The ancient Greeks used the onomatopoeic term “barbarian” (in ancient Greek: βάρβαρος, bárbaros), literally “stutterer”, to indicate the foreigner. The derogatory nuance, “the one who cannot speak (and think)”, present from the beginning, was further accentuated after the clash with the Persians. During the Hellenistic age, when the Greek world expanded due to the conquests by Alexander the Great (thus coming to encompass vast pan-Hellenic territories and nations), the Greeks found themselves having to reconsider the Barbarian in a cosmopolitan vision and to discover moral aspects and qualities not taken into consideration until then: the educated barbarians, founders of philosophy, religion and art. From that moment, in fact, every man who spoke, read and wrote in Greek legitimately entered the world and Greek culture.

While watching Plautus’ comedies, the Romans had laughed at the Greek definition, for the latter ones could also be included in the concept of barbarian. This term became part of their vocabulary, especially since, starting from the sack of Rome of 387 BC. by the Gauls Senonii led by Brenno, they began to call these new enemies from the North as barbarians. They did it with a much different meaning than the original Greek one, while at the same time these new enemies were so different from the Italic and Mediterranean peoples with which they had clashed until then. Throughout the 2nd century BC the successors of those Gauls, the Cimbri and the Teutons, continued to represent a feared threat to the Romans.

The otherness proven towards them is visible in the figurative representations (e.g. frieze of Civitalba, of Talomone) and in literary texts, in which the Romans reproduce, accentuating them, the characters of diversity of these peoples: the long unkempt hair, the build gigantic, unusual weapons, the use of breeches (bracae). This otherness together with the terror that resulted from it provoked a rather ferocious reaction from the Romans.

One remembers, for example, the ritual of burying a pair of Gauls and one of Greeks inside the Forum Boarium – burial documented for the years 228, 216 and 114 – the latter guilty once of having allied themselves with the former, or the practice of extermination, theorized as necessary for the salvation of Rome and Italy. And again, if the Barbarians had the inmanis ac barbara consuetudo of human sacrifices and cut heads, Rome reacted by adopting the same costume, as shown by some scenes depicted on the Trajan column showing Roman soldiers intent on mass beheadings, or fighting with the severed heads of the enemy held between the teeth by the hair, or to adorn the palisades of their casts with severed heads (Figs. 1-3).

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Fig. 1 – Detail of the frieze of the Trajan Column, with the representation of two auxiliaries intent on showing the Emperor the two severed heads of important chiefs of the Dacians. Attributed to Apollodorus of Damascus. Picture in Conrad Cichorius: “Die Reliefs der Traianssäule”, Erster Tafelband: “Die Reliefs des Ersten Dakischen Krieges”, Tafeln 1–57, Verlag von Georg Reimer, Berlin 1896. Public domain

With the subsequent Romanization of Gaul and the consequent gradual change of Celtic culture, the Romans reevaluated their ancient enemies. Caesar and Cicero came to consider the Gauls “consanguineous of the Romans”, while Timagene (1st century BC) linked them to a mythical Trojan origin, as was also repeated in the 4th century AD by the historian Ammiano Marcellino in his Res gestae, where he reported: “Aiunt quidam paucos post excidium Troiae fugitantes Graecos ubique dispersos loca haec occupasse tunc vacua” (Liber XIV, 1, 9, 5).

On the other hand, the populations of Gallic origin also began to boast of this fraternitas with the Romans, as some panegyrics by the Aedui seem to testify, made during the last republican and early imperial age, in which a tradition is likely to be attested originated at the same time as the first expeditions of Rome in the Gallic hinterland, when the Aedui had made use of the Roman successes to overturn the power relations with the opponents Arverni1. This tradition, proudly cultivated in literary circles (and not without a little tendentious though interested deformations), emphasized several times the bond of fraternitas with the Roman people (IV, 21, 2; V, 4, 1; VII, 22, 4; VIII, 2, 4 and 3, 1), even going so far as to affirm that this strong bond had been, even if not very credibly, sanctioned by the same senate that gave the Aedui in addition to the appellation of fratres, also that of consanguinitatis nomen (see VIII, 2, 4 and 3, 1), which made them stand out from other Gallic nations.

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Fig. 2 – Detail of the frieze of the Trajan’s Column, with a soldier who fights holding the beheaded head of one of the Dacians between his teeth. Attributed to Apollodorus of Damascus. Picture from Conrad Cichorius: “Die Reliefs der Traianssäule”, Erster Tafelband: “Die Reliefs des Ersten Dakischen Krieges”, Tafeln 1–57, Verlag von Georg Reimer, Berlin 1896. Public domain

Starting from the Augustan age, therefore, the term “Barbarian” was shifted towards those who lived beyond the Rhine and who until then had only had sporadic contact with the Romans, the Germanic peoples.
The first Roman to cross the Rhine was Caesar in 55 BC, and he was responsible for the first and summary information on the Germanic peoples and on the other tribes of the same lineage, of which he described the rough and fierce customs, keeping them carefully distinguished from the Gauls, for whom a different and far-sighted political project matured.

Other information on the ancient Germanic peoples was collected in the lost work of Pliny the Elder, Bella Germaniae, of which, however, memories are kept inside the Germania of Tacitus2. Within this, the author was among the first to enhance the courage in battle of these peoples, the simplicity of their customs, the high value they gave to the hospitality and of which he also admired the consequent moral health and austerity of the their barbaric customs putting them in stark contrast to the rampant immorality and decadence of Roman customs.

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Fig. 3 – Detail of the frieze of the Trajan’s Column, where Dacian heads impaled near the Roman settlement can be seen. Attributed to Apollodorus of Damascus. Picture from Conrad Cichorius: “Die Reliefs der Traianssäule”, Erster Tafelband: “Die Reliefs des Ersten Dakischen Krieges”, Tafeln 1–57, Verlag von Georg Reimer, Berlin 1896. Public domain

Not even the bloody battle of Teutoburg in 9 AD, which saw the three legions commanded by Publio Quintilio Varo annihilated by a coalition of Germanic tribes led by Cherusco prince Arminius, served to diminish the value attributed to these peoples, indeed their combat skills were further emphasized.
Courage and bellicosity, together with personal loyalty, were the qualities that made these “Barbarians of the North” ideal mercenaries in the eyes of the Romans; and barbarian bodyguards, Germans, along with Gauls and Iberians were hired by several “warlords” of Roman origin. In the same way, many of them were used as gladiators, a use that made them popular, however confirming their reputation as dangerous barbarians. Not only that, over time many Germanic peoples became part of the auxiliary troops of the Roman army and in some loved ones they came to play the role of magister militum and consuls.

But how did the Romans see these Barbarians? Their appearance is known to us through the official Roman art that obviously related to the military and consequently to the war.

Fig. 4 – Detail of the frieze of the Trajan’s Column, depicting the end of the first Dacian war, in which there are the two war trophies, made up of a pile of weapons taken from the enemy; above these you can see the pole on which an entire dace armor was rebuilt. You can recognize the typical loricate armor, the wolf-headed totems and the ogival helmets typical of the Dacians. Attributed to Apollodorus of Damascus. Picture from Conrad Cichorius: “Die Reliefs der Traianssäule”, Erster Tafelband: “Die Reliefs des Ersten Dakischen Krieges”, Tafeln 1–57, Verlag von Georg Reimer, Berlin 1896. Public domain

We know the different propaganda policies put in place for the military triumphs of the Roman generals over the Barbarian peoples. These provided that the winner was awarded the cognomen of the defeated people (e.g. Germanic peoples, British, Dacian, Sarmatic, Gothic, etc.) and that a whole series of celebrations and titles of figured monuments took place (arches, altars, temples, statues , coins), on which the defeated barbarians tied under a trophy made up of their weapons were represented, a way of impressing on the minds of the subjects of the Empire the memory of the power of Rome (Fig. 4).

Fig. 5 – The Augustan Gem of Vienna. Picture by Gryffindor, CC BY 2.5

The figurative models on which the Romans drew in their first representations of the Barbarians came from the parchment art that he had created, on the theme of the victory of the Greeks against the Galatians (at the time of the invasion of Asia in 279 BC), the masterpieces of donations dedicated to Pergamum by the victorious kings, Attalus I and Eumenes II. The Gauls had been seen by the parchment artists without contempt, represented in a proud and wild way, pervaded by nobility.

Although descending from this tradition, deriving from the stoic idea of respect for the defeated, the Roman representations show on the contrary a more accentuated characterization of diversity and a more direct representation of the superiority of the Romans. The eburneous doors of the temple of Apollo Palatine have been lost, depicting the defeat of the Galatians in Delphi, but a series of other important monuments and artifacts (the lorica of the Augustus of Prima Porta, the Augustan Gem of Vienna, the Grand Cameo of France, etc.) (Figs. 5-6) transmit a certain codified image of the submissive barbarians, represented with flowing hair, uncultivated beards, slings, with often naked torso, sometimes bearing the torques around the neck, often in the presence of their women, in an abandoned attitude.

Fig. 6 – The Grand Cameo of France. Picture © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, modified by Janmad, CC BY-SA 3.0

A reference to the propaganda implemented was also found in the forums of all Roman cities, in the decoration of public buildings, as shown in the trophies of arms of the Schola Armaturarum of Pompeii, but also in private monuments, as in the case of the funerary monument of an “eques pompeianus” in Porta di Nocera, where there is the representation of a stucco shield whose umbo is characterized by the presence of a barbarian head (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7 – The Tomb 13 ES, the funeral monument of the “eques pompeianus”, from Porta di Nocera in Pompei. Photo by Alessandra Randazzo. It is possible to see a detail of the umbo at p. 335 in the text by M. Castiglione, Modelli urbani per forme di auto rappresentazione locale. Il monumento funerario di un eques pompeianus a Porta di Nocera, found in Arte-Potere. Forme Artistiche, Istituzioni, Paradigmi Interpretativi. Atti del convegno di studio tenuto a Pisa Scuola Normale Superiore, 25-27 Novembre 2010, a cura di M. Castiglione e A. Poggio.

From Trajan onwards, with the intensification of military operations on the borders, the representations of barbarians become more and more numerous, examples of which are famous monuments such as the Tropaecum Traiani of Damklissi (109 AD) (Fig. 8), the Trajan column or the large statues of Dacians in porphyry.

In them, and especially in the Trajan column, the feeling of admiration for the Roman virtus coexists with that of respect for the unfortunate heroism of the defeated. Starting from Marcus Aurelius, with the Aurelian column, this feeling is preserved, but turns on the pathetic, moving away from that residue of Hellenistic composure still perceptible in the Trajan column. An evolution that is also observed in private moments, such as on some sarcophagi with battle scenes, such as that of Amendola, by Portonaccio or the later Ludovisi (Figs. 9-10).

Fig. 8 – The Tropaecum Traiani of Damklissi. Picture by CristianChirita, modified by Francesco Bini, CC BY-SA 3.0

This evolution in a dramatic sense would reflect the fragile balance of the Rhine-Danubian limes.
From Marcus Aurelius, onwards, within the Empire, the word Barbarian acquired an increasingly sinister value, linked to the theme of destruction. In this period, in fact, several Germanic peoples incursions crossed the border, reaching more and more frequently the claustra Italiae. These provoked the so-called Marcomannic wars, a long period of military conflicts fought between the Roman army and the German-Sarmatic populations of continental Europe (ca. 167-189), representing the prelude to the great barbarian invasions of the III-V century which led to the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the formation of the Roman-Barbarian kingdoms.

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Fig. 9 – Amendola sarcophagus; picture from R. Banchi Bandinelli e M. Torelli, L’arte dell’antichità classica, Etruria-Roma, Utet, Torino 1976. Public domain

Late Antiquity sources present these Barbarians through the new filter created by the controversy between paganism and Christianity and subsequently between Christianity and Arianism, so that a discordant judgment often results. Especially after the sack of Rome in 410 by the Visigoths led by Alaric of the Balts and the conquest of Italy with the deposition of the young emperor Romulus Augustus of 476 by the king of Heruli, Odoacre, a certain sense of contempt prevailed in the towards these peoples. A contempt to which the Barbarians responded by overturning the insults with no less harsh tones.

Fig. 10 – Grande Ludovisi Altemps (3rd century AD). Picture © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, public domain

This hatred did not seem to subside if still centuries later, the Byzantine emperor Nikephoros II Phokas apostrophized with “Vos non Romani, sed Langobardi estis [You are not Romans, you are Lombards]” the bishop of Cremona Liutprando, who had been sent as ambassador to the Byzantine court by the emperor of the Holy Roman German Empire, Otto I, to combine a marriage and settle the difficult dispute between the two empires, relative to southern Italy.

Upon his return, the Lombard said he replied to the dismissive guest as follows: “Romulum fratricidam, ex quo et Romani dicti sunt, porniogenitum, hoc est ex adulterio natum, chronographia innotuit, asylumque sibi fecisse in quo alieni aeris debitores, fugitivos servos, homicidas ac pro reatibs suis morte dignos suscepit, multitudinemque quandam talium sibi ascivit, quos Romanos appellavit; ex qua nobilitate propagati sunt ipsi, quos vos kosmocratores, id est imperatores, appellatis. Quos nos, Langobardi, scilicet Saxones, Franci, Lotharingi, Bagoarii, Suevi, Burgundiones, tanto dedignamur [those who are called Romans], ut inimicos nostros commoti nil aliud contumeliarum, nisi: Romane! dicamus, hoc solo, id est Romanorum nomine quicquid ignobilitatis, quicquid timiditatis, quicquid avaritiae, quicquid luxuriae, quicquid mendacii, immo quicquid vitiorum est, comprehendentes“. ‘Roman!’, therefore, for “nos Langobardi” [history made us to know that the fratricide Romulus, from whom the Romans draw their name, was a pomiogenite, that is, born from an adultery, we also know that he created a place of asylum and welcomed the insolvent debtors, the fugitive slaves, the murders … From this noble descendants of what you call Cosmocrats, or emperors. We, then, namely the Lombards, Saxons, Franks, Lotharingians, Bavarians, Suebi, Burgundians, have them in so much indignation that when we are angry and we must say something offensive to a our enemy, we shout to him “you are Roman”, meaning with this Roman name all that there is in the world of more ignoble, more cowardly, more greedy, more corrupt, more false, and in a word, all existing vices …]3 for which the term “Roman” was used in a derogatory sense as it contained within itself the expression of various vices such as: ignobility, fearfulness, avarice, lust, beggar and so on.

However, precisely the formation of the Roman-Barbarian kingdoms demonstrates how the new ruling elites sought to merge the two cultures, the Germanic and the Roman. One of the first examples of this policy is reported by the Christian apologist Orosius in his Historiarum adversus paganos libri septem. Orosio referring to the Aryan king Athaulf of the Balts wrote that although thesovereign mantained a conflictual relationship with Roman culture: “Referre solitus esset: se inprimis ardenter inhiasse, ut oblitterato Romano nomine Romanum omne solum Gothorum imperium et faceret et vocaret essetque, ut vulgarites loquar, Gothia quod Romania fuisset, et fieret nune Athaulfus quod quondam Caesar Augustus, at ubi multa experiential probavisset naque Gothos ullo modo parere legibus posse propter effrenatam barbariem neque reipublicae interdici leges oportere, sine quibus respublica non est respublica, elegisse saltim, ut gloriam sibi de restituendo in integrum augendoque Romano nomine Gothorum viribus quaereret habereturque apud posteros Romanae restitutionis auctor, postquam esse non potuerat immutator” [He used to say that above all he ardently desired that, erased and forgotten the name of Rome, his whole empire would become the name and in fact empire of the Goths, and that it was Gothia, to put it in the vernacular, what had been Romania, and now that Ataulfo would be come what Cesare Augusto had once been. But since he realized from long experience that the Goths in no way bent to obey the laws for their unbridled barbarism, he had chosen at least the glory of bringing the Roman name back to its ancient prestige with the weapons of the Goths to increase it, and to be remembered by posterity as a restorer of Roman greatness, since he had not managed to be its destroyer].

From these words, it is clear that although Athaulf had wanted to convert the Roman territories into Gothic, he realized that the structure of the Gothic society could not guarantee the same governability of a state as the Roman one. So he decided, probably also thanks to the influence of his wife Galla Placidia, to change strategy: he would pursue a policy of fusion between Goths and Romans, so that the strength of the former strengthened the culture and the name of the latter.

Fig. 11 – The mausoleum of Theodoric in Ravenna. Picture © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, CC BY-SA 4.0

This mixture of Roman and Germanic elements is also perceptible in the choice of some barbarian sovereigns to represent themselves as heirs of the Western Roman Empire, through the adoption of symbols of power proper to the Roman area. This is the case, for example, of the Gothic king Theodoric, who grew up at the imperial court of Byzantium, chose as his last home a mausoleum which aesthetically followed the tradition of the late ancient imperial mausoleums but which however showed decorative elements “like a pincer” typical of the gota goldsmithery (Fig. 11). A further emblematic example is represented by the seal ring found in Tournai in the tomb of the king of the Franks Salii Childeric (Fig. 12).

Fig. 12 – Reproduction of the seal ring of Childerico I. Picture from Gallica, public domain

On this we have the name of the sovereign and his representation. The king is represented with typical elements of the Roman tradition, such as the lorica and the paludamentum, next to these, however, there are details of the Germanic sphere, in fact the sovereign has long hair, a privilege proper to the royal Salii dynasty, and the spear, a typical symbol of power among the Germanic peoples.

From this moment the iconographic, political and religious fusion between the Northern Barbarians and the Romans began, which will lead, as already mentioned, to the formation of the Roman-Barbarian kingdoms and to a first definition of what will become the European states in the future.

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1 On the origin and developments of the theme of fraternitas between Aedui and Romans and fundamental B. Luiselli, Il mito dell’origine troiana dei Galli, dei Franchi e degli Scandinavi, in Romanobarbarica 3 (1978), 1978, pp. 89-103; vd. also B. Luiselli, Storia culturale dei rapporti tra mondo romano e mondo germanico, Roma 1992, pp. 642-646; finally cf. A. Hofeneder, Die Religion der Kelten in den antiken literarischen Zeugnissen. II. Von Cicero bis Florus, Wien 2008, pp. 291-295. For the recurrence of the theme in the panegyrics cf. D. Lassandro, “Aedui, fratres populi Romani” (in margine ai Panegirici gallici), in Autocoscienza e rappresentazione dei popoli nell’Antichita, edited by M. Sordi (Contributi dell’Istituto di Storia Antica dell’Universita Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, 18), Milano 1992.

2 Tacitus never directly visited the lands and peoples he spoke of in his work and the information used for his writing was probably manifold: De Bello Gallico by Gaius Julius Caesar, the Geography of Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, Posidonius, Aufidio Basso and interviews to merchants and soldiers.

3 Liudprandi Cremonensis, Relatio de legatione Constantinopolitana, in ID., Antapodosis, Homelia Pascalis, Historia Ottonis, Relatio de legatione Constantinopolitana, cura et studio P. Chiesa, Turnholti 1998 (Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio mediaevalis, 156), pp. 192-193, n. 12.