The Romans and The Gauls

Part I: Introduction

by Tom Crotty


The Celts were one of the great peoples of ancient Europe.1 Their lands extended from Ireland to Hungary and as far south as Spain and Galatia in Asia Minor. They shared a common culture in terms of language, customs, and art. The archaeological record reveals "that many of their lands were populous and well-farmed, dotted with settlements and gathering places, and often forts and shrines."2

The Greeks and Romans feared the Celts and considered them a barbaric people. And for good reason. The Celts had sacked Rome in 390 B. C. and a good portion of Greece, including Delphi, in 279 B. C. However, within a relatively brief period of time after Caesar conquered the Celts in Gaul in the middle of the first century B. C., they appear to have adapted thoroughly to Roman civilization.

The ancient Celts were not a literate people. The only textual accounts that we have of the them are Classical sources, and these probably contain some truth. But these accounts, which are very limited in scope, are also colored by cultural prejudice, misunderstanding, and the need to propagandize.3 This paper will examine some of the Classical sources that describe Celtic or Gallic appearance and behavior, and sources that describe the Druids.


I will discuss several primary sources that describe the, primarily pre-conquest, Gauls from a Roman point-of-view. The earliest sources that I will use are the Bibliotheke of Diodorus Siculus, Caesar's de Bello Gallico, and Cicero's Pro Fonteio. These sources are roughly contemporaneous, dating from the late to middle first century B.C. For the early Empire, I will use the Geography of Strabo, which dates from the late first century B. C. and early first century A.D.

To flesh out the traditional image of the Gauls that we get from Classical sources, and to illustrate Gallic sentiments and traits that are not part of the stereotypical descriptions, I have included sources written by a Roman who may have been a Gaul, the historian Tacitus, and a Roman who was most surely a Gaul, Ausonius. Excerpts from Tacitus' Agricola, written in the mid-first century A.D., will be used to illustrate the Celtic love of liberty and hatred of oppression. I will use the poem, The Moselle, and various pieces from Ausonius to show the survival of Gallic sentiment and character in the fourth century A. D.

Please note that I will use the terms "Celts" and "Gauls" somewhat interchangeably unless discussing the Celts who lived in Gaul. Then I will use the term "Gauls."


Diodorus Siculus was a Greek from Sicily who settled and wrote in Rome probably around 56 B. C.4 His information on the Celts is contained in his major work, the Bibliotheke, "a universal history from mythological times to 60 B. C."5 The Oxford Classical Dictionary (OCD) says that Diodorus closely follows Polybius, a second-century B. C. Greek historian, and Posidonius, a Syrian-Greek philosopher who lived in Rome and was a teacher of Cicero.6 Because Diodorus was an admirer of Julius Caesar, the conqueror of the Gauls, and because his work placed an emphasis on "the civilizing power of individual benefactors,"7 it is likely that his descriptions of the Gauls and their culture are somewhat simplistic and biased.

Two sources of the late Republican period, Caesar's de Bello Gallico and Cicero's Pro Fonteio, were overtly biased against the Gauls, though for different reasons. Caesar conquered Gaul from 58 B. C. to 51 B. C. His descriptions of the Gauls and their culture were colored with "deep-seated cultural prejudices"8 and the desire to build his reputation as a war leader for political purposes. Cicero, in Pro Fonteio, defends a Roman administrator of Gaul against charges of malfeasance brought against him by Gauls. Although Cicero probably had an appreciation of certain aspects of Gallic culture -- he describes the druid Divitiacus as a "gentlemanly student of the physical universe"9 -- he plays on several negative stereotypes of the Gauls in order to discredit the prosecutors' witnesses, who were Gauls, and win his case. Still, both Caesar's and Cicero's accounts are valuable in that they present stark Roman stereotypes of the Gauls, and as with most cultural stereotypes, there is probably some truth to them.

Strabo was an "Asiatic Greek geographer and historian who was personally acquainted with Posidonius."10 Posidonius apparently had first-hand knowledge of the Celts.11 Strabo was also a Roman citizen who wrote under the patronage of a Roman prefect of Egypt12 and the emperor Tiberius. According to the OCD, "Strabo emphasizes the usefulness of geography for statesmen and generals, those who bring together cities and peoples into a single empire and political management."13 It is likely that Strabo's accounts of the Gauls are based to a large degree on Posidonius's observations, and colored by his own dedication to Empire and "Greco-Roman ways of life."14 (Rankin 133) Strabo gives us brief glimpses of post-conquest, Romanized Gauls.

Tacitus was probably born in Narbonese or Cisalpine Gaul and he may have been a Gaul himself.15 There is no definitive evidence to prove that Tacitus was a Gaul, but there are indications in his writings. First, "all but one of the speakers in Tacitus' Dialogus de Oratoribus is a Gaul,"16 and Tacitus states at the beginning of the work that he is "reporting a conversation he heard as a young man."17 Second, as described in a letter written to Pliny,18 when asked by an eques at the Circus if he is a provincial or an Italian, Tacitus evades answering and says "Your knowledge of Roman oratory should tell you who I am." The eques answers, "Are you Tacitus or Pliny?" Tacitus' answer sounds defensive. One would think that had he been an Italian, he would have stated so without hesitation. Furthermore, H. D. Rankin infers from this passage that Tacitus had an accent like Pliny, who was from Cisalpine Gaul, a "Romanised Celtic accent."19

Tacitus was a son-in-law of Agricola and a Roman magistrate, eventually serving as proconsul of Asia.20 Yet some of his opinions on the Roman relationship to the Britons (a Celtic people) as expressed in the Agricola and certain speeches that he placed into the mouths of rebellious British leaders show an appreciation for liberty, and disdain for oppression and, possibly, even for assimilation.21 These speeches may also exhibit a Gallic pride hidden for the purposes of survival and advancement.22

Finally, I will use some of the writings of Ausonius, a 4th-century Gaul from Bordeaux, to illustrate that certain aspects of Gallic character and culture survived Romanization. Ausonius taught grammar and rhetoric at the University of Bordeaux for 30 years before being called to Rome to tutor the future emperor Gratian, which he did for 10 years.23 He went on to serve as prefect of Gaul, and eventually as consul in A. D. 379.

Pre-Romanization Roman Attitudes

The traditional Roman view of the Gauls can be expressed easily in one word: excessive. To the Romans the Gauls were excessive in their personal appearance and behavior, in their manner of making war, in their religion. The reported Gallic appearance and modes of behavior violated the traditional Roman virtues of industria, gravitas, constantia, and severitas. One could hardly imagine a people whose countenance and customs would more offend Roman sensibilities. Undoubtedly, the Roman view of Gauls was informed to a large degree by fear, given that the Gauls were the only enemy of Rome that had sacked the Eternal City prior to its fall.

Diodorus Siculus writes that in appearance the "Gauls are tall of body, with rippling muscles, and white of skin, and their hair is blond (Book V. 28. 1)." Further, the Gauls accentuated this foreign lightness by washing their hair with lime and pulling it back from the forehead "so that their appearance is like Satyrs and Pans (Book V. 28. 2)." They, men and women, wear bracelets, heavy necklaces (torcs), rings, and even corselets, of gold. Their clothing is "striking -- shirts which have been dyed and embroidered in varied colors, and breeches; and they wear striped which are set checks, close together and of varied hues (Book V. 30. 1-2)." Diodorus' description of multicolored checked clothing sounds a lot like tartan plaid.

Strabo describes how this excess in appearance extends into Gallic behavior. They exhibit "simplicity and high-spiritedness...[and] witlessness and boastfulness (Geography 4.4.5)." This "levity of character" makes them look "not only insufferable when victorious, but also scared out of their wits when worsted."

Both Diodorus and Cicero describe Gallic speech as being harsh. Diodorus (Book V. 31. 1) says that "when they meet together they converse with few words and in riddles, hinting darkly at things for the most part and using one word when they mean another...." All of the sources describe them as boasters. But Diodorus also says that they have sharp wits and "are not without cleverness at learning (Book V. 31. 1)."

Finally, the Gauls drink to excess. Besides drinking their own beer and mead (fermented honey), the Gauls, according to Diodorus "are exceedingly addicted to the use of wine (Book V. 26. 2-3)." They drink the wine without mixing it with water, and they drink until "they fall into a stupor or a state of madness (Diodorus V. 26. 3)." A fragment of Cicero's Pro Fonteio expresses the wishful admonishment that "the Gauls would hereafter drink in more sober proportions (IV. 9)."

These descriptions of Gauls from Classical sources remind one of the stereotypical 19th-century English attitude toward the sly, primitive Irish and the wild Scots, best expressed in Punch cartoons. Strabo's phrase "levity of character" is interesting, though, because it reflects on a very real Celtic trait, which springs from a sort of dreamy optimism that during their long history has led Celts into great adventure and unmitigated disaster. Yeats recognized this trait in his countrymen and disapproved of it. The epitaph on his tombstone warns, "Cast a cold eye on life, on death...."

Druids comprise another well-known stereotypical aspect of Gallic or Celtic culture related by Classical sources. Several sources describe acts of human sacrifice conducted by the Druids, and archaeological finds such as Lindow man (a probable sacrificial victim found well-preserved in a bog in England) tend to lend substantive evidence to these descriptions.24 Cicero describes the custom as "monstrous and barbarous," (Pro Fonteio XIV. 31) which it certainly is. But it is no more barbarous than watching people kill each other or animals for entertainment, committing criminals ad bestia, or crucifying people.

Not all of the Classical descriptions of Druidic practices and beliefs related to human sacrifice. Diodorus informs us that the Druids were natural philosophers and moral philosophers "unusually honored" among the Gauls (Book V. 31. 3). Caesar describes how many young men volunteer or are sent by relatives for Druidic training (de Bello Gallico VI. 14). He says that this Druidic knowledge is memorized, even though in "public and private accounts" they use Greek letters, and that some people remain in training for 20 years.

Caesar tells us that the primary Druidic teaching involved reincarnation (de Bello Gallico VI. 14). Diodorus says that "the belief of Pythagoras prevails among them, that the souls of men are immortal and that after a prescribed number of years they commence upon a new life, the soul entering another body." (Book V. 28. 5 -- 6) Caesar, in a rather knowing way, also says that the Druids "have many discussions as touching the stars and their movement, the size of the universe and of the earth, the order of nature, [and] the strength and the powers of the immortal gods (de Bello Gallico VI. 14).

One understands that it was not Caesar's purpose to discuss the tenets of ancient religions in depth, but one can't help but wish that he (or one of the other ancient writers) had described the Druids' beliefs more fully. A body of knowledge developed most likely from neolithic times, and requiring 20 years to commit to memory, would be very interesting to know about.

Post-Romanization Roman Attitudes

For all of their reputed barbarism, it seems that the Gauls were Romanized or civilized very quickly. Strabo, who wrote in the Augustan Age, only a few years after the conquest, says that the Gauls "are no longer barbarians (Geography 4. 1. 11-12)." They have been "transformed to the type of the Romans." "The people are tilling the country diligently (Geography 4. 1. 13-14)." They provide Rome and Italy with woolen cloaks (sagi) and salt meat. Instead of paying liege to a warrior aristocracy, "they give heed, for the most part, to the commands of the Romans (Geography 4. 4. 3)." Even though Strabo mentions the customs of Druids and bards in present tense, he says that the Romans have put a stop to the practice of human sacrifice and the taking and collecting of heads (Geography 4. 4. 5).

[Continue to the second part of Tom Crotty's article in the Lúnasa edition]


1. S. James, The World of the Celts, (London 1993) 7.

2. James, 7.

3. S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth, The Oxford Classical Dictionary, (Oxford 1996), 623,

4. S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth, 472-473.

5. Hornblower and Spawforth, 472.

6. Hornblower and Spawforth, 473.

7. Hornblower and Spawforth, 473.

8. Hornblower and Spawforth, 623.

9. H.D. Rankin, Celts and the Classical World, (London 1987) 122.

10. James, 13.

11. James, 12.

12. Hornblower and Spawforth, 1,447.

13. Hornblower and Spawforth, 1,447.

14. Rankin, 133.

15. G. Woolf, Becoming Roman, (Cambridge 1988), 73.

16. Woolf, 73.

17. W M. Hadas, in Tacitus, Complete Works, (New York 1942), x.

18. Rankin, 139.

19. Rankin, 139.

20. Hornblower and Spawforth, 1469.

21. Rankin, 147.

22. Rankin, 147.

23. H.G.E. White, in Ausonius, Volume I, (London 1951) x.

24. A. Ross and D. Robins, The Life and Death of a Druid Prince, New York 1989) 27.