The Romans and The Gauls

Part II: Conclusion

by Tom Crotty

[Return to the first part of Tom Crotty's article in the Beltaine edition]


Tacitus, writing in the late first century and early second century, compares the Britons to the Gauls (Agricola 11). He states that he believes that the Britons, in general, are of Gallic descent based in part on similarities in the two peoples' languages and religious beliefs. However, the Britons "exhibit more spirit, as being a people whom a long peace has not yet enervated (Agricola 11)." The Gauls "were once renowned in war; but, after a while, sloth following on ease crept over them, and they lost their courage along with their freedom (Agricola 11)." Elsewhere in the Agricola, Tacitus describes the process of Romanization in relation to Britons, which could easily be extended to the situation of the Gauls (Woolf, p. 69; Agricola ):25 "As a result [of Romanization] our national dress, the toga, was held in honor and adopted everywhere, and by stages they were led on to the more acceptable vices, public arcades, bathhouses and the sophistication of banquets. In their inexperience they took this for humanitas when in fact it was a part of their slavery (Agricola 21)."

Also in the Agricola, the speech of Calgacus, a Caledonian leader, similarly plays on the themes of liberty and slavery.26 He says of the Romans, "They are the only people on earth to whose covetousness both riches and poverty are equally tempting. To robbery, butchery, and rapine, they give the lying name of `government'; they create a desolation and call it peace (Agricola 30)." Because it is unlikely that Calgacus actually spoke these words,27 it is possible that Tacitus, good Roman that he was, may also be showing his Gallic sentiment through Calgacus.


Ausonius was a thoroughly Romanized Gaul. As stated previously, he taught rhetoric at the University of Bordeaux, served as tutor to the future emperor Gratian, and served in the Roman magistracy, eventually becoming a consul. Still, several elements in his writings are very Celtic: the observance and praise of nature, use of playful language and riddles, an almost obsessive tendency to catalogue, and love of place.28

In his long poem The Moselle, about the River Moselle, Ausonius establishes his Gallic credentials: "I, who am sprung of Viviscan (a Gallic tribe) stock, yet by old ties of guestship no stranger to the Belgae; I Ausonius, Roman in name, yet born and bred betwixt the frontiers of Gaul and high Pyrene...." (438-441). It is interesting that Ausonius, who was serving the Emperor in Rome at the time, appears to be proud of his Gallic background. It is also interesting to note that, in the Poems Commemorating the Professors of Bordeaux, Ausonius rather proudly names two of the professors as being of Druidic stock (IV. 7-9, X. 27-28), 400 years after the conquest!29

Ausonius' Gallic observance and love of nature might best be expressed in the following lines from The Moselle:30 "...thy flood moves softly and thy waters limpid-gliding reveal in azure light shapes scattered here and there...the furrowed sand is rippled by the light current...the green water grasses quiver in thy green bed...pebbles gleam and are hid, and gravel picks out patches of green moss (62-67)." As for love of place, in this passage, Ausonius sounds like more-recent immigrants from Ireland or Scotland: "...when the Emperor and his sons (my chiefest care) shall give me my discharge from service as their tutor, and shall dispatch me, invested with the emblems and dignity of the Ausonian consulship, home to Bordeaux, my native land, the nest of my old age -- I will pursue yet further the praises of thy Northern stream (448-453)."

Ausonius' tendency to catalogue can be seen in his listing of fish that swim in the Moselle, lists of towns in the Ordo Urbium Nobilium, lists of the professors at Burdiglia, and lists of the epitaphs of Greek heroes.31 His playfulness with words is shown perhaps best in A Riddle of the Number Three where he lists several pages of items that incorporate the number three: "...all things are in terms of these...three the branches of Philosophy, three the Punic Wars (24)...the three first combats of gladiators matched in three pairs(36)...three are the allied gods who shine in the temple on the Tarpeian rock (42)...Scylla was triple, a mixture of three forms(83)," and on and on. The Celts placed the greatest significance on the number three and "triplism" is a dominant theme in many aspects of Celtic life and religion.32


We are both fortunate and unfortunate to have received a glimpse of Celtic or Gallic life from the Classical sources. It is fortunate because it is something, whereas the Gauls being a nonliterate people had no recorded history. It is unfortunate because the picture that we have is distorted. The Celts were a great culture. Archaeological artifacts indicate that they had a rich farming economy ruled by a warrior aristocracy. They were master iron and metal workers.

Yet the picture that we have of them from Classical sources is starkly stereotypical: wild, nude warriors who collected heads (which they did) and cannibalized their enemies (unlikely). Celts were fierce warriors, but so were the Greeks and Romans at various periods in their histories. It was common in the Greek and Roman world to sack cities and murder the men and take women and children into slavery. The Romans enjoyed watching men kill each other and animals rip people apart. The ancient world was a barbarous place, and it is doubtful that the Celts were any more vicious or blood-thirsty than the great Classical civilizations.

There is no doubt that the image we have of the Celts created by Classical sources is distorted. How distorted the image is and in what ways it is distorted we may never be able to know. We have only one side of the story of the cultural clash between the Romans and the Gauls. It would have been most interesting to read what a literate Celt might have written about the Romans.


25. Woolf, 69.

26. Woolf, 136.

27. Woolf, 69.

28. White, xxxi; Rankin, 241.

29. Rankin, 233.

30. White, xxxi.

31. Rankin 241.

32. J. MacKillop, The Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, (New York 1988) 364-365.