For most Ancient Greeks, a fundamental distinction divided all men into two unequal groups: barbarians and Hellenes. Even Plato had reservations about dividing the world into two distinct parts, nevertheless, the difference became a comm0n and often used measuring stick for the Greeks. Language was a key element of the divide. The word barbaros
is an expression for those who speak with difficulty,
with harsh sounds, that is, those who speak
inarticulately. Another element was the incoherence of barbarian speech. A language that was not Greek was not much better than no language at all. During the fifth century, the dividing line between civilized men and barbarians was predicated on a knowledge of the Greek language. Greek became the "lingua franca" and was so pervasive that both Ovid and Saint Paul both observed, that when they speak in words that their
hearers do not understand, they become barbarians for their listeners.
The experiences of the conflicts between Greece and Persia brought out all of the prejudices toward barbarians that Greeks had felt up until that time. Hostility toward the invader and his poor performance in the field, were a combination of factors that solidified and reemphasized the differentiation of Greek from barbarian. The Persian Wars, in one sense, never ended. Indeed, the only possible war is that between Greeks and barbarians. Wars between Greeks and Greeks were merely civil strife as expressed by Plato in the "Republic."
The reason for this never-ending struggle is that barbarians are
essentially different from Greeks; they are made to be mastered. The
natural condition is that Greeks should be free and rule barbarians not the reverse.
There were voices to the contrary that occasionally called for a more
moderate or more generous view of other nations, but they came to the fore only later. The Persian Wars had settled the
question of the superiority of Greek citizen hoplites to barbarian
troops, at least in the eyes of the Greeks. The superiority of the disciplined but independent, well-trained but
spirited Greek hoplite to the excitable but spiritless, massed but
poorly directed barbarian army evident in numerous engagements. The appearance, numbers, and shouting of
barbarian troops may be intimidating and look formidable, but it's deceiving. Once barbarians engage a group of
Greeks who stand their ground, the barbarians are no match for the
well-organized and self-reliant Greek warrior.
The second fundamental superiority that the Greeks felt toward non-Greeks was intellectual. Heraclitus attests that "eyes and ears
are poor witnesses for men with barbarian souls," that is, what a man senses requires interpretation by an intelligent mind, a barbarian lacks. The other major feature of the barbarian
character that finds its way into Greek thinking is their
lack of a Greek education.
Besides barbarian's ineffectiveness as soldiers and general
stupidity, Greek theater, for example, gives us a gallery of stereotypes
of particular nationalities. Not only are barbarians inferior to Greeks, but individual ethnic
groups show definite characteristics that account for a particular group's failings and
express in one trait of character the reasons for the repugnance Greeks
feel toward other nationalities. The ancient world was no more immune than
the modern to assigning a particular attribute(s) to an entire ethnic group.
These national stereotypes run up against the ideas generated by the Hippocrates and by Aristotle. Humanity is, according to these emerging scientific theories, the same in all races, but it has been tempered differently in different individuals. The superiority of Hellas and the consequent virtues of Greeks as opposed to barbarians are caused by the moderate climate in Greece that allows for an optimal development of both the mind and the body, potentially existing in every human being, but waiting to be determined by the environment. In the warm climates of Asia the air and water have produced a human type too willingly and easily subjected to tyrannical rule. Asia for all its grandeur is the continent of kings whose people are ready to submit to them in every way. Conversely, the northern climates begin with the same human material, but the environment there has forced men into survival mode. The effect has been to produce the "wilder" races of men, and they become a source for stereotypes also, but of a different sort. Men there are larger, coarser and untamed.
By the end of the fifth century, the first traces of feelings that all men are in essence similar had begun to make themselves felt and began chipping away at the entrenched thinking about barbarians and Hellenes. By the time of Aristophanes, there were not only reservations that might lead one to a more balanced view of the barbarian, there was also an increasing body of scientific and philosophical thought that stressed the similarities of Greeks and barbarians rather than their differences. There is an inkling of cosmopolitanism in Democritus when he says that the wise man can live anywhere, implying that a life among the barbarians is as possible as a life among the Greeks. It must have been a simple conclusion for a follower of Pythagoras to surmise that the common bonds of all living things meant that there was also a bond of some sort that connected Greeks and barbarians. The medical writers also argued that there was no fundamental physical difference between Greeks and barbarians. The sophist Antiphon emphasized the similarities, not the differences, between Greeks and barbarians. Both breath through their noses, both take nourishment through their mouths. The fundamental nature of each is the same, and Greek and barbarian are made in the same way.
These are all hints of a new era of thinking that reigns in the age of Alexander the Great, the period of cosmopolitanism. This era is characterized by the acceptance of the notion that Greek and barbarian are equal, and a society more open and accustomed to the free movement of Greeks among barbarians and barbarians among Greeks. They were also ideas that were certainly not universally popular at the end of the fifth century and the beginning of the fourth, but in Thucydides and Euripides they found their adherents and supporters. The developments of the early fifth and fourth century were only a prelude to the livelier and contradictory philosophical movements of the later fourth century. On the one side stand the schools of Isocrates and Aristotle. For Isocrates, the barbarian was the natural enemy of the Greek, and Greece wants only a leader who will lead it into a struggle that will avenge the offenses of a century. The Persian enemy, like all barbarians, is slavish and cowardly. At the same time, the orator sets the cornerstone of Atticism, a rhetorical movement that advocated a return to the classical methods, by proclaiming that being Greek is a matter of education and not of birth, and a matter more of being an Athenian than of just being any Greek. Athens is, after all, the home of the great orators. What on the surface may appear to be nonrestrictive, to recruit from the outside and to make of Greek culture an adoptive rather than a genetic criteria, was certainly in practice more restrictive than relaxing.
It is hardly different with Aristotle. In the first book of his Politics he struggles against the new teaching of equality and promulgates his theory of natural slavery. Just as the human race is superior to the animal, so the race of naturally free men is superior to the race of natural slaves. And the natural slave is easily enough identified. He is the barbarian. On the other side, the voices that had first been heard in the sophists and the Hippocratic school have not been completely silenced. Plato contradicts himself. On the one hand he stands in horror at the race mixture that would have resulted if the Persians had defeated the Greeks and intermarried with them but he knows that the customary division of the world into Greeks and barbarians is philosophically unsound and prefers a division on the basis of virtue, not nationality. Theophrastus is sure that there is a kinship between all men. For the Stoics, the universality of mankind is a direct result of the logos that directs the universe. The Cynic's "Natural Man" could be either Greek or non-Greek, and self-sufficiency is an ideal that can be lived out anywhere in the world. The Greek polis is no longer essential, and the wise Anacharsis, a Scythian, becomes a Cynic saint.
Even between teacher and student there was no agreement regarding exclusiveness or inclusiveness. Aristotle is said to have advised Alexander to rule the Greeks as a leader but to govern the barbarians as a tyrant, as if they were animals or plants. The young conqueror did not follow this well meant advice. Like Plato, he was dissatisfied with the old division of the world and relied instead upon a division based on virtue. The most interesting new emerging use of barbaros at this time is the ethical one, in which a barbarian is a person whose feelings, or lack of them, put him beyond the Greek pale. He is in his emotions more of a barbarian than a Greek, and it is usually a question of an excess rather than a deficiency of emotion. One does not specifically attack the other person on the grounds that he is foreign, for often the person to whom the failure of character is attributed is in reality a Greek. Instead, he calls upon an accepted picture of the barbarian character, by now no longer bound to nationality, and uses it as an accusation. He who is Greek, is he who participates in Greek education and who lives up to the Greek ideal or in other words a person is barbarian whose character demonstrates that he is in thought and emotions a barbarian. The members of the human race are therefore not divided according to ethnicity but more accurately one based on ethical reality. This is a conception of Atticism that is embracing rather than excluding, that makes of the Greek ideal a door by which many can enter.
The other interpretation of Atticism, as preached by Isocrates and conceived during the fourth century, is exclusive. Participation in Greek education is not a point of entry for outsiders
into the Greek world, but a stumbling block. It is an obstacle that makes the number of "Greeks" smaller rather than larger. It
excludes many who may appear to be Greek because of birth and background and forces them out rather than being an attempt to pull other in. Language, education, character become part of a list of qualifications
that the apparent Greek must live up to in order to remain a Greek and
not slip into barbarism.
The debate over this conflict between the Greek and the non-Greek and the gradual movement from introverted intolerance to cosmopolitan tolerance is one of the liveliest and most central topics of Greek philosophy. For many modern day Greeks, it has not lost any of its emotional appeal in the modern world.