Edith Hall. Inventing the Barbarian (1989)

How the ancient Greeks defined themselves through tragedy

Edith Hall is a professor at the University of London, classicist, and specialist in ancient Greek literature. In her 1989 monograph Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Determination Through Tragedy, she explores how the epic poems of Homer and the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were formative in shaping the image of the Other in ancient Greek culture. Within the framework of EastEast's cooperation with Vox medii aevi, the journal about the Middle Ages and medieval studies, one of its authors, philologist Daniil Pleshak, discusses the main points of the book and the context in which it came about.

The concept of barbarism, like many concepts widespread in the so-called West, comes from ancient Greece. The Ancient Greek language has the noun βαρβάρος, formed from the verb βαρβαρίζειν, which means “to speak unintelligibly.” This word was adopted into Latin, becoming barbarus. Greeks and Romans used this word to refer to those peoples from neighboring territories whom they found to be culturally undeveloped. In antiquity, barbarians were viewed either as effeminate, weak-willed, and submissive or, on the contrary, as crude, ignorant, and cruel.

Multiple forms and variations of this derogatory term could be later found in every era, and they were moreover used on completely different occasions and grounds. In The Prince, Niccolo Macchiavelli bestows the epithet on the German and the French who conquered Italy at the end of the 16th century. Figures of the Enlightenment took barbarism to refer to everything old, closed-minded, and irrational. To justify the colonial policies of the Russian empire, the painter Vasily Vereschagin authored a series of paintings entitled “Barbarians,” in which the inhabitants of recently conquered Turkestan were portrayed as incredibly cruel and cunning. Later in 1877, American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, in his book Ancient Society, even tried to give barbarism a scientific basis, dividing all humanity into “savage,” “barbarian,” and “civilized” peoples. 

The absurdity of such a Manichean world-view became obvious after the Second World War and the Holocaust. On the one hand, German Nazism had discredited Europe’s claims to global moral leadership. This disillusionment concerning the civilizing mission previously ascribed to Europe was expressed in the criticism of the Enlightenment project, manifested, for instance, in Dialectic of the Enlightenment—a work by the Frankfurt school philosophers Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer.

On the other hand, postwar times saw the  rapid rise of the anticolonial movement, with the help of which peoples formerly called “barbarian” acquired agency and began to defend their right to exist in the world on equal terms with Europeans. Intellectuals from newly-arisen nations reappropriated the language of the colonizers and, in turn, began to accuse their oppressors of barbarism. An example here would be the work of Francophone Afro-Carribean writer Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, where he calls national socialism the embodiment of the European colonial project. 

The domain of classical studies has non-critically reproduced the counterposition of ancient civilization to barbarians, also perceiving the latter as bearers of a primitive culture

In classical studies the term “barbarian” was actively used, although in a more narrow sense. Following ancient thinkers, the philologists of modernity referred to nations neighbouring the Greeks and the Romans as “barbarians.” Rather in agreement with the prejudices of their forerunners, they saw the barbarians as standing on a significantly lower stage of development. Furthermore, it was presupposed that contact with them was undermining and destroying the culture of the ancient world. Beginning with the famous English historian Edward Gibbon (1737–1794) the fall of the entire Western Roman Empire was explained by the invasion of “barbarian peoples.”

The example of Nonnus of Panopolis, a poet from the late antiquity, is particularly interesting here. His art is full of very complex imagery and allusion, but Western European philologists considered it to allegedly be devoid of the “measure and elegance” characteristic of ancient Greek poetry. The Soviet philologist Arkadiy Averintsev, in his widely quoted History of Byzantine Literature («История византийской литературы»), develops this thesis and claims that “Nonnus has created ‘barbaric’ poetry because he was a keen contemporary of the great barbarian epoch.” Thus, poetry which did not correspond to the aesthetic expectations of modern and even relatively contemporary scholars was excluded from the literary canon as a consequence of supposed “barbarian influence.” This view of Nonnus’ work has been overcome only in the latest years, when his poems were studied as intrinsically valuable works of art, and the latest studies have clearly shown the dependence of his poetry on forerunners in Greek literature.

All the way until the end of the 1980s, the domain of classical studies has non-critically reproduced the counterposition of ancient civilization to barbarians, also perceiving the latter as bearers of a primitive culture, undeserving of any scholarly interest. However, the accumulation of scientific data made it clear that barbarians might not have  played such a tragic role in the fate of the Roman Empire, and the life of these societies could have differed greatly from the way it was presented in ancient literature.

Vasily Vereshchagin. Pictures from the Turkestan Series: After the Defeat and After the Victory, 1868
The State Russian Museum / Wikimedia Commons

Edward Said’s book Orientalism played an important role in this reconception. It showed how the image of the Other is formed and modified in modern Westerm culture, as well as to what extent conceptions of the East are politically motivated. Despite the fact that Orientalism focused on modern European science, it also touched on ancient history. To be precise, Said took ancient Greeks to be the first who invented the image of the East by dividing the world into civilized Europe and barbarian Asia. But this book dedicates a mere couple of pages to the discussion of ancient Greece, which is clearly not enough for an elaboration of this thesis. One of the first studies expanding Said’s thought on this account was Inventing the Barbarian by the British scholar Edith Hall—in her book, she used the example of Greek tragedy to trace the emergence of the concepts “barbarian” and “barbarism.”

In her introduction, Hall explains the choice of tragedy as material for her study. The main reason for her choice is the mass appeal of tragedy as a genre, since attending performances was considered a duty of the citizen of a polis. Furthermore, staging tragedies was taken to be a public affair, so that the richest and most influential members of society donated funds for it and many local citizens took part in it, as actors or otherwise.

Nevertheless, using tragedies as sources has its own disadvantages. A rather modest number of tragedies have survived to present day: it is known that more than a thousand tragedies were staged, but only thirty two have been fully preserved. They are all written by one of three ancient Athenian authors—Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides—in a rather short period from 480 and 406 B. C. (i.e. from the Greek’s successful repealing of the second Persian invasion and until Euripides’ death). Thus, tragedies reflect the societal notions of the inhabitants of one city across several generations. Yet, Hall claims that this specific period witnessed the formation of the concept of the barbarian as distinct in his nature from a Greek citizen.

Although the protagonists of the Iliad are Achaean Greeks, confronted by non-Greek Trojans, the difference between these groups is minimal

The first chapter of the book presents the image of the Other in Greek literature until the beginning of the second Persian invasion of Greece. Hall predominantly examines Homeric verse, but looks at other authors as well. It turns out that although the word “barbarian” was also used in that period, it served to refer merely to a person speaking another language. Furthermore, the poetry of that time did not draw a significant distinction between Greeks and other peoples.

This is particularly illustrative in the case of the Iliad. Although the protagonists of the Iliad are Achaean Greeks, confronted by non-Greek Trojans, the difference between these groups is minimal. Both sides are presented in a rather neutral fashion and commit both positive and negative deeds. Moreover, the clothes, customs, and religions of both people are similar and Trojan speech is conveyed in regular Greek language, without any trace of its “otherness.”

Hall uncovers this very tendency in other writings of the so-called Archaic period, i.e. of works written before the beginning of the second Persian invasion of Greece in 480 B.C. In her opinion, the various Greek-speaking peoples were not aware of their commonality and did not take members of other cultures to be more different from them than they are from each other. The true Other for Greeks at that time was exemplified by various monstrous creatures, such as cyclopses or the lotus-eater people of the Odyssey. The latter differed from all other peoples due to their primitive social structure, lack of religion, and strange dietary habits, i.e. the complete absence of wine and meat in their diet. Hall views this to be the legacy of colonization, when in the course of wars that broke out between Greek settlers and local residents the latter were demonized and envisaged by the settlers to not resemble human beings. And yet, this demonizing attitude was extended only to the inhabitants of certain rather remote regions and was not projected onto all foreigners.

The situation changed drastically on the cusp of the 5th and 6th centuries B.C. The second chapter of Inventing the Barbarian describes the background conditions for these changes. First, Athens became a democracy. In 514 B.C., conspirators Harmodius and Aristogeiton overthrew the last tyranny in the history of the city, laying down their lives in the process. They became heroes, embodiments of Athenian freedom. Hall remarks that overthrowing tyranny turned democracy into the core idea of Athenian society: the polis was now counterposed to states with a sole ruler. 

Vasily Vereshchagin. Paintings from the series Barbarians: Attack by Surprise (1871), Spying out (1873) and Triumph (1872).
The State Tretyakov Gallery / Wikimedia Commons

Second, the conflict between Greek polises and the Persian empire started soon after. In 480 B. C. Greek forces led by Athens scored a victory against the Persians. This served to raise the international prestige of Greece in its entirety, but Athens especially. Furthermore, the idea of a Greek unity was consolidated due to the fact that a relatively small and disparate land could, through a joint effort of its peoples, successfully stand against a massive regional power. Finally, the war was accompanied by significant loss and devastation: Athens was almost completely burned down and other cities had suffered as well. Thus, memories of the damage caused by the Persians caused the Hellenes to view foreigners in a more negative light.

A new understanding of the Greek and the non-Greek appears in Aeschylus’ tragedy The Persians, which Hall’s second chapter examines in detail. The plot is based around the arrival of messengers, announcing the Greek victory at Salamis, at the Persian court. Hall demonstrates that the characters in this tragedy—Persians—bear the traits that later would become characteristic for the image of barbarians: they are effeminate, weak-willed, have a tendency towards subservience, but are also excessively rich. The Greeks, by contrast, are reserved in all respects and take freedom to be the greatest value. Furthermore, Aeschylus comes up with a number of ways to emphasize the otherness of the Persians: they adhere to customs and perform rituals that are different from those of the Greeks, their names sound emphatically and deliberately foreign, and their speech contains words unintelligible to the Greeks.

The third chapter of the book demonstrates that the image of effeminate and servile barbarians became commonplace in tragedy. Even those figures that did not show any barbarian traits in Homer and other early authors change. An example here would be the Trojans. This thesis can be illustrated via a quote from Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis (1399-1401, tr. E. P. Coleridge):

I give my body to Hellas; sacrifice it and make an utter end of Troy. This is my enduring monument; marriage, motherhood, and fame—all these is it to me. And it is right, mother, that Hellenes should rule barbarians, but not barbarians Hellenes, those being slaves, while these are free.

Hall takes tragedy to express the ideology of Greek chauvinism, according to which the Greek mission in the universe is to rule barbarians, who are underdeveloped. One of the most important pillars of this ideology was fear of tyranny, the enemy of Greek democracy. Barbarism was equated with tyranny, and thus fighting barbarians became tantamount to a battle against the internal threat of tyranny. 

Tragedians invented new genealogies for their characters in order to explain their “civilized” or “barbarian” behavior and associated customs not typical of the Greeks with “barbarian” character traits

Hall also demonstrates that, along with the image of the barbarian, Greek authors created the image of a Greek, embodying all that is “non-barbaric.” As a first premise for her argument, she takes a quote by Herodotus in which he states that Greeks are united by common blood, religion, and customs. She shows how tragedians invented new genealogies for their characters in order to explain their “civilized” or “barbarian” behavior and associated customs not typical of the Greeks with “barbarian” character traits. Finally, she touches on the topic of using language in constructing identity. In particular, she demonstrates that the least advanced Greek tribes were excluded from the ranks of the Greeks because their language was allegedly not pure enough.

The book ends with an epilogue, in which Hall demonstrates some cases of breaking the dichotomy of “barbarian/Greek.” For instance, she remarks that Greek women and children were often compared to barbarians because they were also considered inferior to Greek men. On the other hand, barbarians had their own hierarchy, so that some were considered to be more civilized than others. For instance, the Scythians were usually portrayed as one of the most savaged and uncultured peoples, but in the tale of their war against the Amazons they suddenly acquired some typical Greek traits.

Some critical remarks could be made concerning the theses of this work. First of all, Hall’s investigation is based entirely on literary works and does not turn to material evidence, such as epigraphy and more common documents and inscriptions. Perhaps taking those into account could show what stance was taken towards barbarians not only by intellectual elites, but also by other segments of the population. The work is also marked by a certain degree of sociological reductionism. Hall tends to portray Athenian society as monolithic: she ascribes the ideas she finds expressed in tragedy to the entire socius. 

And yet, in the last thirty years Inventing the Barbarian has not lost its relevance. Much like Said’s Orientalism, it was groundbreaking for the study of the perception of barbarians in antiquity. The theses of the book have still not been subject to a serious critique or serious reconsideration. Furthermore, Hall’s claim about the constructed nature of ancient conceptions concerning the barbarian has led to the reevaluation of many scientific ideas from a post-colonial point of view, a project that continues to this day. For instance, Herodotus’ writings about ancient Persia were considered to be authoritative and “very important” in the middle of the 20th century. Due to Hall’s influence, our perception of Herodotus has changed and his History is now no longer taken to be a dependable source of neutral information, but rather an attempt to construct the identities of Greeks and non-Greeks.

Translated from Russian by Diana Khamis

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Daniil Pleshak
Philologist, journalist, and Ph.D. candidate at Saint-Petersburg State University. He is interested in Byzantine and Old Russian literature, medieval religious thought, narratology, and critical theory.