Barbarian. The word conjures up visions of dumb burley men with rippling muscles, long hair, giant swords and Austrian accents. Although perhaps some of the barbarian people did share many of those traits, originally the term barbarian was simply one who didn’t speak Greek. To the Greeks, when these people spoke, it sounded like they were saying “bar, bar, bar...” and so the Greek word ‘Barbaros’ was formed.
The barbarians came from all over Europe, from the far north in countries such as Norway and Sweden, central Europe in the Germanic areas and to the east where modern day Romania and Bulgaria are.
In general, compared with more civilized cultures such as the Greeks and Romans, the barbarians were more primitive and basic. In some cases, they were quite anarchic which was in direct contrast to the ideals and philosophies of the more learned cultures. Because of this, much of what we know of these peoples comes not from the barbarians themselves, but from the other more sophisticated cultures, such as the Greeks, Romans and Arabs. These cultures were more civilized and had greater understandings of philosophy, government, religion etc, and so provide us with their insights to the barbarian peoples.
This essay shall describe these barbarians and look at the continuities and changes of them over the centuries from a variety of different commentator’s perspectives, and highlights some of the good characteristics along with the bad.
Our first encounter with the barbarian race comes from the Roman senator and historian, Tacitus. In his writings Germania around 100 CE, he provides us with an ample description of his perception of a few types of barbarians found directly to the north of Rome.
In the first tribe he gives us quite a positive and complimentary view of them. Describing their physical appearance of having blue eyes, red hair and “bodies fit for exertion”, they have kept themselves to themselves inasmuch they only marry within their race and they are quite Spartan like in the way they beget their children i.e. the marriages are based on partners having similar strengths in order for the children to come out strong. They are a tight knit group and families are close by when the men go to war.
He goes on to describe another tribe, the Chatti, who in comparison have hardier bodies, sinewy limbs and greater liveliness of mind. They tend to be braver and one of their customs is to grow their beard and hair long until such time as they have slain an enemy. To them this pays the debt of their birth and shown themselves worthy.
Next, the Chauci are perhaps the noblest of the Germanic tribes with their preference to look for greatness with fair play. Although they will defend themselves if the need arises, they do not go out of their way to seek conflict or war. In contrast, the Fenni tribe is extremely poor, very savage, and quite primitive; they have no homes, live off of herbs and the like and use bones as weapons rather than iron.
Let us skip on 280 years to the year 380 CE and here we shall see Ammianus Marcellinus’ view of barbarians at this time and see what differences there are. Again, we are looking at the barbarians from a Roman historian’s point of view.
The first thing to note about this group particular group is that they “exhibit every degree of savagery”. They are quite compact, stocky type of people with thick necks. They eat raw meat and roots. They wear clothing from skins until it falls apart and it can be noted that they are very much like the description of the Fenni whom Tacitus described nearly 300 years before. This group however, is far more dangerous and savage. They are the Hun, and they are a ferocious race. Their fighting methods are extremely savage, but it also very disorderly, but it is this disorder that confuses the enemy. They are a nomadic people and it is virtually impossible for any of them to say where they were originally born. One unusual aspect of the Hun is that they apparently have no religion, and this enhances the concept of them not knowing right from wrong and can constitute another reason why they are so ferocious in battle.
The Alans is the second tribe he tells us of. They are similar to the Hun, with the exceptions of being less savage, taller and more handsome. Those killed in battle are honored, but those who die a natural death are reproached.
So, in the couple of hundred years we have looked at so far, we can see few major changes in the barbarian people. They still appear generally quite savage, disorganized and some actually appear to fit the idea of a certain barbarian from Austria quite well.
This leads us onto the Greek poet, Agathias and his Histories some two hundred years later around 570 CE. Will we see any major differences with the people he describes? Or are the apparent savagery and primitiveness still evident?
Well, the first group he tells us about is the Franks. The most apparent thing to note about the Franks is that they appear to be rather civilized and have even modeled their government on Rome’s. It could be said that they are the exact opposite to the idea of the barbarian because they do not seek war; they are very well bred, well spoken, dress well and live virtuous lives. In fact they are Christian and adhere to the “strictest orthodoxy”.
The second group discussed is a mixed mongrel people known as the Alamanni. These are similar to the Franks in terms of administration and government, but they follow their own traditions and their religious observance is different. Their religion is more of one of the worship of nature and the like, so very pagan, but their contact with the Franks is changing some of the more astute ones perceptions and beliefs towards Christianity. Agathias is none too complimentary of their sacrificial religious ways however, although from his writings, he is quite positive towards this people.
Next, we turn our attentions towards the viewpoint of the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, Maurice and his manual of war which gives us some excellent biographies of some of the barbarians we have already met, and some new ones. His Strategikun was written in 600 CE and discusses some ways of war of the barbarians.
Firstly, we meet a new pair of barbarian people, the Turks and the Avars. Both are considered Scythian, and although there are many other peoples under this race, only the Turks and Avars offer any form of military discipline.
The Turks are very independent and numerous, but their weakness is that they are not very versatile. They are trained only in warfare and are brave (remember, bravery is our common element in dealing with barbarians). Avars are more devious, clever and quite scoundrelous in their warfare. They are not to be trusted and often in agreements, they are deceitful, often agreeing to something and then doing what they want anyway. Their monarchial governments do not allow much room for mistakes from their people and harsh punishments are often inflicted upon them.
Next we revisit the Franks and along with them, we meet the Lombards. Both being light haired peoples, they are bold and undaunted when in battle and place great value on freedom. Maurice gives us positive praise of these barbarians and so far, they seem to be the most civilized of the barbaric races with respect to the Roman and Greek historians who have made these observations thus far.
He then speaks of the Slavs and Antes who have similar customs to one another and both refuse to be enslaved or governed, especially on their own land. Although very tough, they are quite welcoming to strangers and have livestock and store produce. Their uniqueness comes in the way they fight. As they live in dense woodland or marshes they fight more like bandits, and do not like to fight in open spaces. If in the open, they will let out a battle cry to ward of threat, but if their cry does not frighten their assailants, they will retreat to their woodlands and shelter and fight from there.
The next group of people are thought to have come from Iran and Turkey and settled into Europe around the 4th century. In this account, our new commentator, the Arab Ibn Fadlan tells of his meeting of the people of the Bulghars in the 920’s. So we have gone forward in time another 300 years or so to see what changes, if any to the barbarian people.
This people are extremely dirty. Despite having great physiques, they do not bathe or clean themselves after fornication or excreting. Although they do wash their hands and faces once a day, they use the same bowl of water as the next man, and each spits, blow their noses in it and so on. They do have religious beliefs and they believe that burning their dead rather than burying them (which they find crazy and abhorrent), enables their dead to enter paradise quicker.
With our penultimate commentator, Ibrahim Ibn Jakub investigates Christian Spain and Poland and tells us of the barbarians there around 960 CE. The barbarians in Spain are very similar to the Bulghars, spoken of by Ibn Fadlan, in that personal hygiene is not the main priority in their lives. In fact, they believe it to be healthier to stay dirty.
The second people Fadlan informs us of, the Slavs are quite similar to the Hun, they are typically aggressive and would become a strong force if they could unite their kingdoms together. They have fought against the Franks, Byzantines and Langobards with varying degrees of success. They have interesting morals regarding their women. Before marriage, a woman can sleep with many men and it is actually preferable for her not to be a virgin when she is married. If she is still a virgin, it is likely that she would be cast aside as not being good enough.
And so finally, we meet our last commentator and final barbarian people. In the 1070’s, Adam of Breman wrote the History of Archbishops of Hamburg Breman. In it, he talks of the northern most parts of Europe, Sweden & Norway, and the people there. In Sweden, the land is very fertile and the people there are quite well off. The men can have up to three wives, princes can have unlimited wives. All offspring of these marriages are considered legitimate. Despite this, adultery is punishable by death.
In contrast, the neighboring Norway is very unproductive due to its mountainous environment and the harsh cold. The people resorted to pirating in order to survive and collect wealth from other lands. Over the passage of time, they have accepted Christianity and have learnt to be more content with their lots.
In conclusion, I believe that our commentators all highlight one thing in common that all barbarian people share with one another, (this despite the vast range of distances that separated them), and that is in most cases they were all very brave and strong.
Over the course of the 900 years or so, it is difficult to say what changes or continuities have been made as the comparisons have been over different races and kingdoms throughout Europe. It would be like comparing the English to the Italians over a set period of time, they’re not the same people. The barbarians of Sweden cannot be directly compared to the barbarians of Turkey for example in this way.
In some cases, we can see that there are differences between barbarian peoples. Take the Franks and the Huns, complete opposites in outlooks, but many other barbarian races each have elements of both within their cultures. We can see the barbarians in Christian Spain are similar to those in the Bulghars in that both have very poor hygiene standards (compared to the commentators), but within those two societies, being dirty is perfectly normal and acceptable. From a certain point of view for example, these two peoples, both have been commentated on in the latter part of the barbarian day, and one could normally assume that this type of behavior towards hygiene would have been seen in the early days rather than later days.
It is interesting to note that in the later days, we see Christianity moving in and having an effect on various barbarians. The Franks are the obvious example, but in other barbarians, we can see its influence on them, and in turn we see the influence on the Alamanni, who also slowly embraced it due to their contact with the Franks. The Vikings in Norway came to accept it, thereby accepting their lot in life.
However, one thing that has never changed is the wars and fighting. But history also tells us that is not solely exclusive to the barbarian world and is totally irrelevant to how civilized a people may or may not be.