Book: Fuimos Muy Peores en Vicios: Barbarie Propia y Ajena entre la Caída de Constantinopla y La Ilustración

Author: Nicolás Kwiatkowski 

Review by: Pablo Palomino, assistant professor of Latin American & Caribbean Studies at Emory University; Dr. Palomino is also the author of “The Invention of Latin American Music: A Transnational History,” published in 2021, and spoke with Global Atlanta about the book during a virtual Authors Amplified book talk in June.

Pablo Palomino

Since the beginning, the barbarians were the others. The ancient Greeks coined the term, which would be used over and over for millennia among European men of letters and in common parlance to refer to people whose (real and imagined) appearance, language, beliefs, and habits, different from “ours,” made them scratch their heads in varied mixes of revulsion, curiosity and awe.

Barbarians pullulated in the popular imagination during medieval times, when artists and writers brought back fantastic ethnographic accounts of the Far and Near East, the Russian steppes and Africa. But it was especially after the Ottoman capture of Constantinople in 1453 and the European expansion over the New World and the Pacific that the conversation about the (new) barbarians became a multifaceted reflection on the European identity—and through it, on our common humanity. 

At this point, barbarism was no longer taken as a theological principle, but a consequence of the actual, anthropological experience of cultural difference. Against the attitude of ethnocentric superiority most Europeans (and their New World progeny) had toward “savages and barbarians,” Enlightenment thinkers (particularly Diderot, Raynal and Herder) realized through their encounter with these “others” that their own “superior” societies had in fact been “far worse in viciousness” – as the title of the book suggest. To look at oneself critically was a historic achievement. 

Global Atlanta readers will find in this precious and deeply researched book the roots of our own perceptions of current global conflicts and intercultural encounters. 

A city created as a transportation hub between the Atlantic and the Midwest in the 19th century, Atlanta has since been a site of global commerce, migration and communications. It has welcomed many “others”—migrants, returnees, investors, refugees—and affected near and distant “others” across the world, with its own mix (barbaric and civilized, depending who you ask) of soft drinks and civil and human rights campaigns. 

How do we see those others, in the city and abroad? How do we see ourselves as we consider them? This history of ideas and images, penned in Buenos Aires by Argentine historian Nicolas Kwiatkowski, took my mind to fabulous events spanning many centuries in Tahiti and Patagonia, Ireland, Macau, Morocco and Pennsylvania

As soon as I finished it, I began to see my dear Atlanta with new, barbarian eyes.

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Each year, Global Atlanta asks influential readers and community leaders to review the most impactful book they read during the course of the year. This endeavor has continued annually since 2010.

See last year’s full list of books on BookShop here, and all 2020 reader picks here.

All books were chosen and reviews written independently, with only mild editing from our staff.