Gauls, Kimbrians, Numidians, Indians, and others: Valerius Maximus’ collection of “barbarian customs” (early first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Gauls, Kimbrians, Numidians, Indians, and others: Valerius Maximus’ collection of “barbarian customs” (early first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 24, 2024,

Ancient author: Valerius Maximus (early first century CE), Memorable Deeds and Sayings 2.6.10-17 (link to Latin).

Comments: Valerius Maximus (who wrote in Latin in the time of emperor Tiberius) was a compiler of what he considered interesting anecdotes about a variety of topics. When he gets to the question of foreign peoples’ customs, Valerius’ approach sounds a lot like Greek authors, like Nikolaos of Damaskos, who aimed to compile a series of very short “barbarian customs” for shock or humourous effect (link). Although Valerius ranges broadly geographically (from west to east and from north to south), there is no concern with ethnographic context or details here. Instead, there are just basic stereotypes illustrated by choice of some more remarkable or bizarre practices of the peoples in question. Valerius ends up zooming in on women specifically. The Indian women take the prize, according to Valerius, and the Phoenician women who supposedly engaged in prostitution to raise dowries are the losers. None of this is aimed at accurate portrayals of peoples or their customs, obviously.


. . . [omitted discussion of Spartans’ and Athenians’ customs]. . .


(2.6.10) When someone has left the walls of Massilia (Marseille, France), they encounter the ancient old custom of the Gauls. Tradition has revealed that the Gauls will lend you money, but you will have to pay it back in the underworld. They do this because they are convinced that human souls are immortal. I would call them stupid if these men wearing pants did not have the same belief as Pythagoras in his Greek cloak.

[Kimbrians and Celtiberians]

(2.6.11) So the philosophy (philosophia) of the Gauls is greedy and based on making a profit, but that of the Kimbrians and Celtiberians is lively and courageous. They are happy when they are at war, because they will leave this life in a honorable and happy way, but they lament when they are sick, because they will die in a disgusting and miserable way. The Celtiberians even think it is shameful to survive a battle when their leader dies since they promised to protect him with their lives. You would have to praise the courageous will of both these populations (populi), because the Kimbrians and Celtiberians believe that they must strongly uphold the security of their homeland and the spirit of friendship among fellow soldiers.


(2.6.12) One people (natio) among the Thracians rightly expects to be admired for their wisdom in celebrating people’s births with tears and their funerals with rejoicing. They do not follow the ideas of any teachers, but they have discovered the true nature of our human condition. All creatures naturally want to stay alive, but this often makes them act shamefully and endure humiliations. Let us get rid of this desire, and we will find that the end of our life is considerably more happy and blessed than its beginning.


(2.6.13) So men among the Lycians are quite right to put on a woman’s dress whenever they have to go into mourning. They will be struck by the incongruity of the clothes and this will make them all the more ready to cast aside their silly grief.

[Indians: Women]

(2.6.14) But why should I praise men for being so very prudent and courageous? Consider the women of India. who according to their ancestral custom have several women married to one man. When he dies, they have a competition to decide which woman he loved the most. The winner jumps for joy, and she is led off by her happy-faced friends and relatives. She flings herself on top of her husband’s funeral pyre, and she is burned alive on it beside her husband’s body as if she were the happiest of women. The wives who lost the competition stay on in this life in sadness and grief.

Proclaim the courage of the Kimbrians to everyone, add on the loyalty of the Celtiberians, join the courageous wisdom of the Thracians to that, attach the clever way of dispelling grief that the Lycians have invented. In spite of all this, you will not admire any of them more than the funeral pyre of the Indians and the faithful wife who climbs onto it as if it were a marriage bed, carefree in the face of death.

[Phoenicians: Women]

(2.6.15) I will put the shameful behavior of the Phoenician women alongside the honour of these Indian women. The contrast will make their behavior seem all the more disgusting. There is a temple of Venus at Sicca, where respectable women gather, and then they go off to make money and amass a dowry by degrading their bodies. It is, of course, by means of such dishonorable unions that they intend to enter the honorable union of marriage.


(2.6.16) The Persians had a very admirable custom. They would not see their children until the children reached the age of seven. This enabled them to endure the loss of their little ones with resignation.


(2.6.17) We should not even disparage the kings of Numidia if, in keeping with the custom of their descent group (gens), they refused to kiss any human being. Everyone agrees that whatever is placed in a high and exalted position should be free of any humble or everyday associations, and thus it will be all the more venerable.


Source of translation: Adapted by Harland from H.J. Walker, Valerius Maximus: Memorable Deeds and Sayings (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2004).

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