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What was a barbarian?

What was a barbarian?
What was a barbarian?  You may well ask.  If somebody asked you how and why the Middle Ages began, you might reply (if you knew), ‘The Roman Empire was invaded, overrun, and ultimately destroyed by barbarian tribes.’

Which of course only answered the question by raising another one.

All right, so all of us (or nearly all, I hope) have heard of the Roman Empire, whether from primary school projects on Roman roads, or trying to put on a toga, or acting in Julius Caesar for GCSE, or walking Hadrian’s Wall during a family holiday, or watching the film Gladiator.

But the word ‘barbarian’ may present unexpected problems.  It is another example of one of those words the meaning of which is, we think, common knowledge, but which, on greater reflection, reveals rather more meaning than we first thought.

Barbarian etymology

To help answer the question, ‘What was a barbarian?’ it’s helpful to look at the history behind the word itself. To us, a barbarian was/is crude, ignorant, vulgar, quite probably violent, possessing few if any civilised virtues, devoid of most human qualities, and, generally speaking, a thoroughly nasty piece of work.

But that tells you what a barbarian is.  It does not really tell you – well, not properly – what a barbarian was.  The word goes back a long way.  Well past most of English history.  Past Roman history.  Right back to the Ancient Greeks.  Over two and a half thousand years ago.  Quite a pedigree, for a mere word.

The Greeks

The Greeks thought quite a lot of themselves.  They thought they were special. They were not necessarily conceited, but they had a very healthy regard for their own virtues.  They knew they amounted to something.  (As we now know, with good reason.)

So they tended to split the human race into two:  a man was either a Greek or he was a non-Greek.  (Pretty subtle stuff, this.)  How did you tell the difference?   By waiting till he opened his mouth.  If you could understand what he said, he was obviously speaking Greek. (I said this was subtle stuff.)  If you couldn’t, he was speaking gibberish, and it sounded like ‘ba-ba-ba-ba-ba’.  So he was a ‘barbarian’.  QED.

That did not necessarily mean that he was crude, ignorant, vulgar, violent, and all the rest.  He just wasn’t Greek.  It was simply a way of distinguishing the two.  Of course the Greeks had a good idea which of the two was the better, and lost no opportunity to say so.  But they only looked down on barbarians; they didn’t regard them with horror or revulsion.  That came later.  Much later.

It wasn’t the Greeks who did that; it was the Romans.  The Romans built this enormous empire, and, inevitably, came in contact with the Greeks.  There was bound to be some kind of clash.  The Greeks thought they were the smartest people in the world; the Romans thought they were the greatest people in the world.  Dammit – by that time, they ruled it.  Well, most of what was known.


However, though the Romans came to rule the world, they also came to grow a high regard for Greek culture and learning.  To the Romans’ great credit, they did recognise class when they met it.

They absorbed a great deal of what the Greeks had to offer.  One of them was the word ‘barbarian’.  They adopted the Greek habit of referring to those outside the Empire as ‘the barbarians’.

At first, the word probably carried the same meaning as the Greeks had given it.  Most Romans (those who weren’t slaves, of course) came to believe that the proudest thing in the world was to be a Roman citizen. (Again – to be fair – as with the Greeks, for very good reasons.)  Everybody else was a barbarian, of one kind or another.

It was all very secure.  The Roman Army had made the world safe for Roman civilisation; anybody who was unlucky enough to be living outside the legion-bristling frontiers had to lump  it and make the best of a bad job, if he knew what was good for him.

The fall of Rome

Unfortunately, things did not stay like that.  Circumstances have a nasty habit of changing.  All those barbarian tribes in the mists, marshes, forests, plains, steppes, and deserts outside the Empire were not content to stay where they were.  There were now too many of them; they needed space.   Worse, they were being raided, beaten, pressed, and bullied by other ‘barbarian’ groups from further east, many of whom were much nastier than they were.  They wanted to escape.  Whole populations were on the move.  How long could the legions keep them on the right side of the frontier – the outside?

Obviously, not for ever.  As the threat grew greater, so did the fear.  No longer were these people the pitiful, benighted, semi-savages living from hand to mouth in their lopsided wagons forever lumbering towards the frontier forts and knocking on the door.  They had armies; they had leaders; they had numbers.

The fall of Rome

What was a barbarian
The Vandals invade Rome

The prospects were awful.  These creatures didn’t have cities, roads, buildings, market squares.  They didn’t farm; they lived off the land.  They couldn’t read; they couldn’t write.  They didn’t understand anything civilised.  All they wanted to do, it seemed, was to smash their way in.  And once in, they would loot and destroy because ‘civilisation’ meant nothing to them.

So they had become the ‘barbarians’ that are so familiar to our dictionaries.  They were no longer the Empire’s mere neighbours; they were the Empire’s nemesis – a ghastly tsunami of violence and ignorance that would engulf anything of value in its path.

What caused the Dark Ages?

Of course, it didn’t work out quite as simply or as completely as that.  History is much more complicated.  But, thanks to all those ‘barbarian’ invasions, the continent suffered centuries of war and deprivation, so much so that historians were moved to describe the period as ‘The Dark Ages’.  (This term is now out of fashion and favour – probably rightly – but the fact that it was coined at all is indicative of a fair body of evidence pointing that way.)

And the word ‘barbarian’ became forever associated not with mere disdained strangers and foreigners but with savages and destroyers. Ironically, even certain tribes of these invaders had their names used to indicate the very worst type of ‘barbarian’.  In the First World War, the lowest abuse you could throw at the Germans was to call them ‘Huns’; and another tribal name has found its way past the book of insults and into the dictionary – ‘vandal’.

Further reading

For more information of famous barbarians, barbarian etymology, barbarian tribes etc, and have a look at:

And for more on the Dark Ages, or Middle Ages, in Britain have a read of my blogs on

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Berwick Coates