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Barbarian (from ancient Greek βάρβαρος bárbaros , plural βάρβαροι bárbaroi ) was the original name in ancient Greece for all those who did not (or badly) spoke Greek and therefore incomprehensible (literally: stammerer, stutterer, actually: br-br-Sager). At the same time, the Indians used the Sanskrit word barbarāh (plur.) 'Stammler, Laller' to denote strange peoples.

In modern parlance, the term is disparagingly used to mean “raw, uncivilized, uneducated people”. The term “barbarian” (“a European keyword”) or “barbarism” has been used since the beginning of antiquity within a Hellenocentric or ethnocentric worldview as a delimiting and derogatory term for the otherness of foreign cultures, be they regional (especially fringe and Border peoples) or ideological (Jews, Christians, "Gentiles") distance. At the same time there is a strong rhetorical and propagandistic use of the term, which rarely reflects the real proximity or distance of the cultures being contrasted . "The linguistic figure was retained as long as the negative pole of barbarism or barbarism was always available in order to shield one's own position by negationem or to expand it."

To the meaning

In the Greek world, the term first appears in Homer ( Iliad II, verse 867), in relation to the "barbaric speaking" ( barbarophonoi ) Asia Minor Karer .

From then on, the collective term barbarians was intended for all non-Greeks, i.e. for peoples who did not speak Greek or who did not worship the Olympic gods . At first this was probably not an expression of contempt . The introduction is also significant in the Histories of Herodotus , where he speaks in parallel of the glory of the Greeks and barbarians. However, changed as early as the 6th century BC. The term. Later, culturally inferior people in general, whether Greeks or not, were referred to as “barbarians” - the democratic Athenians, for example, called the warlike Lacedaemonians Spartas “barbarians”.

The Romans, who were initially considered barbarians by the Greeks themselves, adopted the term barbarus for all people without a Greco-Roman education, as the Romans had learned to appreciate the culture and education of the defeated Greeks since the second century BC. Therefore, educated Greeks had a privileged position in society among the Romans. They were employed as educators in the Roman families (e.g. the Scipions ) (cf. Polybios ), and Greek philosophy and education were also highly honored in the Roman Empire . There were certainly stereotypical prejudices against Teutons and other people who came from outside the Greco-Roman cultural area, as is proven in the sources in connection with the so-called migration of peoples , and Roman officers of “barbaric origin” also fell victim to conspiracies at court (e.g. Stilicho ).

To call a citizen of Rome a barbarian was a gross insult in certain contexts . In modern research, the area outside the Roman Empire is sometimes referred to as Barbaricum . At the same time, however, the meaning of barbarus changed in late antiquity : The word could now also be used positively in the sense of "wild", "warlike", "brave" and no longer necessarily referred to a non-Roman, but a person who was not a civilian was. (The Italian bravo and the English brave are derived from barbarus .)

In European theories of history of the 18th and 19th centuries, the term was used to characterize a phase in the linearly understood development process (see also: evolutionism , social Darwinism ) of humanity. The "savages" ( hunter-gatherer cultures), the "barbarians" (traditional field farmers or nomadic cattle- breeding cultures ) - later collectively referred to as "primitive peoples" - and the " civilized " (agrarian-urban, high-level literary cultures ) differentiated, which were later called "civilized peoples".

In today's usage, the term pejorative refers to people whose behavioral standards are less “civilized”, that is, less self-controlled than the standard of the person who uses the term. The so named person is z. B. perceived as violent, louder or more direct in emotional expression. Other derogatory terms with a similar meaning are for example: person with “unpolished”, “uncivilized”, “primitive”, “cultureless” or “raw” behavior.

The opposite term to “barbaric” is accordingly “civilized” today.

Concept history

The term barbarian has undergone many changes in meaning up to the present day. Therefore, one can no longer start from a specific designation, but rather it is a metaphor that has changed in the course of history.

  • Greco-Roman antiquity: Already in antiquity, the barbarian changed from the “speaker of a rough language” in Homer to a non-Hellenic in Herodotus . In his drama The Persians, Aeschylus describes the Persian ships under the Persian king Xerxes I as a barbaric fleet. In Roman times, basically every person who came from outside the Greco-Roman cultural area was considered a barbarian, although this did not prevent such people from making a career in the military in late antiquity .
  • China: People outside the Chinese cultural area, such as members of one of the diverse equestrian peoples from the steppe zone, were considered barbarians ( Yi-Di ) (very similar to the ancient Greco-Roman West ). This led to the so-called rider in contact with people for a long time Heqin - marriage policy was operated to maintain order at all diplomatic contacts.
  • Middle Ages: In the Middle Ages, the concept of the barbarian was closely linked to that of the pagan . Thus the technically and culturally advanced Arabs in comparison to the Christian West became barbarians. Georg Scheibelreiter , however, also uses the term for Christianized West Germanic leadership elites - especially the Merovingians - who, under the feeling of constant danger by means of brutal and insidious crimes, obtained short-term advantages and physically eliminated potential opponents from competing aristocratic groups on mere suspicion. In the process, Christian values ​​as well as Gallo-Roman "civilized" forms of unification that have been handed down from late antiquity are factually overridden in disputes; the mechanisms of religious inhibition do not work. This behavior can only be changed through unsuccessfulness that can be directly sensed and not through pious sermons. To the more Romanized tribes like the Burgundians , this behavior appeared unpredictable and barbaric.
  • Turn of the modern age: With the voyages of discovery at the turn of the modern age, a differentiation of the barbarian began. So were z. B. the Chinese, which Marco Polo described, were perceived more as exotic , while the indigenous peoples of North , Central and South America were more likely to be referred to as barbarians. By describing the indigenous peoples of North and Central America as barbarians, they were denied reason and thus partly also their humanity, which served as a model of legitimation for their submission by the Spaniards. The African slaves occupied the lowest place in the reception hierarchy.
  • Humanism: The romanticizing image of the barbarian as a cultural projection figure in the 18th and 19th centuries should be viewed in connection with Jean-Jacques Rousseau's idea of ​​the “ noble savage ”.

Barbarians in the fantasy genre

In the fantasy genre , barbarians are portrayed as powerful warriors who come from an archaic culture and tend to have a more offensive fighting style. Mostly they are described as brutal, quick-tempered and primitive, but also as brave, resilient and direct or honest. In addition to books about Conan, this is also the case in the universe of Dungeons & Dragons or in the action role game Diablo II . The Gjalskerländer in Das Schwarze Auge or the Wasa in the world of Middle-earth are also considered typical barbarians.


  • Sebastian Brather: Ethnic interpretations in early historical archeology. Gruyter, Berlin 2004, ISBN 978-3-11-018040-4 , pp. 117-138.
  • Jutta Frings (arr.): Rome and the barbarians. Europe at the time of the Great Migration. Hirmer, Munich 2008.
  • Reinhart Koselleck : On the historical-political semantics of asymmetrical counter-terms (1975), in: Ders .: Past future. On the semantics of historical times (stw 757). Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1979, ISBN 3-518-28357-X , pp. 211-259, esp. 218-228 ( "Hellenes and Barbarians" ).
  • Volker Losemann: Barbarians , in: Der Neue Pauly , Vol. 2, Sp. 439–443.
  • Walther Ruge : Barbaroi . In: Paulys Realencyclopadie der classischen Antiquity Science (RE). Volume II, 2, Stuttgart 1896, Col. 2858.
  • Roland Steinacher : Religion and Cult of the Teutons. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 2017, ISBN 978-3-17-025168-7 .
  • Joseph Vogt : Kulturwelt und Barbarians - On the image of mankind of late antique society (= treatises of the humanities and social science class of the Academy of Sciences and Literature in Mainz. Born 1967, No. 1).
  • Herwig Wolfram : The Roman Empire and its Germanic Peoples: A narrative of origin and arrival. Böhlau, Vienna / Cologne / Weimar 2018.

Web links

Wiktionary: Barbarian  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Arno Borst : Barbarians, History of a European catchphrase , in: Ders .: Barbarians, Heretics and Artists. Worlds of the Middle Ages, Munich 1988, p. 19.
  2. Cf. Volker Losemann : Barbaren , in: Der Neue Pauly 2 (1997), Sp. 439f. 443.
  3. Reinhart Koselleck : On the historical-political semantics of asymmetric counter-terms (1975), in: Ders .: Past future. On the semantics of historical times (stw 757). Frankfurt a. M. 1979, pp. 228f.
  4. See for example Kai Vogelsang : History of China. 3rd revised and updated edition. Stuttgart 2013, pp. 144f.
  5. ^ Georg Scheibelreiter: The barbaric society. Darmstadt 1999, especially p. 215 ff.
  6. Anthony Pagden: The Fall of Natural Man. The American Indian and the origins of comparative ethnology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1989, ISBN 978-0-521-33704-5 , pp. 15-20.