Barbarians and Horse People

The Huns and the Goths – 300 > 600


            For almost the whole of the 20th century, Western Civilization and European History courses almost without fail rehashed a narrative where Europe merely progressed from one golden age to the next.  If you follow the script, first there were the Greeks, then came the Romans, and after a bit of bumbling during the Middle Ages where that pesky Church held back the European surge, the West got back on track with the Renaissance, followed by a series of revolutions that enabled it to emerge as the preeminent civilization in the world, a mantle it would boast into the 21st century. 

            But there’s a problem with that lovely little linear tale.  There was never one Europe, never one West (and if the current European Union experiment fails, there might never be).  To act as if the robed wonderers of Athens merely passed the golden Western baton to the Romans who then kept it in storage until some artists in the 1500s decided to revisit the glory of the Classical Age, to merely omit all the tribes and civilizations surviving (and oftentimes flourishing) on the West’s borders, leaves out some of the most dynamic characters the world has ever seen.

            Let’s start with the barbarians  Now the name “barbarians” is a bit difficult to get your head around.  Immediately you picture a bunch of large, hairy dudes with hit and miss hygiene who run around yelling “raaaaaaaahhhhhrrr” while swinging a club and eating their food with their hands.  Well, the key thing you need to realize with this depiction is that history is written by those who write, and if your people really didn’t care about a written language, you pretty much had to accept that your place in history might be a bit devalued.  “Barbarian” by definition is merely an uncivilized person.  So, for the Han in China and the Romans in the Mediterranean, barbarians were all those people who hadn’t yet embraced the joy of civilized (aka “city”) life. 

            Yet, the term “barbarian” comes from the Greeks who whenever they listened to non-Greeks speak, all they heard was a bunch of “blah…blah…blah…” or “barh…barh…barh” sounds.  At first, they used this term to cover almost everyone – Egyptians, Etruscans, Persians, Carthaginians and all those tribes to the north. Later, after more exposure to the Mediterranean civilizations, the term was rarely ever used to depict the civilizations of the south and the east, but, as for those blubbering curly haired dudes from the north, they remained barbarians for another thousand years.

            But who were these first barbarians?  Ironically, one man’s barbarian is another man’s master race.  The Greeks commented that these “lesser beings” to the north couldn’t reason, couldn’t govern and couldn’t control their animal passions.  They were seen as an inferior race, one that needed to be conquered, then guided.  Oddly enough...