Today the word “barbarian” has a derogatory connotation for most people. Yet in the classical world it was one that was often used not as a pejorative but as a means of denoting people of different cultural backgrounds, which was regularly done in an era in which interactions with them were commonplace. Erik Jensen
’s book Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World
(Hackett Publishing Company, 2018) examines the concept of barbarians as understood by the Hellenic. Hellenistic, and Roman civilizations, showing how their ever-evolving use of the phrase offers us an understanding of their concepts of identity. Noting the origin of the word as a descriptor of how the Greeks interpreted foreign languages, Jensen explains how it was an early example of how the politically fractious people of the region identified the shared factors that distinguished them from others. Such distinctions were frequently relevant given the Greek presence in the Mediterranean world, which manifested itself in trade, colonization, and later in the conquests that established the Hellenistic world. By contrast the Roman interaction with others was defined by conquest from the start, which led to the development of a different criteria of which peoples were and were not regarded as outsiders. As Jensen reveals, it was the crises of the late imperial period which hardened the concept of barbarians into the negative one which we use today, one which has skewed our understanding of the ancient world as a consequence.