Celts: Diodoros on Galatian origins and “savage” customs (mid-first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Celts: Diodoros on Galatian origins and “savage” customs (mid-first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified August 21, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=17216.

Ancient author: Diodoros of Sicily (mid-first century BCE), Library of History 5.24-32 (link).

Comments: Diodoros of SIcily provides one of the most extensive Greek characterizations of the origins, customs and nature of the Celts, or in this case Diodoros’ favourite term is “Galatians.” In terms of his categories, it should be noted that Diodoros thinks he is able to distinguish between northwestern and northeastern populations, using “Celts” (who are not to the focus) for the former and “Galatians” for those to the northeast, and he also suggests some subsets may be the equivalent of the “Kimmerians” and “Kimbrians” (the latter often viewed as a subset of German peoples).

Galatians are portrayed at times in a somewhat straightforward manner with an emphasis on daily customs and appearance. Diodoros also stresses the cold and harsh environment, which matches with the portrayal of violent and war-like populations. However, there are numerous points at which Diodoros stresses their “savage” nature, including reference to supposed dismemberment of enemies, human sacrifice, and eating of human flesh. At times Diodoros focusses on the supposedly paradoxical or inverted nature of their lifestyle, including unusual (to him) gender roles and forms of sexuality. As discussed in other posts, such stock characterizations of foreign others as queer in some sense were common and should not be taken as descriptive any more than any other accusations launched here, even if they seem to hold promise for instances of ancient gender subversion.

For more on ethnography and gender see Kotrosits, “The Ethnography of Gender” (link).

What becomes clear as one progresses through the varied (and sometimes somewhat contradictory) description is that Diodoros is, in fact, describing a variety of different peoples (e.g. Kimmerians, Kimbrians, various sub-groups of Celts) from a Greek perspective rather than one coherent group. This may also reflect Diodoros’ combination of materials from a variety of different sources, some of which may have been more neutral and others more critical about the peoples in question. Unfortunately, Diodoros never expressly names any of his sources.

Source of the translation: C. H. Oldfather, Diodorus Sicilus: Library of History, volumes 1-6, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1935-1952), public domain (passed away in 1954), adapted by Victoria Muccilli and Harland.

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[For Diodoros’ preceding discussion of Britons, go to this link.]

Book 5

[Founder: Galates, son of Herakles]

24  Since we have presented the facts concerning the islands which lie in the western regions, we think that it will not be out of place for our purpose to discuss briefly the peoples of Europe which lie near them and which we failed to mention in our earlier books. Now we are told that the Celtic region (Keltika) was ruled in ancient times by a renowned man who had a daughter who was of unusual stature and far excelled all other maidens in beauty. Because of her strong body and amazing beauty, she was so arrogant that she kept refusing every man who pursued her for marriage, since she believed that no one of her persuers was worthy of her. (2) Now in the course of his campaign against the Geryonians, Herakles visited the Celtic region and founded there the city of Alesia. On seeing Herakles, this young woman was amazed at his physical prowess and superior body, and eagerly accepted his embraces after her parents had given their consent. (3) From this union she bore to Herakles a son named Galates, who far surpassed all the youths of the same people (homoethnē) in quality of spirit and strength of body. And when he grew to be a man and had succeeded to the throne of his fathers, he subdued a large part of the neighbouring territory and accomplished great feats in war. Becoming renowned for his bravery, he called his subjects Galatians (Galatai)​ after himself, and these in turn gave their name to all of Galatia [i.e. the Celtic region in is mind, not the later migration to central Turkey].

[Peoples and land]

25  Since we have explained the name by which the Galatians are known, we must go on to speak about their land. Galatia is inhabited by many peoples (ethnē) of different-sized populations. For the largest population is some two hundred thousand men and the smallest fifty thousand. One of the latter​ populations [i.e. the so-called Aeduians] standing on terms of kinship and friendship with the Romans, a relation­ship which has endured from ancient times down to our own day.

(2) Because the land lies for the most part under the Bears [constellation], the land has a wintry climate and is extremely cold. For during the winter season on cloudy days snow falls deep in place of rain, and on clear days ice and heavy frost are everywhere and in such abundance that the rivers are frozen over and are bridged by their own waters. For not only can chance travellers, proceeding a few at a time, make their way on the ice, but even armies with their tens of thousands (together with their beasts of burden and heavily laden wagons) cross over the ice in safety to the other side.

(3) Many large rivers flow through Galatia, and their streams cut this way and that through the level plain. While some of them flow from bottomless lakes and others having their sources and affluents in the mountains, others of them empty into the ocean and others into our sea. The largest one of those which flow into our waters is the Rhodanos [Rhone], which has its sources in the Alps and empties into the sea through five mouths. (4) But of the rivers which flow into the ocean the largest are thought to be the Danube​ and the Rhine, the latter of which the Caesar who has been called a god [i.e. Julius Caesar] spanned with a bridge in our own day with astonishing skill, and leading his army across on foot he subdued the Galatians who lived beyond it [link to Julius Caesar’s account]. (5) There are also many other navigable rivers in the Celtic region, but it would be a long task to write about them. And almost all of them become frozen over by the cold and so bridge their own streams. Since the natural smoothness of the ice makes the crossing slippery for those who pass over, they sprinkle chaff on it and thus have a crossing which is safe.

[Climate and drinking habits]

26  A strange and unexpected thing happens throughout most of Galatia which we think we should not leave out. For from the direction of the sun’s summer setting​ and from the north winds blow with such violence and force that they pick up from the ground rocks as large as can be held in the hand together with a dust composed of coarse gravel. Generally speaking, when these winds rage violently, they tear the weapons out of men’s hands and the clothing off their backs and dismount riders from their horses. (2) Furthermore, since temperateness of climate is destroyed by the excessive cold, the land produces neither wine nor oil, and as a consequence those Galatians who are deprived of these fruits make a drink out of barley which they call “zythos” [i.e. beer]. They also drink the water with which they cleanse their honeycombs. (3) The Galatians are very addicted to the use of wine and fill themselves with the wine which is brought into their country by merchants, drinking it unmixed. Since they consume this drink without moderation by reason of their craving for it, when they are drunken, they fall into a stupor or a state of madness. Consequently many of the Italian traders, induced by the love of money which characterizes them, believe that the love of wine of these Galatians is a gift from the god Hermes [i.e. a godsend].​ For these traders transport the wine on the navigable rivers by means of boats and through the level plain on wagons. They receive an incredible price for it: in exchange for a jar of wine they receive a slave, getting a servant in return for the drink.

[Gold collection customs]

27  Throughout Gaul practically no silver is found, but there is gold in great quantities, which Nature provides for the inhabitants without their having to mine for it or to undergo any hardship. For the rivers, as they course through the country, having as they do sharp bends which turn this way and that and dashing against the mountains which line their banks and bearing off great pieces of them, are full of gold-dust. (2) This is collected by those who occupy themselves in this business. These men grind or crush the lumps which hold the dust, and after washing out with water the earthy elements in it [i.e. panning for gold] they give the gold-dust over to be melted in the furnaces. (3) In this manner they amass a great amount of gold, which is used for ornament not only by the women but also by the men. For around their wrists and arms they wear bracelets, around their necks heavy necklaces of solid gold,​ and huge rings they wear as well, and even corselets of gold. (4) A strange and astonishing practice is found among the upper Celts (Keltoi), in connection with the sacred precincts of the gods. In temples and precincts that are consecrated in their land, a great amount of gold has been deposited as a dedication to the gods. Not even a native of the country ever touches it because of fear of the lower spirits (deisidaimonia), despite the fact that the Celts are an exceedingly covetous people.

[Physical appearance and bodily customs]

28  The Galatians are tall with rippling muscles and white skin. Their hair is blonde, and not only naturally so. They also make it their practice by artificial means to increase the distinguishing colour which nature has given it. (2) For they are always washing their hair in lime-water, and they pull it back from the forehead to the top of the head and back to the nape of the neck, with the result that their appearance is like that of Satyrs and Pans, since the treatment of their hair makes it so heavy and coarse that it does not differ in any way from the mane of horses. (3) Some of them shave the beard, but others let it grow a little. And the nobles shave their cheeks, but they let the moustache grow until it covers the mouth.

[Banqueting customs]

Consequently, when they are eating, their moustaches become entangled in the food, and when they are drinking, the beverage passes, as it were, through a kind of a strainer. (4) When they dine, they all sit, not upon chairs, but upon the ground, using for cushions the skins of wolves or of dogs. The service at the meals is performed by the youngest children, both male and female, who are of suitable age. Nearby there are fireplaces heaped with coals, and on them are cauldrons and spits holding whole pieces of meat. They reward brave warriors with the best portions of the meat, in the same manner as the poet introduces Ajax as honoured by the chiefs after he returned victorious from his single combat with Hector:To Ajax then were given meat from the backbone / slices, full-length, to his honour” [Homer, Iliad 7.321]. (5) They invite strangers to their feasts, and do not inquire until after the meal who they are and what the strangers need.

And it is their custom, even during the course of the meal, to seize upon any trivial matter as an occasion for keen disputation and then to challenge one another to single combat, without any regard for their lives. (6) For the belief of Pythagoras prevails among them, namely that the souls of men are immortal and that after a prescribed number of years they commence upon a new life, the soul entering into another body.​ Consequently, we are told, at the funerals of their dead some cast letters upon the pyre which they have written to their deceased relatives, as if the dead would be able to read these letters.

[Battle customs]

29  In their journeyings and when they go into battle, they [i.e. Galatians] use chariots drawn by two horses, which carry the charioteer and the warrior. And when they encounter horsemen in the fighting, they first hurl their javelins at the enemy and then step down from their chariots and join battle with their swords. (2) Certain of them despise death to such a degree that they enter the perils of battle without protective armour and with no more than rappings around their loins. They also bring along their free men to war in order to serve them, choosing them out from among the poor. They use these attendants in battle as charioteers and as shield-bearers. It is also their custom, when they are formed for battle, to step out in front of the line and to challenge the most valiant men from among their opponents to single combat, brandishing their weapons in front of them to terrify their adversaries. (3) And when any man accepts the challenge to battle, they then break out in song in praise of the valiant accomplishments of their ancestors and boasting of their own high achievements, reviling all the while and belittling their opponent. In a word, they use such talk to strip the enemy of his bold spirit before the combat.

[Dismemberment of the enemy]

(4) When their enemies fall, they cut off their heads and fasten them around the necks of their horses. And turning over to their attendants the arms of their opponents, all covered with blood, they carry them off as plunder, singing a song over them and striking up a song of victory. These “first-fruits” of battle they fasten by nails upon their houses, just like men who hunt with the heads of wild beasts they have captured. (5) The heads of their most distinguished enemies they embalm in cedar-oil and carefully preserve in a chest, and these they exhibit to foreigners, gravely maintaining that in exchange for this head some one of their ancestors, or their father, or the man himself, refused the offer of a great sum of money. Some men among them, we are told, boast that they have not accepted an equal weight of gold for the head they show, displaying a sort of barbarous greatness of soul. For not to sell that which constitutes a witness and proof of one’s bravery is a noble thing, but to continue to fight against one of our own, after he is dead, is to descend to the level of beasts. 

[Clothing and armour]

30  The clothing they wear is striking: shirts which have been dyed and embroidered in varied colours; pants, which they call in their tongue “brakai”; and, they wear striped cloaks (fastened by a buckle on the shoulder) that are heavy for winter wear and light for summer, in which are set checks, close together and of varied hues.​ (2) For armour they use long shields, as tall as a man, which are made in a peculiar way, some of them even having the figures of animals embossed on them in bronze. These are skilfully worked with an eye not only to beauty but also to protection. On their heads they put bronze helmets which have large embossed figures standing out from them and give an appearance of great size to those who wear them. For, in some cases, horns are attached to the helmet so as to form a single piece. In other cases, images of the fore-parts of birds or four-footed animals.

(3) Their trumpets are of peculiar nature like barbarians use, for when they are blown they make a harsh sound, appropriate to the tumult of war. Some of them have iron breastplates, chain-wrought, but others are satisfied with the armour which Nature has given them and go into battle naked. In place of the short sword they carry long broad-swords which are hung on chains of iron or bronze and are worn along the right flank. Some of them gather up their shirts with belts plated with gold or silver. (4) The spears they brandish, which they call “lankiai”, have iron heads measuring a forearm-length and even more, and a little under two palms wide. Their swords are not shorter than the javelins of other peoples, and the heads of their javelins are larger than the swords of others. Some of these javelins come from the forge straight, others twist in and out in spiral shapes for their entire length. The purpose of this is so that the thrust may not only cut the flesh, but mangle it as well, and that the withdrawal of the spear may lacerate the wound.

[Other social customs]

31  The Galatians are terrifying in appearance and their voices are deep and very harsh. When they meet together, they converse with few words and in riddles, hinting darkly at things for the most part and using one word when they mean another. And they like to talk in superlatives, to the end that they may praise themselves and put other men down. They are also boasters and threateners and are fond of pompous language, and yet they have sharp wits and are not without cleverness at learning.

[Experts: Bards, Druids, Diviners]

(2) Among them are also to be found lyric poets whom they call “bards.” These men sing to the accompaniment of instruments which are like lyres, and their songs may engage in either praise or abusive. Philosophers, as we may call them, and men learned in religious affairs are unusually honoured among them and are called by them “Druids.” (3) The Galatians likewise make use of diviners, considering them worthy of high praise. These men predict the future by means of the flight or cries of birds and of the slaughter of sacred animals, and they have all the population subservient to them. They also observe a custom which is especially astonishing and incredible, in case they are taking thought with respect to matters of great concern.

[Supposed human sacrifice]

For, in such cases they devote to death a human being and plunge a dagger into him in the region above the diaphragm,​ and when the stricken victim has fallen, they read the future from the manner of his fall and from the twitching of his limbs, as well as from the gushing of the blood. They have learned to place confidence in an ancient and long-continued practice of observing such matters.

[Other customs relating to divination and experts]

(4) It is a custom of theirs that no one should perform a sacrifice without a “philosopher,” for they say that thank-offerings should be rendered to the gods by the hands of men who are experienced in the nature of the divine, and who speak the language of the gods, so to speak. They also think that it is through the mediation of such men that blessings likewise should be sought. (5) Nor is it only in the exigencies of peace, but in their wars as well, that they obey, before all others, these men and their chanting poets. Such obedience is observed not only by their friends but also by their enemies. For instance, many times when two armies approach each other in battle with swords drawn and spears thrust forward, these men step forth between them and cause them to cease, as though having cast a spell over certain kinds of wild beasts. In this way, even among the wildest barbarians, does passion give place before wisdom, and Ares stands in awe of the Muses.

[Distinguishing western “Celts” from northeastern “Galatians”] 

32  Now it will be useful to draw a distinction which is unknown to many: The peoples who dwell in the interior above Massalia [Marseille], those on the slopes of the Alps, and those on this side the Pyrenees mountains are called “Celts.” Whereas the peoples who are established above this land of the Celtic region in the parts which stretch to the north, both along the ocean and along the Herkynian mountain, and all the peoples who come after these [i.e. to the northeast], as far as Scythia, are known as Galatians. The Romans, however, include all these peoples together under a single name, calling them one and all Galatians [i.e. “Gauls”].

[Further paradoxical or barbaric customs, including supposed gender-bending and eating human flesh]

(2) Among Galatians, the women are not only like the men in their great size but they are a match for them in courage as well. Their children are usually born with grayish hair, but as they grow older the colour of their hair changes to that of their parents. (3) The most savage peoples among them are those who live under the Bears [constellation] and on the borders of Scythia [i.e. close to the Black Sea area]. We are told that some of these eat human beings, even as the Britons do who live on the island of Iris [i.e. Ireland],​ as it is called.

[Relation to Kimmerians / Kimbrians and earlier invasions]

(4) Since the valour of these peoples and their savage ways are famous, some men say that it was they who in ancient times overran all Asia and were called Kimmerians, time having slightly corrupted the word into the name of Kimbrians, as they are now called.​ For it has been their ambition from ancient times to engage in banditry (lēsteuein), invading for this purpose the lands of others, and to regard all men with contempt. (5) For they are the people who captured Rome. They plundered the sanctuary at Delphi,​ they levied tribute upon a large part of Europe and no small part of Asia, and they settled themselves upon the lands of the peoples they had subdued in war. Gradually they came to be called “Greco-Galatians,” because they became mixed with the Greeks. As their final accomplishment, they have destroyed many large Roman armies.

[Savage sacrifices and impiety]

(6) In pursuing their savage ways, they demonstrate an outlandish impiety also with respect to their sacrifices. For they keep criminals prisoner for five years and then impale them in honour of the gods, dedicating criminals together with many other offerings of first-fruits and constructing pyres of great size. Captives are likewise used by them as victims for their sacrifices in honour of the gods. Certain of them likewise kill, together with the human beings, such animals as are taken in war, or burn them or do away with them in some other vengeful fashion.

[Supposed uncontrolled lust between men]

(7) Although their wives are beautiful, they have very little to do with them. Instead, they rage with lust in an outlandish way for sex with other men. It is their practice to sleep on the ground on the skins of wild beasts and to tumble with a companion on each side.​ And the most astonishing thing of all is that they feel no concern for their proper dignity. Instead, they prostitute to others without a qualm the flower of their bodies. Nor do they consider this a disgraceful thing to do. Rather, when anyone of them is approached in this way and refuses the favour offered him, they consider this an act of dishonour.

[For Diodoros’ subsequent discussion of Celtiberians, go to this link (coming soon)]

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