Thanks for the question!
The American HeritageŽ Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth
Edition, defines 'barbarian:'
1) A member of a people considered by those of another nation or group
to have a primitive civilization.
2) A fierce, brutal, or cruel person.
The word originated with the Greeks and later, the Romans used the
same term to describe anyone who was not Roman.
"To the peoples of ancient Greece, and later, Rome, a barbarian was
anyone who was not of their extraction or culture. Because most of
these "strangers" regularly practiced raids upon these civilizations,
the term "barbarian" gradually evolved into a perjorative term: a
person who was sub-human, uncivilized, and regularly practiced the
most vile and inhuman acts imaginable. Nothing could have been
farther from the truth."
Who Were the Barbarians?
In the fifth century, the empire was no longer ruled by strong leaders
like Julius Caesar -- the emperors were weak and generally just
figureheads. The armies were not as disciplined as in the days when
the Empire was being enlarged by military might. The Empire was also
so far-flung as to be too unwieldy to maintain and defend.
"The Romans gave the barbarians lands in which to settle. In return
the barbarians agreed to help defend the empire. This agreement worked
for a time. But the barbarians began to take more land."
The End of the Roman Empire
Ancient cities such as Rome were surrounded by defensive walls. Access
into these cities was through guarded gates. You can see some photos
Rome, City Walls
There is a good overview, simply written, which describes the
conquering career of Attila the Hun. Attila had made his way across
Europe which was, you remember, the largest part of the Roman Empire.
He and his army were literally at the the gates of the Rome, the
"The people of Rome and the Emperor Valentinian were greatly alarmed
at the approach of the dreaded Attila. He was now near the city, and
they had no army strong enough to send against him. Rome would have
been again destroyed if it had not been for Pope Leo I who went to the
camp of Attila and persuaded him not to attack the city."
Attila the Hun
I know you didn't ask for a history lesson per se, but I wanted to lay
some background to the origin of "barbarians at the gates." I don't
think it can be assumed that someone peered over the Roman walls and
cried 'My God, the barbarians are at the gates!' and that someone else
heard it said and decided it was a catchy phrase.
As well, Rome wasn't the only walled and gated city -- any city of
considerable size was defended thusly and most throughout antiquity
had probably been in the same position as Rome later found itself at
one time or other.
The Greeks coined the word 'barbarian' but I've not used them as an
example because they were a civilization rather than an extensive,
powerful Empire. The 'barbarians' brought the Empire to its knees.
They beat the strongest army in the world and put an end to Roman
rule. They did what nobody ever thought could be done.
A search for the phrase brings up some interesting sites and
information about things which have absolutely nothing to do with
Attila or Rome or the Roman Empire. If you follow along with my search
strategy you'll find links to such things as corporate takeovers and
Here is an article by Brink Lindsey for National Review Online. In it
you'll see a prime example in the very recent past to illustrate the
modern usage of this phrase.
At the Gates, Again November 19, 2002 9:35 a.m.
I believe the origin lies in the Rome but the usage is intended to
note any event which is occurring where the 'victims' are watching
things unfold but can do nothing to help themselves.
So, hort, if the barbarians were at MY gate, I guess I'd start praying
for a miracle.
If you need clarification, please ask.
"barbarians at the gates"
Romans + barbarians
barbarians gates of Rome
"barbarians at the gate"
walls of ancient Rome