Celts: Timagenes of Alexandria and Ammianus Marcellinus on Celtic origins and customs (first century BCE / fourth century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Celts: Timagenes of Alexandria and Ammianus Marcellinus on Celtic origins and customs (first century BCE / fourth century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified October 27, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=6169.

Ancient authors: Timagenes (first century BCE) = FGrHist 88 (link to FGrHist), as cited by Ammianus Marcellinus (late fourth century CE), Roman AntiquitiesRes Gestae 15.9-15.12 (link).

Comments: Ammianus’ description of the Gauls / Celts extensively cites or abbreviates his source, Timagenes, seemingly with little additional commentary. Timagenes may have relied, in part, on Poseidonios’ slightly earlier account of the Celts, now only existing in brief citations by others (although there is no reference to Poseidonios here). Strabo also refers to Timagenes as one of his sources (Geography 4.1.13; 15.1.57).

Works to consult: G. Woolf, Tales of the Barbarians: Ethnography and Empire in the Roman West (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2010),105-111.

Source of translation: J. C. Rolfe, Ammianus Marcellinus: Roman History, volume 1, LCL (Cambridge: HUP, 1935), public domain (no copyright notice), adapted and modernized by Harland.


[For Ammianus’ previous discussion of Arabians / Saracens, go to this link.]

[Concerning the origin of the Gauls, why they were called Celts and Galatians, and their teachers]

(15.9) [omitted material] . . . The ancient writers, who were doubtful about the earliest origin of the Gauls, have left an incomplete account on this topic, but later Timagenes, a true Greek in accuracy as well as language, collected out of various books these facts that had been long forgotten. Following his authority and avoiding any obscurity, I will state these facts clearly and plainly:

Some asserted that the people first seen in these regions were the original inhabitants (aborigines), called “Celts” from the name of a beloved king and “Galatians” (as the Greek language terms the Gauls) from the name of his mother. Others state that the Dorians, following an earlier Herakles, settled in the lands bordering on the Ocean. The Druids say that a portion of the people was in fact indigenous, but that others also poured in from the remote islands and the regions across the Rhenus [Rhine] river, driven from their homes by continual wars and by flooding of the stormy sea. Some claim that after the destruction of Troy [in northwestern Turkey] a few of those who fled from the Greeks and were scattered everywhere occupied those regions, which were deserted at the time.

But the inhabitants of those countries affirm the following beyond everything else, and I have also read this inscribed upon their monuments: that Herakles, the son of Amphitryon, rushed to destroy the cruel tyrants Geryon and Tauriscus, one oppressing Spain and the other Gaul. After overcoming them both, Herakles married a noble women and had numerous children, who named the districts they ruled after themselves. But, in fact, in order to avoid the harsh treatment of a prefect of king Cyrus named Harpalus, a people of Asia from Phokaia [in Ionia, western Turkey] set sail for Italy. Some of them founded Velia in Lucania, the rest founded Massalia [Marseille] in the region of Vienne. Later on, they established a good number of towns as their strength and resources increased. But I must not discuss varying opinions, which often cause people to feel like they’ve had too much.

Throughout these regions men gradually became civilized and the study of excellent teachings flourished, which were initiated by the Bards, the Seers (euhagis) and the Druids. Now, the bards sang to the sweet sounds of the lyre about the courageous actions of famous men composed in heroic verse, but the seers investigated sublime things and attempted to explain the secret laws of nature. Being intellectually above the others and bound together in associations (sodalicii) as determined by the authority of Pythagoras, the Druids were elevated by their investigation of obscure and profound subjects. Despising everything human, they asserted that the soul was immortal.

[Alps of Gaul and the various passes through them]

(15.10) Because of its towering chains of mountains always covered with considerable snow, Gaul was formerly mostly unknown to the inhabitants of the rest of the world, except its borders on the coast and fortifications enclose it, surrounding it naturally as if handcrafted. Now on the southern side it is washed by the Tyrrhenian and the Gallic seas. Where it looks up to the heavenly Wagon [Charles’ Wain], it is separated from the savage peoples (feris gentibus) by the channels of the Rhine river. Where it lies under the west-sloping sun, it is bounded by the Ocean and the Pyrenees mountains. Where it rises towards the East are most of the Kottian Alps. After the conquest of Gaul, King Kottios hid there alone in the narrow passes of the mountains, trusting the pathless ruggedness of the region. Finally, when his feelings had calmed and he was accepted into the friendship of the emperor Octavian, in place of a significant gift he built with considerable labour short cuts convenient to travellers, since they were midway between other ancient Alpine passes, about which I will later relate what I have learned. In these Kottian Alps, which begin at the town of Segusio [Susa, Italy], there rises a towering ridge, which hardly anyone can cross without being in danger. For as one comes from Gaul it falls off with a sheer incline which is terrible to view because of cliffs on either side. This is especially the case in springtime, when the ice melts and the snows thaw from the warmth of the wind. Then over precipitous ravines on either side and chasms made treacherous due to the accumulation of ice, people and animals descending with hesitating step slide forward. as well as wagons. The only method devised to avoid destruction is this: they bind together a number of vehicles with heavy ropes and hold them back from behind with powerful efforts of men or oxen at barely a snail’s pace; and so they roll down a little at a time more safely. And this, as we have said, happens in the spring of the year. But in winter the ground, caked with ice that is polished and therefore slippery, sends people flying headlong as they walked and the spreading valleys in level places, made treacherous by ice, sometimes swallow up the traveller. Therefore those that know the country well drive projecting wooden stakes along the safer spots so that their line may guide the traveller in safety. But if these are covered with snow and hidden, or are taken away by the streams running down from the mountains, the paths are difficult to traverse even with natives leading the way. But from the peak of this Italian slope a plateau extends for seven miles, as far as the post named after Mars; from there on another towering height, equally difficult to surmount, reaches to the peak of the Matrona, which is called that due to an accident that happened to a noble lady. After that a route, still steep but easier to traverse extends to the fortress of Brigantium [Briançon]. The tomb of the prince, who, as we said, built these roads, is at Segusio [Susa] next to the walls, and his shades (manes) are devoutly venerated for two reasons: because he had ruled his subjects with a just government and because, when he was accepted into an alliance with the Roman state, he gained eternal peace for his people. And although this road which I have described is the middle one and the short cut that is more used, there are also others constructed long before at various times. Now the first of these the Theban Herakles, when travelling leisurely to destroy Geryon and Tauriscus, constructed near the Maritime Alps and gave them the name of Graian Alps. And in a similar manner he consecrated the castle and harbour of Monoecus [Monaco] to his lasting memory. Then, later, after the passage of many centuries, the name Pennine was used for these Alps for the following reason: when the Saguntinians, a people famous both for their catastrophes and their loyalty, were besieged by the Africans with persistent obstinacy, Publius Cornelius Scipio (the father of the elder Africanus) wished to help them and crossed to Spain with a fleet manned by a strong army. But since the city had been destroyed by a superior force and he was unable to overtake Hannibal, who had crossed the Rhone three days before and was hurrying to the regions of Italy, by swift sailing he crossed the intervening space (which is not great) and watched at Genoa, a town of Liguria, for Hannibal’s descent from the mountains. He did this so that if chance should give him the opportunity, he might fight with him in the plain while exhausted by the roughness of the roads. At the same time, having an eye to the common welfare, he advised his brother, Gnaeus Scipio, to proceed to Spain and hold off Hasdrubal, who was planning to burst out in a similar way from that area. But Hannibal learned of this from deserters and, being quick and crafty, with guidance from native Taurinians he came through the Tricasinians and the extreme edge of the Vocontians to the passes of the Tricorians. Starting out from there, he made another road, where it had never before been passable. Hannibal hewed out a cliff which rose to a vast height by burning it with flames of immense power and crumbling it by pouring on vinegar. Then he marched along the river Druentia, dangerous with its shifting eddies, and took the district of Etruria. That’s enough about the Alps. Let’s now turn to the rest of the country.

[Description of the various parts of Gaul and the course of the Rhone river]

(15.11) In early times, when these regions were isolated and therefore barbarous, the regions were thought to consist in three parts, divided into Celts (the same as the Gauls), the Aquitanians, and the Belgians, differing in language, habits and laws. Now the Gauls (who are the Celts) are separated from the Aquitanians by the Garumna [Garonne] river, a river that rises in the hills of the Pyrenees and, after running past many towns, disappears in the Ocean. But the Gauls are separated from the Belgians by the Matrona [Marne] and the Sequana [Seine], rivers of identical size. These rivers flow through the district of Lugdunum [Lyons], and after encircling in the manner of an island a stronghold of the Parisians called Lutetia, they unite in one channel, and flowing on together pour into the sea not far from Castra Constantia.

Of all these peoples the Belgians had the reputation among ancient writers of being the most powerful because, being far removed from civilized life and not made effeminate by imported luxuries, they engaged in war for a long time with the Germans across the Rhine river. On the other hand, the Aquitanians, whose nearby and peaceful coasts allow the import of goods, had their characters weakened to effeminacy and easily came under the control of Rome.

Ever since the Gauls yielded to the dictator Julius under the perpetual pressure of war, the Gauls have been governed by an administration divided into four parts. Of these Gallia Narbonensis by itself comprised the districts of Vienne and Lugdunum. The second had control of all Aquitania. Upper and Lower Germany, as well as the Belgians, were governed by two administrations at that same time. But now the provinces over the whole extent of Gaul are considered as follows: The first province (beginning on the western front) is Lower, or Second, Germany, fortified by the wealthy and populous cities of Cologne and Tongres. Next comes First, or Upper, Germany where besides other free towns are Mogontiacum [Mainz], Vangiones [Worms], Nemetes [Speyer], and Argentoratum [Strasburg], famous for the disasters of the barbarians. After these the First province of Belgium includes Mediomatricos [Metz] and Treviros [Treves], splendid residence of the emperors. Adjoining this is the Second province of Belgium, with Ambianensium [Amiens], a city superior to the others, as well as those of the Catelaunians [Châlons] and the Remians [Rheims]. In the Sequana [Seine] province we see Vesontio [Besançon] and Raurica [Augst], more important than its many other towns. The first Lugdunian province is made famous by Lugdunum [Lyons], Cabyllonum [Chalon-sur-Saône], Senones [Sens], Biturigae [Bourges], and Augustudunum [Autun] with its huge ancient walls. As for the second Lugdunian province, Rotomagus [Rouen] and Turonum [Tours] make it distinguished, as well as Mediolanum [Evreux] and Tricasae [Troyes]. The Graian and Pennine Alps, not counting obscure towns, have Aventicum [Avenche], now an abandoned city, to be sure, but previously more important, which is still evident from its half-ruined buildings. These are the distinguished provinces and cities of Gaul.

In Aquitania, which trends towards the Pyrenees mountains and that part of the Ocean which extends towards Spain, the first province is Aquitania, much adorned by the greatness of its cities. Leaving out numerous others, Burdigala [Bordeaux] and Arverni [Clermont] are conspicuous, as well as Santonum [Saintes] and Pictavium [Poitiers]. The “Nine Peoples” are ennobled by Auscius [Auch] and Vasatae [Bazas]. In the Narbonensian province, Elusa [Eauze], Narbona [Narbonne], and Tolosa [Toulouse] are the most important cities. The Viennensian province delights in the distinction conferred by many cities, the most important being Vienne itself, Arelate [Arles], and Valentia [Valence]. Connected to these cities is Massalia [Marseilles], by whose alliance and power we read that Rome was several times supported in severe crises. Near these are Salluvium [Aix-en-Provence], Nice [Nicaea], Antipolis [Antibes], and Stoechades [Iles d’Hyères].

Since we have reached these parts in the course of our work, it would be inappropriate and ridiculous to say nothing of the Rhone, an extremely well-known river. Rising in the Pennine Alps from many springs, the Rhone rushes headlong towards more level places. It hides its banks with its own stream and bursts into the lagoon called Lake Leman. This flows through without ever mixing with the water outside but, gliding along the surface of the less active water on either side, it finds an outlet and forces a way for itself by its swift flow. From there, without any loss of volume, it flows through Sapaudia and Sequana province and, after continuing for a long distance, it grazes the Viennensian province on the left side and the Lugdunumian on the right side. Next, after meandering, it receives the Arar river, which they call the Sauconna [Saône], flowing between Upper Germany and the Sequana province, and gives it its own name. This location is the beginning of Gaul, and from there they measure distances not in miles but in leagues. After this the Rhone, enriched by the tributary waters of the Isère, carries very large craft, which are frequently tossed by gales of wind. After finishing the bounds which nature has set for it, the Rhone’s foaming waters are mixed with the Gallic Sea through a broad bay which they call “Ad Gradus” at about the eighteenth milestone away from Arelate [Arles]. That is enough about the topography of the region. I will now describe the appearance and manners of its people.

[Customs of the Gauls]

(15.12) Almost all the Gauls are tall with a fair and reddish complexion and terribly fierce eyes. They are fond of quarrelling and extremely rude. In fact, a whole group of foreigners will not be able to cope with one of them in a fight, if he calls in his wife, stronger than the man by far and with flashing eyes. Least of all will the group cope when she swells her neck and gnashes her teeth and, poising her huge white arms, proceeds to pummel with punches mingled with kicks, like shots discharged by the twisted cords of a catapult. The voices of most of them are formidable and threatening, whether they are content or angry. But all of them carefully keep clean and neat. In those districts, particularly in Aquitania, no man or woman can be seen in soiled and ragged clothing even if they are extremely poor, unlike elsewhere. People of all ages are most fit for military service, and the old man marches out on a campaign with a courage equal to that of the man in the prime of life. This is because his limbs are toughened by cold and constant work, and he will make light of many major dangers. Nor does anyone of them, for dread of the service of the god Mars, cut off his thumb, as in Italy: there they call such men “murci” or cowards. This is a descent group (genus) greedy for wine, devising numerous drinks similar to wine and some among them of low quality. Dulled by continual drunkenness (which Cato’s saying pronounced a voluntary kind of madness), they rush about in aimless carousing, so that those words seem true which Cicero spoke when defending Fonteius: “From now on, the Gauls will drink wine mixed with water, which they once thought poison.”

These regions, especially those bordering on Italy, came gradually and with slight effort under the control of Rome. First they were attacked by Fulvius. Then they were undermined in petty battles by Sextius. Finally they were subdued by Fabius Maximus who, after the full completion of this business and having vanquished the formidable tribe of the Allobrogians, was conferred that surname [Allobrogicus]. Now the dictator Caesar subdued the whole of Gaul (except where, as the authority of Sallust informs us, it was impassable with marshes) and formed an eternal covenant of alliance after losses on both sides during ten years of war. I have digressed too far, but I shall at last return to my subject.

[For Ammianus’ subsequent discussion of Egyptians, go to this link.]

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