is a term for an uncivilized person,
often used pejoratively, either in a general reference to a member
of a nation or ethnos
, typically a
as seen by an urban
either viewed as inferior,
or admired as a noble savage
idiomatic or figurative usage, a "barbarian" may also be an
individual reference to a brutal, cruel, warlike, insensitive
The term originates in the ancient Greek
civilization, meaning "anyone who
is not Greek". Comparable notions are found in non-European
Origin of the term
Routes taken by barbarian invaders,
5th century CE
The word "barbarian" comes into English from Medieval Latin
, from Latin
, from Latin , from the ancient
word . The word is onomatopoeic
, the bar-bar
the impression of random hubbub produced by hearing a spoken
language that one cannot understand, similar to blah blah
English. Related imitative forms are found in other Indo-European languages
, such as
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
; 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 (Western) Roman Empire
in 470 A.D. and began the
so-called Dark Ages
used the term as they encountered scores of different foreign cultures, including the Egyptians, Persians,
Phoenicians, Etruscans, and Carthaginians.
It, in fact, became a common term to refer
to all foreigners. However in various occasions, the term was
also used by Greeks, especially the Athenians, to deride other Greek tribes and states (such as
Epirotes, Eleans and Aeolic-speakers) in
a pejorative and politically motivated manner.
the term also carried a cultural dimension to its dual meaning.
Foreigners and Barbarians (adapted from Daily
Life of the Ancient Greeks)
, The American Forum for Global
"The status of being a foreigner, as the Greeks
understood the term does not permit any easy definition. Primarily
it signified such peoples as the Persians and Egyptians, whose
languages were unintelligible to the Greeks, but it could also be
used of Greeks who spoke in a different dialect and with a
different accent...Prejudice toward Greeks on the part of Greeks
was not limited to those who lived on the fringes of the Greek
world. The Boeotians, inhabitants of central Greece, whose
credentials were impeccable, were routinely mocked for their
stupidity and gluttony. Ethnicity is a fluid concept even at the
best of times. When it suited their purposes, the Greeks also
divided themselves into Ionians and Dorians. The distinction was
emphasized at the time of the Peloponnesian War, when the Ionian
Athenians fought against the Dorian Spartans. The Spartan general
Brasidas even taxed the Athenians with cowardice on account of
their Ionian lineage. In other periods of history the Ionian-Dorian
divide carried much less weight."
Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton. Athens: Its Rise and Fall
Kessinger Publishing, 2004. ISBN 1419108085, pp. 9-10.
"Whether the Pelasgi were anciently a foreign or
Grecian tribe, has been a subject of constant and celebrated
discussion. Herodotus, speaking of some settlements held to be
Pelaigic, and existing in his time, terms their language
'barbarous;' but Mueller, nor with argument insufficient, considers
that the expression of the historian would apply only to a peculiar
dialect; and the hypothesis is sustained by another passage in
Herodotus, in which he applies to certain Ionian dialects the same
term as that with which he stigmatizes the language of the Pelasgic
settlements. In corroboration of Mueller's opinion, we may also
observe, that the 'barbarous-tongued' is an epithet applied by
Homer to the Carians, and is rightly construed by the ancient
critics as denoting a dialect mingled and unpolished, certainly not
foreign. Nor when the Agamemnon of Sophocles upbraids Teucer with
'his barbarous tongue,' would any scholar suppose that Teucer is
upbraided with not speaking Greek; he is upbraided with speaking
Greek inelegantly and rudely. It is clear that they who continued
with the least adulteration a language in its earliest form, would
seem to utter a strange and unfamiliar jargon to ears accustomed to
its more modern construction."
The verb (barbarízein
) in ancient
meant imitating the linguistic sounds non-Greeks made or
making grammatical errors in Greek.
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
In general, the concept of barbaros
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
in the first
half of the 5th century BC. Here a hasty coalition of Greeks
defeated the vast Achaemenid
. 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,
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.
Slavery in Greece
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.
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
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
Minor came above all Lydians,
Phrygians and Carians.Aristotle
even states that 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
, so speaking poorly was easily
conflated with being stupid, an association not of course limited
to the ancient Greeks.
changes occurred in the connotations of barbarians 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
Eventually the term found a hidden meaning by Christian Romans
through the folk etymology
. He stated the word
was "made up of barba
(flat land); for barbarians did not live in cities,
making their abodes in the fields like wild animals".
The female given 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
mentioned as being the daughter of rich and respectable Roman
citizens. Evidently, by her time (about 300 A.D according to
, though some
historians put the story much later) the name no longer had any
specific ethnic or pejorative connotations.
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
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
However, the Hellenic stereotype of barbarians was not a universal
feature of Hellenic culture. Xenophon
example, wrote the Cyropaedia
, a laudatory
fictionalised account of Cyrus the
, the founder of the Persian empire, effectively a
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."
is used in its Hellenic sense by St. Paul
in the New
) 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
About a hundred years after Paul's time, Lucian
- a native of Samosata
, in the former kingdom of Commagene
, which had been absorbed by the Roman Empire
and made part of the province of
- used the term "barbarian"
to describe himself. As he was a noted satirist, this could have
been a deprecating self-irony. It might also have indicated that he
was descended from Samosata's original Semitic population - likely
to have been called "barbarians" by later Hellenistic, Greek
speaking settlers, and who might have eventually taken up this
The term retained its standard usage in the Greek language
throughout the Middle Ages, as
it was widely used by the Byzantine
until the fall of the Byzantine Empire
in the 15th century.
described the mountain area of inner
as "a land of barbarians", with
these inbaitants also known by the manifestly pejoartive term
("thieves with a rough garment in
wool").The region is up to the present known as "Barbagia
" (in Sardinian
"Barbàgia" or "Barbaza"), all
of which are traceable to this old "barbarian" desigantion - but no
longer conscioulsly associated with it, and used naturally as the
name of the region by its own inhabitants.
The Dying Gaul statue
insight about the Hellenistic perception of and attitude to
"Barabarians" can be taken from the "Dying
Gaul", a statue commissioned by Attalus
I of Pergamon to celebrate his victory
over the Celtic Galatians in Anatolia (the bronze original is lost, but a Roman marble copy was
found in the 17th Century).
The statue depicts with
remarkable realism a dying Gallic
a typically Gallic hairstyle and moustache. He lies on his fallen
shield while sword and other objects lie beside him. He appears to
be fighting against death, refusing to accept his fate.
The statue serves both as a reminder of the Celts' defeat, thus
demonstrating the might of the people who defeated them, and a
memorial to their bravery as worthy adversaries. The message
conveyed by the sculpture, as H.
comments, is that "they knew how to die, barbarians that they
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
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.
The term has also been used to refer to people from Barbary
, a region encompassing most of North Africa
. The name of the region,
comes from the Arabic word Barbar,
possibly from the Latin word barbaricum,
meaning "land of
"Barbarians" according to Chinese
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
considered their culture to be barbaric. The Romans
indiscriminately regarded the various
, the settled
, and the raiding Huns
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.
nomadic steppe peoples north of the
Sea, including the Pechenegs
and the Kipchaks, were called barbarians by
Indians referred to all alien cultures that were
less civilized in ancient times as 'Mlechcha' or Barbarians.
In the ancient texts, Mlechchas
who are barbaric and who have given up the Vedic
beliefs . Among the tribes termed Mlechcha
) of the Chinese Empire
sometimes (depends on the dynasty, geographic location, and
timeline) regarded the Xiongnu
as "barbaric". The Chinese used different
terms for "barbarians" from different directions of the compass.
Those in the east were called Dongyi
those in the west were called Xirong
those in the south were called Nanman
and those in the north were called Beidi
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
Japanese adopted the Chinese usage. When Europeans came to Japan, they were
called nanban ( ), literally
Barbarians from the South, because the Portuguese ships appeared to sail from the South.
Dutch, who arrived
later, were also called either nanban or kōmō (
), literally meaning "Red Hair."
In Mesoamerica the Aztec
civilization used the
" to denominate a group
of nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes that lived in the outskirts of
the Triple Alliance
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".
used the term "puruma auca" for all
peoples living outside the rule of their empire (see Promaucaes
Early Modern period
Italians in the Renaissance
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).
Spanish sea captain Francisco de
who sailed with the Spanish
in 1588 used the term 'savage' to describe the Irish people
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
"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.
The term "barbarian" is commonly used by medieval historians
as a nonpejorative 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
", 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, nonpejorative term to refer to all
the non-Latin and non-Greek speaking exterae gentes
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
, the largest and most respected encyclopedia 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
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
. The Encyclopædia Britannica
and other general audience encyclopedias use the term barbarian
throughout within the context of late antiquity.
Modern popular culture
The modern sympathetic admiration for such fantasy barbarians as
and Conan the Barbarian
is a direct
descendant of the Enlightenment
idealization of the
" first used by John Dryden
in The Conquest of Granada
Gaile McGregor describes the Conan character, for example, as
"power incarnate, divorced from any responsibility except the
responsibility to win."
novels and role-playing games
, barbarians or
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
- 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 Celtic, Germanic, Slavic, and nomadic
- Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, 1972,
pg. 149, Simon & Schuster Publishing
- Stefan Lovgren, "Vikings' Barbaric Bad Rap Beginning to Fade"
- The term barbaros, "A
Greek-English Lexicon" (Liddell & Scott), at
- Hall, Jonathan. Hellenicity, p. 111, ISBN 0226313298.
"There is at the elite level at least no hint during the archaic
period of this sharp dichotomy between Greek and Barbarian or the
derogatory and the stereotypical representation of the latter that
emerged so clearly from the fifth century."
- Hall, Jonathan. Hellenicity, p. 111, ISBN 0226313298.
"Given the relative familiarity of the Karians to the Greeks, it
has been suggested that barbarophonoi in the Iliad signifies not
those who spoke a non-Greek language but simply those who spoke
- Tsetskhladze, Gocha R. Ancient Greeks West and East,
1999, p. 60, ISBN 9004102302. "a barbarian from a distinguished
nation which given the political circumstances of the time might
well mean a Persian."
- See in particular Ralph W. Mathison, Roman Aristocrats in
Barbarian Gaul: strategies for Survival in an Age of Transition
(Austin) 1993, pp. 1-6, 39-49; Gerhart B. Ladner, "On Roman
attitudes towards barbarians in late antiquity" Viator
'77 (1976), pp. 1-25.
- Arno Borst. Medieval Worlds: Barbarians, Heretics and
Artists in the Middle Ages. London: Polity, 1991, p. 3.
- Harmon, A. M. "Lucian of Samosata: Introduction and
Manuscripts." in Lucian, Works. Loeb Classical Library
- Keith Sidwell, introduction to Lucian: Chattering
Courtesans and Other Sardonic Sketches (Penguin Classics,
- Wolfgang Helbig, Führer durch die öffenlicher Sammlungen
Klassischer altertümer in Rom (Tubingen 1963-71) vol. II, pp
- H. W. Janson, "History of Art: A survey of the major visual
arts from the dawn of history to the present day", p. 141. H. N.
Abrams, 1977. ISBN 0133892964
- The Pechenegs, Steven Lowe and Dmitriy V. Ryaboy
- Mudrarakshasha by Kashinath Trimbak Telang
introduction p12 
- National geographer, 1977, p 60, Allahabad Geographical Society
- Manusamriti, X/43-44; A comparative grammar of the Dravidian or
South-Indian family of languages, 1875, p 5,Robert Caldwell; Early
Chauhān dynasties:, 1959, p 243, Dasharatha Sharma - History; The
Aryans, a Modern Myth, 1993, p 211,Parameśa Caudhurī -
- Captain Cuellar's Adventures in Connacht and
- Barbarian Tides (2006), by Walter Goffart,
- Ralph W. Mathisen "Barbarian Bishops and the Churches "in
Barbaricis Gentibus" During Late Antiquity" Speculum
72.3 (July 1997), p. 665.
- Mathisen notes that Eusebius, in his Life of
Constantine described the emperor as bishop "of those outside"
- For examples, by Ralph W. Mathison, Roman Aristocrats in
Barbarian Gaul: Strategies for Survival in an Age of
Transition (Austin, Texas) 1993, and Gerhart B. Ladner, "On
Roman attitudews towards barbarians in Late Antiquity"
Viator 7 (1996:1-25).
- Gaile McGregor, The Noble Savage in the New World Garden:
Notes Toward a Syntactics of Place, Univ. Toronto Press, 1988,
357 pp., ISBN 087972417X