Skip to content
Answering Your Questions About Reactor: Right here.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter. Everything in one handy email.
When one looks in the box, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the cat.

SFF and the Classical Past, Part 10—Barbarians


Home / SFF and the Classical Past, Part 10—Barbarians
Books classics

SFF and the Classical Past, Part 10—Barbarians


Published on March 30, 2011

Well, here we are. This is the last post from me, and now it’s time for me to say au revoir.

Writing these posts has been an absolute blast for me. Do you know how rarely I get to use what I know for anything even remotely useful? Having the opportunity to talk about Classics and SFF has been immensely fun—even if I have digressed once or twice.

I hope it’s been at least half as entertaining for you as it has for me. The entire 10 part series is collected right here for your idle reading pleasure.

I wanted to find an exciting topic with which to wrap things up. Unfortunately, since I spent the weekend at a conference-type-thingy (and the week beforehand prepping for it), barbarians was the best I could do. Still, barbarians are always fun. Well. Almost always.

“Barbarian” is a loaded word. It comes to English through the Greek barbaroi, meaning people who spoke barbar-barbar, nonsense, not-Greek. For the Romans, a barbarus was a person from a people who did not possess the fundamental attribute of civilitas, civilisation: people who did not dwell in cities. The etymological history of the word barbarian is further complicated by its association with the Islamic states of the medieval and early modern Barbary Coast, best known as the home of corsair raiders who terrified Christian shipping in the Mediterranean up until the late eighteenth century. The word barbarian has come to be associated with the opposite of civilisation, despite the fact that it has been historically used to refer to peoples who possess their own complex cultures: the OED defines barbarian as “an uncultured, brutish person.”

Barbarian is one of the terms that the city-dwelling Greeks, and later, the Romans, used to delimit the other in the ancient world. To the Greeks, the Persians of the Achaemenid empire, the nomadic Scythians—horse-nomads whose lifestyle likely bore a great deal of resemblance to that of the Mongols—of the lands north of the Black Sea, and the pastoralists of Odryssinian Thrace were all equally barbaroi. The Romans weren’t quite so sweeping: they usually conceded, however grudgingly, that other city-states in the Mediterranean and the imperial power east of the Euphrates also comprised city-dwellers, civilised people. The Gauls, the focus of a millenarian-type anxiety due to the sack of Rome early in the city’s history, and the Germans, whose forests claimed the bones of several legions, were by contrast most definitely barbarians.

The perception of Gallia changed somewhat after Julius Caesar slaughtered his way to the English Channel and the emperors encouraged the spread of Roman civitas at the point of pilum, but the Germans beyond the Rhine, like the Dacians and their successor-confederacies beyond the Danube, were to remain the Other until the collapse of Roman power in the west in the fifth century CE, and its eclipse in the east by the rise of Seljuk Turks, Genoese merchants, and Frankish crusaders in the middle ages.

What, you may ask, have antiquarian notions of barbarism and civilisation to do with SFF?

The answer is…quite a lot, actually. Science fiction—or, to make a less sweeping generalisation, space opera—has something of an ongoing love-affair with the idea of the uncivilised alien. I’m thinking here most particularly of John Ringo and David Weber’s March Upcountry, in which a battalion of gung-ho space marines are stranded on a quote-unquote “backward” planet and must march halfway around the world to the nearest spaceport. It’s a short lengthy tour of various different types of “barbarism,” from hunter-gatherer to marauding barbarian horde to religious fanaticism to cannibalism. An imperial prince and bodyguard against the uncivilised hordes- it’s all very Roman, really, right down to the slaughtering of the “barbarians” who get in their way.

Ringo and Weber aren’t the first science fiction authors to cast the “barbarian” as obstacle (and occasional Magic Advice Dispensing Person): there are plenty of classics out there which do the same, and both Star Trek and Stargate have in some measure used the uncivilised Other as contrast for the virtues of civilised humanity.

I’m restraining myself from using multiple quotation marks, here, because the civilised/uncivilised dichotomy—which gets layers more complicated when you add over-civilised, thus weak—is immensely problematic and not subverted nearly often enough. (Consider Xerxes and the Immortals in 300.)

In fantasy, the idea of the brutish barbarian exists alongside that of the noble savage. Tolkien’s orcs are the barbarian Other taken to extremes: brutish, savage, scarcely capable of speech, the Black Speech of Mordor aside.

But orcs are merely the furthest end of the distribution curve. How many fantasy novels featuring invading (or marauding) hordes and barbaric kings? I don’t think I can actually count them all. Leaving aside sensitive-yet-strong wandering barbarian singletons… Although it’s possible I’ve read too many of the wrong sort of books.

Of course, when the brutish barbarian is subverted, it can be a thing of wonder. Terry Pratchett’s Cohen the Barbarian takes the archetype made…well, archetypal, by Conan the Barbarian and Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd, and turns it into something else entirely. Something hilarious, yet also—at least in Interesting Times—meaningful.

The best subversion of the barbarian-as-brute I’ve ever seen is in Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman books. (Which are not fantasy, despite appearances.) The Outskirters, from the outside, appear to be quintessential barbarians: some of them are, in fact, even cannibals. But they are complex, not simply savage.

All so-called barbarian peoples are complex. Both the Greeks and the Romans had a terrible habit of forgetting that.

Liz Bourke is reading for a research degree in ancient history at Trinity College, Dublin. A longtime SFF fan, she also reviews for

About the Author

About Author Mobile

Liz Bourke


Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. She was a finalist for the inaugural 2020 Ignyte Critic Award, and has also been a finalist for the BSFA nonfiction award. She lives in Ireland with an insomniac toddler, her wife, and their two very put-upon cats.
Learn More About Liz
Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments