The Barbarian in Greek and Latin Literature

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Benjamin Isaac


It is the argument of the present paper that it is worth reconsidering carefully wat the word ‘barbarian’ says about Greek and Roman attitudes towards other peoples over time. This will be based on literary sources of all kinds, including poetry and tragedy from the eighth century BC until the fourth century AD. The essence of what is seen as barabrism shifts over time as a consequence of changes in self-perception. In Greek literature the word almost always refers to foreigners, hardly ever to Greeks. Determining factors could be language, geographic origin, descent, religion and citizenship. Some of these could be changed. Towards the end of the fifth century there is a clear and strong shift towards negative judgement and moral disapproval. In Latin literature it is easier to distinguish clear-cut patterns. Since there was no argument about what it was to be a Roman it was obvious who was not a Roman, i.e. a barbarian. There was never any doubt that it was possible for a barbarian to become a Roman.

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