The Barbarians: Lost Civilizations
Peter Bogucki
248pp, 65 illustrations, 44 in colour
Hardback, £15

The Vandals did vandalise Rome, but were the barbarians truly barbarous? This is the question asked by Peter Bogucki of Princeton University in his new book The Barbarians, a thought-provoking, highly readable addition to Reaktion's always interesting Lost Civilizations series. This question, Bogucki admits, may be 'an oxymoron', because 'the people we call barbarians were not civilized'. They embodied everything that the Greeks and Romans did not wish to be. To Gibbon, this clash of civilisation and barbarism was a permanent historical condition.

The English 'barbarian' is attributed to the Greek barbaros, an onomatopoeic word for the speech of the neighbouring Anatolians, who sounded as if they were saying 'bar-bar'. In describing the barbarian within, Homer describes poorly spoken Greek as barbarophonos (barbaric-sounding). The Romans adopted barbaros, and applied it as indiscriminately as they applied their laws. All non-Romans, from the Picts on the wrong side of Hadrian's Wall to the Scythians on the banks of the Black Sea, from the Germanic tribes of the northern woods to the Berbers of the Saharan Desert, were gentes barbaricae, 'barbarian peoples'.

St Paul used the word non-judgmentally, to describe non-Romans, but he came from a people whose monotheism the Romans considered barbarous, and he was trying to win converts. The more common Roman attitude is preserved in a Late Antique false etymology, combining barba and rus ('beard' and 'country'): the clean-shaven city-dweller faces off the bearded rural herdsman. Although etymologically false, it reflects the historic antagonism between town and country, the 'civilised' and the 'barbarous'.

The idea of a barbarian was not unique to the Graeco-Roman world, either. The Chinese had strong opinions about the barbarousness of the non-Chinese while the Mahabharata of the ancient Hindus uses the Sanskrit barbara to mean 'foreigner', 'low' and 'stammering'. The Sanskrit term raises the possibility that the Greek etymology was a post-hoc rationalisation, rather than a spontaneous description of communication problems in Anatolia.

Bogucki reconstructs how the 'Barbarian World' of Stone Age Europe developed by 2000 BC into a complex culture of hunting, fishing, farming and metal-working. The excavation of more than one 'nasty weapon' reflects the barbarians' forthright methods of conflict resolution, but monuments such as Stonehenge indicate, he writes, 'interest in the movement of celestial bodies', and the development of a cosmology.

History is not always written by the winners – especially when the winners cannot write. The barbarian tribes sacked Rome, but the histories that defined the barbarians were written in Greek and Latin. Not until the modern era, when artists and historians revalued barbarism as primitivism, and primitivism as vitality, did the barbarians receive fair consideration. The barbarians may not have used the stylus and tablet, but they were not without culture. Some of the dialectical complexities to which Gibbon had alluded recur in Robert E Howard's Conan the Barbarian novels. Conan, Bogucki writes, has 'immense strength', but he also 'speaks many languages, and is capable of profound observations'. And the barbarian comedy of Goscinny and Uderzo's Asterix cartoons is a keystone of modern French culture.

Gibbon also observed the softening effect of civilisation upon its barbarian conquerors. Conversely, the civilised have always found a touch of barbarism to be bracing. The German art historian and archaeologist Johann Winckelmann (1717–68) identified the Dying Gaul ( which is a Roman copy of a Hellenistic original) as a gladiator, and Byron repeated this conceit in Childe Harold. But the figure's hair and moustache are those of Diodorus' 'shaggy-haired Gaul', and his bare chest and the torque around his neck are the Gauls' fighting uniform. The original Dying Gaul is believed to have been commissioned by the Hellenistic King Attalos I – in Anatolia. Who's the barbarian now?
Dominic Green