Celts: Phylarchos and Poseidonios on banqueting and violent customs (first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Celts: Phylarchos and Poseidonios on banqueting and violent customs (first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 11, 2024, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=7264.

Ancient authors: Phylarchos (early second century BCE), FGrHist 81 F2, 9 (link to FGrHist), and Poseidonios of Apameia (first century BCE), Kidd, fragments 67-69 as cited by Athenaios of Naukratis, Sophists at Dinner 10.443 (link), and Poseidonios (Kidd, fragment 274) as cited by Strabo, Geography 4.4.1-6 (link).

Comments: Poseidonios’ historical work (now largely lost) apparently contained somewhat substantial ethnographic comments on the Celts, particularly on meals and violent activities. Some of his material may be based, at least to a minimal degree, on a visit to the area of Massalia (Marseilles) in the 80s BCE (although claims of autopsy are notoriously difficult to evaluate in terms of the accuracy of the information shared). Athenaios of Naukratis (second century CE) includes important passages from Poseidonios (alongside Phylarchos of the early second century BCE) when Athenaios pulls together a variety of ethnographic descriptions of meal customs among different peoples (also including those of Persians and Medes [link] and Illyrians [link]).

While Poseidonios is also known for his ideas about wise “barbarian” inventors (link), his Celtic ethnographic passages suggest that Poseidonios held to quite common stereotypes about Celts being a particularly violent people. While the passage from Strabo (before 18 CE) certainly cites Poseidonios, it is difficult to know what in this passage, beyond the story of the decapitated heads, derives from Poseidonios. The reference to Celts engaging in human sacrifice may or may not derive from Poseidonios. In both cases, we are back to the stereotype of northern peoples generally being extremely violent and uncivilized. The final story from Poseidonios (via Strabo) is about Celtic women living on an island off the coast of Nantes in France, with the idea being that only women lived on the island (an Amazonian sort of situation).


Athenaios, Sophists at Dinner

[Banqueting customs of Celts]

(Athenaeus, Deipnosophists 4.150-152) (FGrHist 81 F9) Among the Celts, says Phylarchos in the sixth book,​ many loaves of bread are broken up and served lavishly on the tables, as well as pieces of meat taken from the cauldrons. no one tastes these without looking first to see whether the king has touched what is set before him.

(FGrHist 81 F2) Again, in book three,​ the same Phylarchos says that Ariamnes, who was a very rich Celt, publicly promised to entertain all Celts for a year, and he fulfilled this promise by the following method: At various points in their country he set stations along the most convenient roads, where he built booths of vine-props and poles of reed and osiers [a type of willow tree]. He built these according to the space demanded in each station for the reception of the crowds which were expected to stream in from towns and villages. Here he set up large cauldrons, containing all kinds of meat, which he had caused to be forged the year before he intended to give the entertainment, sending for metal-workers from other cities. Many victims were slaughtered daily – bulls, hogs, sheep, and other cattle – casks of wine were made ready, and a large quantity of barley-meal ready mixed. Phylarchos continues: “Not merely the Celts who came from the villages and towns profited from this, but even passing strangers were not allowed to depart by the slaves who served, until they had had a share of the food which had been prepared.”

(Kidd, fragment 67) In the Histories which he compiled, Poseidonios (who belonged to the Stoics) collected many practices and customs of many peoples pertinent to the philosophical tenets which he held. Poseidonios writes:

“The Celts place hay on the ground when they serve their meals, which they take on wooden tables raised only slightly from the ground. Their food consists of a few loaves of bread, but of large quantities of meat prepared in water or roasted over coals or on spits. This they eat in a cleanly fashion, to be sure, but with a lion-like appetite, grasping whole joints with both hands and biting them off the bone. if, however, any piece proves hard to tear away, they slice it off with a small knife, which lies at hand in its sheath in a special box. Those who live beside rivers or by the inner and outer sea also eat fish baked with salt, vinegar, and cumin. The last they also drop into their wine. They use no olive oil, on account of its rarity, and being unfamiliar, it seems to them unpleasant.”

“When several dine together, they sit in a circle. but the mightiest among them, distinguished above the others for skill in war, family connections, or wealth, sits in the middle, like a chorus-leader. Beside him is the host, and next on either side the others according to their respective ranks. Men-at-arms, carrying oblong shields, stand close behind them, while their bodyguards, seated in a circle directly opposite, share in the feast like their masters.”

“The attendants serve the drink in vessels resembling our spouted cups, either of clay or of silver. Similar also are the platters which they have for serving food. but others use bronze platters, others still, baskets of wood or plaited wicker. The liquor drunk in the houses of the rich is wine brought from Italy and the country round Marseilles, and is unmixed, though sometimes a little water is added. But among the needier inhabitants a beer is drunk made from wheat, with honey added. The masses drink it plain. It is called korma. They sip a little, not more than a small cupful, from the same cup, but they do it rather frequently. The slave carries the drink round from left to right and from right to left. This is the way in which they are served. They make kneel before the gods, also, turning towards the right.”

Poseidonios again, describing the wealth of Lovernius, father of Bituis, who was deposed by the Romans, says that to win the favour of the mob he rode in a chariot through the fields scattering gold and silver among the thousands of Celts who followed him. He also made an enclosure twelve stadium-lengths square, in which he set up vats filled with expensive wine. Lovernius prepared a quantity of food so great that for several days anyone who wanted could enter and enjoy what was set before them, being served continuously. After he had finally set a limit to the feast, one of the barbarian poets​ arrived too late. After meeting the chief, he sang his praises in a hymn extolling his greatness and lamenting his own lot in having come late. The chief, delighted with this, called for a bag of gold and tossed it to the bard as he ran beside him. The barbarian poet picked it up and again sang in his honour, saying that the wheel-tracks made by the chariot on the ground on which he drove bore golden benefits for men. Poseidonios recorded all of this in the twenty-third book. . .

[Violent customs of Celts]

(Kidd, fragment 68 as cited by Athenaeus, Deipnosophists 4.154) In the twenty-third book of his Histories, Poseidonios says:

“The Celts sometimes have gladiatorial contests during dinner. Having assembled under arms, they indulge in sham fights and practise feints with one another. Sometimes they proceed even to the point of wounding each other, and then, exasperated by this, if the company does not intervene, they go so far as to kill. In ancient times,” he continues, “we observe that when whole joints of meat were served the best man received the thigh. But if another claimed it, they stood up to fight it out in single combat to the death. Others, again, would collect silver or gold, or a number of jars of wine from the audience in the theatre, and having exacted a pledge that their award would be carried out, they would decree that the collection was to be distributed as presents to their dearest relatives. They then stretched themselves on their backs over their shields, and some one standing near would cut their throats with a sword.”

[Celtic parasites and singing bards]

(Kidd, fragment 69 as cited by Athenaeus, Deipnosophists 6.246) In the twenty-third book of his Histories, Poseidonios of Apameia says:

“The Celts, even when they go to war, carry round with them living-companions whom they call parasites. These persons recite their praises before men when they are gathered in large companies as well as before any individual who listens to them in private. Their entertainments are furnished by the so-called “bards.” These happen to be poets who recite praises in song.”


Strabo, Geography

[Violent customs related to decapitated heads and human sacrifice]

(Kidd, fragment 274 as cited by Strabo, Geography 4.4.2-6) The whole tribe (phylē) which is now called both “Gallic” and “Galatian” is war-mad, and both high-spirited and quick for battle, although otherwise simple and not ill-mannered. . . [omitted several sentences]. In addition to their stupidity, there is also that custom, barbarous and exotic, which attends most of the northern tribes: I mean the fact that when they depart from the battle they hang the heads of their enemies from the necks of their horses. When they have brought them home, they nail the spectacle to the entrances of their homes. At any rate, Poseidonios says that he himself saw this spectacle in many places. Although at first he hated it, afterwards he became used to it and could bear it calmly. The heads of enemies of high repute, however, they used to embalm in cedar-oil and exhibit to strangers, and they would not dare to give them back even for a ransom of an equal weight of gold. But the Romans put a stop to these customs, as well as to all those connected with the sacrifices and divinations that are opposed to our usages. They used to strike a human being, whom they had devoted to death,​ in the back with a sabre, and then divine from his death-struggle. But they would not sacrifice without the Druids.​ We are told of still other kinds of human sacrifices: For example, they would shoot victims to death with arrows or impale them in the temples, or, having devised a colossus of straw and wood, throw into the colossus cattle and wild animals of all sorts and human beings, and then make a burnt-offering of the whole thing.

[Nimnitian women engaging in the rites of “Dionysos”]

In the ocean, Poseidonios says, there is a small island, not very far out to sea [Atlantic ocean], situated off the outlet of the Liger river [Loire, just out from modern Nantes, France]. The island is inhabited by women of the Samnitians (or: Samnites) [likely a mix-up for Nimnitians, as in Strabo, Geography 4.2.1 and Caesar, Gallic Wars 3.9]. They are possessed by Dionysos and make this god propitious by appeasing him with mystic initiations as well as other sacred performances. No man sets foot on the island, although the women themselves, sailing from it, have intercourse with the men and then return again. Poseidonios says that it is a custom of theirs once a year to unroof the temple and roof it again on the same day before sunset, each woman bringing her load to add to the roof. But the woman whose load falls out of her arms is torn to pieces by the rest of them, and they carry the pieces round the temple with the cry of “euai!”​ and do not cease until their frenzy stops. It is always the case, he says, that someone jostles the woman who is to suffer this fate.​ . .


Source of the translation: C.B. Gulick, Athenaeus: The Deipnosophists, 7 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1927-41), public domain (passed away in 1962 and copyright expired), and H.L. Jones, Strabo, 8 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1917-28), public domain (passed away in 1932), adapted by Harland.

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