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Barbarian tribes.  Source: Salsabila Ariadina/Adobe Stock

Rethinking Barbarians: Were They Really Savages?

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The term "barbarian" has long been associated with images of savagery and brutality, conjuring thoughts of uncivilized societies on the fringes of the ancient world. However, the question arises: Were these so-called barbarians truly as barbaric as history often portrays them? As we ponder this question, we will delve into the multifaceted nature of the so-called “barbarians”, examining their cultures, societies, and interactions with more established civilizations, throughout ancient history. By shedding light on the complexities that surround the term "barbarian," we will try to challenge conventional stereotypes and foster a more nuanced understanding of these diverse groups. Why were they deemed barbaric in the first place? And were those who called them so actually more civilized?

Were the Barbarians Actually So Barbaric in the First Place?

To comprehend whether the barbarians were truly barbaric, we must first confront the challenge of defining the term. The term "barbarian" originated from Ancient Greece (βάρβαρος (bárbaros)), where it was used to describe non-Greek-speaking peoples. The Greeks perceived their own language as sophisticated, and those who spoke differently were deemed inferior to them. At the time, their nearest neighbors were tribes of Illyrians, Paionians, Thracians, and many others who were seen as less sophisticated. This linguistic bias laid the foundation for a broader characterization of "barbarians" as culturally primitive and lacking the refinement of the established civilizations, even though there was no actual basis in primitivity.

However, we must approach the question of barbarism with “cultural relativism” in mind. What might be considered barbaric from a contemporary perspective may have been entirely acceptable within the context of a particular society and time period. For example, walking naked in public is completely taboo today. But in ancient times, public nudity was not so odd. Ancient Greek Olympic participants were often nude. In many ancient cultures, practices such as human sacrifice, ritualistic warfare, or even perceived brutality in battle were common, and thus, they need to be evaluated within the cultural norms of the societies under scrutiny. Applying modern ethical standards to historical civilizations risks oversimplifying complex social dynamics.

Naked pankration wrestlers in ancient Greece. 480 BC. (British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Naked pankration wrestlers in ancient Greece. 480 BC. (British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Much of this ancient “stereotyping” could have simply stemmed out of “rivalry” between civilizations. In many aspects, Ancient Greeks were odd and barbaric themselves, even though they were one of the most advanced civilizations in human history. It would not be odd for them to denigrate their neighbors, like the Thracians, just so they could establish their superiority. The same goes for the Ancient Romans, who adopted the Greek word “barbarian” denoting all non-Romans who lived on the fringes of their realm, such as the Celts, Germanics, Sarmatians, Illyrians, Iberians, and so on. But many of these tribes were sophisticated in their own way, and were now just the prey of the denigration of more powerful players on the world stage.

"The status of being a foreigner, as the Greeks understood the term does not permit any easy definition. Primarily it signified such peoples as the Persians and Egyptians, whose languages were unintelligible to the Greeks, but it could also be used of Greeks who spoke in a different dialect and with a different accent…”

Comparisons Between the Cultures

In ancient times, barbarism was the result of a clash of cultures. Think of the Romans, progenitors of the modern world, living in lavish cities of marble and stone, with their laws and prisons, slaves and servants, and a strong military. How would they look upon the Germanic tribes that they encountered - tribes that dwelt in remote mountainous regions, in forests and small villages, herdsmen and pastoralists, simple and in tune with the nature around them. The difference in lifestyles and traditions would be immense to them, and stereotyping, miscommunication, denigration, and misunderstanding would be rife.

It is this dichotomy between the civilized and the barbarian world that is a recurrent theme in historical narratives. The Romans, for example, often regarded themselves as the epitome of civilization, contrasting their ordered society with the perceived chaos of the barbarian tribes on the fringes of the empire. However, this oversimplified perspective ignores the intricate cultural achievements, social structures, and governance systems of many so-called barbarian societies.

Gladiators fighting in Rome. (Fotokvadrat /Adobe Stock)

Gladiators fighting in Rome. (Fotokvadrat /Adobe Stock)

Remember that the Romans themselves had many common practices that are nothing short of barbaric. For example, they had communal toilets, where sponges for cleaning one’s behind were shared amongst all; they also commonly practiced incest and homosexuality; they held bloody gladiator battles; they held orgies; commonly urinated in presence of others during long feasts; and even passed wind while feasting. On the other hand, the ancient “barbarian” tribes, such as the Celts and the Germanics, had many nobler cultural aspects. They had a strong sense of honor; loved art and poetry; emphasized hygiene and grooming; lived in tune with nature; and were for the most part monogamous.

Stone sculpture of Celtic hero, from the sanctuary at Mšecké Žehrovice near Slaný, Czech Republic. (CeStu/CC BY 3.0)

Stone sculpture of Celtic hero, from the sanctuary at Mšecké Žehrovice near Slaný, Czech Republic. (CeStu/CC BY 3.0)

However, they too had practices that are seen as cruel or barbaric from the modern point of view. They performed human sacrifices; had a war-oriented culture; shared their homes with cattle; and were cruel in war. But from their perspective, they could have seen the Romans as the barbarians, criticizing their lives in dense cities; their politics and laws; their cruelty towards captives; their imperialistic tendencies.

Of course, the foreign tribes were not primitive as the Romans deemed them to be. Contrary to popular belief, many barbarian societies boasted sophisticated social structures, legal systems, and forms of governance. The Germanic tribes, for example, had intricate systems of oral law that governed various aspects of their communities. The Huns, often depicted as ruthless invaders, had a hierarchical social structure with distinct roles for rulers, warriors, and commoners. These examples challenge the notion that barbarians were devoid of organized societal frameworks.

“If the battle for civilization comes down to the wimps versus the barbarians, the barbarians are going to win.” - Thomas Sowell

'Feast of Attila'. Hungarian romantic painting by Mór Than (1870). (Public Domain)

'Feast of Attila'. Hungarian romantic painting by Mór Than (1870). (Public Domain)

Are Barbarians Misjudged?

Examining the interactions between barbarian and civilized societies further complicates the question of barbarism. While some barbarian groups engaged in raids and conflicts, others sought peaceful coexistence or even integration with established civilizations. The Huns, for instance, became influential within the Roman Empire through alliances and diplomatic relationships. Such interactions highlight the fluidity and complexity of relationships between these groups. Many of the barbarians were hired by the Romans as mercenaries, and eventually gained “citizen” status, becoming a part of Roman society and culture.

Of course, to label the barbarians as solely destructive oversimplifies their historical impact. Many barbarian groups made significant contributions to art, technology, and even political thought. Celts, for example, were renowned for their artistic expression, and many of their greatest achievements remain wonders of collective human history. Romans, coming into contact with them, borrowed many of their innovations, in particular the pants, and the distinct protective battle helmets. What is more, the migrations of various barbarian tribes spurred cultural exchanges that influenced the development of art and architecture in both the Eastern and Western Roman Empires. The nomadic lifestyle of certain barbarian groups also fostered innovations in horseback riding and warfare.

Bare-backed Goth warrior on the Ludovisi Battle sarcophagus wearing braccae, baggy knickerbockers, first used by the Celts and then extended to the other barbarian tribes. (I, Sailko/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Bare-backed Goth warrior on the Ludovisi Battle sarcophagus wearing braccae, baggy knickerbockers, first used by the Celts and then extended to the other barbarian tribes. (I, Sailko/CC BY-SA 3.0)

In reevaluating the barbarians, it becomes evident that they posed challenges to established civilizations, but these challenges were not solely destructive. The migrations of the Visigoths and Vandals, for instance, contributed to the decline of the Western Roman Empire. While these events are often framed as barbaric invasions, they also forced the Romans to adapt and rethink their governance structures, contributing to the evolution of medieval Europe. The Romans themselves were in many ways self-destructive, as their internal struggles, poor policies, and continual expansion did not allow for continued stability. And, as the “barbarians” migrated to seek new homes, the Romans could not handle the pressures. So, we see that many sophisticated peoples throughout history were deemed barbaric simply because they had lifestyles and traditions that differed to established norms of “civilizations”. The Slavs, for example, ever expanding, were seen as intrusive barbarians by the Byzantine Empire, even though they were peaceful pastoralists with centuries-old traditions.

The Barbarians Become Re-evaluated

In modern times, the barbarians of classical history continue to be re-evaluated and redeemed. In many aspects of modern literature, art, and cinema, the barbarians are portrayed as the good guys, noble and savage, possessing all the core values of heroic individuals. So, for example, the 1982 fantasy film directed by John Milius, “Conan the Barbarian”, based on the character Conan the Barbarian created by writer Robert E. Howard in the 1930s, brought back the concept of barbarians into the public view. It was a re-thinking of the classical historical concept of a barbarian, as the character of Conan challenges traditional stereotypes associated with the term. Conan is portrayed as a fierce and powerful warrior, but he also possesses qualities such as intelligence, cunning, and a code of honor. He is not a mindless savage but rather a complex character with depth. Also, he comes to blows with the civilized world and the bonds of religion. This portrayal subverts the traditional image of barbarians as primitive and uncivilized.

1982 fantasy film, Conan the Barbarian. (Hutson Hayward/flickr)

1982 fantasy film, Conan the Barbarian. (Hutson Hayward/flickr)

Conan, in many ways, was the needed example to rethink the concept of ancient barbarians. By changing the point of view, we can understand that these were sophisticated peoples, normal and not too odd for their time. They were in many cases peaceful nations, targeted by the great expanding empires such as Rome, who were allowed to subjugate and categorize them from their own, personal point of view. After all, history is written by the conquerors - and what Romans saw as civilized, had to be shared by all others. So it was that the many peoples of Europe were painted as unsophisticated and primitive, even though they were far from that

Shedding New Light on Old Terms

In the end, the question of whether the barbarians were truly barbaric is a complex and nuanced one. The term itself is laden with cultural biases that originated in ancient Greece and perpetuated through the lens of later civilizations. To label all barbarians as inherently savage oversimplifies the rich diversity of these societies. By examining their cultures, societal structures, and interactions with established civilizations, we find that the barbarians were not monolithic in their behavior or impact. Such simplification of other cultures persisted into modern times as well, and needs to be addressed.

Cultural relativism is crucial in assessing the actions of these groups, as practices deemed barbaric by modern standards may have been acceptable within their historical context. Moreover, many barbarian societies exhibited sophisticated social structures and contributed positively to the cultural landscape. By challenging conventional stereotypes and acknowledging the complexities of these interactions, we can move beyond the simplistic characterization of barbarians and appreciate the intricate tapestry of human history in all its diverse forms .

Top image: Barbarian tribes.  Source: Salsabila Ariadina/Adobe Stock

By Aleksa Vučković

References

Gruen, E. 2020. Were Barbarians Barbaric? De Gruyter.

Hall, E. 1989. Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy. Clarendon.

Jarus, O. 2022. Who were the Barbarians? Available at: https://www.livescience.com/45297-barbarians.html

 

Frequently Asked Questions

The term "barbarians" historically referred to groups perceived as culturally different by civilizations such as the Greeks and Romans. The designation varied across civilizations and carried cultural biases, highlighting differences in language, customs, and societal structures.

The barbarian kingdoms, also known as the post-Roman kingdoms, the western kingdoms, or the early medieval kingdoms, were the states founded by various non-Roman, primarily Germanic, peoples in Western Europe and North Africa following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century.

The term "Barbarians" historically encompassed groups such as the Celts, Germanic tribes, Huns, and Persians, depending on the civilization using the term. Its application was subjective and ethnocentric, reflecting the biases of civilizations like the Greeks and Romans toward culturally different or non-Greek-speaking peoples.

Aleksa Vučković's picture

Aleksa

I am a published author of over ten historical fiction novels, and I specialize in Slavic linguistics. Always pursuing my passions for writing, history and literature, I strive to deliver a thrilling and captivating read that touches upon history's most... Read More

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