Celts and Germans: Plutarch’s ethnographic digressions in the Lives (early second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Celts and Germans: Plutarch’s ethnographic digressions in the Lives (early second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 11, 2024, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=8426.

Ancient author: Plutarch, Life of Camillus 15-16 and Life of Marius 11.1-14 (link).

Comments: Plutarch’s Lives (bioi) or biographies of figures he considered important (written in the early second century CE) illustrate well how ethnographic discourses ranged across the boundaries of different genres of literature (and beyond literature as well). Plutarch’s digressions on northern peoples, particularly Celtic and German ones, find Plutarch engaging in wider debates among Greeks and Romans concerning the origins and relationships between different northern peoples, including Celts, Germans, Scythians, Kimbrians, Kimmerians, and others.


Camillus 15-16

[Digression on Galatians among the Celts in connection with the impending threat to Italy during the time of Furius Cammilus, ca. 390s BCE]

15 (1) The Galatians belong to the Celtic descent group (genos). Their numbers were so significant, as it is said, that they abandoned their own country, which was not able to sustain them all, and set out in quest of another. They were many tens of thousands of young warriors, and they took along with them a still larger number of women and children. Some of them crossed the Rhipaian mountains [imagined northern mountains], streamed off towards the northern ocean, and occupied the remotest parts of Europe. (2) Others settled between the Pyrenees mountains and the Alps, near the Senonians and the Celtorians, and stayed there a long time.

[Legend about the introduction of wine and invasion of Galatians / Celts]

Finally the Galatians got a taste of wine which was then for the first time brought to them from Italy. They liked the drink so much and were all so surprised by the new pleasures which it gave. So they took their weapons along with their families and went towards the Alps in quest of the land which produced such fruit, considering the rest of the world barren and wild.

(3) The man who introduced wine to them, and was first and foremost in sharpening their appetite for Italy, is said to have been Arron, a Tuscan. He was a man of prominence, and by nature not prone to evil, but had met with the following misfortune. Arron was guardian of an orphan boy who was heir to the greatest wealth in the city, and of amazing beauty, Lucumo by name. This Lucumo had lived with Arron since his youth and did not leave Arron’s house when he became a man, but pretended to take delight in relating to him. Lucomo had, however, corrupted Arron’s wife, and been corrupted by her, and for a long time kept the thing a secret. (4) But at last the passions of both culprits increased so that they could neither put away their desires nor longer hide them. For this reason, the young man made an open attempt to remove the woman and take her as his wife. Her husband brought the case to trial, but was defeated by Lucumo, owing to the multitude of his friends and his lavish outlays of money, and Arron left the city. Learning about the Gauls, he betook himself to them, and led them on their expedition to Italy.

16 (1) The Galatians burst in and immediately mastered all the country which the Tuscans occupied since the old days, namely, the land stretching from the Alps down to both seas, the names of which bear witness to the story. For the northern sea is called Adria [Adriatic], from the Tuscan city of Adria [modern Adria, Italy, south of Venice] and the southern is called outright the Tuscan sea [also the modern Adriatic]. (2) This whole country is studded with trees, has excellent pasturage for flocks and herds, and an abundance of rivers. It had also eighteen cities, large and fair, well equipped for profitable commerce and for sumptuous living. These the Galatians took away from the Tuscans and occupied themselves. But this happened long before the time of which I speak.


Marius 11.1-14

[Teutonians and Kimbrians in connection with the impending threat to Italy ca. 105 BCE]

11 (1) Soon, however, all this envy, hatred and slander of Marius [ca. 150-86 BCE] was removed and dissipated by the peril which threatened Italy from the west, as soon as the city felt the need of a great general and looked about for a pilot whom she might employ to save her from so great a deluge of war. Then the people would have nothing to do with anyone of high birth or of a wealthy house who offered himself at the consular elections, but proclaimed Marius consul in spite of his absence from the city. (2) For no sooner had word been brought to the people of the capture of Jugurtha [king of Numidia] than the reports about the Teutonians and Kimbrians (Kimbroi / Latinized as Cimbri) fell upon their ears [ca. 105 BCE]. What these reports said about the numbers and strength of the invading hosts was disbelieved at first, but afterwards it was found to be short of the truth. For three hundred thousand armed fighting men were advancing, and much larger hordes of women and children were said to accompany them. They were in quest of land to support so vast a population and of cities in which to settle and live, just as the Celts before them, as they learned, had taken the best part of Italy from the Tyrrhenians and now occupied it. (3) They themselves, indeed, had not had interactions with other peoples, and had traversed a great stretch of country, so that it could not be ascertained what people it was nor from where they had come in order to descend upon Galatia [the Celtic region] and Italy like a cloud.

[Theories concerning the invading peoples]


The most prevalent conjecture was that they were some of the Germanic descent groups (genē) which extended as far as the northern ocean. This was a conjecture based on their large build, their light-blue eyes, and the fact that the Germans label bandits (lēstai) “Kimbrians.”


But there are some who say that the Celtic region (Keltika) was wide and large enough to reach from the outer sea and the subarctic regions to lake Maiotis [Sea of Azov] on the east, where it bordered on Pontic Scythia, and that from that point on Celts and Scythians were mingled. These mixed Celts and Scythians had left their home and moved westward, not in a single march, nor even continuously, but with each recurring spring they had gone forward, fighting their way, and in the course of time had crossed the continent. (5) Therefore, while they had many different names for different detachments, they called their whole army by the general name of “Celto-Scythians.”

[Kimmerians as Kimbrians]

Others, however, say that the Kimmerians who were first known to the ancient Greeks were not a large part of the entire people, but merely a body of exiles or a faction which was driven away by the Scythians and passed from lake Maiotis into Asia under the lead of Lygdamis. Whereas the largest and most warlike part of the people lived at the confines of the earth along the outer sea, occupying a land that is shaded, wooded, and completely sunless due to the height and thickness of the trees, (6) which reach inland as far as the Herkynian forest. Regarding the skies, they are under that portion of them where the pole gets a great elevation by reason of the declination of the parallels, and appears to have a position not far removed from the spectator’s zenith, and a day and a night divide the year into two equal parts. This was of advantage to Homer in his story of Odysseus consulting the shades of the dead. (7) From these regions, then, these barbarians set out against Italy, being called at first Kimmerians, and then, not inappropriately, Kimbrians.

But all this is based on conjecture rather than on sure historical evidence. However, their population numbers are given by many writers as not less but more than the figure mentioned above. Moreover, their courage and daring made them irresistible, and when they engaged in battle they came on with the swiftness and force of fire, so that no one could withstand their onset. But all who came in their way became their prey and plunder. Even many large Roman armies, with their commanders, who had been stationed to protect Galatia [i.e. the Celtic region] beyond the Alps, were destroyed ingloriously. (9) In fact, by their weak resistance they were mainly instrumental in drawing the on-rushing barbarians down upon Rome. For when the invaders had conquered those who opposed them, and had got abundance of plunder, they determined not to settle themselves anywhere until they had destroyed Rome and ravaged Italy.

12 Learning of these things from many quarters, the Romans summoned Marius to the command. . . [Plutarch returns to his life of Marius].


Source of the translation: B. Perrin, Plutarch’s Lives, 11 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1914-1926), public domain, adapted by Harland.

Leave a comment or correction

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *