Celts: Strabo on peoples northwest of the Alps (early first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Celts: Strabo on peoples northwest of the Alps (early first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 11, 2024, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=8046.

Ancient authors: Ephoros, Artemidoros, Poseidonios, and others in Strabo, Geography 4.1-4 (link)

Comments: Writing in the decades leading up to 18 CE, Strabo of Amaseia’s lengthy explanation of the geography and peoples of the region beyond the Alps (to the northwest) which he labels “Celtica” provides extensive evidence regarding a Greek perspective (in the Augustan age) on Celts, Galatians, and others. Strabo draws on various unidentified sources. Among the authors he does mention are Ephoros of Kyme (mid-fourth century BCE), Poseidonios of Apameia (early to mid- first century BCE), and Artemidoros of Ephesos (ca. 100 BCE). While he cites Poseidonios positively, including Strabo’s acceptance of Poseidonios’ discussion of supposed head-hunting and human sacrifice practices, he is less accepting of the views of Ephoros and Artemidoros when they do appear.

Overall, Strabo divides the peoples of this large area of what is now France, Belgium and Luxembourg (north and west of the Italian Alps, but not as far west as Spain, which Strabo would call Iberia) into three groups that he sees as distinguishable in some way: Celts, Aquitanians, and Belgians. When dealing with the Celts, Strabo also goes into some depth on the Greek, Phokaian colonization of Massalia (Marseille) and the surrounding region. Despite his careful distinctions and attention to details in some respects, Strabo nonetheless concludes his overall account with a generalizing negative stereotype of “spirited” and violent yet senseless and “stupid” northerners, aligning the peoples of his account with a similar negative caricature of Germanic peoples (to the north and east).


[For Strabo’s preceding discussion of Iberian peoples, go to this link]

Book 4

[Three main people groups: Aquitanians, Celts, and Belgians]

1 (1) Next, in order, comes the Transalpine Celtic region [beyond the Alps to the northwest of Italy].​ I have already​ indicated roughly both the shape and the size of this country. But now I must speak of it in detail. Some, as we know, have divided it into three parts, calling its inhabitants Aquitanians, Belgians, and Celts. The Aquitanians, they said, are wholly different, not only in respect to their language but also in respect to their physical appearance, as they are more like the Iberians than the Galatians. While the rest of the inhabitants are Galatian in appearance, although not all speak the same language but some make slight variations in their languages. Furthermore, their communal organizations and modes of life are slightly different.

Now by “Aquitanians” and “Celts” they meant the two peoples (separated from each other by the Cemmenus mountain) who live next to the Pyrenees mountains. For, as has already been said,​ this Celtic region is bounded on the west by the Pyrenees, which join the sea on either side, that is, both the inner and the outer sea [Atlantic Ocean]. On the east, by the river Rhenus [Rhine], which is parallel to the Pyrenees. As for the parts on the north and the south, those on the north are surrounded by the ocean (beginning at the northern headlands of the Pyrenees) as far as the mouths of the Rhenus, while those on the opposite side are surrounded by the sea that is around Massalia [Marseille] and Narbo [Narbonne], and by the Alps (beginning at Liguria) as far as the sources of the Rhenus. The Cemmenus mountain has been drawn at right angles to the Pyrenees, through the midst of the plains. It comes to an end around the centre of these plains,​ near Lugdunum [Lyon, France],​ with an extent of about two thousand stadia.

So, then, by “Aquitanians” they meant the people who occupy the northern parts of the Pyrenees and, from the country of the Cemmenus on to the ocean, the parts this side of the Garumna [Garonne] river. By “Celts” they meant the people whose territory extends in the other direction, down to the sea that is around Massalia and Narbo and also joins some of the Alpine mountains. By “Belgians” they meant the rest of the people who live beside the Rhenus and the Alps. Deified Caesar has also put it this way in his Commentaries.

Augustus Caesar, however, divided the Transalpine Celtic region into four divisions [by 22 BCE]: the Celts he designated as belonging to the province of Narbonitis;​ the Aquitanians he designated as the former Caesar had already done, although he added to them fourteen peoples (ethnē) who dwell between the Garumna and the Liger [Loire] rivers; and, the rest of the country he divided into two parts, one part he included within the boundaries of Lugdunum as far as the upper districts of the Rhenus and​ the other he included within the boundaries of the Belgians.​ Now the geographer should relate all distinctions based on physical terrain and peoples, whenever they are worth recording. Yet with respect to diverse organizational divisions of particular eras which are made by the rulers, it is sufficient if one simply summarizes them. The accurate treatment of those should be left to others.

(2) Now the whole of this country is watered by rivers: some of them flow down from the Alps, the others from the Cemmenus and Pyrenees mountains. Some of these rivers are discharged into the ocean, the others into our sea [the Mediterranean Sea]. Further, the districts through which they flow are plains, for the most part, and hilly lands with navigable water-courses. The river-beds are by nature so well situated with reference to one another that there is transportation from either sea into the other. For the cargoes are transported only a short distance by land, with an easy transit through plains, but most of the way they are carried on the rivers, some into the interior and others to the sea. The Rhodanos [Rhone] river offers an advantage in this regard. For not only is it a stream of many tributaries, as has been stated,​ but it also connects with our sea, which is better than the outer sea [Atlantic Ocean], and traverses a country which is the most favoured of all in that part of the world. . . [further geographical descriptions relating to the rivers omitted].

[Phokaian colonization among the Celts at Massalia (Marseille) and surrounding areas]

(4) Massalia was founded by the Phokaians (or: Phocaeans, from Ionia in western Asia Minor / Turkey),​ and it is situated on a rocky place. Its harbour lies at the foot of a theatre-like rock which faces south. not only is the rock itself well fortified, but also the city as a whole, though it is of considerable size. It is on the headland, however, that the Ephesion and also the temple of the Delphinian​ Apollo are situated.

The latter is shared in common by all Ionians, whereas the Ephesion is a temple dedicated solely to the Ephesian Artemis. It is said that, when the Phokaians were setting sail from their homeland, an oracle was delivered to them indicating that they should use for their voyage a guide received from the Ephesian Artemis. Accordingly, some of them put in at Ephesos and inquired in what way they might procure from the goddess what had been enjoined in a dream. Now it is said that the goddess came in a dream and stood beside Aristarcha, one of the women held in very high honour. Artemis commanded her to sail away with the Phokaians, taking with her a certain reproduction​ which was among the sacred images. This done and the colony finally settled, they not only established the temple but also did Aristarcha the exceptional honour of appointing her priestess. Further, in the colonial cities​ the people everywhere do this goddess honours of the first rank, and they preserve the artistic design of the “xoanon”​ [image carved from wood] the same, and all the other usages precisely the same as is customary in the mother-city.

(5) The administration of the Massalians is aristocratic, and of all aristocracies theirs is the best ordered,​ since they have established an assembly of six hundred men, who hold the honour of that office for life. These they call the “honoured ones” (timouchoi). ​Over the assembly are set fifteen of its number, and to these fifteen it is given to carry on the administration. In turn, three, holding the chief power, preside over the fifteen.​ However, an “honoured one” cannot become one of these three unless he has children or is a descendant of persons who have been citizens for three generations. Their laws are Ionian, and are published to the people. They possess a country which, although planted with olive-trees and vines, is too poor for grain due to its ruggedness. The result is that they trusting the sea rather than the land and preferred their natural fitness for a seafaring life.

Later, however, their courage enabled them to take in some of the surrounding plains, thanks to the same military strength by which they founded their cities, I mean their stronghold-cities, namely, first, those which they founded in Iberia as strongholds against the Iberians​. (They also taught the Iberians the sacred rites of the Ephesian Artemis, as practised in the homeland, so that they sacrifice by the Greek ritual). Secondly, they founded Rhoe Agathe [Agde] as a stronghold against the barbarians who live around the river Rhodanos [Rhone]. Thirdly, they founded Tauroentium, Olbia, Antipolis, and Nikaia as strongholds against the tribe of the Sallyians and against those Ligurians who live in the Alps.

There are also dry-docks and an armoury among the Massalians. In earlier times they had a good supply of ships, as well as of arms and instruments that are useful for the purposes of navigation and for sieges. Thanks to these they not only held out against the barbarians, but also acquired the Romans as friends. Many times they not only rendered useful service to the Romans, but also were aided by the Romans in their own expansion. At any rate, Sextius [Gaius Sextius Calvinus], who defeated the Sallyians [ca. 122 BCE], after founding not very far from Massalia a city which bears his own name [i.e. Sextia, now Aix-en-Provence] and that of the “hot waters”​ (some of which, they say, have changed to cold waters). Sextius not only settled a garrison of Romans there, but also drove back the barbarians out of the seaboard which leads from Massalia into Italy, since the Massalians could not entirely keep them back. Yet not even Sextius could effect more than merely this: that at those parts of the coast where there were good harbours the barbarians retired for a distance of only twelve stadia, and at the rugged parts, only eight. The country thus abandoned by them he has given over to the Massalians.

In the Massalians’ citadel are set up great quantities of the first fruits of their victories, which they captured by defeating in naval battles those who from time to time unjustly disputed their claim to the mastery of the sea. In earlier times, then, they were exceptionally fortunate, not only in everything else, but also in their friendship with the Romans, of which one may detect many signs. What is more, the “xoanon”​ of that Artemis which is on the Aventine Hill was constructed by the Romans on the same artistic design as the “xoanon” which the Massalians have. But at the time of Pompey’s sedition against Caesar they joined the conquered party and as a result threw away the greater part of their prosperity. Nevertheless traces of their ancient enthusiasm are still left among the people, especially in regard to the making of instruments and to the equipment of ships. But since, on account of the overmastery of the Romans, the barbarians who are situated beyond the Massalians became more and more subdued as time went on. Instead of carrying on war, these barbarians have already turned to civic life and farming. So it may also be the case that the Massalians themselves no longer occupy themselves so earnestly with the pursuits mentioned above.

Their present state of life makes this clear. For all the men of culture turn to the art of speaking and the study of philosophy, so that the city, although a short time ago it was given over as merely a training-school for the barbarians and was schooling the Galatians to be fond enough of the Greeks to write even their contracts in Greek, at the present time has attracted also the most notable of the Romans, if eager for knowledge, to go to school there instead of making their foreign sojourn at Athens. Seeing these men and at the same time living at peace, the Galatians are glad to adapt their leisure to such modes of life, not only as individuals, but also in a public way. At any rate, they welcome sophists,​ hiring some at private expense, but others in common as cities, just as they do physicians.

The following might be put forward as a significant proof of the simplicity of the modes of life and the self-restraint of the Massalians: the maximum dowry among them is a hundred gold pieces, and five for dress, and five for golden ornaments. But more than this is not permitted. Both Caesar and the commanders who succeeded him, mindful of the former friendship, acted in moderation with reference to the wrongs done in the war, and preserved to the city the autonomy which it had had from the beginning. So that neither Massalia nor its subjects are subject to the praetors who are sent to the province.​ So much for Massalia. . . [geographical descriptions omitted].

(10) Lying off these narrow stretches of coast, if we begin at Massalia, are the five Stoichades islands,​ three of them of considerable size, but two quite small. They are tilled by Massalians. In early times the Massalians had also a garrison, which they placed there to meet the onsets of the sea-bandits, from where the islands were well supplied with harbours. Next, after the Stoichades, are the islands of Planasia and Lero, which have colonial settlements. In Lero there is also a hero-temple, namely, that in honour of Lero. This island lies off Antipolis. Besides this there are islands that are not worth mentioning, some off Massalia itself and the others off the rest of the above mentioned shore. As for the harbours, the one that is at the naval-station is of considerable size, and so is that of the Massalians, whereas the others are only of moderate size. Among these latter is the harbour that is called Oxybios [Agay], so named after the Oxybian Ligurians. This is what I have to say about the seaboard. . . [geographical descriptions omitted].

[1. Celtic peoples]

(12) As for the country which lies on the other side of the river [i.e. west of the Rhodanos / Rhone], most of it is occupied by those Volkians who are called Arekomiskians. Narbo is spoken of as the naval-station of these people alone, though it would be fairer to add “and of the rest of the Celtic region,” since it has so greatly surpassed the others in the number of people who use it as a trade-centre. Now, although the Volkians border on the Rhodanos, with the Sallyians and also the Kavarians stretching along parallel to them on the opposite side of the river, the name of the Kavarians prevails. People are already calling by that name all the barbarians in that part of the country. Rather, they are no longer barbarians, but are mostly transformed to the style of the Romans, both in their speech and in their modes of living, and some of them in their civic life as well. Again, situated alongside the Arekomiskians as far as the Pyrenees mountains, are other peoples, which are without repute and small. Now the metropolis of the Arekomiskians is Nemausus [Nîmes], which, although it comes considerably short of Narbo [Narbonne] in its population of foreigners and of merchants, surpasses Narbo in that of citizens. For twenty-four villages are subject to its authority, villages which are exceptional in their supply of strong men drawn from the same people and which contribute towards its expenses. it has also what is called the “Latin right,”​ so that those who have been thought worthy of the offices of aedile and quaestor at Nemausus are by that preferment Roman citizens. On account of this fact, this people too is not subject to the orders of the praetors who are sent out from Rome.​ The city is situated on the road that leads from Iberia into Italy, which, although it is easy to travel in summer, is muddy and also flooded by the rivers in winter and spring. Now some of the streams are crossed by ferries, others by bridges, which are made of either timber or stone. But it is the torrents that cause the annoying difficulties that result from the waters, since, after the melting away of the snows, they sometimes rush down from the Alps even till the summer-time. . . [omitted material].

(13) The people who are called Tektosagians closely approach the Pyrenees mountains, though they also reach over small parts of the northern side of the Cemmenus mountains. The land they occupy is rich in gold. It appears that at one time they were so powerful and had so large a population of strong men that, when a sedition broke out in their midst, they drove a considerable number of their own people out of the homeland. Again, that other persons from other peoples made common lot with these exiles.

[Tektosagian migrations and colonization of Ankyra area, Turkey]

Among these are also those people who have taken possession of that part of Phrygia [central Turkey] which has a common boundary with Cappadocia and the Paphlagonians.​ Now as proof of this we have the people who are still, even at the present time, called Tektosagians. For there are three peoples, one of them which lives around the city of Ankyra [Ankara, Turkey] is called “the people of the Tektosagians,” while the remaining two are the Trokmians and the Tolistobogians. Although the latter two peoples are of the same tribe (symphylos) with the Tektosagians, which indicates that they emigrated from the Celtic region, I am unable to tell from what districts they came from. For I have not learned of any Trokmians or Tolistobogians who now live beyond the Alps, or within them, or this side of them.

But it is reasonable to suppose that nothing has been left of them in the Celtic region on account of their thoroughgoing migrations, just as is the case with several other peoples. For example, some say that the second Brennus​ who made an invasion against Delphi [ca. 278 BCE] was a Prausian, but I am unable to say where on earth the Prausians formerly lived, either. it is further said that the Tektosagians shared in the expedition to Delphi.

Even the treasures that were found among them in the city of Tolosa [Toulouse] by Caepio, a general of the Romans [ca. 106-105 BCE], were, it is said, a part of the valuables that were taken from Delphi, although the people, in trying to consecrate them and propitiate the god, added to the valuables out of their personal properties. It was on account of having laid hands on them that Caepio ended his life in misfortunes, for he was cast out by his native land as a temple-robber. Timagenes has said that Caepio left behind as his heirs female children only, who, as it turned out, became prostitutes and therefore perished in disgrace. However, the account of Poseidonios is more plausible: for he says that the treasure that was found in Tolosa amounted to about fifteen thousand talents (part of it in sacred lakes), unfinished, that is, merely gold and silver bullion. Whereas the temple at Delphi was in those times already empty of such treasure, because it had been robbed at the time of the sacred war by the Phokians. But even if something was left, it was divided by many among themselves. Neither is it reasonable to suppose that they reached their homeland in safety, since they fared wretchedly after their retreat from Delphi and, because of their dissensions, were scattered in one direction or another.

But, as has been said both by Poseidonios and several others, since the country was rich in gold and also belonged to people who were god-fearing and not extravagant in their ways of living, it came to have treasures in many places in the Celtic region. But it was the lakes, most of all, that afforded the treasures their inviolability, into which the people let down heavy masses of silver or even of gold. At any event, after they controlled the regions, the Romans sold the lakes for the public treasury, and many of the buyers found in them hammered mill-stones of silver. In Tolosa, the temple too was sacred, since it was very much revered by the inhabitants of the surrounding country. On this account the treasures there were excessive, for numerous people had dedicated them and no one dared to lay hands on them.

[Area as ideal environment and the development of civilization]

(14) Tolosa is situated on the narrowest part of the isthmus which separates the ocean from the sea that is at Narbo, which isthmus, according to Poseidonios is less than three thousand stadium-lengths in width. But it is above all worth while to note again a characteristic of this region which I have spoken of before​: the harmonious arrangement of the country with reference not only to its rivers but also to the sea, alike both the outer sea​ [Atlantic Ocean] and the inner [Mediterranean]. For one might find, if he set his thoughts upon the matter, that this is not the least factor in the excellence of the regions: I mean the fact that the necessities of life are with ease interchanged by every one with every one else and that the advantages which have arisen from this situation are common to all. But especially so at present, when being at leisure from the weapons of war, the people are tilling the country diligently and are devising for themselves modes of life that are civil. Therefore, in the cases of this sort, one might believe that there is confirmatory evidence for the workings of Providence, since the regions are laid out, not in a fortuitous way, but as though in keeping with some calculated plan. . . . [omitted material].

[2. Aquitanian peoples]

2 (1) Next, I must discuss the Aquitanians, and the peoples which have been included within their boundaries,​ namely, the fourteen Galatian peoples (ethnē) which inhabit the country between the Garumna [Garonne] and the Liger [Loire] rivers [i.e. western France approaching Spain], some of which reach even to the river-land of the Rhodanos [Rhone] and to the plains of Narbonitis. For, speaking in a general way, the Aquitanians differ from the Galatian tribe (phylē) in the build of their bodies as well as in their speech. That is, they are more like the Iberians [in Spain].​ Their country is bounded by the Garumna river, since they live between this and the Pyrenees mountains. There are more than twenty peoples among the Aquitanians, but they are small and lacking in repute. The majority of the peoples live along the ocean, while the others reach up into the interior and to the summits​ of the Cemmenus mountains, as far as the Tektosagians. But since a country of this size was only a small division, they​ added to it the country which is between the Garumna and the Liger.

These rivers [Garonne and Loire] are approximately parallel to the Pyrenees and form with the Pyrenees two parallelograms, since they are bounded on their other sides by the ocean and the Cemmenus mountains. The voyage on either of the rivers is, all told, two thousand stadia. The Garumna, after being increased by the waters of three rivers, discharges its waters into the region that is between those Biturigians that are surnamed “Vibiskians” and the Santonians, both of them Galatian peoples. For the people of these Biturigians is the only people of a different tribe (phylē) that is situated among the Aquitanians. It does not pay tribute to them, though it has a trading-centre, called Burdigala [Bordeaux], which is situated on a lagoon that is formed by the outlets of the river… [omitted material].

(2) Those tribes between the Garumna and the Liger that belong to Aquitania are, first, the Eluians, whose territory begins at the Rhodanos, and then, after them, the Vellavians, who were once included within the boundaries of the Arvernians, though they are now ranked as autonomous. Then the Arvernians, the Lemovikians, and the Petrokorians. Next to these, the Nitiobrigians, the Kadurkians, and those Biturigians that are called “Koubians.” ​Next to the ocean, both the Santonians and the Pictonians, the former living along the Garumna, as I have said, the latter along the Liger. But the Rutenians and the Gabalians closely approach Narbonitis.

Now among the Petrokorians there are fine iron-works, and also among the Biturigian Koubians. Among the Kadurkians, there are linen factories. Among the Rutenians, there are silver mines. The Gabalians, also, have silver mines. The Romans have given the “Latin right”​ to certain of the Aquitanians just as they have done in the case of the Auscians and the Convenians.

[Details about the Arvernians]

(3) The Arvernians are situated on the Liger. Their metropolis is Nemossus [Nîmes],​ a city situated on the Liger. This river, after flowing past Cenabum (the trading-centre of the Karnutians at about the middle of the voyage, a trading-centre that is jointly peopled),​ discharges its waters towards the ocean. As for their former power, the Arvernians present as a major proof the fact that they often warred against the Romans, at times with two hundred thousand men, and again, with double that number. They had double that number, for example, when they, with Vercingetorix, struggled to a finish against the deified Caesar [ending in 52 BCE]. And, before that, also, with two hundred thousand against Maximus Aemilianus [ca. 121-120 BCE], and also, in like manner, against Domitius​ Ahenobarbus [122 BCE]. Now the struggles against Caesar took place near Gergovia [near modern Clermont-Ferrand] (a city of the Arvernians, situated on a high mountain), where Vercingetorix was born, and also near Alesia (a city of the Mandubians, a people that has a common boundary with the Arvernians, and this city too is situated on a high hill, although it is surrounded by mountains and two rivers), in which not only the commander was captured but the war had its end. But the struggles against Maximus Aemilianus took place at the confluence of the Isar [Isère] and the Rhodanos [Rhone] rivers, where the Cemmenus mountain approaches closely the Rhodanos, and against Domitius Ahenobarbus, at a place still lower down the Rhodanos, at the confluence of the Sulgas and the Rhodanos.

Again, the Arvernians not only had extended their control as far as Narbo and the boundaries of Massiliotis, but they were also masters of the peoples as far as the Pyrenees, and as far as the ocean and the Rhenus. Luerios, the father of the Bituitos who warred against Maximus and Domitius, is said to have been so exceptionally rich and extravagant. Once, when making a display of his opulence to his friends, he rode on a carriage through a plain, scattering gold and silver coins here and there, for his followers to pick up.

[3. Belgian peoples]

3 (1) The country next in order after the Aquitanian division​ and Narbonitis​ reaches as far as the whole of the Rhenus, extending from the Liger river and also from the Rhodanos at the point where the Rhodanos, after it runs down from its source, touches Lugdunum [Lyon]. Now of this country the upper parts that are next to the sources of the rivers (the Rhenus and the Rhodanos), extending as far, approximately, as the centre of the plains, have been classified under Lugdunum. Whereas the remaining parts, including the parts along the ocean, have been classified under another division, I mean that division which is specifically assigned to the Belgians. As for me, however, I shall point out the separate parts in a rather general way.

(2) Lugdunum [Lyon] itself – a city founded at the foot of a hill at the confluence of the river Arar [Saône] and the Rhodanos [Rhone] – is occupied by the Romans. it is the most populous of all the cities of the Celtic region except Narbo. For not only do people use it as a trading-centre, but the Roman governors coin their money there, both the silver and the gold. Again, the temple that was dedicated to Caesar Augustus by all the Galatians in common is situated in front of this city at the junction of the rivers. In it is a noteworthy altar, bearing an inscription of the names of the peoples, sixty in number. also images from these peoples, one from each people, and also another large altar.

The city of Lugdunum presides over the people of the Segusiavans, which is situated between the Rhodanos and the Dubis [Doubs] rivers. The peoples that come next in order after the Segusiavans, I mean those which together stretch towards the Rhenus [Rhine], are bounded partly by the Dubis and partly by the Arar. Now these rivers too, as I have said before, first run down from the Alps, and then, falling into one stream, run down into the Rhodanos. there is still another river, Sequana [Seine] by name, which likewise has its sources in the Alps. It flows into the ocean, however, running parallel to the Rhenus, through a people with a similar name, whose country joins the Rhenus in its eastern parts, but in the opposite parts, the Arar. It is from their country that the finest of salted hog-meat is brought down and shipped to Rome.

Now between the Dubis and the Arar dwells the tribe of the Aiduans, with their city of Cabyllinum [Chalon-sur-Saône], on the Arar, and their garrison of Bibrakte. (The Aiduans were not only called kinsmen of the Romans, but they were also the first of the peoples in that country to apply for their friendship and alliance.)

But across the Arar dwell the Sequanians, who, for a long time, in fact, had been at variance with the Romans as well as with the Aiduans. This was because they often joined forces with the Germans in their attacks upon Italy. Aye, and they demonstrated that theirs was no ordinary power: they made the Germans strong when they took part with them and weak when they stood aloof. As regards the Aedui, not only were the Sequanians at variance with them for the same reasons, but their hostility was intensified by the strife about the river that separates them, since each tribe claimed that the Arar was its private property and that the transportation tolls belonged to itself. Now, however, everything is subject to the Romans.

(3) As for the country that is on the Rhenus, the first of all the peoples who live there are the Helvetians, in whose territory, on Mount Adula, are the sources of the river. . . [description of rivers and geographic features omitted]. . . It is said also that the Helvetians, although rich in gold, nonetheless turned themselves to banditry upon seeing the opulence of the Kimbrians. But that on their campaigns two of their tribes (phylai) – there had been three – were obliterated. But still the number of the descendants from what was left of them was shown by their war against the deified Caesar, in which about four hundred thousand lives were destroyed, although Caesar allowed the rest of them, about eight thousand, to escape, so as not to abandon the country, destitute of inhabitants, to the Germans, whose territory bordered on theirs.

(4) After the Helvetians, along the Rhenus, dwell the Sequanians and the Mediomatrikans, in whose territory are situated the Tribocchans, a Germanic tribe which crossed the river from their homeland. Mount Jura is in the territory of the Sequanians. It marks the boundary between the Helvetians and the Sequanians. So it is beyond the Helvetians and the Sequanians, towards the west, that the Aiduans and the Lingonians dwell. Beyond the Mediomatrikians, that the Leukans and a part of the Lingonians dwell. But those tribes between the Liger and the Sequana rivers that are on the far side of the Rhodanus and the Arar are situated side by side, towards the north, with both the Allobrogians and the people round Lugdunum. Among these peoples the most conspicuous are those of the Arvernians and the Karnutians, through both of whose territories the Liger runs on its way out to the ocean. The passage across to Britain from the rivers of Celtica is three hundred and twenty stadia. For if you put to sea on the ebb-tide at nightfall, you land upon the island about the eighth hour on the following day.

After the Mediomatrikians and the Tribocchians, along the Rhenus, dwell the Treverians, near whom the bridge has been built by the Roman officers who are now conducting the Germanic war.​ The Oubians used to live opposite this region, across the Rhenus, though by their own consent they were transferred by Agrippa to the country this side the Rhenus. Next after the Treverians are the Nervians, who are also a Germanic tribe. Last come the Menapians, who dwell on both sides of the river near its mouths, in marshes and woods (not of tall timber, but dense and thorny). It is opposite to these that the Sugambrians are situated, a Germanic people. But beyond this whole river-country are those Germans who are called the Suevians and excel all the others in power and numbers (the people driven out by the Suevians in our time have been fleeing for refuge to this side of the Rhenus). Other peoples are in control in different places, and in their turn take up the tinders of war, but the foremost are always put down.

(5) West of the Treverians and the Nervians live the Senones and the Remi, and farther on, the Atrebatians and the Eburonians. after the Menapians, on the sea, are, in their order, the Morinians, the Bellovakians, the Ambianians, the Suessionians, and the Kaletians, as far as the outlet of the Sequana [Seine] river. Both the country of the Morinians and that of the Atrebatians and Eburonians resemble that of the Menapians. For much of it, though not so much as the historians have said (four thousand stadia), is a forest, consisting of trees that are not tall. The forest is called Arduenna [Ardennes forest running through Belgium and Luxembourg]. At the time of hostile onsets they used to intertwine the withes of the brushwood, since the withes were thorny, and so block the passage of the enemy. In some places they also used to fix stakes in the ground. They along with their whole families would slink away into the depths of the forest, for they had small islands in their marshes. Now although the refuge they took was safe for them in the rainy seasons, they were easily captured in the dry seasons. But as it is, all the peoples this side the Rhenus are living in a state of peace and are submissive to the Romans. The Parisians live round about the Sequana river, having an island in the river and a city called Lukotokia [Paris]. so do the Meldians and the Lexovians, who are beside the ocean. But the most noteworthy of all the peoples in this part of the Celtic region is that of the Remians. Their metropolis, Duricortorum [Reims], is most thickly settled and is the city that hosts the Roman governors.

4 (1) After the peoples mentioned already, the rest are peoples of those Belgians who live on the ocean-coast. Among the Belgians, there are, first, the Venetians who fought the naval battle with Caesar. For they were already prepared to hinder his voyage to Britain, since they were using the trading-centre there. But he easily defeated them in the naval battle, making no use of ramming (for the beams were thick). Yet when the Venetians bore down upon him with the wind, the Romans hauled down their sails by means of pole-hooks. For, on account of the violence of the winds, the sails were made of leather, and they were hoisted by chains instead of ropes. Because of the ebb-tides, they make their ships with broad bottoms, high sterns, and high prows. They make them of oak (of which they have a plentiful supply), and this is why they do not bring the joints of the planks together but leave gaps. They stuff the gaps full of sea-weed, however, so that the wood may not, for lack of moisture, become dry when the ships are hauled up, because the sea-weed is naturally rather moist, whereas the oak is dry and without fat.

It is these Venetians, I think, who settled the colony that is on the Adriatic (for about all the Celts that are in Italy migrated from the Transalpine land, just as did the Boians and Senonians). However, on account of the similarity of the name, people call them Paphlagonians.​ I do not speak positively, however, for with reference to such matters probability suffices. Secondly, there are the Osismians (whom Pytheas calls the Ostimians), who live on a promontory that projects quite far out into the ocean, though not so far as he and those who have trusted him say. But of the peoples that are between the Sequana and the Liger, some border on the Sequanians, others on the Arvernians.

[Overall evaluation of Celts and Galatian peoples]

(2) The whole tribe (phylē) which is now called both “Gallic” and “Galatian” is war-mad, and both high-spirited (thymikon) and quick for battle, although otherwise simple (haploos) and not ill-mannered. Therefore, if roused, they come together all at once for the struggle, both openly and without circumspection, so that for those who wish to defeat them by stratagem they become easy to deal with. (In fact, they irritate them when, where, or by what chance pretext you please, and you have them ready to risk their lives, with nothing to help them in the struggle but strength and daring). Whereas, if coaxed, they so easily yield to considerations of utility that they lay hold, not only of training in general, but of language-studies as well. As for their strength, it arises partly from their large physical build and partly from their numbers.

On account of their trait of simplicity and straightforwardness (authekastos) they easily come together in great numbers, because they always share in the frustration of those of their neighbours whom they think wronged. At the present time, they are all at peace, since they have been enslaved and are living in accordance with the commands of the Romans who captured them.

[Comparing Galatians with Germans, on which also see Julius Caesar]

But it is from the early times that I am taking this account of them, and also from the customs that hold fast to this day among the Germans. For these peoples are not only similar in respect to their nature and their communal organizations, but they also share common descent (syggeneis) with one another. Further, they live in country that has a common boundary, since it is divided by the river Rhenus [Rhine], and the most of its regions are similar (though Germany is further north), if the southern regions be judged with reference to the southern and also the northern with reference to the northern. But it is also on account of this trait that their migrations easily take place, for they move in droves, army and all, or rather they make off, households and all, whenever they are cast out by others stronger than themselves.

[Roman conquest of these peoples]

Again, the Romans conquered these people much more easily than they did the Iberians. In fact, the Romans began earlier, and stopped later, carrying on war with the Iberians, but in the meantime defeated all these. I mean all the peoples who live between the Rhenus and the Pyrenees mountains. For, since the former [i.e. Celts and Germans] were accustomed to fall upon their opponents all at once and in great numbers, they were defeated all at once, but the latter [i.e. Iberians] would reserve their resources and divide their struggles, carrying on war in the manner of bandits (lēstrikōs), different men at different times and in separate divisions. Now, although they are all fighters by nature, they are better as cavalry than as infantry. The best cavalry-force the Romans have comes from these people. However, it is always those who live more to the north and along the ocean-coast that are the more warlike.

(3) Among these people, they say, the Belgians are the bravest (who have been divided into fifteen peoples that live along the ocean between the Rhenus and the Liger). Consequently they alone could hold out against the onset of the Germans, the Kimbrians and Teutonians. But of the Belgians themselves, they say, the Bellovakians are bravest, and after them the Suessionians. As for the largeness of the population, this is an indication: it is found upon inquiry, they say, that there are as many as three hundred thousand of those Belgians (of former times) who are able to bear arms. I have already told the number of the Helvetians, Arvernians, and their allies. From all of this the large size of the population is clear, as well as what I spoke about above, namely the excellence of the women in regard to the bearing and nursing of children.

[Celts’ appearance and way of life]

The Gallic people wear the cloak (sagus), let their hair grow long, and wear tight, short pants. Instead of tunics​ they wear slit tunics that have sleeves and reach as far as their private parts and the buttocks. The wool of their sheep, from which they weave the coarse cloaks (which they call “lainai“), is not only rough, but also flocky at the surface. The Romans, however, even in the most northerly parts raise skin-clothed flocks with wool that is sufficiently fine.

The Gallic armour is commensurate with the large size of their bodies: a long sabre, which hangs along the right side, and a long oblong shield, and spears in proportion, and a “madaris,” a special kind of javelin. But some of them also use bows and slings. There is also a certain wooden instrument resembling the javelin (grosphos) which is hurled by hand, not by thong, and ranges even farther than an arrow. They especially use this for the purposes of bird-hunting. Most of them, even to the present time, sleep on the ground, and eat their meals seated on beds of straw.

They eat large quantities of food, along with milk and meat of all sorts, but particularly the meat of hogs, both fresh and salted. Their hogs run wild, and they are of exceptional height, boldness, and swiftness. At any rate, it is dangerous for one unfamiliar with their ways to approach them, and likewise, also, for a wolf. As for their houses, which are large and dome-shaped, they make them of planks and wicker, throwing up over them quantities of thatch.

Their flocks of sheep and herds of swine are so large that they supply an abundance of the cloaks and the salt-meat, not only to Rome, but to most parts of Italy as well. The greater number of their communal organizations used to be aristocratic, although in the old days only one leader was chosen annually. So, likewise, for war, only one man was declared general by the common people. But now they give heed, for the most part, to the commands of the Romans.

There is a procedure that takes place in their assemblies which is peculiar to them: if a man disturbs the speaker and heckles him, the assistant approaches him with drawn sword, and with a threat commands him to be silent. If he does not stop, the assistant does the same thing a second time, and also a third time, but at last cuts off enough of the man’s cloak (sagos) to make it useless for the future. But as for their custom relating to the men and the women (I mean the fact that their tasks have been exchanged, in a manner opposite to what obtains among us), it is one which they share in common with many other barbarian peoples.

[Three classes of men]

(4) Among all the Gallic peoples, generally speaking, there are three sets of men who are held in exceptional honour: the Bards, the Seers (ouateis) and the Druids. The Bards are singers and poets. The Seers are diviners and natural philosophers. While the Druids, in addition to natural philosophy, study also moral philosophy. The Druids are considered the most just of men, and on this account they are entrusted with the decision, not only of the private disputes, but of the public disputes as well. In former times, they even arbitrated cases of war and made the opponents stop when they were about to line up for battle. The murder cases, in particular, had been turned over to them for decision. Further, when there is a big yield from these cases, there is forthcoming a big yield from the land too, as they think. However, not only the druids, but others as well, say that men’s souls, and also the universe, are indestructible, although both fire and water will at some time or other prevail over them.

(5) In addition to their trait of simplicity and high-spiritedness, that of stupidity and boastfulness is much in evidence, and also that of fondness for ornaments. For they not only wear golden ornaments (both chains round their necks and bracelets round their arms and wrists) but their dignitaries wear garments that are dyed in colours and sprinkled with gold. By reason of this trivial character they are not only intolerable when victorious, but also scared out of their wits when beaten.

[Customs relating to heads of enemies and human sacrifice]

Again, in addition to their stupidity, there is also that custom, barbarous and exotic, which attends most of northern peoples: I mean the fact that when they depart from the battle, they hang the heads of their enemies from the necks of their horses and, when they have brought them home, nail the spectacle to the entrances of their homes. At any rate, Poseidonios says that he himself saw this spectacle in many places, and that, although at first he hated it, through his familiarity with it later on he could bear it calmly. The heads of enemies of high status, however, they used to embalm in cedar-oil and exhibit to strangers. 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 large statue of straw and wood, throw into the statue’s cavity cattle and wild animals of all sorts and human beings, and then make a burnt-offering of the whole thing.

[All-female Samnitian / Samnite people]

(6) In the ocean, he [Poseidonios] says, there is a small island, not very far out to sea, situated off the outlet of the Liger [Loire] river. The island is inhabited by women of the Samnitians, and they are possessed by Dionysos and make this god propitious by appeasing him with 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. He says 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 rent to pieces by the rest, and they carry the pieces round the temple with the cry of “euai!” and do not cease until their frenzy ceases. It is always the case, he says, that some one jostles the woman who is to suffer this fate.

[Other marvels and historians’ claims of various sorts]

But the following story which Artemidoros has told about the case of the crows is still more fabulous: there is a certain harbour on the ocean-coast, his story goes, which is named “Two Crows,” and in this harbour are to be seen two crows, with their right wings somewhat white. So the men who have disputes about certain things come here, put a plank on an elevated place, and then throw on barley cakes, each man separately. The birds fly up, eat some of the barley cakes and scatter the others. The man whose barley cakes are scattered wins his dispute. Now, although this story is more fabulous, his story about Demeter and Kore is more credible. He says that there is an island near Britain on which sacrifices are performed like those sacrifices in Samothrake that have to do with Demeter and Kore.

The following, too, is one of the things that are believed, namely, that in the Celtic region there grows a tree like a fig-tree, and that it brings forth a fruit similar to a sculpted Corinthian capital of a column. That, if an incision is made, this fruit exudes a sap which, as used for the smearing of arrows, is deadly. The following, too, is one of the things that are repeated over and over again, namely, that not only are all Celts fond of strife, but among them it is considered no disgrace for the young men to be wreckless with respect to their youthful charms.

[Disagreements with Ephoros on the Celtic region]

Ephoros, in his account, makes the Celtic region so excessive in its size that he assigns to the Celtic region most of the areas as far as Gades [Cádiz, Spain], of what we now call Iberia. Further, he declares that the people are friendly towards Greeks, and specifies many things about them that do not fit the facts of today. The following, also, is a thing peculiar to them, that they endeavour not to grow fat or pot-bellied, and any young man who exceeds the standard measure around the waist is punished. So much for the Transalpine Celtic region (Celtica).

[For Strabo’s subsequent discussion of peoples in Britannia, go to this link]


Source: 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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