There are few accurate contemporary accounts of the early Celts in Britain. One visitor who obviously took a great interest in these remote foreigners at the furthest end of the Roman Empire was the great Julius Caesar (102-44 BC) himself. In the course of Caesar's military capaigns in Europe he came up against not only the continental 'Gauls' but also against the British, in his two expeditions against Britain in 55 and 54 BC. Although the book he wrote - called the 'Gallic Wars' (De Bello Gallico) - is mainly an account of the military side of these campaigns, he was sufficiently interested in the Britsh Celts to include several thumbnail sketches of them in the course of his book, rather in the nature of digressions from the main narrative.
First impressions of the Celts in Britain are recorded (5.12)
'The population is enormous (he actually says 'infinite'!). Buildings are very close together, and in style virtually identical with those in Gaul'. (He mentions earlier in the passage that the coastal tribes in Britain were the descendants of emigrant invaders from the continent.) ' They use as coinage bronze or gold coins, and iron tokens of a standard weight. Tin is mined inland, iron near the coast,' (he seems to have been wrong about this!) 'but only in small quantities; the bronze they use is imported. As in Gaul there is wood of every kind available, except beech and pine' - (wrong again!). 'The meat of hare, chicken and goose is taboo to them, though they keep them for sport or as pets. The climate is more temperate than in Gaul, with less pronounced cold-spells.' (He obviously hit a patch of our better weather!)
Battle tactics (4.33)
In battle they must have been formidable opponents. The account reads;
'This is their method of chariot-warfare. First they drive their horses all over the place, throw weapons, and by means of sheer fear of the horses and the noise of the wheels create confusion in the ranks. Then, when they have broken through the troops of the cavalry, they jump down from their chariots and do battle on foot. Meanwhile their charioteers withdraw gradually from the fighting, and position the chariots so that if the warriors are outnumbered by the enemy they can conveniently beat a hasty retreat and rejoin their own men. Such is the manoeverability of their chariots as a result of daily training, (which also explains the reliability of their infantry in battle), that they are capable of controlling their teams at full gallop down a steep, even precipitous slope, and stopping or turning them on a coin; they are also in the habit of running along the pole, standing on the yoke, and regaining the safety of the chariot again at top speed.'
As Caesar comments himself, 'novel'!
Their initial impression in battle must have been made the more alarming by the Celts' use of 'woad'. Having mentioned that those who lived away from the coastal areas clothed themselves in animal skins, Caesar goes on to say that: -
'all Britons paint themselves with woad, which turns the skin a bluish-green colour; hence their appearance is all the more horrific in battle. They grow their hair long, and shave every part of their body except the top of the head and the upper lip.'
The Druids. (6.13 ff)
In the course of his account of the Gallic (i.e continental) tribes, Caesar has a good deal to say about the Druids, and early on in the passage he mentions that 'it is thought that their Rule of life was first found in Britain, and then taken across to Gaul; nowadays, those who wish to enquire into it more closely travel there in orde to find out more about it.'
Regarding Druidic training he says 'The Druids usually take no part in was, and do not pay the same taxes as everyone else. They are exempt from military service, and indeed are excused from all such obligations. These advantages prove a considerable attraction; there is no shortage of volunteers for training, and others are even sent off by parents and relatives.
With regard to the Bardic tradition of the Druids Caesar says 'Once there they are said to have to learn by heart a great deal of poetry; indeed many stay on in training for twenty years. They consider it wrong to commit all these things to writing, though in other matters, indeed both in public and private documents they use the Greek alphabet. Presumably they do this for two reasons; first, because they do not want the details of their training to become common knowledge; and secondly, because they feel that once these details were written down those undegoing training would be less inclined to develop their memory. (Most people find that once they rely on the written word they pay less attention to learning by heart.)' He probably has a point!
Druidic beliefs and Teachings
'Their most important doctrine is that souls do not perish, but transmigrate aftr death from one body to another. They consider fostering this belief to be the best way to encourage bravery in battle, since any fear they have of death can thus be overcome. In addition to this, the subjects they discuss and teach to their students are Astronomy, Geography and Natut]ral Science, as well as a good deal about the superior powers of the immortal gods.' After a passage about the 'Knights' - presumably warriors on horeseback, he returns to the Druids.
'All the Gauls are keen on religious observances; because of this those who contract more serious illnesses, as well as those involved in hazardous undertakings, either make or promise to make human sacrifices, and use the Druids to perform these on their behalf. The reason for this is that they believe in 'a life for a life'; otherwise the gods cannot be placated. Their public sacrifices are always of this type. Sometimes they use images of enormous size; they weave them from sticks, fill them with living men, and set fire to them. Once they are fully alight the men die. They think that those caught theiving or robbing or committing other crimes are particularly pleasing as sacrifices to the gods; but if they are short of such people, innocent men will servr equally well.
'They worship principally the God Mercury. They have many statues of him and consider him to be the inventor of all skills, their protector on the street and on long journeys, and the most powerful god when it comes to making mainey, or buying and selling. Next to him in importance are Apollo, Mars, Jupiter and Minerva. The people believe much the same about these Gods as other nations; Apollo cures diseases, Minerva is the author of arts and crafts, Jupiter is the King of the Gods, and Mars is the God of war. Once the Celts have decided to go to was they dedicate most of their spoils to Mars; if they survive, they sacrifice any captured animals, and make a collection of everything else. In many towns one can see great piles of these things in the holy places, and on rare occasions when one breaks his oath and is rash enough to either hide his spoils in his house or to remove what has been placed in the pile, the law is that he should be tortured to death.
Miscellaneous customs and beliefs
'The Gauls assert that they are all descended from Dis:' (another name for Pluto, the God of the Underworld). 'They claim that this is part of the Druidic tradition. This is why they recon time by counting not days but nights; birthdays and the beginnings of months and years they regard as being the night and the following day. As far as customs go they differ from other people in that they do not allow their children to associate with them openly until they are old enough for military service; it is considered disgraceful for a son to accompany his father in public whilst still a child.'
Marriage and the family
'Husbands match their wives' dowry with money of their own. A joint account is kept of this money, and the profits saved; whichever outlives the other inherits the shares of both, along with the profits built up over the years. Husbands have the power of life and death over both children and wives. After the death of one of the more distinguished, his relatives assemble, and if there is anything suspicious about his death, they question his wife under torture as one would a slave, and if their suspicions prove justified they put them to death, burning them at the stake after every kind of torture. By the standards of the Gauls their funerals are sumptuous and magnificent. Everything that the dead man held dear while alive is thrown onto the flames, even animals; and until recently slaves and dependants who were thought to be favourites were burnt all together at the nd of the proper funeral ceremonies.
In towns which are generally held to be well run there is a law that if anyone hears a rumour affecting the public interest he should tell a magistrate, without passing it on to anyone else; this is because it is common knowledge that hasty and inexperienced men can be alarmed by false rumours, and be driven to take the law into their own hands. The magistrates can keep secret what they think fit, and only make public what they consider advantageous. Discussions about affairs of state are only allowed in council.'
The Celts clearly made a deep impression on Caesar. Current thinking among classical scholars is moving away from the idea of a wholesale 'Romanisation' of Britain - after all, Britain managed very well without the Romans before they arrived, and continued to manage without them after they went; and it could well be that the Celts, even while under the official domination of Rome, continued in their own ways to operate their social structure - Druids and all?
- © David James