Barbarians and Greeks: Dionysios theorizes the blurry lines (late first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Barbarians and Greeks: Dionysios theorizes the blurry lines (late first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 4, 2024,

Ancient author: Dionysios of Halikarnassos, Roman Antiquities 14.6 (link)

Comments: We know very little about the Greek author Dionysios (or: Dionysius) beyond what he tells us: that he is from Halikarnassos in western Asia Minor (in Caria / Karia; modern Bodrum, Turkey), that he went to Italy at the end of the Roman civil war (in late 30 or 29 BCE), and that he spent twenty-two years (he claims) studying Roman things (1.7). Dionysios also reveals that the first part of his Roman Antiquities was written in 7 BCE (1.3). Dionysios’ entire work is devoted to the Romans from a Greek angle, and he places the Romans at the pinnacle of all peoples in the process.  But as the opening sections of the work also show (link), Dionysios does this in an unusual way by arguing that the Romans are, in fact, Greeks. So Greeks are also on top in a somewhat unorthodox way.

In the passage presented here in this post, Dionysios continues the theme of the superior Romans – even suggesting that Athenians and Spartans are not up to par – but he also engages in a somewhat theoretical discussion of the Greek-barbarian dichotomy in a way that seeks to break it down. On this, compare Ephoros (link) and Eratosthenes (link). Nonetheless, in his new vision of a better approach, the term “Greeks” still by default indicates “superior” and “civilized” actors, even if some non-Greek peoples might now be identified using that term for “civilized.” This sort of a approach is perhaps a natural outgrowth of the whole concept of wise barbarians, about which you can read many posts in that category to your right.

Works consulted: Irene Peirano, “Hellenized Romans and Barbarized Greeks: Reading the End of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Antiquitates Romanae,” Journal of Roman Studies 100 (2010): 32–53 (link).


Book 14 (fragments)

[Romans superior in treatment of other communities]

6 The Romans are magnificent. This is because, while nearly all others both in the public relations of their communities and in their private lives change their feelings according to the latest developments, often laying aside great enmities because of chance acts of kindness and breaking up long-standing friendships because of slight and trivial offences, the Romans thought they should do just the opposite in the case of their friends and out of thankfulness for ancient benefits to give up their resentment over recent causes for complaint. Even this, then, was remarkable on the part of those men, namely that they bore no malice against any of the Tusculans, but let all the offenders go unpunished. Even more remarkable than this was the favour which the Romans showed the Tuscalans after pardoning their offences. For when they were considering ways and means that nothing of the sort might happen again in that city and that none might find a ground for rebellion, they thought they should neither introduce a garrison into the Tusculans’ citadel nor take hostages from the most prominent men nor to deprive of their arms those who had them nor to give any other indication of distrusting their friendship. Instead, believing that the one thing that holds together all who belong to one another by reason either of kinship or friendship is the equal sharing of their blessings, they decided to grant citizen­ship to the vanquished, giving them a part in everything in which the native-born Romans shared.

[Athenians and Spartans do not live up to the Romans]

By doing this, the Romans took a very different view from that held by those who laid claim to the leader­ship of Greece, whether Athenians or Lakedaimonians [Spartans]. What need is there to mention the other Greeks [implying they are inferior]? For the Athenians had the case of the inhabitants of Samos island, their own colonists, and the Lakedaimonians had the case of the Messenians, who were the same as their brothers. When either of these gave some offence, these two powers dissolved the ties of kinship and, after subjugating their cities, treated them with such cruelty and brutality (thēriōdōs) as to equal even the most savage (agriõtatoi) of barbarians in their mistreatment of people of from the same tribe (homophyla).

[Questioning key aspects of the concept of the Greek-barbarian dichotomy]

One could name countless blunders of this sort made by these two cities [Athens and Sparta], but I pass over them since it grieves me to mention even these instances. For I would not distinguish Greeks from barbarians based on their name or their speech, but by their intelligence and their choice of good habits, and even more by their not treating one another in a violent way. All those whose nature primarily demonstrates these qualities are the ones I believe should be called “Greeks,” but those who have the opposite qualities should be called “barbarians.” Likewise, plans and actions which were reasonable and humane, I consider to be “Greek,” but those plans and actions which were cruel and brutal, particularly when they affected relatives and friends, I consider “barbarous.”

The Tusculans departed, accordingly, not only without having been deprived of their possessions after the capture of their city, but having actually received in addition the blessings enjoyed by their conquerors.


Source of translation:  E. Cary, The Roman Antiquities of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, 7 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1937-50), public domain (copyright not renewed), adapted by Harland.

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