Ancient Greece and the Barbaros


Part 2.1

The modern word barbarian integrates both the ideas of the foreign, and of a lower value. Where is it coming form? The Greek βάρβαρος (barbaros) was conceived as antonym to πολίτης (polites), the “citizen” or inhabitant of the city. In Ancient Greece, a complex geopolitical order made of city-states, not belonging to the city meant being outside of the main form of community. The leap operated from barbaros as a purely factual term, providing a geographical, if not demographic information on the concerned individuals, to barbaros as a pejorative and disdainful category, corresponds to the association observed by Saïd, of the stranger as a lower individual upholding and evoking less respectable values. If we wish to look at the roots of the Western understanding of foreignness, it is towards the Greeks that our focus must turn, and in Attic Greece, foreigners were barbarians.

Not unlike other racial appellations, 1 the concept of the barbarian was initially used to refer to language features (it is still used today as a technical linguistic term). In his Iliad, Homer qualifies the Carians, supporters of Troy, to be barbarophonos, “of incomprehensible speech” or “uncouth of speech” (2.867: Homer 1978, 114-115). Jonathan Hall (2002) argues that the barbarians were not necessarily the foreigners, i.e. non-Greeks, but, as in the case of the Carians, those who spoke a flawed Greek (111). This was a determining feature: notions of language and reason were conflated in the growingly central concept of Logos, progressively valued as both the core intellectual energy — reason — and its ultimate object of enquiry, reflexively — language. Not speaking well meant not having a clear and refined sense of reason. Hall adds that the distinction between Greek nationals and foreigners was not as strong during the Archaic period (800-510 bc), when a feeling of ‘Greek nationalism’ was not yet formed, as it would become in the Classical period (510-323 bc) (111). This corresponds exactly to the era of Herodotus.

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For Herodotus, the main barbarians, the Persians, were not simply uncivilized, but civilized and corrupted; their historical value was that of being able to provide a contrast with the virtuous deeds of the Greeks.

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The understanding of the barbarian in Classical Greece was two-fold, emphasizing two features of the barbarian. These do not constitute two distinct definitions of the barbarian, but rather two aspects of one and the same category. Moreover, interestingly, two major intellectual authorities have respectively insisted in each of these two features. For Herodotus, the main barbarians, the Persians, were not simply uncivilized, but civilized and corrupted; their historical value was that of being able to provide a contrast with the virtuous deeds of the Greeks (Pocock 2005, 11-12). In this conception, the barbarian society is defined as opposite to the proud cultural sophistication of the Greek polis. But for Aristotle, foreigners were primarily barbarians in virtue of their being governed by “god-king living in palaces” (12). In other words, barbarians were those beings who surrendered, as slaves, to the tyrannical power of self-established rulers. The barbarians had not reached the ‘Greek stage’, where humans partake actively in the organization of their political order. They simply did not share the political project of free and “democratic” Greece. Aristotle’s judgment was certainly influenced by the switch of provenance of slaves after the 6th century bc. Statesman Solon (c. 638-558 bc) had abolished chattel slavery (self-slavery as a form of repayment of debts), provoking a boost of importation of slaves from war prisoners and foreign populations. Aristotle probably assumed that barbarians had to be slaves because their only presence in Greece, for several centuries before his own lifetime, had been as slaves. It is not surprising, therefore, that Aristotle estimated that “barbarians are slaves by nature” (1.2–7; 3.14: Aristotle 1998, 2-12 & 91-93). Constituting the association of pejorative values and habits on the one hand, with the inability to govern themselves and their believed “natural” quality as slaves on the other, the barbarians soon became recipients of the worst derogatory attributes. Leo G. Perdue (2011) lists the moral attack addressed by most Greek authors on the barbarians: they are “like children, unable to speak or reason properly, cowardly, effeminate, luxurious, cruel, unable to control their appetites and desires, politically unable to govern themselves” (112).

In his Barbarian Asia and the Greek Experience (1994), Pericles Georges attempts to sketch “Herodotus’ Typology of Barbarism” (167-206), and he recalls that Herodotus’s Histories are in fact limited to a very restricted geographical space. This zone is bordered in the north by Scythia (modern central Eurasia), “where winter is so cold you make mud with fire instead of water and the whole climate is topsy-turvy, because the summer is wet but the winter is dry” (204). It is the land that the Persian ruler Darius the Great (550-486 bc) could not penetrate, even at the peak of his conquests. South of this zone is Egypt, where, as we will see, “climate, river, and customs are altogether different from everyone else’s” (204). It is interesting to notice that Herodotus did not simply assemble all non-Greeks in one box, in the category of the barbarian, similar to our modern foreigner – and, perhaps, to Saïd’s Orientals. There was, for Herodotus, a group of communities compounded of the Dorians, Ionians, Lydians and Persians, occasionally antagonists, but nonetheless similar on a number of respects (this is also why Persians were not simply “uncivilized” but of a civility “corrupted” from that of the Greeks). The real contrast is operated with the communities and the cultures external to this geographical zone: the Scythians, and the Egyptians. “In Herodotus the two nations [Greeks and Persians] are mutually related, “permeable” to one another, whereas Scythia and Egypt are impermeable to both peoples” (204). This may explain why most, if not all of Herodotus’ Histories are focused on the Persian Wars. But another text prevails, one confirming that Herodotus also went “off the beaten track,” and in particular, in Egypt. Therefore, if we want to discover what is really a stranger to Herodotus, we may need to turn to another text: An Account of Egypt.


Image courtesy: Age of the Sage



  1. We can also think of the category of the Aryans.