The term ‘barbarian’ is a familiar one within our everyday vernacular, frequently used within the media to describe excessively violent individuals, protesters or even rowdy football fans. However, a deeper dive into the history of the term paints a different picture altogether. Its purpose to exclude and silence voices surely begs the question: should the word continue to be used?
A ‘barbarian’ was a Graeco-Roman word for someone who spoke an unintelligible language and lived beyond the political limits of these great dynasties (‘bar-bar’ literally being used to imitate the sound that came out of their mouths). Yet beyond this surface level definition, the perception of ‘barbarians’ in the Roman world quickly became one of uncivilised and brutish people who were unable to accept law, despite the fact that Romans made little to no effort to understand their culture. Some barbarians were even thought to represent a more primitive form of life, with the Huns being described as ‘exceeding every degree of savagery’ and ‘monstrously ugly and misshapen’.
These ‘barbarians’ could, of course, be barbaric in nature. This was most famously demonstrated in 410 AD when the Goths sacked Rome, destroying the centre of the Roman empire and the Christian capital. Yet, individual events should not be used to reduce these groups to only barbaric and violent. The years following the fall of the Roman empire proved barbarians could establish and obey laws, and form states of their own. Barbarians were even accepted and assimilated into Roman society. Members of different ethnic groups lived at peace for long periods of time, developed social relationships and intermarried. Moreover, should Romans not be equally scrutinised for their own violent endeavours?
The concept of ‘barbarians’ is largely a constructed one, with its negative connotations being used to strengthen the power of non-barbarians. Barbarians, and their ‘brutish’ nature, were used as a foil to Romans elites to underline and justify Roman ideals – rationality, law and order. Moreover, these ‘Barbarians’ were unable to construct their own image, since they did not wield the same power as Romans in terms of creating written documents that would endure over time. Ironically, therefore, the term tells us more about the Romans and how they wanted to be perceived than it does about the existence of these external groups.
This is not just a historical problem – a quick google search demonstrates how the word ‘barbarian’ is used today. The majority of definitions describe a barbarian as a person ‘considered uncivilised or culturally inferior’ or as a coarse, vicious, uncultured person. Even in more everyday language, ‘barbaric’ is used as a synonym for savagely cruel, brutish, primate, and uncivilised. Aforementioned, its use in the media is often used to quickly put down rowdy or violent groups, even if the term’s severe definition is unwarranted.
To determine whether this term is problematic is complex. On the one hand, it is a useful shorthand for describing groups outside of these large empires, particularly as it was the word used in contemporary sources. Moreover, outside of historical writing, the term is used more as an adjective to describe certain behaviour rather than to negatively describe specific groups of people. Yet, who is really benefitting from this word? Not only does it reduce extensive groups of people and diversity to just one label, but using the term comes with misleading assumptions regarding the nature of these people, emphasising their brutish and primate ways above all else. This is especially true considering ‘barbarian’ has various alternatives – these include the term ‘nomad’ or simply using the specific community’s names, such as Goth or Han.
The term ‘barbarian’ exists within an extensive group of words that serve to maintain historically unequal power dynamics. It silences the perspectives of minority groups, as well as emphasising ‘otherness’ somewhat unnecessarily. It is the job of the historian not to take source material at surface level, yet why has the name of a group been assumed based on the writings of their enemies? Changes within historiography should be made accordingly. The term’s modern day use, particularly the adjective ‘barbaric’, is less harmful and more so reflects the inevitable development of a word over time. While it is unlikely to be removed from our vocabulary any time soon, a more intentional usage of this word within the media would be agreeable. Regardless, exploring ‘barbarianism’, both in its historic and modern day usages, demonstrates the enduring and profuse power wielded by those who had the ability to ‘write’ history as we know it.
Image: Mark Neal at Pexels
Guy Halsall, Barbarian migrations and the Roman West, 376-568
Ammianus Marcellinus, Histories, Book 31, chapter 2
Gillian Clark, Late Antiquity: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2011)
Peter Heather, Constructing Identities in Late Antiquity