Every empire fears, but needs, the barbarians at its gates. For all the territory under its control and the overwhelming force at its command, there are lands and peoples on its edges impervious to its attractions and unwilling to submit. Untamed, and perhaps untamable, they represent the “Other,” hostile, threatening, and, above all, different. They follow strange customs, they speak in strange tongues, and their proximity is a constant source of preoccupation to those whose task it is to defend the perimeter of empire and promote its aspirations. Yet barbarians on the horizon, or battering at the gates, can also have their uses. For they serve as a valuable reminder of the evils that empire claims to have extirpated from the lands that it controls. Barbarians stand for savagery, treachery, and violence; empires, by contrast, for civility, trustworthiness, and peace. The imperial enterprise gains justification, imperial ideology gains coherence, and the empire itself gains cohesion from the depiction, in a few crude strokes, of the enemy without.
If ambiguities abound in the relationship between the builders of empire and the people on its fringes, this is nowhere more true than in the New World of America. Here, from the end of the fifteenth century, European intruders, beginning with the Spaniards and Portuguese, staked out vast claims for themselves in territories to which they were not entitled, among peoples of whose very existence they had hitherto been entirely unaware. The nature of these peoples, their ignorance of the Christian gospel, and their profoundly alien way of life represented a formidable challenge to standard European notions about barbarism and civility—notions derived on the one hand from the Judeo-Christian tradition and on the other from classical antiquity.
Yet if barbarism was to be defined, as it initially was, by the absence of Christianity and the failure to conform to European criteria of civility, it quickly became apparent that some inhabitants of the New World, like the Aztecs or the Incas, were considerably less “barbarous” than others. Writing in retirement sometime before 1570, Alonso de Zorita, a Spanish judge who had served in Mexico, after pointing out that its conqueror, Hernán Cortés, had “high praise for the Indian mode of government and way of life,” went on to criticize him for calling the Aztecs “barbarians.” The fallacy, he thought, might “arise from the fact that we are accustomed to calling infidels ‘barbarians,’ which conforms with what the royal prophet says in Psalm 114…where he calls the Egyptians barbarians because they were idolaters. Yet in other respects the Egyptians were a very sage people.” How valid was the term “barbarian” for peoples such as these?
As Zorita and other sympathetic Spanish observers learned more about the indigenous peoples of America and the differences between them, the concept of “barbarian” became more refined. The famous Jesuit writer José de Acosta, whose Natural and Moral History of the Indies (1590) was read across Europe, sought to classify “barbarians” into different categories. At the top …