“Wolf and Eagle” introduces the conflict between Rome and the titular Barbarians as a daring act of theft guarantees war and blood to follow.
This recap of Barbarians season 1, episode 1, “Wolf and Eagle”, contains spoilers.
The word of the day is “foreshadowing”. That’s the best way to describe the suitably epic opening of Barbarians episode 1, which briefly describes the bloody clash between the “world’s greatest fighting force”, the Roman Legions, and the Germanic tribes around the Teutoburg Forest. We even get a Roman soldier and a barbarian woman locking eyes on the battlefield!
That woman is Thusnelda, who we meet in the next scene along with her younger brother, Ansgar. She’s to be presented to Hadgan, who callously examines her skinny hips and good teeth, as a bride, but she obviously isn’t keen on the arrangement. It’s a marriage of convenience, though — the steep price Hadgan will pay isn’t just for a wife but an alliance and the need for an alliance is made immediately clear when a contingent of Romans ride into the village and demand a tribute. They have three days to drum up an offering to essentially pay off Publius Quinctilius Varus, who has decided that their prior truce — which included an offering of the sons of the tribe’s Reik, Segimer — is insufficient. The tribes can’t agree on whether to kowtow to the Romans or go to war. Eventually, Segimer casts the deciding vote to keep the peace… at least for now.
Thusnelda watches the meeting from afar. She’s enjoying a secret relationship with Folkwin, whom she tells about being offered as a bridegroom to Hadgan, a Reik himself. We’re getting a sense of what’s important to the tribes here. Women rank low. Men of station and reputation rank the highest. Thusnelda and Folkwin want to be together, but their circumstances may not permit it — unless the Romans kill everyone who might object, obviously.
Folkwin’s family are struggling to make do — they’re down to a single goat, and even that must be offered up in tribute to the Romans on orders of the Reik. When the Romans arrive, they’re predictably dissatisfied with the offering, and just start rounding up livestock. They also demand that Segimer gets on his knees and kisses the eagle standard as a show of loyalty to Governor Varus. When Thusnelda intervenes in this, she’s grabbed by the hair, and when Ansgar intervenes in that, he’s clubbed over the back of the head. The standard gets kissed anyway, but the idea of peace being maintained seems remarkably unlikely at this point in Barbarians season 1, episode 1.
After receiving a slap around the chops for her intervention, Thusnelda makes a blood sacrifice to the gods in exchange for revenge while Folkwin watches from a little way away. This doesn’t bode well for that whole peace thing. Neither does the execution of a barbarian by Ari, Segimer’s son who is now a Roman officer, at the behest of Varus. And just to make matters a whole lot worse, Thusnelda, on the vague advice of a soothsayer, talks Folkwin into stealing the Roman standard, the thing most precious to them, in order to send a message and prove a point.
Thusnelda is offered as a slave for Centurion Metellus — a sex slave, obviously, since Thusnelda has “something that all Romans want”, and since she has no goats, I think it’s pretty obvious what she means. This makes for a handy distraction so she and Folkwin can kill the guards and steal the standard. Of course, the intrusion is detected, but the barbarians are able to make their escape thanks to some frankly appalling disguises as the tents burn down behind them. Ari finds evidence of their presence, though, putting two and two together. He proposes to Varus that he take the Germanic mercenaries to retrieve the eagle, rather than randomly burning down barbarian settlements and provoking a rebellion, which Varus shrewdly recognizes is exactly what they want.
The mercenaries are still wild men at heart, and they don’t fit in among the legion, which is showcased when Ari finds them scrapping in the camp. “We have to lick Rome’s stinking c*nt again!” shouts their leader, which he’s shocked to realize Ari understands (they mustn’t know he’s Germanic by birth). He gets some lashes for his trouble. An obvious throughline here is going to be how Ari’s loyalty to Rome clashes with his roots. Thus far, he seems pretty dedicated to the empire.
Speaking of his roots, Thusnelda and Folkwin return with the standard, which Segestes raises in screaming triumph. They even have a party, even though Segestes knows revenge will mean lots of blood. Folkwin, though, is pretty confident; he thinks that the Romans won’t be able to discover them among hundreds of barbarian villages, and he hs sex with Thusnelda to celebrate, but he’s proved wrong immediately when Ari and the Romans arrive. Ari removes his helmet and declares, “Hello, father.”
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