on his wine.
At their next meeting, the scholar introduces Caesar to Adolf Hitler who rambles on and on about the incompetency and weakness of his subordinates and the many enemies of Germany that will be vanquished with the new weapon the scholar is perfecting. Caesar is less than impressed by Hitler and argues:

In Rome, a man could win power only with his natural talents—for rhetoric, for war, for business. With the weapons of the Nazii, however, any fool could wreak devastation.
At their third and final meeting, well, you'll have to read the story to find out how Caesar teaches them a lesson in  Roman hospitality to barbarians.

The comedy of the story derives from the Nazii's considerable misunderstanding of Caesar's personality and motivations. Miller turns the tables on history and shows us modern man as an ancient might perceive us. It is humbling and thought provoking to consider how unimpressive we are.

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