- Understand who the Gauls were and their history with the Romans;
- Understand how the Romans thought of and presented the Gauls;
- Learn how Gauls were first integrated as elite citizens and senators in Rome, and Roman;
- How Gallic religious and other practices were labelled as unRoman, even if the Romans also practiced similar rites;
- And, for a bonus, to understand the particular issues the Romans had with the Germans with a very brief overview.
WHO WERE THE GAULS?
When we talk about the Gauls we are talking about a number of different Celtic peoples whose territory stretched across much of mainland Europe. Some Gallic tribes would move in response to various pressures and that might lead them into contact and conflict with Rome even early on. In 390 BCE a Gallic people called the Senones attacked and sacked Rome, for example, After that the Romans fought a number of battles and wars with different tribes, until the most famous (and disastrous for the Gauls) set of Roman-Gallic wars, those of Julius Caesar from 58-50 BCE. That ended with millions of Gauls dead or enslaved and their major settlements destroyed.
WHO WERE THE GAULS (ACCORDING TO THE ROMANS)
Plutarch gives an account of Roman feelings about the Gauls which ends in a gruesome detail about human sacrifice of Gauls at Rome:
3 1 After the First Punic War ended in its twenty-second year [241 BCE], Rome was called upon to renew her struggles with the Gauls. The Insubrians, a Celtic people inhabiting the part of Italy which lies at the foot of the Alps, and strong even by themselves, called out their forces, and summoned to their aid the mercenary Gauls called Gaesatae. 2 It seemed an amazing piece of good fortune that the Gallic war did not break out while the Punic war was raging, but that the Gauls, like a third champion sitting by and awaiting his turn with the victor, remained strictly quiet while the other two nations were fighting, and then only stripped for combat when the victors were at liberty to receive their challenge. Nevertheless, the Romans were greatly alarmed by the proximity of their country to the enemy, with whom they could wage war so near their own boundaries and homes, as well as by the ancient renown of the Gauls, whom the Romans seems to have feared more than any other people. 3 For they had captured Rome once, and from that time on a Roman priest was legally exempt from military service only in case no Gallic war occurred again. Their alarm was also shown by their preparations for the war (neither before nor since that time, we are told, were there so many thousands of Romans in arms at once), and by abnormal sacrifices which they made to the gods. 4 For though the Romans have no barbarian or unnatural practices, but feel towards their deities those mild and reverent sentiments which especially characterize Greek thought, at the time when this war burst upon them they were forced to obey certain oracular commands from the Sibylline Books, and to bury alive two Greeks, a man and a woman, and also two Gauls, in the place called the Forum Boarium, or cattle-market; and in memory of these victims, they still to this day, in the month of November, perform mysterious and secret ceremonies.
Pliny the Elder, writing in the 1st century CE, had this to report during his discussion of magic:
The Gallic provinces, too, were pervaded by the magic art, and that even down to a period within memory; for it was the Emperor Tiberius that destroyed their Druids, and all that tribe of magicians and physicians. But why make further mention of these prohibitions, with reference to an art which has now crossed the very Ocean even, and has penetrated to the void recesses of Nature? At the present day, struck with fascination, Britannia still cultivates this art, and that, with ceremonies so august, that she might almost seem to have been the first to communicate them to the people of Persia. To such a degree are nations throughout the whole world, totally different as they are and quite unknown to one another, in accord upon this one point!
As that is the case, then, we cannot too highly appreciate the obligation that is due to the Roman people, for having put an end to those monstrous rites, in accordance with which, to murder a man was to do an act of the greatest devoutness, and to eat his flesh was to secure the highest blessings of health.
Pliny the Elder, Natural History 30.4
It is important to note that, although Pliny the Elder displays revulsion here for Gallic human sacrifice, he also tells us in the previous book (Book 29.3) that it was only in 97 BCE that the Romans had banned it as a religious practice (Vestal Virgins and their lovers excluded).
Over a hundred years before Pliny wrote, Julius Caesar wrote eagerly of the human sacrifices of the druids, as part of convincing Romans back in Rome that it was a good idea to wipe them out. As this anthology focuses on Gauls in Rome and Gauls as Roman citizens rather than the sad history of the Gallic Wars, this is not the place to discuss that, but you might find this blog post an accessible introduction to the subject.
The Romans tended to lump all northern barbarian peoples in together, and much of what they said about Gauls could also be applied to Germans. This is how Tacitus describes the Germans:
As to the Germans themselves, I think it probable they are indigenous, and that very little foreign blood has been introduced either by invasions or by friendly dealings with neighboring peoples. For in former times those planning on moving there came on ships, not land, not by land, and the limitless ocean that lies beyond the coasts of Germany, which itself defies intruders, is seldom visited by ships from our part of the world.. And without even talking about the dangers of that wild and unknown sea, who would have been likely to leave Asia Minor, North Africa, or Italy, to go to Germany with its forbidding landscapes and unpleasant climate – a country that is thankless to farm and dismal to behold for anyone who was not born and bred there?
Tacitus, Germania 2
The Romans suffered a number of defeats at the hands of the Germans, the most famous of which occured in the Tuetoberg Forest in 9 CE; this defeated wiped out several legions, and ended Roman expansionist plans across the Rhine. (It is a battle well worth reading accounts of, especially as it took place over three days and shows you the complete collapse of a Roman army at a level of detail we rarely get.)
GAULS AS ROMAN ELITES
But despite Roman disdain for and endless wars with the Gauls they were quick to add them not just as citizens, but as senators with significant power and influence in Roman society after their conquest by Caesar and others. In this way Caesar got to hand out rewards to those Gauls who had supported him in his conquest, and also bribe any aristocrats still left alive and with power after his campaigns. As you might expect Roman senators did not approve of this, especially as Julius Caesar used Gauls to fight against the senatorial forces in the Civil War.
24 When however Lucius Domitius, candidate for the consulship, openly threatened to achieve as consul what he had been unable to do as praetor, and to take his armies from him, Caesar forced Pompey and Crassus to come to Luca, a city in his province, where he convinced them to stand for a second consulship to defeat Domitius, and he also succeeded through their influence in having his term as governor of Gaul made five years longer. 2 Encouraged by this, he added to the legions which he had received from the state others at his own cost, one actually composed of men of Transalpine Gaul and bearing a Gallic name too (for it was called Alauda), which he trained in Roman tactics and equipped with Roman arms; and later on he gave every man of it citizenship.
Suetonius, Julius Caesar 24
With the same disregard of law and precedent he named magistrates for several years to come, bestowed the emblems of consular rank on ten ex-praetors, and admitted to the Senate men who had been given citizenship, and in some cases half-civilised Gauls.
Suetonius, Julius Caesar 76
80 2 On the admission of foreigners to the Senate, a placard was posted: “God bless the Republic! Let no one consent to point out the Curia to a newly made senator.” The following verses were sung everywhere:
Caesar led the Gauls in triumph, led them to the Senate
Then the Gauls took off their trousers, and put on the purple stripe.
Suetonius, Julius Caesar 80
When Claudius decided to promote some more Gauls to senatorial status the reaction was equally adverse:
In the consulship of Aulus Vitellius and Lucius Vipstanus [48 CE] the question of filling up the Senate was discussed, and the chief men of Gallia Comata, as it was called, who had long possessed the rights of allies and of Roman citizens, sought the privilege of obtaining public offices at Rome. There was much talk of every kind on the subject, and it was argued before the emperor with vehement opposition. “Italy,” it was asserted, “is not so feeble as to be unable to supply its own capital with a senate. Once our native-born citizens sufficed for peoples of our own family, and we are by no means dissatisfied with the Rome of the past. To this day we cite examples which under our old customs the Roman character showed courage and renown. Is it a small thing that Veneti and Insubres have already burst into the Senate-house, unless a mob of foreigners, a troop of captives, so to say, is now forced upon us? What distinctions will be left for the remnants of our noble houses, or for any impoverished senators from Latium? Every place will be crowded with these millionaires, whose ancestors of the second and third generations at the head of hostile tribes destroyed our armies with fire and sword, and actually besieged the divine Julius [Caesar] at Alesia. These are recent memories. What if there were to rise up the remembrance of those who fell in Rome’s citadel and at her altar by the hands of these same barbarians! Let them enjoy indeed the title of citizens, but let them not vulgarise the distinctions of the Senate and the honours of office.”
Tacitus, Annals Book 11
Sources and Further Reading:
Dench, E. 1995. From Barbarians to New Men. Oxford and New York.
Dietler, Michael. 1994. ““Our ancestors the Gauls”: archaeology, ethnic nationalism, and the manipulation of Celtic identity in modern Europe.” American Anthropologist 96: 584-605.
Ferris, Iain. 2000. Enemies of Rome: Barbarians through Roman Eyes. Stroud.Williams, Jonathan H. C. 2001. Beyond the Rubicon: Romans and Gauls in Republican Italy. Oxford.
- The Greeks also did not like the Celts, so you have to take some of the information about the Romans being forced to fight the Gauls with a pinch of salt. ↵
- The Romans and the Carthaginians. ↵
- Plutarch is ethnically Greek, although he was also a Roman citizen and spoke and read Latin. However, he writes from the cultural perspective of the Greeks, and so he means barbarian and unnatural from a Greek perspective. From many other perspectives Roman religious practices seem extremely unnatural, one such practice being burying alive Vestal Virgins who had been found guilty of betraying their vow to remain virgin, and another being to allow major military decisions to be decided by sacred chickens. ↵
- To know more about how Pliny thought about Persians and magic, visit the section on magic and magicians. He was not a fan of either. ↵
- IE the southern parts of Europe. ↵
- The larks ↵
- Auxiliary forces like the Gauls normally fought with their own weapons and using their own tactics. ↵
- That showed they were members of the Roman Senate. ↵