Barbarians in Ancient Greece answers questions


a woman in long tight dotted pants and a tunic on a horse
A Greek image of a Persian "barbarian" woman

The Greeks called everyone who didn't speak Greek a barbarian (barbaros). They said that people speaking other languages sounded like they were just going "bar, bar, bar, bar..." and that is why they called those people barbarians.

Don't let this fool you into thinking that these "barbarians" were all living in the Stone Age. The Greeks called Persians, Romans, Phoenicians, Scythians, Egyptians - all barbarians. Many of these people had more technology than the Greeks. "Barbarian" just meant that they did not speak Greek.

a man in long tight dotted pants and a tunic on a greek vase
A Greek image of a Persian "barbarian"
(now in Berlin)

The Greeks believed that Greek people (or at least Greek men) were more rational than these barbarians. The Greeks thought that barbarians were ruled by their emotions instead of by reason. Also, barbarians had weird foreign customs: they drank beer instead of wine, they used marijuana, they wore long pants, and they let women fight in battle and ride horses.

That didn't stop the Greeks from working for foreigners, or having foreigners work for them though. In the Classical and Hellenistic periods, most of the Athenian police force was made up of Scythian slaves. And throughout Greek history, many Greek men worked as mercenary soldiers or as artists in Egypt and Persia.

Learn by Doing - Listening to foreign languages
More about the Amazons

Bibliography and further reading about ancient Greek ideas about "barbarians" :

Eyewitness: Ancient Greece , by Anne Pearson.
Greeks and Barbarians, by Thomas Harrison (2001).
Greeks, Romans and Barbarians: Spheres of Interaction, by Barry Cunliffe.

More about the Persians
More about the Scythians
Ancient Greece home

Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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