What’s in a Name: ‘Barbarian’
In April 2022 social media, specifically Twitter, was awash with criticism of the UK’s Conservative government’s plans to privatise Channel Four, a well-known and well-respected media company. Without becoming too political, the Government has argued that Channel Four is being held back against the rise of media giants such as Netflix and Amazon because it is a publicly-owned, public service broadcaster. Despite consultation with various parties who overwhelmingly advised that the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s position was both ill-judged and unnecessary given the broadcaster track record, the government has announced it will press on regardless. This has prompted a storm of tweets railing against the government position while being highly supportive of Channel Four continuing unchanged and without interference.
Several comments on social media branded the government’s move as ‘cultural vandalism’ but it was Professor of IT Law at the University of East Anglia’s Law School Paul Bernal’s labelling it ‘barbarism’ that struck a chord. We took this to imply he meant some form of ‘uncultured savagery’ reflecting the modern sense of the term. Yet such words have long histories (etymologies ) and their original meaning may not be what you might think.
Etymology In ancient Greek barbaroi (sing. barbaros) meant ‘all that are not Greek’ in the sense that someone was ‘foreign, strange; ignorant’. The word derives from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root *barbar- implying or imitating the unintelligible speech of foreigners. For the Greeks it was especially used to refer to the Medes and Persians who, at the time, were a major power challenging Greek hegemony but people who clearly did not speak a ‘civilised’ language such as Greek. Originally referring to the Medes or Persians as barbaroi was not entirely pejorative but it became more so after the Persian Wars (499 BC to 449 BC).
The Romans (technically themselves barbaroi) adopted the word and applied it to tribes or nations that to them had no Greek or Roman accomplishments. Following the Greek precedent, the Latin barbarus also meant anything or any person who in the Romans’ eyes were ‘strange, foreign or uncivilised’.
By the early 15th-century, in a direct reference to classical history, ‘barbarian’ was used to refer to ‘a non-Roman or non-Greek person but could also mean a ‘non-Christian’ or a ‘person speaking a language different from one's own’. In Medieval Latin barbarinus was the source of Old French barbarin meaning a Berber, a pagan, a Saracen, or simply a ‘barbarian’.
So, at its purest form, ‘barbarian’ simply means someone from a different culture to one’s own who spoke a different language. From early on, however, the term clearly had derogatory overtones and was heavily imbued with the negative notions of someone being uncivilised, uncultured, uncouth, and savage.
Dismissive voices Greco-Roman society was highly patriarchal so it should come as no surprise to find their world view somewhat patronising. Moreover, Roman society was a martial one. Service in the army was one part of the cursus honorem  expected of all men of the senatorial class competing to achieve power, prestige, influence and wealth. Roman military success in conquering an empire round the Mediterranean, allied with their general warlike mentality, gave such men an air of superiority. In those circumstances, it is easy to see why Romans, especially soldiers, would be contemptuous of ‘others’.
Indeed Vindolanda Tablet 164 provides us with the first known occurrence of the derogatory term ‘Brittunculi’ meaning ‘little Britons’ . This is often taken as an example of the derision expressed by the Romans for those they had conquered. Yet other Roman authors give the distinct impression that they thought the Britons were fearsome looking warriors (cf. Caesar, Gallic War, V.14)  prepared to resist Roman annexation. Nevertheless, the martial prowess attributed to the Britons by Roman authors is undoubtedly propaganda intended to make Roman victories over the tribes all the more glorious. So, were the Britons, and by extension the Gallic and Germanic tribes, the peoples of North Africa and of the Levant and Anatolia really savage, uncivilised barbarians?
Much like in the ‘the Dark Ages’, today a largely discredited term, the tribal societies living in NW Europe left few if any written records. While the same cannot be said of the peoples of Mesopotamia, the Levant and of those the Greeks called ‘Medes’ or ‘Persians’, what we believe we know of early Europeans is heavily influenced by the contemporary histories of Greco-Roman authors. These same authors, as we have seen, could be highly contemptuous of ‘others’ and were undoubtedly instrumental in colouring our earlier understanding of the period and its people. Fortunately, reappraisal by more modern historians backed up by archaeology, with its scientific basis and advances in technology, has revealed the societies bordering or within the Greco-Roman world were far more nuanced, cultured and civilised. Indeed, in the scene ‘what have the Romans ever done for us’ in the classic 1979 Monty Python film ‘The Life of Brian’ there is little in the list of their achievements that could not be equally applied to nearly all non-Roman people. Hardly savage, uncouth barbarians.
Online Etymology Dictionary, ‘Barbarian’, Available online: https://www.etymonline.com/word/barbarian (accessed April 9th, 2022).
Gaius Julius Caesar, ‘Gallic War’, Book V, chapter 14, Available online: https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Caesar/Gallic_War/5A*.html (accessed April 12th, 2022).
1. Etymology is the study of the history of linguistic forms, that is the history of how words are written and pronounced, and how their spelling and pronunciation changed.
2. A cynic might say that is the intention all along. From history it is fairly evident that investors are typically members of the Conservative Party, supporters or financial donors to said party. In other words, they are in-bed with the very ministers who have the power to make such changes, and all have mutual vested interests in benefitting from privatisation.
3. The cursus honorum (Latin for 'course of honours', or more colloquially 'ladder of offices') was the sequential order of public offices held by aspiring politicians in the Roman Republic and the early Roman Empire. Designed for men of senatorial rank, the cursus honorum comprised a mixture of military and political administration posts; the ultimate prize for winning election to each 'rung' in the sequence was to become one of the two consuls in a given year.
4. Brittunculi is often translated as ‘wretched Britons’ or ‘nasty little Britons’, or something similar, to imply the disdain felt by Romans towards the indigenous tribespeople. But ‘Brittunculi’ is derived from Brittō (‘Briton’) + -culus, a diminutive suffix in Latin to indicate ‘little’ or ‘small’. Thus ‘Brittunculi’ literally means ‘little Britons’.
5. ‘All the Britons, indeed, dye themselves with woad, which produces a blue colour, and makes their appearance in battle more terrible.’ Ironically, Caesar’s opening description of the inhabitants of Kent calls them ‘by far the most civilised, differing but little from the Gallic manner of life.’ The southern British tribes shared a lot in common with the nearest neighbours across the channel in Gaul. The Romans may well have found the similarities familiar which gives context to Caesar’s ‘civilised’ comment.