Barbarians in Greek Comedy

Barbarians in Greek Comedy

Barbarians in Greek Comedy

Barbarians in Greek Comedy


Greeks divided the world into Greece vs. the land of foreigners, into Hellenes vs. barbarians, seeing their country as a bastion of culture, learning, and military might surrounded by a sea of the uncivilized.

Long shows how comedy expressed the Greek feeling of superiority over the barbarians, how it dealt with the so-called barbarian-Hellene antithesis. The result is a contribution to the study of ancient Greek comedy- both the comedy itself and the beliefs, the prejudices, the limitations, and the variety in the society from which the plays emerged. The comedians' responses to the barbarians ranged from idealization to neutrality to raw racism.

Although contemptuous of barbarians, the Hellenes could not keep elements of foreign culture from entering their own. Long's major contention is that the Greek reaction to Oriental and other foreign influence can be seen in the treatment of barbarians in Greek comedy.


The division of the world into "Hellene" and "barbarian" is an antithesis central to Greek history and culture. As such, it played its role in the drama of Athens, and for tragedy its importance has long been recognized. Three scholars--Rudolf Hecht, Walter Kranz, and Helen Bacon--have given a thorough treatment of the instances of barbarian vocabulary, character, history, and culture as they appear in Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. In these dramatists the barbarian character ranges from the dignity of Atossa in the Persians to the despicableness of the Phrygian eunuch of Euripides' Orestes. The lyrical passages of tragedy are strewn with orientalizing effects, and Aeschylus describes the besiegers of Thebes with a note of the foreign that sets them outside the pale of Greek culture. Moreover, this is not true simply of Euripides and Aeschylus, but, as Helen Bacon has pointed out, even Sophocles used numerous oriental or barbarian elements in his tragedies, added the touch of strangeness with a non-Greek word, and turned with relative frequency to mythological themes from outside the Greek world for his inspiration.

It is somewhat surprising then, when we take into account this awareness of the importance of barbarian references in tragedy, that so little has been done with them in comedy. Rudolf Hecht had devoted only a few paragraphs in his essay to comedy, and Carl Holzinger, always a perceptive critic of scholarship on comedy, remarked in reviewing it that the reader would properly expect that such an analysis would concentrate . . .

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