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date: 26 September 2023



  • Emma Dench


The English term “barbarian” is derived from the Greek barbaros, Latinized as barbarus. Barbarians are most familiar as the antithesis of Hellenes, but the terms do different work in different cultural contexts throughout and beyond classical antiquity. In some contexts, a single “barbarian race” is envisaged in distinction from “us,” while in others plural “barbarian” groups are differentiated. In the latter case, the societal structures, customs, and behaviour of these “barbarian” groups are often patterned both geographically and temporally, with “us” typically in the middle, peoples to the north and west imagined to be more primitive, and those to the east and south imagined to be more ancient and/or further along than us in their hyper-civilization. Barbarian groups are frequently “tagged” with epithets, ascribing for example typical appearance or behaviour, or typical products, or may be subject to more comprehensive ethnographical scrutiny. In still other contexts, groups and individuals may invoke barbarian identity in their self-fashioning. To call other people barbarians”is inevitably ethnocentric, even when positive characteristics are assigned to barbarians. However, in individual ancient contexts, power dynamics may be quite different, resulting in a more or less charged exploration and characterization of the relative placement of “us” and other peoples. The term was a social designation rather than a legal status, but could inform institutions and actions and, within certain contexts, the differential treatment of groups, in which case it can be appropriately described as racial thinking.


  • Greek History and Historiography

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