Celts: Julius Caesar on Druids and supposed human sacrifice among Gauls (mid-first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Celts: Julius Caesar on Druids and supposed human sacrifice among Gauls (mid-first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 12, 2024, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=6241.

Ancient author: Julius Caesar, Gallic War 1.1 and 6.11-20 (link; link to Latin)

Comments: Both in the introduction and further on in his account of the Gallic wars, Julius Caesar (who led campaigns in this area) describes (from the conqueror’s perspective) the customs of the Gauls or Celts at some length, also making reference to surrounding Germanic peoples. This includes one of the earliest characterizations of the Druids as an important class among the Gauls. Caesar also claims that human sacrifice was a common custom among the Gauls. The accusation of human sacrifice was standard mud-slinging when hurling insults at so-called barbarians.

It is important to remember that the concept of “Germania” for a territory or “Germans” for the peoples inhabiting that territory may well have been coined by Julius Caesar or other contemporaries in order to have a clear dividing line between peoples west (Celts or Gauls) and east (Germans) of the Rhine frontier. Previously, the tendency among Greek ethnographic writers was to distinguish between only Celts to the northwest and Scythians to the northeast. Julius Caesar or others contemporary with him had a special interest (for the purposes of conquest) in the peoples northeast of the Rhine and developed the category of “Germania” as a way of speaking about them. This resulted in the three fold general categories of “Celts” to the northwest as far as Spain, “Scythians” north and northeast of the Black Sea, and “Germans” northeast of the Rhine itself. All three of these general ethnic categories are primarily if not solely outsiders’ (Greeks’ or Romans’) categorizations of a variety of peoples who would self-identify more specifically.

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


Book 1

[Three parts of Gaul and their peoples]

1  Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which is inhabited by the Belgians, another by the Aquitanians, and a third by a people called in their own tongue “Celts,” in Latin “Gauls.” All of these peoples are different from one another in language, institutions, and laws. The Gauls are separated from the Aquitanians by the river Garonne, from the Belgians by the Marne and the Seine rivers. Of all these peoples, the Belgians are the most courageous, because they are farthest removed from the culture and civilization of the Province [of Gallia Narbonensis, formed ca. 121 BC]; because they are least often visited by merchants introducing the commodities which cause effeminacy; and, because they are nearest to the Germans dwelling beyond the Rhine river, with whom they are continually at war. For this reason the Helvetians also excel beyond the rest of the Gauls in courage, because they are struggling in almost daily fights with the Germans either trying to keep them out of Gallic territory or waging aggressive wars in German territory. The separate part of the country which, as has been said, is occupied by the Gauls, starts from the river Rhone and is bounded by the river Garonne, the Ocean, and the territory of the Belgians. Moreover, on the side of the Sequanians and the Helvetians, it touches on the river Rhine; and its general trend is northward. The Belgians, beginning from the edge of the Gallic territory, reach to the lower part of the river Rhine, bearing towards the north and east. Aquitania, starting from the Garonne, reaches to the Pyrenees mountains and to that part of the Ocean which is by Spain: its bearing is between west and north. . . [several books of material regarding specific battles and incidents omitted.]


Book 6

[Customs of Gaul]

11  Since I have arrived at this point, it would seem to be not inappropriate to present the customs of Gaul and of Germany, and the difference between these peoples. In Gaul, not only in every community (civitas) and every district and neighbourhood, but almost in every household, there are factions. The leaders of the factions are men who their fellows consider to be the highest authority, men to whose decision and judgment the supreme issue of all cases and counsels may be referred. And this seems to have been a custom from ancient days, so that none of the people should lack assistance against a more powerful neighbour. For each man refuses to allow his own folk to be oppressed and defrauded, since otherwise he has no authority among them. The same principle holds in regard to Gaul as a whole taken together. For the whole body of communities is divided into two parties.

12  When Caesar arrived in Gaul the leaders of one faction were the Aeduans, of the other the Sequanians. The latter, being by themselves inferior in strength – since the highest authority from ancient times rested with the Aeduans, and their dependencies were extensive – had made Ariovistus and the Germans their friends, and with great sacrifices and promises had brought them to their side. Then, by several successful engagements and the slaughter of all the Aeduan nobility, they had so far established their predominance with the result that they transfered a great part of the dependents from the Aeduans to themselves, receiving from them as hostages the children of their chief men, compelling them as a community to swear that they would consider no plans against the Sequanians, occupying a part of the neighbouring territory which they had seized by force, and securing the chief position of all Gaul. This was the necessity which had compelled Diviciacus to set forth on a journey to the Senate at Rome for the purpose of seeking aid, but he had returned without achieving the objective.

With the arrival of Caesar, things changed. The Sequanians’ hostages were returned to the Aeduans, their old dependencies restored, and new ones secured through Caesar’s efforts, since those who had joined in friendly relations with them found that they enjoyed a better condition and a fairer rule. The Aeduans’ influence and position were increased in all other respects. As a result, the Sequanians lost the chief position. The Remians took their place. It was known that they had equal influence with Caesar, so the tribes which could in no way join the Aeduans due to ancient animosities were delivering themselves as dependents to the Remians. These tribes the Remians carefully protected, and by this means they sought to maintain their new and suddenly acquired authority. At that time, affairs were such that the Aeduans were regarded clearly as the chief community, while the Remians held the second place in importance.

13  Throughout Gaul there are two classes of persons of definite account and dignity. As for the common people, they are treated almost as slaves, doing nothing on their own and never being consulted. Oppressed by debt or by the size of their tribute payments or by the mistreatment of the more powerful men, most of the common people commit themselves in slavery to the nobles, who have, in fact, the same rights over them as masters over slaves. Of the two classes above mentioned one consists of Druids, the other of knights. The former are concerned with the affairs of the gods, the proper performance of public and private sacrifices, and the interpretation of ritual questions. A large number of young men gather around them for instruction and hold them in great honour. In fact, it is Druids who judge almost all disputes, public and private, and if any crime or murder has been committed or there are any disputes about succession or boundaries, they also decide it, determining rewards and penalties. If any person or group does not abide by their decision, they ban them from sacrifice, which is their heaviest penalty. Those that are banned are considered impious and criminal. All men avoid encountering them on the path and shun their approach and conversation, because they are worried that they may face some harm as a result of contact. Nor are those who are shunned administered justice when they seek it. Nor are they granted any distinction. Among these Druids, one is the leader who has the highest authority among them. At his death, either any other that is preeminent in position succeeds or, if there are several of equal standing, they strive for the primacy by the vote of the Druids, or sometimes even with armed force. These Druids, at a certain time of the year, meet within the borders of the Carnutians, whose territory is reckoned as the centre of all Gaul, and the Druids sit in conclave in a consecrated spot. All who have disputes assemble there, and they obey the decisions and judgments of the Druids. Their teaching was supposedly discovered in Britain and transferred to Gaul from there, and today those who want to study the subject more accurately generally journey to Britain to learn it.

14  The Druids usually avoid participation in war, and do not pay war taxes with everyone else. They are excused from military service and exempt from all liabilities. Tempted by these considerable rewards, many young men assemble of their own volition to receive their training. Many are sent to do this by parents and relatives. It is reported that they learn by heart a great number of verses in the schools of the Druids, and therefore some persons remain twenty years in training. They think it is not appropriate to write these oral teachings down, although in almost all other matters – both public and private accounts – they make use of Greek letters. I believe that they have adopted this practice for two reasons: they do not wish the teaching to become common knowledge and they do not want those who learn the teaching to rely on writing and, as a result, lose their skills in memorization. In fact, it does usually happen that reliance on writing tends to lessen the diligence of the student and ability to memorize. The cardinal principle which they teach is that souls do not die, but after death pass from one to another. They think this belief is the greatest incentive to courage, since the fear of death is thereby discarded. Besides this, they teach the young students about the stars and their movement, about the size of the universe and the earth, about the order of nature, and about the strength and powers of the immortal gods.

15  The other class among the Gauls are knights. Whenever there is an opportunity with the outbreak of war they engage in it. (Before Caesar’s arrival, this happened just about every year, in the sense that they would either be inflicting injuries or repelling injuries). Those who are distinguished due to birth and resources have the greatest number of dependents and clients around them. This is the one form of influence and power known to them.

16  The entire people of the Gauls is greatly devoted to ritual obligations (religionibus), and for this reason those who contract dangerous diseases and who are engaged in the dangers of battle either sacrifice human victims or make a vow to do so, employing the Druids as ministers for such sacrifices. In effect, they believe that, unless a man’s life is exchanged for another man’s life, the power of the immortal gods may not be appeased. In both public and private life they observe the same kind of sacrificial tradition. Others use figures of immense size woven out of twigs, filling the figures’ limbs with living men and setting them on fire, and the men perish enveloped in flame. They believe that the execution of those who have been caught in the act of theft or robbery or some crime is more pleasing to the immortal gods, but when the supply of such fails they resort to the execution even of the innocent.

1They worship Mercury most among the gods. There are numerous images of him. They declare him the inventor of all arts, the guide for every road and journey, and they consider him most influential for all money-making and travel. After him they place Apollo, Mars, Jupiter, and Minerva. Regarding these deities, they have almost the same idea as all other peoples: Apollo drives away diseases, Minerva supplies the basic principles of arts and crafts, Jupiter holds the empire of heaven, and Mars controls wars. When they have won a decisive battle, in general they dedicate to Mars whatever spoils they may take. After a victory they sacrifice the living things they took, and all the other things they gather into one place. In many communities heaps of such objects are to be seen piled up in sacred locations. It has often happened that a man, in defiance of obligation (religione), has dared to conceal such spoils in his house or to remove them from their place, and the most grievous punishment with torture is established for such an offence.

18  The Gauls affirm that they are all descendents from a common Father, Dis, and say that this is the tradition of the Druids. For that reason they determine all periods of time by the number of nights rather than day and, in the celebration of birthdays and the beginnings of months and years, day follows night. In the other customs of life, the main difference between them and the rest of humanity is that they do not allow their own sons to approach them openly until they have grown to the age of military service, and they consider it disgraceful for a son who is still in his boyhood to be present with his father in public.

19  After making the calculation, the men take from their own goods a sum of money equal to the dowry they have received from their wives and place it with the dowry. With each of these sums, an account is kept between them and the profits saved. Whichever of the two survives receives the portion of both together with the profits of past years. Men have the power of life and death over their wives, as over their children. When the father of the house, who is of distinguished birth, has died, his relatives assemble. If there is anything suspicious about his death they interrogate his wives as if they were slaves and if anything is discovered they put them to death with fire and all kinds of excruciating tortures. Considering the low level of civilization in Gaul, their funerals are magnificent and expensive. They throw into the funerary fire everything, even living creatures, which they believe were special to the deceased during life. But only a generation ago, slaves and clients known to have been beloved by their lords used to be burned with them at the conclusion of the funeral formalities.

20  Those communities which are considered to conduct their public administration appropriately have it prescribed by law that anyone who has learned anything of public concern from his neighbours by rumour or report must bring the information to a magistrate and not impart it to anyone else. For it is recognised that often implusive and inexperienced men are terrified by false rumours, and so are driven to crime or to decide supreme issues. Magistrates conceal some things, and make known other things that they think are appropriate for the public to know. Without an assembly, discussions on community questions are not allowed.

[For Julius Caesar’s subsequent discussion of Germanic peoples, go to this link.]


Source of the translation: H. J. Edwards, Caesar: the Gallic War, LCL (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1917), public domain, adapted and modernized by Harland.

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