The Greco-Roman Concept of the Barbarian

‘Barbarian’ and ‘barbaric’ are nowadays commonly used to describe somebody or something behaving in a particularly uncivilized or – to the observer – foreign way, and in this regards differs surprisingly little from it’s ancient counterpart.

In Ancient Greece the term ‘barbaros’ simply described someone who couldn’t speak the Greek language and hence wasn’t Greek. In other words, what was coming out of the mouths of such people simply sounded like “bar-bar-bar” to the Greeks. Originally the term included everybody who did not speak Greek but this changed when the Romans appeared on the European stage. Always had the inhabitants of Latium, the region of Italy where Rome was founded and where the Latin language (probably) developed, been fascinated by cultures, which they regarded as cultivated and civilized – perhaps even more so than their own. Perhaps the first of these cultures which the early Romans/Latins encountered on their path of expansion were the Etruscans, the namesakes of modern-day Tuscany (ancient Etruria), who settled in that region in the first millennium BC, surpassing their southernly neighbours in most respects at that time. Their downfall, in the end, was caused at least partially by their lack of unity. Similar to the Greeks, who they borrowed their alphabet as well as many other cultural aspects from, the Etruscans were divided into a multitude of independent city-states, a circumstance which Rome knew to exploit according to their infamous maxim divide et impera, divide and conquer.

But the Romans didn’t wipe out the Etruscans, on the contrary. They incorporated many of their traditions, customs and even parts of their spiritual beliefs into their own lives. Many powerful Etruscan families stayed in power under the rule of Rome and became influential politicians, great generals and efficient bureaucrats in their own right throughout the duration of the empire.

As is well known Rome’s expansion didn’t stop with Tuscany. Soon the rest of Europe would feel the power of the greatest Empire Europe had seen at this point in history and this would include the divided Greeks. Rome had tasted the refined flavour of sophisticated, Greek-inspired civilization with their conquest of Etruria and thirsted for more. Again, the strategy of dividing and conquering served the empire well on it’s path to dominate the Greek world. Once the deed was done and all of Greece was conquered there was but one remaining issue. The Romans remained barbarians to the Greeks because they weren’t Greek. But as we know the victorious write history and soon the Romans would broaden the definition of the term ‘Barbarian’. Technically, since the empire, at this stage still a republic, had conquered Greece, Greece itself was now Roman. Would it be too farfetched to assume that this would make Rome and the Romans a bit Greek as well?

At the latest from this moment in history the barbarian – at least in the eyes of the Roman aristocracy and high society – came to mean Greco-Roman. Everybody else was just a brute, inferior to the mighty Mediterraneans. The fact that the Romans, not so long ago and perhaps even then by some, were considered barbarians themselves, didn’t seem to bother them. This goes to show how arbitrary the term really was and still is. Cultures are neither inferior nor superior – they are just different. Various ethnic groups across the world have developed in their own way, influencing each other since the beginning of our species. Unfortunately looking down on others which we deem lesser than us seems to be just as old a phenomenon. But maybe that is something humanity will eventually overcome as well. One can only hope.

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