Barbarian (Greek βάρβαρος): Greek and Roman expression, often pejorative, to indicate the nations they perceived as wild and uncivilized. 

A Persian barbarian on a Greek bottle; on the other side of this bottle is a naked Greek hero; an inscription makes it clear that the Persian will be raped - he is the effeminate counterpart of the masculine Greek.

The word "barbarian" is was probably derived from Sumerian barbar, meaning foreigner. In Greek, it was both a loan word and a kind of onomatopoeia: the word imitates the babbling sounds that the Greeks believed they heard when foreigners spoke their own languages. The word did not necessarily have a negative connotation and originally, the word barbaroi must have been the collective name of all non-Greeks. However, the word soon had a negative meaning.

After the Persian Wars (c.492-c.475 BCE), the Greeks started to stress the opposition between the free Greeks and the slavish Persians. The word now was not just a condescending expression, but started to have the traits of a sociological concept. However, the barbarian was, essentially, the anti-Greek: he was everything that the Greeks did not want to be, like greedy, cowardly, effeminate, cruel, unreliable, uncivilized. Art historians believe that the "Amazonomachies", representations of fights between Greeks and Amazons, represent the Persian War, in which masculine Greeks defeated effeminate Persians.

Relief of an Amazonomachy

The Romans adopted the expression to indicate everyone outside their empire, believing that subjecting the barbarians was justified if they became more civilized. For the geographer Strabo, barbarism was relative: in the center of the Mediterranean world were civilized people, but if you proceeded to the edges of the earth, people became increasingly barbarian. The same sentiment can be found in Herodotus' account of the Scythiansnote and Caesar's description of the Gallic nations, found in the prologue to his Gallic War.note

It is interesting to note that the qualities attributed to the barbarians were always changing. To the Greeks, being effeminate was definitely barbarian. The Romans, on the other hand, portrayed the barbarians as dangerous warriors and very masculine.

Roman relief of a very masculine barbarian on a collapsing horse

Looking back to earlier times, the Greek-Roman philosopher Plutarch could claim that those who were defeated by Alexander the Great had been lucky: his "new subjects would not have been civilized, had they not been vanquished".note The same author blamed Herodotus, the historian writing about the Persian Wars, for being a philobarbaros, "lover of the barbarians",note because he was quite fair in his judgment.

The Roman historian Tacitus used the barbarous Germans as a mirror to his compatriots: yes, they were wild, but they were hospitable, chaste, and courageous - virtues that the decadent Romans had forgotten. The portraits of the noble Julius Civilis, the leader of the Batavian rebels, and his indolent Roman counterpart Hordeonius Flaccus, are just one example. The concept of the "noble savage" was born.

The great irony is, of course, that after the demise of the Roman administration in western Europe, "barbarian" dynasties took over and continued Roman civilization: the Franks in Gaul, the Visigoths in Spain, the Ostrogoths in Italy.

This page was created in 2018; last modified on 15 July 2020.