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date: 18 January 2019


Social groups frequently assert their cohesiveness by emphasizing the differences between themselves and ‘outsiders’. Individuals belong to a range of groups, and which they choose to emphasize will depend on particular historical situations. While we associate Classical culture primarily with emphasis on citizenship (membership of a polis), Classical Greek literature also assigns considerable importance to defining a common Greek identity and creating the figure of the ‘barbarian’ in contrast.

That contrast was not important in Archaic literature. The factors that brought it to the fore were

  1. (a) the imposition of Persian control over western Asia Minor from the mid-6th cent. bce and the successful armed resistance to Persia by many Greek states in 480/79 bce (see persian wars);

  2. (b) justification of Athenian hegemony over the Delian League on the grounds that Greeks should unite to continue resistance against Persia; and

  3. (c) the appearance of considerable numbers of non-Greek slaves at Athens (where the economic exploitation of the indigenous poor had been curtailed by Solon's seisachtheia (alleviation of debt)).

With Aeschylus' Persians (performed 472 bce), a consistent image of the barbarian appears in Athenian literature and art. Apart from a lack of competence in Greek (e.g. Ar. Thesm.), the barbarian's defining feature is an absence of the moral responsibility required to exercise political freedom: the two are connected, since both imply a lack of logos, the ability to reason and speak (sc. Greek) characteristic of the adult male citizen. Barbarians are marked by a lack of control regarding sex, food, and cruelty. In Homer, the breaking of such taboos had been associated with super-human heroes; in Classical thought, they were ‘barbarous’ (the myth of Tereus, thought originally to have been a Megarian hero (see megara), includes rape, tearing out a tongue, a mother's murder of her own child, and cannibalism: consequently Tereus had to be reclassified as a Thracian king; see thrace). Absence of political freedom entails rule by tyrants, and frequently women, and the use of underhand weaponry like bows and poison; the absence of moral self-control entails the wearing of wasteful and ‘effeminate’ clothing, drinking wine neat, and enjoying emotional (‘Lydian’ or ‘Ionian’) music. Somatic differences might be used by writers (or vase-painters) to reinforce the image of the barbarian, but it did not matter whether the typology was black African or Thracian.

The Greek/barbarian polarity continued to be a major element in Greek literature throughout antiquity; it compensated for the military and political powerlessness of Greek cities in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Along with other elements of Greek culture, it became part of the ideological baggage of Latin literature. Its importance in practical terms is less clear: ‘barbarians’ were excluded from the Olympic Games and other religious ceremonies, e.g. at Eleusis, and a 4th-cent. bce lawcourt speech could make capital out of an opponent's alleged ‘barbarian’ descent (Dem. Meid. 149 f.). Roman rhetoric, too, could represent opponents, both non-Roman and Roman, as either ‘barbarians’ or ‘barbarous’ (Cic. Font., etc.; representations of Cleopatra (VII) or Boudicca), though such language masked much more real distinctions (principally that between the Roman citizen and the non-citizen), and Roman moral discourse symbolized disapproval in different terms (e.g. Etruscan luxury). While some Greek intellectuals stretched the polarity to its limits (Isoc. Paneg. and Philippus; Arist. Politica 1. 2–7 and 3. 14 on barbarians being slaves ‘by nature’), others questioned the usefulness of the concept (Pl. Plt. 262de). The polarity might be associated with a more universal distinction between ‘us’ at the centre of the world and ‘them’ at the periphery: the barbarians who inhabited the ‘edge’ of the world might be savages without laws, settled homes, or agriculture (see nomads), but alternatively they might have created an earthly paradise (the Hyperboreans, the ‘Kingdom of the Sun’ in the Indian Ocean). Like kings, women, children, old people, or slaves, some barbarians might be closer to the divine world than the adult male citizen (Celtic Druids, Persian magi, Indian gymnosophists; cf. the Christian Salvianus' positive judgement of 5th-cent. ce Germanic invaders).

In the Hellenistic period, the distinction between Greek and barbarian came to be seen as insignificant even by some of those imbued by the literary culture (Stoicism); its irrelevance was explicitly expressed by Christians (Colossians 3: 11; 1 Corinthians 7: 21; cf. Acts 8: 27). Nevertheless the prejudice against ‘barbarians’ remained latent in the literary tradition, to be exploited by late antique Christians like Prudentius (C. Symm. 2. 807–19) as well as non-Christians such as Ammianus when they wished to parade their scholarship. With the rediscovery of Aristotle in the 12th cent., it became one of the roots of western self-definition first against Muslims and the ‘orient’, and later against subject populations around the globe. See orientalism; race.


P. Cartledge, The Greeks (1993).Find this resource:

Y. Dauge, Le Barbare: Recherches sur la conception romaine de la barbarie et de la civilisation (1981).Find this resource:

E. Hall, Inventing the Barbarian (1989).Find this resource:

F. Hartog, The Mirror of Herodotus: The Representation of the Other in the Writing of History, Eng. trans. (1988).Find this resource:

F. M. Snowden, Before Color Prejudice (1983).Find this resource:

L. Mitchell, Panhellenism and the Barbarian in Archaic and Classical Greece (2007).Find this resource:

A. Stewart, Attalos, Athens, and the Akropolis (2004).Find this resource:

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