With the rise of civilisation there came a new characterisation of those who had already existed since long before. As people began to gather together in large urban centres and dwell there for generations, putting down roots, the folk who had continued living nomadic or semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer or pastoralist/horticulturalist lifestyles as they had for time immemorial, eventually became thought of as uncouth wild people, called “savages” by some and by others that favourite moniker of the fantasy fiction and tabletop roleplaying worlds alike–BARBARIANS!
Sorry, I felt like I should introduce that much maligned and misunderstood category of people with all caps and an exclamation point. In fact, barbarians get so much disrespect outside of the aforementioned fandoms that I WOULD LIKE TO RAGE.
As you may well know, the English word “barbarian” comes from “Greek: βάρβαρος (barbaros pl. βάρβαροι barbaroi). In Ancient Greece, the Greeks used the term towards those who did not speak Greek and follow classical Greek customs. In Ancient Rome, the Romans adapted and used the term towards tribal non-Romans such as the Berbers, Germanics, Celts, Gauls, Britons, Iberians, Thracians, Illyrians, and Sarmatians” [Wikipedia]. It was likely the first city-dwelling peoples, the Sumerians, who had lent the Greeks their word barbar, meaning foreigner, and for Greeks it originally meant the same thing, merely applying to anyone who was not a Greek.
The bad reputation barbarians would eventually acquire when it came to such centralised concentrations of wealth and prosperity as early cities and city-states was probably not entirely undeserved. Think about it… you’re eking out a precarious living just as your ancestors did for hundreds of thousands of years, but then here are these pretentious self-glorifying arseholes metaphorically sitting pretty atop their mountainous money piles like Scrooge McDuck, hoarding the wealth they’ve likely acquired through conquest of one sort or another, living it up high on the hog in the lap of luxury while you’re barely making ends meet. And then, gods forbid–something happens, like a plague or a drought or widespread famine–and suddenly these pretty little cities are like low-hanging fruits, just ripe for the picking.
Or so I imagine. After all, it’s not my job to give a proper history lesson. As you may recall and I almost didn’t, this is about worldbuilding for fantasy writers and gamemasters. But it’s what these city slickers feared, anyway–that we know for certain, because they left voluminous records concerning their constant anxiety with regards to barbarians, and continually built walls thick, strong, and high to keep them out. And the barbarians known as the Visigoths did finally sack Rome, so they weren’t exactly wrong.
The concept of barbarians has existed in many cultures at many times in world history regardless of the actual word used to designate them. I’ve already mentioned the Sumerians, the Greeks, and the Romans, but the Chinese also had a term (actually more than one) for a barbarian: yao 猺 “jackal”, and everyone knows the Great Wall of China was built to keep out the non-Chinese barbarians to the north. The Aztecs “used the word ‘Chichimeca’ to denominate a group of nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes that lived on the outskirts of the Triple Alliance’s Empire, in the north of Modern Mexico, and whom the Aztec people saw as primitive and uncivilized. One of the meanings attributed to the word ‘Chichimeca’ is ‘dog people'” [Wikipedia]. Barbarians, from the perspective of the “civilised” people–which is largely the only one left to us since they tended to be the only ones who communicated their ideas to posterity in writing–were, by all accounts, the proverbial wolves at the gate. But we now know that they were so much more than that.
Not all were conquerors, not all were excessively violent, and even those that were had highly evolved cultures and produced their own music, poetry, and art. Most didn’t have a system of writing, but they preserved their own history, myths, and legends within a rich oral tradition. To say that they were uncivilised or uncultured, or anything of that nature is pure nonsense, but such attitudes have their roots in the city-dweller’s (in my opinion false) sense of superiority to their nomadic neighbours of the mountains, steppes, forests, and dunes. The Greeks and Romans were more guilty of what we would nowadays call “barbaric” acts than all of the tribes they named barbarians combined. And as we are also reminded by one of the greatest films of all time, The Fall of the Roman Empire:
“A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within.”