Who were the Barbarians?

"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). (Image 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 only referred to people who were from out of town or 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 then U.S. 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 people from outside New York City or 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.

Greek origins

The word "barbarian" is derived from the ancient Greek word βάρβάρος which was used 3,200 years ago when a civilization that modern-day scholars called "Mycenaean" ruled much of Greece, writes Juan Luis Garcia Alonso, a Classics professor at the University of Salamanca, in a paper published in the book "Identity(ies): A multicultural and multidisciplinary approach" (Coimbra University Press, 2017). 

The word was written on clay tablets found at Pylos, a large Mycenaean city on the Greek mainland. "In the Pylos clay tablet collection we do find the word simply applied, apparently, to people from out of town," wrote Alonso. 

A number of scholars have argued that the "bar-bar" in the word "barbarian" may be an attempt to imitate a stammering voice which, presumably, some non-Greek speakers might sound like to someone who speaks Greek. 

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," writes Konstantinos Vlassopoulos, a professor of history and archaeology at the University of Crete, in his book "Greeks and the Barbarians" (Cambridge University Press, 2013). 

Non-Greek speaking people could be friendly or hostile. The Persians who invaded Greece were referred to as "barbarians" in Herodotus' (lived fifth century B.C.) description of their battle against a Spartan led force at Thermopylae. 

Vlassopoulos notes that the ancient Greeks sometimes used the 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.

Barbarians and Rome

The meaning of the word "barbarian" would change somewhat 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 senior research scholar and lecturer at Yale University, in his book "Barbarian Tides: The Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire" (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006). One of these groups, the Baiuvarii, sometimes modified their skulls so that they had an egg-shaped appearance.  

The most famous "barbarian" from this period was, arguably, Attila the Hun. He 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 Romans then allied themselves with the Visigoths (also "barbarians") and defeated Attila. 

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 tangled and 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." 

For instance the Chinese used terms that are sometimes translated into English as "barbarian" to describe people who they fought against such as the Yi. 

Some people consider the Vikings to be "barbarians," even though they had advanced sailingtechniques that allowed them to colonize Iceland and sail to the New World

Today, some people even consider medical treatments that were used in ancient times as "barbaric" even though they are still used today

To the ancient Greeks, a barbarian was someone from out of town or did not speak Greek, regardless of whether that person had good or bad intentions. The term has changed throughout time to a point where the ancient Greeks probably wouldn't recognize it. Presidential speechwriters, take note. 

Owen Jarus
Live Science Contributor

Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.