Barbarians: Plutarch on the bad influence of barbarian slaves on Greek children (early second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Barbarians: Plutarch on the bad influence of barbarian slaves on Greek children (early second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 29, 2024,

Ancient author: Plutarch (early second century CE), The Education of Children 6-7, 20 (link).

Comments: In this treatise, Plutarch aims to give Greeks advice on how best to raise children. Among his suggestions is to avoid having foreigners among the enslaved in the home, supposedly because of their bad influence on the education and speech of the children. Plutarch also concludes the entire treatise with a paradox: an Illyrian Eurydike was a  good mother who gained an education despite her origin as a “complete barbarian.” However, the point here may be that, if even an exceptional barbarian can be a good parent, then any Greek certainly can. Plutarch’s brief comments here can be compared with Aristotle’s more extensive theorizing about the enslaved in the home, suggesting that people avoid having too many “barbarians” from the same country, for instance (link).


[Avoiding barbarian slaves]

(6) Now there is another point which should not be omitted, namely, that in choosing the younger slaves, who are to be the servants and companions of young masters, you should seek out those who are, first and foremost, sound in character, who are also Greeks, and distinct in their speech. This way the children will not be contaminated by barbarians and persons of low character, and so take on some of their bad traits. The proverb-makers say, and quite to the point, “If you live with a lame man, you will learn to limp.”

(7) When your children reach an age when they are the responsibility of slaves who lead them (paidagōgoi), then especially you must take great care in appointment of these, so as not to entrust one’s children inadvertently to slaves taken in war, to barbarians, or to those who are unstable.

Nowadays, the common practice of many people is completely ridiculous, because they appoint some of their trustworthy slaves to manage their farms, appoint others as masters of their ships, others their factors, others they make house-stewards, and some even money-lenders. However, any slave that they find to be a drinker and an over-eater and useless for any kind of business, to him they bring their sons and put them in his charge. But the good slave who leads the children should be a man of such nature as was Phoenix, the attendant of Achilles.

I come now to a point which is more important and weighty than anything I have said so far. Teachers must be found for the children who are free from scandal in their lives, who are unimpeachable in their manners, and in experience the very best that may be found. . . [omitted following sections].

[Conclusion: Eurydike the barbarian as a paradox]

(20) . . . So we must try to employ every proper method for the discipline of our children, emulating the example of Eurydike. Although she was an Illyrian and an complete barbarian (tribarbaros), Eurydike took up education in the interest of her children’s studies even though late in her life. The inscription which she dedicated to the Muses sufficiently attests her love for her children: “Eurydike of Hierapolis / made to the Muses this her offering / when she had gained her soul’s desire to learn. / Mother of young and lusty sons was she, / and by her diligence attained to learn / letters, wherein lies buried all our lore.”

Now to put into effect all the suggestions which I have given is the province of prayer, perhaps, or exhortation. And even to follow enthusiastically the majority of them demands good fortune and much careful attention, but to accomplish this lies within the capability of man.


Source of translation: F.C. Babbitt, Plutarch: Moralia, 5 vols., LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1927-1936), public domain (Babbitt passed away in 1935), adapted by Harland.

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