Civilizations’s greatest monster–the terrible specter that haunts comfortable and prosperous societies–has always been the barbarian. That’s the creature that arrives and destroys all that comfort and prosperity, that leaves ruins behind; that forces people to question whether all that comfort and prosperity was worth it, and whether they should have been barbarians themselves.
Today I discuss the concept of the barbarian in Greek and Roman societies with Erik Jensen, author of (helpfully enough) Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World. To define barbarians as “those not like us” is to also define “what we are.” So Erik and I spend a lot of time talking about what it meant to be Greek, and what it meant to be Roman. We also discuss how the impoverished and backward Greeks could view the dazzlingly rich and talented Persians as barbarians; what the Romans ever did for us; why barbarians are just so damn attractive; and why the worst barbarians are always seen as those born within civilization.
For Further Investigation
Political ambitions create a barbarian: Ariel Helfer, Socrates and Alcibiades, Plato’s Drama of Political Ambition
The Original Grumpy (and shrewd) Old Man: Tacitus, Annals and Histories
What came afterward: Richard Fletcher on The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity
Poetic meditation on our need for the barbarian: C.P. Cavafy, “Waiting for the Barbarians”