Celts and Germans: Diodoros, Dionysios, Strabo, and Dio on distinguishing them (first centuries BCE and CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Celts and Germans: Diodoros, Dionysios, Strabo, and Dio on distinguishing them (first centuries BCE and CE),' Last modified January 3, 2023, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=10154.

Ancient authors: Diodoros, Library of History 5.25.4-5; Dionysios of Halikarnassos, Roman Antiquities 14.1; Strabo, Geography 7.1; Cassius Dio, Roman History 49.39.

Comments: As Andrew C. Johnston’s (2019) recent work demonstrates clearly, the notion of a territory called “Germania” (east of the Rhine) and a people to accompany that – “Germans” (from the Latin for “genuine”) – was essentially an etic, Roman imperial invention of the 40s BCE for expansionist purposes, with Julius Caesar playing the critical role in this invention (link to Caesar’s section on Gauls / Celts; link to the section on Germans). Not all Greeks interested in the description of peoples immediately took this clear distinction of northern peoples on, but some began to in the late first century BCE. The result ended up being a three-fold parsing of northern peoples into Celts (or Gauls), Germans, and Scythians.  This was instead of the older Greek two-fold division of Celts (or Galatians, a subset of Celts) and Scythians, with no Germans to be found. Three of the passages below (discussed in Johnston’s article) illustrate the initial shift. The shift is of course firmly established for Roman authors by the time that the Roman senator Tacitus writes an entire work on Germania in the early second century CE (link).

Diodoros of Sicily (mid-first century BCE) does not work with the category of “Germans” at all, even when he describes Julius Caesar’s activities by the Rhine river. Instead, those east of the Rhine river are “Galatians” (equivalent of Latin “Gauls”), a subset of “Celts,” but not “Germans.” By the end of the first century BCE, however, certain Greek ethnographic writers were beginning to integrate Julius Caesar’s new “Germans” into the equation, as the passages below from Dionysios (late first century BCE) and Strabo (early first century CE) illustrate well.

As Johnston also shows, later on Cassius Dio (writing after 229 CE) would swim against the current and continue to reassert the traditional Greek two-fold division without any “Germans.” This is illustrated below by his key passage regarding the “Galatians” beyond the Rhine (rather than “Germans”) as a subset of “Celts.” Problematically, the translator in the Loeb series attempted to make Dio look “correct” (in a Caesarian sense) by putting in “Germans” (with a footnote acknowledging the switch) in the first occurrence where Dio has “Celts” (here improved).

Works consulted: Andrew C. Johnston, “Rewriting Caesar: Cassius Dio and an Alternative Ethnography of the North,” Histos 13 (2019): 53–77 (link).

Source of translations:  C. H. Oldfather, Diodorus Sicilus: Library of History, volumes 1-6, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1935-1952), public domain (copyright not renewed, passed away in 1954); E. Cary, The Roman Antiquities of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, 7 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1937-50), public domain (copyright not renewed); H.L. Jones, Strabo, 8 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1917-28), public domain (passed away in 1932); E. Cary and H.B. Foster, Dio’s Roman History, 9 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1914-27), all public domain and adapted by Harland.



Book 5

25 . . . (4) Now regarding the rivers which flow into the ocean, the largest are thought to be the Danube​ and the Rhenos [Rhine], the latter of which the [Julius] Caesar who has been called a god spanned with a bridge in our own day with astonishing skill, and leading his army across on foot he subdued the Galatians (Galatai) who lived beyond it. (5) There are also many other navigable rivers in the Celtic region (Keltikē), but it would be a long task to write about them. Almost all of them become frozen over by the cold and thus bridge their own streams, and since the natural smoothness of the ice makes the crossing slippery for those who pass over, they sprinkle chaff on it and thus have a crossing which is safe. . . . [remainder of passage omitted here, but available at this link (coming soon)].


Dionysios of Halikarnassos

Book 14

1 The Celtic region (Keltikē)​ lies in the part of Europe which extends toward the west, between the north pole and the equinoctial setting of the sun. This region has the shape of a square: it is bounded by the Alps, the tallest of the European mountains, on the east, by the Pyrenees toward the meridian and the south wind, by the sea that lies beyond the Pillars of Herakles [Straits of Gibralater] on the west, and by the Scythian and Thracian descent groups (genē) toward the north wind and the river Ister [Danube], which, descending from the Alps as the largest of the rivers on this side, and flowing through the whole continent that lies beneath the constellation of the Bears, empties into the Pontic sea [Black Sea].

This land, which is so large in extent that it may be called almost the fourth part of Europe and is well-watered, fertile, rich in crops and most excellent for grazing cattle, is divided in the middle by the river Rhenos [Rhine], reputed to be the largest river in Europe after the Ister. The part on this [eastern] side of the Rhine, bordering upon the Scythians and Thracians, is called Germania, and extends as far as the Herkynian forest and the Rhipaian mountains. The other part, on the side facing the south, as far as the Pyrenees range and embracing the Galatic gulf, is called the Celtic region after the sea.

The whole country is called by the Greeks by the common name “Keltikē” (Celtic region). According to some this is named after a giant named Keltos who ruled there. Others, however, have a legend that Herakles and Aterope (the daughter of Atlas) had two sons named Iberos and Keltos, who gave their own names to the lands [Keltikē and Iberia] which they ruled.

Others state that there is a river Keltos rising in the Pyrenees, after which the neighbouring region was called “Keltikē” (Celtic region) at first and eventually the rest of the land as well. There are also some who say that when the first Greeks came to this region their ships, driven by a violent wind, came to land in the Galatic gulf, and that the men upon reaching shore called the country Kelsikē because of this experience of theirs, and later generations, by the change of one letter, called it Keltikē. . . [remainder of section omitted].



Book 7

1 Now that I have described Iberia and the Celtic and Italian peoples, along with the islands near by, it will be next in order to speak of the remaining parts of Europe, dividing them in the approved manner. . . [omitted material]. For this Ister [Danube] river divides very nearly the whole of this land into two parts. It is the largest of the European rivers, at the outset flowing towards the south and then turning straight from the west towards the east and the Pontos [Black Sea]. It rises in the western limits of Germany, as also near the recess of the Adriatic (at a distance from it of about one thousand stadia), and comes to an end at the Pontos not very far from the outlets of the Tyras​ and the Borysthenes,​ bending from its easterly course approximately towards the north. Now the parts that are beyond the Rhenos [Rhine] river and the Celtic region are to the north of the Ister [Danube]. These are the territories of the Galatian and the Germanic peoples, extending as far as the Bastarnians and the Tyregetans and the river Borysthenes. And the territories of all the peoples between this river and the Tanais and the mouth of lake Maiotis extend up into the interior as far as the ocean​ and are washed by the Pontic Sea. But both the Illyrian and the Thracian peoples, and all peoples among the Celtic or other peoples that are mingled with these, as far as Greece, are to the south of the Ister. But let me first describe the parts outside the Ister, for they are much simpler than those on the other side.

Now the parts beyond the Rhenos [Rhine], immediately after the country of the Celts, slope towards the east and are occupied by the Germans.  Although the Germans vary slightly from the Celtic tribe (phylē) in that they are wilder, taller, and have yellower hair, they are in all other respects similar, for in build, habits, and modes of life they are such as I have said​ the Celts are. And I also think that it was for this reason that the Romans assigned to them the name “Germani,” as though they wished to indicate by this term that they were “genuine” Galatians, for in the language of the Romans “germani” means “genuine.” . . . [remainder omitted here, on which go to this link for the full account].


Dio Cassius

Book 49

47 The Rhine arises in the Alps of the Celts, a little outside of Rhaitia. Proceeding westward, the Rhine bounds Galatia and its inhabitants on the left bank, and the Celts on the right bank, and finally empties into the ocean. This river has always down to the present time been considered the boundary, ever since the names of these [peoples] have been differentiated. For long ago, peoples dwelling on either side of the [Rhine] river were called “Celts.” Caesar, then, at this time was the first of the Romans to cross the Rhine, and later, in the consulship of Pompey and Crassus, he crossed over to Britain.

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