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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 (see antropology). That contrast was not important in Archaic literature. The factors that brought it to the fore were (a) the imposition of Persian control over western Asia Minor from the mid‐6th cent. bc and the successful armed resistance to Persia by 31 Greek cities in 480/79 bc (see persian wars); (b) justification of Athenian hegemony over the Delian League on the grounds that Greeks should unite to continue resistance against Persia; and (c) the appearance of considerable numbers of non‐Greek slaves at Athens, after the economic exploitation of the indigenous poor had been curtailed by Solon's seisachtheia (alleviation of debt).

With Aeschylus' Persians (472 bc), a consistent image of the barbarian appears in Athenian literature and art. Apart from a lack of competence in Greek, 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, includes rape, tearing out a tongue, a mother's murder of her own child, and cannibalism: so, Tereus had to be reclassified as a Thracian king. Absence of political freedom entails rule by tyrants, and often 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 he was black African or Thracian (see race).

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. Roman rhetoric could represent opponents, both non‐Roman and Roman, as either ‘barbarians’ or ‘barbarous’ (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 (e.g. Aristotle's Politics on barbarians being slaves ‘by nature’), others questioned the usefulness of the concept. 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 (see euhemerus) ). 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).


Subjects: Classical Studies — Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500).

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