Ancient and Modern view of a ‘Barbarian’


Defining Barbarians

The word ‘barbarian’ carries great socioeconomic implications. Defined classically as violent savages and in modernity as uncivilised and primitive, the overall depiction is negative.* But why is that? History has conditioned us to view barbarians in a particular light, they are seen as completely other to the way of the western world.** However, this has not always been the case.


Stemming from the Ancient Attic Greek* ὀ βάρβαρος (bar-bah-ros), the term was used in primary connection as a descriptor from the Greeks to the people east of the Aegean. The root of the term, βαρβαρ (bar-bar), was an auditory explanation of how the Greeks described the different languages of the Easterners; languages such as Old Persian, the official dialect of the Achaemenid Empire, were guttural languages** - relying on the throat to create vowels etc. rather than the primarily velar and dental language of the Greeks. Furthermore, Greek, like many languages, uses the article as an indicator of the noun’s gender - masculine, feminine or neuter - and many nouns describing multiple people use the masculine in the plural sense instead. Therefore, when considering the whole word ὀ βάρβαρος, or in the plural οἰ βάρβαροι, the translation comes out as “the people of barbar”. So, how does a literal description of the linguistic differences between two cultures come to have connotations of such brutal primitivity?

Greek Unity

Firstly, it needs to be addressed that the term ‘the Greeks’ is very misleading. Throughout Ancient Greece, the different people mainly identified themselves alongside the cities they were citizens of - again, citizenship was a misleading term as many Greeks were not actually citizens of the cities they aligned themselves with - and the term ‘Greece’ itself did not exist. Instead, they were all part of the umbrella state of ’Ελλάς (hel-las) but would see themselves as Athenians, Corinthians etc. Therefore, when I’m referring to the Greeks as a whole, I’m referring to instances where there was Panhellenic unity or when multiple cities had the same ideologies.* 

Ancient Greek View of Barbarians

As aforementioned, the Greeks called the Easterners barbarians simply because of the language differences. However, as conflicts began between Greece and the East, the term became synonymous with the violence and destruction caused by the various battles, invasions and pillaging by both sides. Popular literary depictions showed the barbarian typology of the moral tyrant and cast them as the hyperbolised villains, such as in Euripides’ Medea. Medea’s presence as the foreign character in the play cements her actions in line with the barbaric image; daughter to the King of Colchis, an Eastern city on the coast of the Black Sea, Medea enacts various morally evil deeds: she commits infanticide, murders her husband’s new bride, Glauce, and in the process Glauce’s father, the King of Corinth - not only is Medea a murderess intent on revenge, she is a danger to Greeks and is even capable of regicide. All these aspects place Medea firmly in the role of the barbarian, even describing herself as one in the play:

Μήδεια                                                                Medea
οὐ τοῦτό σ᾽ εἶχενἀλλὰ βάρβαρον λέχος            It was not these things, you thought that in later
πρὸς γῆρας οὐκ εὔδοξον ἐξέβαινέ σοι.               years a barbarian wife would discredit you.
(Euripides, line 588)
The noun is in the accusative form, denoting a direct object, which, combined with the singularity created by the lack of article alongside βάρβαρον, shows that Medea is viewing herself within the barbarian identity; she is a barbarian. This idea introduces the notion of the barbarian identity, one synonymous with ‘otherness’; the self and other ideology is a psychoanalytical concept where people identify themselves as part of a community due to aligning morals, languages and culture - the ‘self’ - and seeing those who do not fit into the same category as ‘other’. Here, Medea’s nature as a barbarian makes her other to Jason, the Greek hero, and is seen innately as a barbarian because she is from the East and therefore non-Greek; as a result, Medea’s villainous actions not only fit into the trope of the barbaric other but enhances the savagery and cruelty associated with them. Furthermore, it is important to consider the myth from which Medea exists and her role within it. In Ancient Greece, mythology was often confused with historical narrative, therefore it is highly likely that when Medea was performed, the audience would have believed they were seeing dramatised historical facts. Medea comes from the myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece, her initial role is assisting Jason but throughout the myth she commits atrocious acts not seen in the play: Medea dismembers and murders her brother and convinces the King of Iolchus’ daughters to kill their father, her character is shrouded in murder and trickery - quintessentially barbaric traits. All of these things feed into the negative barbarian discourse, creating important social implications about the Greeks’ view of the East. 

Having considered the social implications of the word barbarian, the economic should also be taken into account. The Greeks’ prided themselves on their progressive society; the development of democracy and promotion of the arts meant that they viewed themselves at an elevated socioeconomic status as opposed to neighbouring empires and enemy city-states. This elevated status is best seen through the contrasts depicted between the Greeks and the Barbarians, such as that seen in the beginning of Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War:

 [I]n ancient times all Hellenes carried weapons because their homes were undefended and intercourse was unsafe; like the Barbarians they went armed in their every-day life … [t]he Athenians were the first who laid aside arms and adopted an easier and more luxurious way of life (Thucydides, 1.6.1-2). 

Thucydides sets up an immediate contrast between ‘the Hellenes’ and ‘the Barbarians’. Firstly, Thucydides suggests the Barbarians are a regressive, stagnant people - unlike the Hellenes, who ‘adopted’ different lifestyles, the Barbarians have stayed the same since ‘ancient times’. In the original text, which is loosely translated by ‘luxurious’, Thucydides highlights the negative connotations of this stagnation through ‘…τῇ διαίτῃ ἐς τὸ τρυφερώτερον μετέστησαν’. In Greek, the dative can be used to indicate either an advantage or disadvantage - the use of τῇ διαίτῃ in dative highlights how Thucydides sees this change of lifestyle, translated literally as the most luxurious change in life, as an advantage compared to the regressive and old fashioned way the Barbarians live. Furthermore, whilst the History of The Peloponnesian War focuses on the conflict between the Delian League* and Sparta and her allies, Thucydides specifically points out that

Old-fashioned … practices which lasted until quite lately [that] still prevail among Barbarians, especially those of Asia … are now confined to the Barbarians [which before] might be shown to have existed firmly in Hellas (Thucydides, 1.6.3-6).

He brings the Barbarians ‘of Asia’, such as the Persians, to the forefront of the commentary to highlight how behind they are to the modernity of the Hellenes; showing how the label of ‘barbarian’ correlates to not only an inferior social standing but economically lower too.

Modern Western View of Barbarians

Unsurprisingly, the word barbarian isn’t in popular use anymore; yet, we often use it adjectivally in a similar way to which the Greeks used the typology. Western media commonly uses ‘barbaric’ in relation to acts of violence, especially when it occurs in the Middle East. In an 1998 article from the Blackpool Tribune, titled ‘Fundamental Flaws’,* Tony Greenstein’s use of ‘barbarian’ is an example use of how the term has both social and economic implications. Throughout the article, Greenstein compares popular notions about ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ to the idea of ‘unreconstructed barbarians’; he blames the over-politicisation of the Muslim religious community to the rise in modern perspectives on the ‘irrational barbarism’ of the East and uses the term ‘Israel’ and Islam interchangeably. This, alongside the ‘images of terrorism, the severing of limbs and the repression of women’ and the political cartoon (Fig 1.1) all create the modern image of Islamic barbarism, which is incredibly problematic for a number of reasons: firstly, by using Islam and Israel synonymously, Greenstein turns a religious community into a nation. The militaristic connotations of nation perpetuate the barbaric views on Islam as it conjures images of violence and conflict into the minds of the reader. This is emphasised by the comparison between Soviet Russia and Islam in the cartoon, the cartoonist has depicted the Islamic figure with a sword and the Russian soldier with a gun - not only does this have economic implications, such that Islam are outdated as they’re shown in contrast to modern machinery, but elevates the negative attitudes of society to Islamic fundamentalism. 

Fig 1.1

Racial Implications of ‘Barbarian’

Throughout this post, I have compared the term barbarian with images of violence, savagery and the idea of old-fashioned ways. In addition, I want to discuss how the term barbaric is often used in conjunction with the word inhumane. Barbaric implies that the audience, predominately people from the West, are morally superior, and consequently more human, because they are not committing these ‘barbaric’/‘inhumane’ deeds that they believe they are seeing. This has major racial implications as religion, nationality and ethnicity become intermixed and therefore, if the West are being seen as morally superior, this shows how the East are being treated as inferior.* 

In the image** alongside this section, Medea is depicted with a darker complexion and features than Jason - emphasising their different lineages. It’s important that their physical differences are highlighted in this image as it portrays Medea as a sorceress who is potentially getting ready to commit the barbaric act of poisoning - her otherness to Jason, and therefore her barbarian status, is shown through her darker features which are traditional attributes of those descending from the East. Therefore, this shows how intertwined the links are between the notion of Barbarism, the Middle East and race.

Modern Consequences of Ancient Acts

Here, I think we can definitely attribute the images of violence and savagery perpetuated by Western media to the conflicts between the Ancient Empires. Not only is the term ‘barbarian’ used in a racially discriminative way during the Ancient era, I believe it impacts how we view the East today through the use of its adjective form and as an inherited ideology. In my next post, I am going to look at Panhellenism and the notion of ‘other’ and discuss who is included in the self in Greek unity. As before, I am going to include a questionnaire alongside this post so please answer if you have time! 

Defining Barbarians
*Based on the survey following my previous post, 100% of people said the word ‘barbarian’ invoked a negative image.
**F. Hartog, The Mirror of Herodotus: The Representation of the Other in the Writing of History, Eng. trans. 1988.

*Attic Greek was the dialect of Attica, much of what is known as modern day Greece. There were other dialects present within the Hellenic period but for arguments sake I’m showing I’m using Attic.
** Kim, Ronald I. “Verbal Ablaut and Obstruent Alternations in Old Persian”. Historische Sprachforschung, P. 170

Greek Unity
*However, this never includes the Spartans.

Ancient Greek View of Barbarians
*This is a modern term as the treasury of the Delian League was situated on the island of Delos. However, the different Hellenic cities would not have referred to it using this terminology. Also, most notable out of Sparta’s allies, and the main reason suggested behind their victory against the Delian League, is the Persian Empire and its vast resources.

Modern View of Barbarians
*Greenstein, Tony. “Fundamental Flaws”. Blackpool Tribune, vol. 62, no. 50, p. 7(11/12/1998). Accessed 07/07/2021. 

Racial Implications of ‘Barbarian’
*Unkown. “IRAQ: A Reputation for Barbaric Acts”. Tribune, vol.43, no. 33, p. 2 (17/08/1979). Accessed 07/07/2021.
**W. Waterhouse, John. Jason and Medea. (1907).

Harmensz-Muller, Jan. Apotheosis of the Fine Arts - The Artists Escape from the Barbarians to Mount Olympus. c.1597


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