Celts: Cicero’s ethnic invective against Gauls in defending Fonteius (mid-first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Celts: Cicero’s ethnic invective against Gauls in defending Fonteius (mid-first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 5, 2024, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=9958.

Ancient authors: Marcus Tullius Cicero, For Marcus Fonteius 12.29-35 (link)

Comments: This is a passage from Cicero’s defensive speech for Marcus Fonteius, former propraetor of the province of Gallia Narbonensis (overlapping with what is now Languedoc and Provence, Southern France) in the period 74-72 BCE, who subsequently faced a trial for financial exploitation in 69 BCE. Like his defence of Flaccus (which involved Judeans in Asia [link]), Cicero takes particular aim at the witnesses that brought charges against the official, in this case the subjugated Gauls (what Greeks called “Celts” or “Galatians”). In a no-holds-barred manner, Cicero’s invective culminates with his characterization of Gauls as a violent and untrustworthy people who regularly engage in human sacrifice. Cicero juxtaposes the sense of obligation (religio) that a proper elite Roman maintains to the twisted mentality and practice of the Gauls, who are therefore not reliable witnesses, he claims. Speeches like this show how ethnic stereotypes (some of which are encountered in more formal, historical ethnographic writing) and the acts of discrimination that could flow from them functioned within specific social settings.


[On the importance of the character of witnesses]

12 If, on the other hand, it is proper to consider the characters of individuals (and this surely must be of the highest importance in a witness), is even the most honourable of Gauls [or: Celts] to be set on the same level with the lowest Roman citizen, let alone with the highest men of our commonwealth? Does Indutiomarus [leader of the Treverian people among what a Roman would call “the Gauls,” on which see Julius Caesar, Gallic War 5.3-4, 26, 53-58] know what is meant by giving evidence? When he is brought into the witness-box, is he affected by that sense of awe from which none of us is exempt? 13 Remind yourselves, judges, what anxious pains you take not merely with regard to your utterances as witnesses but even with respect to the words you use, for fear that any words would seem overly emphasized or to have been spoken in a moment of emotion. Even regarding your facial features you take pains that no suspicion of self-interested motives should be indicated. You do this in order that when you enter the witness-box there may be a sort of silent assessment formed as to your modesty and good faith and that, when you leave, it may seem to have been maintained and confirmed to the letter.

[Negative example of Indutiomarus, the Treverian Gaul, as a witness]

No doubt, these are the very fears and thoughts which Indutiomarus entertained when he gave his evidence. In the first place, Indutiomarus left out of all his evidence that phrase of wholesome discretion which we are accustomed to employ, namely the phrase “I think.” This phrase is used by us when we express even on oath to statements of ascertained fact of which we have been eye-witnesses. In every case he said “ I know ”! Yes, for he was palpably afraid in case he should forfeit some of his reputation in your eyes and those of the Roman People, afraid of the tale going round, “ To think of a man like Indutiomarus making such partial, such wild statements.” But he failed to see that there was nothing which he was bound to furnish either to his own citizens or to our prosecutors in his evidence except his voice, his countenance, and his audacity.

[Gauls, the gods, and human sacrifice]

(30) Do you think that peoples (nationes) like that are influenced, when they give evidence, by the sanctity of an oath or by the fear of the immortal gods, differing so widely from all other peoples as they do in habits and in character? Other descent groups (gentes) claim to wage wars out of a sense of obligation to the gods (religio); they do so against every other peoples’ sense of obligation. Others in waging war request the favour and the pardon of the immortal gods; they wage war against the immortal gods themselves. 14 These are the peoples who in the old days set out on a journey far from their homes and came to the oracle of the Pythian Apollo at Delphi, the oracle of the whole world, to assault and despoil. It was these same descent groups of “sacred” and “careful observers of their duty” who threatened the Capitol and the temple of the Jupiter whose name our ancestors chose to seal their trust. Finally, can anything appear “holy” or “dutiful” (religio) to men who, if they ever are so affected by fear that they consider it necessary to placate the gods, defile the altars and temples of those gods with human victims, so that they cannot even perform their duties to the gods without starting with a crime?

For who does not know that to this very day they retain the monstrous and barbarous custom of sacrificing humans? So what do you think is the honour and what is the piety of those who even think that the immortal gods can best be appeased by human crime and bloodshed? And is it to such witnesses as these that you propose to compare your own sense of duty? Is it from these witnesses that you will look for upright or circumspect speech?

[Application to the case of Fonteius and call for acquital]

Will your minds, pure and upright as they are, bring themselves into such a state that, when all our ambassadors who for the last three years have arrived in Gaul, when all the Roman knights who have been in that province, when all the traders of that province, when, in short, all the allies and friends of the Roman people who are in Gaul, together wish Marcus Fonteius to be safe and praise him on their oaths both in public and in private, you should still prefer instead to join with the Gauls in slaughter? And what would you be thought to have followed? Is it men’s wishes? Shall the wishes of your enemies weigh more with you than those of your fellow-citizens? Is it the respectability of the witnesses? Can you then bring yourselves to prefer men you don’t know anything about to men you know, the prejudiced to the dispassionate, the foreigner to your own countrymen, the interested to the judicious, the hireling to the unrewarded, the unscrupulous to the conscientious, and the bitterest foes of our empire and our name to true and loyal allies and citizens?

15 Can you hesitate to believe, judges, when these descent groups have an innate hostility and wage incessant war against the name of the Roman People? Do you think that, with their cloaks and their pants [i.e. the clothing of a northern barbarian], they come to us in a lowly and submissive spirit, as others do who have suffered injuries and rush to us as suppliants and inferiors to beg for the help of the judges? Nothing is further from the truth. On the contrary, they are walking around with high spirits and with their heads held high all over the forum, uttering threatening expressions, and terrifying men with barbarous and ferocious language. In truth, I should not believe this, judges, if I had not repeatedly heard such things from the mouths of the accusers themselves in your presence, as when they warned you to take care in case, by acquitting this man, you should cause some new war with the Gauls.

If, judges, Marcus Fonteius lacked everything in this cause; if he appeared before the court after passing a disgraceful youth and an infamous life, having been convicted by the evidence of virtuous men of having discharged his duties as a magistrate (in which his conduct has been under your own eye) and as a lieutenant in a most scandalous manner and being hated by all his acquaintances; if in his trial he was overwhelmed by the oral and documentary evidence of the Narbonnese colonists of the Roman people, of our most faithful allies the Massalians, and of all the citizens of Rome; even then it would be your duty to take the greatest care, in case you should appear to be afraid of those men [Gauls] and to be influenced by their threats and menacing terrors, who were so prostrate and subdued in the times of your fathers and their ancestors, as to be contemptible.

(35) But now, when no good man says a word against him, but all your citizens and allies extol him; when those men attack him who have repeatedly attacked this city and this empire; and when the enemies of Marcus Fonteius threaten you and the Roman people; when his friends and relations come to you as suppliants, will you hesitate to show not only to your own citizens, who are mainly influenced by glory and praise, but also to foreign descent groups and peoples, that you, in giving your votes, prefer sparing a citizen to yielding to an enemy?

16 Among other reasons, judges, this is a very good reason for his acquittal: to prevent any notable stain and disgrace from falling on our empire through news going to Gaul that the Senate and knights of the Roman People gave their decisions in a criminal trial just like the Gauls wanted it, being influenced not by the Gauls’ evidence but by their threats. Now in that case, if they attempt to make war upon us, we must summon up Gaius Marius from the shades below, in order that he may be equal in war to that great man, that threatening and arrogant Indutiomarus. Gnaeus Domitius and Quintus Maximus must be raised from the dead so that they may again subdue and crush the nation of the Allobrogians (Alloboroges) and the other peoples by their arms. Or, since that is in fact impossible, we must beg my friend Marcus Plaetorius to deter his new clients from making war, and to oppose by his entreaties their angry feelings and formidable violence. Or, if he is not able to do so, we will ask Marcus Fabius, his junior counsel, to pacify the Allobrogians, since among them the name of Fabius is held in the highest honour, and ask Fabius to induce them either to be willing to remain quiet, as defeated and conquered peoples usually are, or else to make them understand that they are holding out to the Roman People not a terror of war, but a hope of triumph.


Source of the translation: N.H. Watts, Cicero, volume 14, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1931) for 12-14 and C. D. Yonge, The Orations of Marcus Tullius Cicero (London: G. Bohn, 1856) from 15 on, public domain, adapted by Harland.

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