"Barbarian" is a pejorative term for an uncivilized person, either in a general reference to a member of a nation or ethnos perceived as having an inferior level of civilization, or in an individual reference to a brutal, cruel, warlike, insensitive person whose behaviour is unacceptable in the society of the speaker. Barbarians are considered distinct from savages in that they are perceived as being willfully ignorant, choosing to preserve their way of life despite contact with more civilized societies (e.g. the ancient Greek-speaking peoples often considered any ethnic group unwilling to accept their culture as barbarian).

Origin of the term

The word "barbarian" comes into English from Medieval Latin barbarinus, from Latin barbaria, from Latin barbarus, from the ancient Greek word βάρβαρος (bárbaros). The word is onomatopeic, the bar-bar representing the impression of random hubbub produced by hearing a spoken language that one cannot understand, similar to blah blah, babble or rhubarb in modern English. Related imitative forms are found in other Indo-European languages, such as Sanskrit barbara-, "stammering" or "curly-haired."

Depending on its use, the term "barbarian" either described a foreign individual or tribe whose first language was not Greek or a Greek individual or tribe speaking Greek crudely. The term is also historically used to describe the Vikings and Goths; it is a common label for the "Normans" during their invasion of England and for the Goths during the Gothic revolt that put an end to the Roman Empire in 470 A.D. and began the so-called Dark Ages.

The Greeks used the term as they encountered scores of different foreign cultures, including the Egyptians, Persians, Indians, Celts, Germans, Phoenicians, Etruscans, and Carthaginians. However in certain occasions, the term was also used by Greeks, especially Athenians to deride other Greek tribes and states (such as Macedonians, Epirotes, Eleans and Aeolic-speakers) in a pejorative and politically motivated manner. Of course, the term also carried a cultural dimension to its dual meaning. The verb barbarizein in ancient Greek meant imitating the linguistic sounds non-Greeks made or making grammatical errors in Greek.

Plato (Statesman 262de) rejected the Greek–barbarian dichotomy as a logical absurdity on just such grounds: dividing the world into Greeks and non-Greeks told one nothing about the second group. In Homer's works, the term appeared only once (Iliad 2.867), in the form barbarophonos ("of incomprehensible speech"), used of the Carians fighting for Troy during the Trojan War. In general, the concept of barbaros did not figure largely in archaic literature before the 5th century BC. Still it has been suggested that "barbarophonoi" in the Iliad signifies not those who spoke a non-Greek language but simply those who spoke Greek badly.

A change occurred in the connotations of the word after the Greco-Persian Wars in the first half of the 5th century BC. Here a hasty coalition of Greeks defeated the vast Achaemenid Empire. Indeed in the Greek of this period 'barbarian' is often used expressly to mean Persian.

In the well-known opening sentence of his account of that war, Herodotus gives the following statements as his reason for writing:

To the end that (...) the works, great and marvellous, which have been produced some by Hellenes and some by Barbarians, may not lose their renown; and especially that the causes may be remembered for which these waged war with one another.

This clearly implies an equality: both Hellenes and barbarians are capable of producing "great and marvelous works" and both are deserving of being remembered. Nevertheless, in the wake of this victory, Greeks began to see themselves as superior militarily, politically, and culturally. A stereotype developed in which hardy Greeks live as free men in city-states where politics are a communal possession, whereas among the womanish barbarians everyone beneath the Great King is no better than his slave. This marks the birth of the cultural view termed "orientalism."

Slavery in Greece

A parallel factor was the growth of chattel slavery especially at Athens. Although enslavement of Greeks for non-payment of debt continued in most Greek states, it was banned at Athens under Solon in the early 6th century BC. Under the Athenian democracy established ca. 508 BC slavery came to be used on a scale never before seen among the Greeks. Massive concentrations of slaves were worked under especially brutal conditions in the silver mines at Laureion—a major vein of silver-bearing ore was found there in 483 BC—while the phenomenon of skilled slave craftsmen producing manufactured goods in small factories and workshops became increasingly common.

Furthermore, slaves were no longer the preserve of the rich: all but the poorest of Athenian households came to have slaves to supplement the work of their free members. Overwhelmingly, the slaves of Athens were "barbarian" in origin, drawn especially from lands around the Black Sea such as Thrace and Taurica (Crimea), while from Asia Minor came above all Lydians, Phrygians and Carians. It is hard not to despise the people you are keeping as your slaves, even essential: in the intellectual justification of slavery (Aristotle Politics 1.2-7; 3.14), barbarians are slaves by nature.

From this period words like barbarophonos, cited above from Homer, began to be used not only of the sound of a foreign language but of foreigners speaking Greek improperly. In Greek, the notions of language and reason are easily confused in the word logos, so speaking poorly was easily conflated with being stupid, an association not of course limited to the ancient Greeks.

Further changes occurred in the connotations of barbarus in Late Antiquity, when bishops and catholikoi were appointed to sees connected to cities among the "civilized" gentes barbaricae such as Armenia or Persia, while bishops were appointed to supervise entire peoples among the less settled.

Eventually the term found a hidden meaning by Christian Romans through the folk etymology of Cassiodorus. He stated the word barbarian was "made up of barba (beard) and rus (flat land); for barbarians did not live in cities, making their abodes in the fields like wild animals".

The female first name "Barbara" originally meant "A Barbarian woman", and as such was likely to have had a pejorative meaning - given that most such women in Graeco-Roman society were of a low social status (often being slaves). However, Saint Barbara is mentioned as being the daughter of rich and respectable Roman citizens. Evidently, by her time (about 300 A.D according to Christian hagiography, though some historians put the story much later) the name no longer had any specific ethnic or pejorative connotations.

Arabic context

The Berbers of North Africa were among the many peoples called "Barbarian" by the Romans; in their case, the name remained in use, having been adopted by the Arabs (see Berber (Etymology) and is still in use as the name for the non-Arabs in North Africa (though not by themselves). The geographical term Barbary or Barbary Coast, and the name of the Barbary pirates based on that coast (and who were not necessarily Berbers) were also derived from it.

Hellenic stereotype

Out of those sources the Hellenic stereotype was elaborated: barbarians are like children, unable to speak or reason properly, cowardly, effeminate, luxurious, cruel, unable to control their appetites and desires, politically unable to govern themselves. These stereotypes were voiced with much shrillness by writers like Isocrates in the 4th century BC who called for a war of conquest against Persia as a panacea for Greek problems. Ironically, many of the former attributes were later ascribed to the Greeks, especially the Seleucid kingdom, by the Romans.

However, the Hellenic stereotype of barbarians was not a universal feature of Hellenic culture. Xenophon, for example, wrote the Cyropaedia, a laudatory fictionalised account of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian empire, effectively a utopian text. In his Anabasis, Xenophon's accounts of the Persians and other non-Greeks he knew or encountered hardly seem to be under the sway of these stereotypes at all.

The renowned orator Demosthenes made derogatory comments in his speeches, using the word "barbarian."

Barbarian is used in its Hellenic sense by St. Paul in the New Testament (Romans 1:14) to describe non-Greeks, and to describe one who merely speaks a different language (1 Corinthians 14:11). The word is not used in these scriptures in the modern sense of "savage". The term retained its standard usage in the Greek language throughout the Middle Ages, as it was widely used by the Byzantine Greeks until the fall of the Byzantine Empire in the 15th century.

Later developments, other cultures

Historically, the term barbarian has seen widespread use. Many peoples have dismissed alien cultures and even rival civilizations as barbarians because they were recognizably strange. The Greeks admired Scythians and Eastern Gauls as heroic individuals— even in the case of Anacharsis as philosophers—but considered their culture to be barbaric. The Romans indiscriminately regarded the various Germanic tribes, the settled Gauls, and the raiding Huns as barbarians.

The Romans adapted the term to refer to anything non-Greco-Roman. The Persians saw the Greeks and later Romans and Arabs as inferior people with inferior and less civilized cultures and referred to them as "Soosk" or barbarians.

The Indians referred to all alien cultures that were less civilized in ancient times as 'Mlechcha' or Barbarians. In the ancient texts, Mlechchas are people who are barbaric and who have given up the Vedic beliefs.

The Chinese (Han Chinese) of the Chinese Empire sometimes (depends on the dynasty, geographic location, and timeline) regarded the Xiongnu, Tatars, Turks, Mongols, Jurchen, Manchu, Japanese, Koreans, and Europeans as "barbaric". The Chinese used different terms for "barbarians" from different directions of the compass. Those in the east were called Dongyi (東夷), those in the west were called Xirong (西戎), those in the south were called Nanman (南蠻), and those in the north were called Beidi (北狄). However, despite the conventional translation of such terms (especially 夷) as "barbarian", in fact it is possible to translate them simply as 'outsider' or 'stranger', with far less offensive cultural connotations.

The Japanese adopted the Chinese usage. When Europeans came to Japan, they were called nanban (南蛮), literally Barbarians from the South, because the Portuguese ships appeared to sail from the South. The Dutch, who arrived later, were also called either nanban or kōmō (紅毛), literally meaning "Red Hair."

In Mesoamerica the Aztec civilization used the word "Chichimeca" to denominate a group of nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes that lived in the outskirts of the Triple Alliance's Empire, in the North of Modern Mexico, which were seen for the aztec people as primitive and uncivilized. One of the meanings attributed to the word "Chichimeca" is "dog people".

Converted barbarians have historically proved sometimes the staunchest supporters of the more developed culture they have recently subverted. Historic examples are the Lombards and the Manchu. "The best Romans," wrote Henry James, "are often northern barbarians." A running theme in all histories of China is that of the conquering outsiders who become utterly Chinese, sinicized: for the English-speaking world the outstandingly familiar example is Kublai Khan.

Italians in the Renaissance often called anyone who lived outside of their country a barbarian.As far as the nomadic Goths went, they originally worshipped the same pantheon as did the Germanic/Norse barbarians, but because of their wanderings and their propensity for adopting the standards, beliefs, and practices of whatever culture within which they located, were the first barbarians to adopt Christianity as a faith (actually long before the Romans did). The term has also been used to refer to people from Barbary, a region encompassing most of North Africa. The name of the region, Barbary, comes from the Arabic word Barbar, possibly from the Latin word barbaricum, meaning "land of the barbarians".

Even today, barbarian is used to mean someone violent, primitive, uncouth or uncivilized in general, in very much the same disapproving and superior sense that Edward Gibbon used the term in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which recounts how "the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of Barbarians" a usage epitomized in Gibbon's Book I, chapter 38:

Beyond the Rhine and Danube, the northern countries of Europe and Asia were filled with innumerable tribes of hunters and shepherds, poor, voracious, and turbulent; bold in arms, and impatient to ravish the fruits of industry. The Barbarian world was agitated by the rapid impulse of war; and the peace of Gaul or Italy was shaken by the distant revolutions of China.

Compare the modern usage of Philistine.

Functional definition

The nomad subsists on the products of his flocks, and follows their needs. The nomad may barter for necessities, like metalwork, but does not depend on civilization for plunder, as the barbarian does. The culture of the nomad is not to be confused with the barbarian. "Culture" should not simply connote "civilization": rich, deep authentic human culture exists even without civilization, as the German writers of the early Romantic generation first defined the opposing terms, though they used them as polarities in a way that a modern writer might not.

A famous quote from anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss says: "The barbarian is the one who believes in barbary", a meaning like his metaphor in Race et histoire ("Race and history", UNESCO, 1952), that two cultures are like two different trains crossing each other: each one believes it has chosen the good direction. A broader analysis reveals that neither party 'chooses' their direction, but that their 'brutish' behaviors have formed out of necessity, being entirely dependent on and hooked to their surrounding geography and circumstances of birth.

Modern academia

The term "barbarian" is commonly used by medieval historians as a non-pejorative neutral descriptor of the catalog of peoples that the Roman Empire encountered whom they considered "foreigners", such as the Goths, Gepids, Huns, Picts, Sarmatians, etc. Although some terms in academia do go out of style, such as "Dark Ages", the term Barbarian is in full common currency among all mainstream medieval scholars and is not out of style or outdated, though a disclaimer is often felt to be needed, as when Ralph W. Mathisen prefaces a discussion of barbarian bishops in Late Antiquity, "It should also be noted that the word "barbarian" will be used here as a convenient, non-pejorative term to refer to all the non-Latin and non-Greek speaking exterae gentes who dwelt around, and even eventually settled within, the Roman Empire during late antiquity".

The significance of barbarus in Late Antiquity has been specifically explored on several occasions.

Examples of this modern usage can also be seen in the Dictionary of the Middle Ages, the largest and most respected encyclopaedia about the Middle Ages in the English language, which has an article titled "Barbarians, the Invasions" and uses the term barbarian throughout its 13 volumes. A 2006 book by Yale historian Walter Goffart is called Barbarian Tides and uses barbarian throughout to refer to the larger pantheon of tribes that the Roman Empire encountered. Walter Pohl, a leading pan-European expert on ethnicity and Late Antiquity, published a 1997 book titled Kingdoms of the Empire: The Integration of Barbarians in Late Antiquity. The Encyclopædia Britannica and other general audience encyclopaedias use the term barbarian throughout within the context of late antiquity.

Romantic and post-Romantic barbarians

The modern sympathetic admiration for such fantasy barbarians as Tarzan and Conan the Barbarian is a direct descendant of the Enlightenment idealization of the "noble savage"; Gaile McGregor describes the Conan character, for example, as "power incarnate, divorced from any responsibility except the responsibility to win. The German Romantics (influenced by eighteenth century precursors such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau) recharacterized the barbarian stereotype. Now it was the civilized Roman — or that modern Romanized Gaul, the Frenchman — who was effeminate and soft, and the stout-hearted German barbarian exemplified 'manly' virtue. The reforming of Arminius as "Hermann der Cherusker" the noble barbarian countering evil Rome provided a prototype from the 16th century onwards.

In fantasy novels and role-playing games, barbarians or berserkers are often represented as lone warriors, very different from the vibrant cultures on which they are based. Several characteristics are commonly shared:

  • Physical prowess and fighting skill combined with a fierce temper and a tolerance for pain
  • An appetite for, and the ability to attract, the opposite gender thanks to animal magnetism
  • Meat eating (this fits several social norms. Nomadic peoples and military men often ate more meat because they were not in one place long enough to farm and harvest.)
  • An appetite for alcohol and an unusual stamina to stave off its effects
  • A blending of British, Germanic, Slavic, and nomadic Turco-Mongol cultures
  • A strong sorcery element, usually counteracted by the barbarian character


See also


  • European, of or pertaining to the Occident, Europe, now also with pejorative connotations.

Further reading

External links

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