The ancient Greeks and Romans both referred to foreigners as barbarians. At first, the Greeks used the word barbaros simply to mean any person who could not speak their language. To the Greeks, other languages had sounds that resembled “bar bar.” Even foreigners who learned Greek but spoke it poorly were called barbarians. Used in this way, the term did not have a negative meaning. It could apply both to people of civilized cultures, such as the Egyptians or the Persians, and to those the Greeks considered less civilized. In time, however, the word barbaros took on the meaning of uncivilized or inferior, because the Greeks believed their culture superior to the cultures of all other peoples.
The ancient Romans adopted the Greeks’ idea of barbarian and used the Latin word barbarus to refer to any foreigner. During the period of the Roman Empire, the word came to be applied to people who lived outside the empire, particularly to those hostile to Rome. This included many tribes of people to the north and east of the empire, known collectively as Germans. (See also Migrations, Late Roman.)