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Who was “barbarian” for Roman?

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

2016's Ben Hur
Ben Hur from 2016

The word “barbarian” comes from the Latin word barbarus, which means “foreigner.” The ancient Roman felt that anyone who was not Roman was a barbarian.

Naturally, the Romans took their word from the Greeks who spoke barbaros on all non-Greeks. It was a term for uncivilized peoples.

With the expansion of Rome and the acquisition of a superpower position within the Mediterranean, the Romans began to use the word “barbarian” more and more often. The term was defined according to one’s own tastes: foreigners, Celtic tribes, political opponents, in the early period of the Christian Empire, and in the late followers of the Roman gods.

Cicero himself in his Philippicae attacked Mark Antony saying:

Again, how insulting is he in his edicts! how ignorant! how like a barbarian! In the first place, how has he heaped abuse on Cæsar, in terms drawn from his recollection of his own debauchery and profligacy.

Cicero, Philippicae, 6.15

Generalizing the term “barbarian” had pejorative meaning and ridiculed the other person; mainly for her individuality, bizarre behavior, tattoos or loud screams during the fight. Both Romans and Greeks saw themselves as civilized, ideal, and those who carry light and good standards. However, this term was used not only for propaganda purposes. You can find such words, among others on the walls of Pompeii; on one of the walls you can read: “For me this man is barbarus, in whose house I will never eat.”

The Romans also used a geographical neutral term for non-Roman peoples – nationes (or gentes) externae. However, additional terms were also added that determined the political attitude . They were distinguished:

  • amici or “friends”
  • socii, foederati or “other allies”

Practically until the end of the Roman Empire, many alliances and relationships with barbarian tribes that did not have a formal structure were distinguished. Depending on the needs, appropriate political connections were established, which, e.g. in the case of Rome’s military support, guaranteed allies participation in the land or army.

  • Christopher Francese, Ancient Rome in So Many Words

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