This show is the latest sign of a growing interest—visible in fiction, film, television and even computer games—in the hordes that felled Rome. The chief curator is Jean-Jacques Aillagon, a French former culture minister, who dramatises the traditional view of the Barbarians by exhibiting a scattering of 19th-century paintings that depict them in the worst possible light. In one, two near-naked hooligans are destroying an elegant marble statue of a Roman nobleman. Mr Aillagon's historical method is to look for similarities between today's Europe and Europe during the decline and fall of the Roman empire.
“Europe at the start of the third millennium is living through a cultural revolution not unlike that of the first,” writes Mr Aillagon in the preface to the exhibition catalogue. Does this mean the Barbarians were entrepreneurial capitalists, economic migrants and asylum-seekers? Not quite. Attila the Hun (played in the BBC's latest biopic by Rory McCann, pictured above) is best known for his furious savagery. He behaved so cruelly in cities such as Aquileia and Verona that some survivors fled to islands in the nearby lagoon and laid the foundations of Venice.
The exhibition begins and ends with different varieties of triumphalism. It starts by proclaiming the shrewdness of a Roman empire that kept the Barbarians at bay for almost 300 years, after the shocking defeat by German tribes in the Teutoburg forest in 9AD until the final gasp of Rome's western stronghold in 476AD.
The first exhibits are sarcophagi decorated with mounted Roman soldiers trampling half-naked Barbarians. Since the Romans were fearful of this new enemy—named after the Greek barbaros, which mocked the babbling sounds of foreigners' languages—the efficient Roman propaganda machine commissioned public statues to reassure a nervous populace. There is a fine early example in the exhibition showing a kneeling, near-naked Barbarian with his hands tied behind his back.
The Romans decided that assimilation was the best form of defence, and many of the exhibits illuminate the lengths to which Roman bureaucrats and soldiers went to absorb foreigners into the machinery of empire. Barbarian religions were widely tolerated, and one of the most striking exhibits, which was found in Arras, is a stone image of a bald Freyr, the Norse god of fruitfulness, as a fertility god, clutching his penis to his body.
With the fall of the Roman empire, historical evidence becomes scarce. Unlike the Romans, the Barbarians did not build for posterity, and their story is told principally through displays of funerary jewellery and weaponry, with the odd cooking pot thrown in. These can grow monotonous and, since the explanatory cards are not much help and are translated only randomly, the audio-guide is a necessity.
The second triumphalist episode, in which the cross becomes a common object in Barbarian graves, is reflected in the exhibits in the final rooms. Rather as Romans aspired to Greek virtues, the new Barbarian aristocracy aspired to live like Romans. By the sixth century no Roman custom was more influential than Christianity. What happened was a rare case of the religion of the defeated spreading among the victors..."