The word barbarian comes from the ancient Greeks, and originally referred to non-Greeks, whose language was incomprehensible to the Greeks. Judging from the saying, “It’s all Greek to me”, this linguistic confusion occurred on both sides of the fence.
Over time, the word barbarian took on a negative image, referring to an ill-mannered brute, capable of vile and unspeakable, even inhuman, acts of cruelty. But the barbarians were not uncivilized louts, as portrayed by the Greeks. In fact, barbarian culture was very rich and complex. The Greeks stereotyped barbarians in revenge for raids on Greek territories.
In reality, the tall fair-haired barbarians were nomadic, though they eventually settled in various areas. The Teutons, Goths, and Celts inhabited Northern Europe. Long forgotten by more ancient cultures, like the Egyptians, Assyrians, and Persians, the Barbarians would re-emerge at the end of the Bronze Age. They immediately clashed with so-called “civilized” people along the Mediterranean Sea.
While the Barbarians were considered uncivilized, they were respected for their military prowess. They were true friends, yet could be deadly enemies. Not only did barbarians battle with every major world power, they also fought bitterly amongst themselves – for land, for power, and for respect. Civilized nations didn’t know what to think of these war-loving foes.
Yet Barbarians could be remarkably civilized. Charlemagne (742-814 CE) was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800 CE. Known for his reforms, he was responsible for the notion of the Divine Right of Succession, in which the King was seen as descended from the Christian God. Subsequent European kingdoms would adopt this, and other, reforms. Charlemagne’s influence can still be felt today.
Not all Barbarian war leaders were male. Boudicea, the queen of the Celts, was a powerful military ruler in England during the first century CE. She led a revolt against Rome’s army, who were invading England and had raped her daughters. She was successful in pushing the Roman forces back to London, where her forces burned the city to the ground. Upon her defeat at the battle of Manceter, she took poison rather than be captured by her enemies.
Over and over, the Barbarians battled with the armies of Greece and Rome, among others. Reviled by the Greeks, respected and feared by Romans, the fierce nature of the Barbarians ensured them a place in history.