Barbarism versus civilisation: Hobsbawm, Herodotus, and… Hannibal Lecter

Promotional poster for NBC’s Hannibal. Photo by Robert Trachtenberg.

If there is one topic that has never ceased to captivate the (largely Western) political imagination, it is the civilisation-barbarism complex. Any superficial knowledge of the course of human history must include also knowledge of considerable cruelty, ignorance and hatred. For some scholars, the study of history provides plenty of reason to plunge into great pessimism about the future of civilisation, and about its ability to withstand the barbarians – who are always imagined ad portas; already ‘at the gates’ of human compassion, insight, and love. For the great English historian Eric Hobsbawm, for example, civilisation had receded to make way to the tide of barbarism since at least the start of the First World War.


According to Hobsbawm, the arrival of real and widespread barbarism in previously more-or-less civilised regions was due to two developments: 1) ‘the disruption and breakdown of [national and international] systems of rules and moral behaviour’, and 2) the reversal of (…) the eighteenth-century Enlightenment’. (I am referring to Hobsbawm’s 1994 lecture Barbarism: A User’s Guide. The full lecture is available online.) As Hobsbawm admitted, his was not a popular view. He recognised that the Enlightenment had been criticised since its inception for being all kinds of things except the universally emancipatory tidal wave it pretended to be. (At best, the Enlightenment was seen as a thinly veiled project to install new elites where the old ones had been removed; at worst, it was portrayed – most famously by Koselleck – as the demise of politics and the ultimate root of the horrors of Stalinism and Nazism.) However, Hobsbawm’s glorification of the Enlightenment is not the only or even the main problem with his account of barbarism. Far more problematic is his first point – the insistence that barbarism arises where society recedes. Civilisation is equated with ‘systems of rules and moral behaviour’ – where those fail, barbarism may be expected to take over. The civil wars of the Balkans in the 1990s are explained as the natural outcome of the dissolution of laws and norms. Interestingly, this point is not flagged up as controversial, indicating that Hobsbawm expects this point to be common knowledge.


We can retrace this line of thought to Herodotus, the Greek historian-cum-ethnographer of the second half of the fifth century B.C.E., who wrote down his Histories ‘so that things done by man not be forgotten in time, and that great and marvellous deeds, some displayed by the Hellenes, some by the barbarians, not lose their glory’ (1.1.0; trans. Godley). As these opening lines suggest, Herodotus was intensely concerned with the dividing line between the civilised (because Hellenised) and the barbarian. And like Hobsbawm, Herodotus believed nomos – translatable as ‘law’, ‘custom’, ‘norm’, even in some circumstances ‘etiquette’ – went a long way in explaining the relevant opposition. Civilisation can read and respect the letter of the law, barbarism cannot. In many ways, this ancient tradition of reading barbarism (as the mirror image and constitutive ‘Other’ to nomos-inspired civilisation) has become the mainstream view both within the academy and outside of it. Part of the reason, perhaps, is the fact that political histories and political philosophies have traditionally been rather obsessed with mighty institutions and powerful individuals as the driving motors of human development. Decrees, constitutions and wars: the stuff of Politics with a capital P since the birth of history as a discipline, and remarkably hospitable to ‘nomic’ definitions of civilisation and (negatively) barbarism.


A brilliant attack on this intellectual structure can be found where it is least expected: in a TV show. In 2013 and 2014, the first two seasons of Hannibal aired on NBC. Many things can be said about the sheer mental force that shines forth from this incredible production. But I think the most remarkable achievement of this new take on the figure of Hannibal Lecter is its profound reinterpretation of civilisation and barbarism. The message in Hannibal is this: barbarism resides inside of civilisation. It is simply not the case that barbarism arises where rules, norms, or etiquette fail. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. Barbarism is the by-product of the self-aggrandisement of civilisation: the more refined, the more exalted, the more perfected the system of conduct, the greater the cost for those who fail to live up to these standards. Hannibal Lecter, the symbol of civilised behaviour, is compelled by his god-complex to exact retribution from the uncivilised. The only remedy for lack of civilisation is destruction: to be (literally) swallowed up, annexed, recycled into something useful. Hannibal’s movement is inexorable, unstoppable; one either bends or perishes.

It is no coincidence that the episodes in season one are named after French culinary terms, those of season two after Japanese culinary items, and those of season three after the Italian cuisine. A recurring theme in Hannibal is the way in which beacons of civilisation and civic normality (the imperial grandeur of France, the Japanese insistence on mastery and custom, or the Renaissance splendour of the Italian city-state) become the sacrificial masks in some sort of horrific ritual slaughter. Hobsbawm struggled to fit the colonial projects into his scheme of explanation; his solution was to silently pass over the immense violence wreaked upon the Orient and to focus on barbarism in the Western world. Hannibal ruthlessly uncovers the truth. Colonialism is the domain where civilisation reveals its true barbaric nature. Its supporting pillar is a chokehold between the pincers of physical domination and psychological take-over: the alternative left to its victim is death or a painful metamorphosis. The violence with which these alternatives are presented, the framework of choice within which the colonised is thrown, is cast in terms of ‘Necessity’, or the ‘Hand of History’, or ‘Progress’, or ‘Providence’. Hannibal Lecter sees himself throughout the series as the only real God the world has ever known. Whether or not we want to take away a total rejection of religion here, the very cynicism with which the link between God and Law (nomos) is laid, carrying within it the terrible (im)possibility of transgression of that Law, seems like an ironic comment on the humanistic, quasi-religious foundation on which Hobsbawm bases civilisation.

There is a real sense in which Hannibal brings us back directly to the Classics. I have suggested that Herodotus may be seen as the intellectual forefather of the idea that Hobsbawm championed in 1994. However, that reveals more about the nature of classical reception than it does about Greek or Roman political thought; Herodotus had far more to say about barbarism and civilisation than is suggested here. While Greeks and Romans were notoriously eloquent in denouncing un- or anti-civic practices, traditions and societies, they were equally eloquent in theorizing their own possible descent into barbarism. As countless studies on the classical Barbarian emphasise, barbarism was a fluid and self-confronting concept in both Greece and Rome. This, then, may be one are area in which we still (or again?) have a lot to learn from the Classics. The invariable proximity of the barbarian in Greek and Roman thought provoked incisive questioning about the boundaries of society. Was the barbarian ad portas? Or was he already inside?

For further reading on civilisation and barbarism in Classical Antiquity:

  • P. Cartledge (2002) Greeks: A Portrait of Self and Others.
  • E. Hall (1989) Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-definition through Tragedy.
  • G. Halsall (2007) Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (especially Part I).
  • K. Vlassopoulos (2013) Greeks and Barbarians.
  • G. Woolf (1998) Becoming Roman: The Origins of Provincial Civilization in Gaul.
  • G. Woolf (2010) Tales of the Barbarians: Ethnography and Empire in the Roman West.

And, perhaps most powerfully, Euripides’ Bacchae (late fifth century B.C.E.).

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