"The Huns at the Battle of Chalons" from A Popular History of France From The Earliest Times, Vol.I of VI. Illustration by A. De Neuville (1836-1885).
Credit: Public domain
Barbarians — a word that today often refers to uncivilized people or evil people and their evil deeds — originated in ancient Greece, and it initially merely referred to people who did not speak Greek.
Today, the meaning of the word is far removed from its original Greek roots. A poignant example comes from a 2012 speech given by President Barack Obama in New York City.
“When a little boy is kidnapped, turned into a child soldier, forced to kill or be killed — that’s slavery. When a little girl is sold by her impoverished family — girls my daughters’ age — runs away from home, or is lured by the false promises of a better life, and then imprisoned in a brothel and tortured if she resists — that’s slavery. It is barbaric [writer’s emphasis], and it is evil, and it has no place in a civilized world,” he said.
When Obama used the term “barbaric,” he was not referring to non-Greek-speaking people but rather to acts of evil in general. Indeed, the meaning of the word barbarian has changed dramatically over time and, in fact, the word did not always have a negative meaning for everyone.
“The earliest attestation of the word barbarian in Greek literature is in Homer’s descriptions of the Carians as ‘barbarophonoi’…” writes Konstantinos Vlassopoulos, a professor of Greek history at the University of Nottingham, in his book “Greeks and the Barbarians” (Cambridge University Press, 2013).
By “the archaic period [2,700 years ago] there is no doubt that one of the major meanings of the word was linguistic: the Barbarians were those who did not speak Greek.”
He notes that the ancient Greeks themselves used this word in a confusing and contradictory fashion. One problem they had is that there was no agreement among the ancient Greeks as to who spoke Greek and who didn’t, at least up until around the time of Alexander the Great. There “existed a variety of local and regional dialects, which were mutually comprehensible to a larger or smaller degree,” writes Vlassopoulos.
So the original meaning of the word “barbarian” did not refer to acts of evil but rather to those who were not Greek or did not speak Greek. Also who didn’t speak Greek was a matter of debate among the ancient Greeks themselves.
Barbarians and Rome
The meaning of the word “barbarian” would change dramatically late in the Roman Empire when Romans (many of whom did not speak Greek) used the word to refer to all foreigners, especially the wide variety of people who were encroaching on their borders.
These barbarians were never united. Some pillaged the Roman Empire while others became its allies. There were numerous groups and their allegiances changed over time.
“Rome dealt actively with, among others, Goths, Vandals, Herules, Sueves, Saxons, Gepids, as well as Sarmatians, Alans, Huns, Avars, Picts, Carpi and Isaurians,” writes Walter Goffart, a scholar at Yale University, in his book “Barbarian Tides: The Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire” (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).
For instance Attila the Hun, who was perhaps the most famous “barbarian” from this period, ruled a vast empire that controlled other barbarian groups. At the start of his rule he allied himself with the Romans against the Burgundians (another “barbarian” group). Then, later on, he turned against the Romans and marched against them in France. The Roman then allied themselves with the Visigoths (also “barbarians”) and defeated Attila.
Also, the word “barbarian” did not have a negative meaning for everyone in the Roman Empire. Around A.D. 440, the Christian priest Salvian wrote that “almost all barbarians, at least those who are of one race and kin, love each other, while the Romans persecute each other.”
He noted that many poor Romans turned to the “barbarians” for help. “They doubtless seek Roman humanity among the barbarians, because they cannot bear barbarian inhumanity among the Romans.” (Translation through Fordham University website)
Who is a barbarian?
Among modern-day scholars, and among the general public, the definition of barbarian gets even more confusing.
“If there is one characteristic that civilizations have in common, it is their ideological need to defend themselves not just against their own enemies, but against the enemies of civilizations, the ‘barbarians,’” writes Nicola Di Cosmo, of the Institute for Advanced Study, in his book “Ancient China and Its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Powers in East Asian History” (Cambridge University Press, 2002). “This opposition between civilization and its enemies can be recognized as one of the great ongoing themes that we encounter in world history.”
Using this definition, the term “barbarian” can be extended to ancient China and their struggles to deal with people beyond their borders. Indeed, it can be extended to any culture we consider a “civilization” and their struggle to deal with people who live close to them but have a different social structure.
While the ancient Greeks argued about who was a non-Greek speaker (and therefore a barbarian) the meaning of the term has changed dramatically throughout time to a point where the ancient Greeks probably wouldn’t recognize it. Presidential speechwriters, take note.