Altars steeped in human blood - Druids: A Very Short Introduction - Barry W. Cunliffe

Druids: A Very Short Introduction - Barry W. Cunliffe (2010)

Chapter 5. Altars steeped in human blood

The coastal zone of southern France between the Alpes Maritimes and the Pyrenees is, for the most part, an area of fertile lowlands, easy of access and, in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, densely populated with the communities living in defended hill towns. Two major rivers, the Rhône and the Aude, flow through it to the sea. Both were major routes, the Rhône providing easy access northwards into the heart of west-central Europe, the Aude offering a route westwards, via the Carcassonne Gap, to the Garonne and the Gironde estuary and to the Atlantic Ocean beyond. Both of these routes were long established and along them a range of commodities flowed, in both directions, linking the Mediterranean and the barbarian hinterland. Access by sea was not easy since the coastal strip was fringed by sand and gravel bars caused by longshore drift, behind which extensive marshes had developed, and the Rhône had created an alluvial delta, the Camargue, scattered with lakes and marshland. But entrepreneurial Greeks had sought out safe havens for their port cities - Nicaea, Antipolis, Olbia, Tauroention, and Massalia - extending around the mountainous coast to the east of the Rhône delta, and Agatha, Rhode, and Emporion to the west.

From the 6th century BC, the Greek colonial ports - self-governing city states - developed, providing the essential nodes through which trade and exchange were articulated. They were not the centres of aggressive land-hungry colonists but simply self-contained ports-of-trade on the fringes of an alien hinterland - rather in the mode of Hong Kong and Macao. Immediately inland a few Hellenized towns developed - places such as St Blaise, Glanon, and Lattes - but beyond that native settlements continued to flourish on their traditional hilltop locations, though many of them, including the extensively excavated examples of Ensérune, Nages, and Entremont, had adopted elements of architecture and planning learned from the Greek coastal ports.

The indigenous population was divided into a number of tribes who were referred to as Celts or Ligurians. The divide is not clear, but Ligurians seems to be the general name applied to those in the east of the region, now the Alpes Maritimes. The traditional stories told about the foundation of Massalia specifically refer to the natives encountered by the colonial expedition as Celts. While the material culture of the indigenous communities living within easy reach of the Greek cities was influenced to different degrees by Mediterranean culture, native beliefs and behaviour were little affected. As we have seen, the cult of the severed head was widely practised among communities living barely 40 kilometres from Massalia.

From the end of the 3rd century BC, Roman interest in southern Gaul began to intensify. The principal reason was the growing conflict between Rome and Carthage following the establishment of a Carthaginian power base in south-eastern Iberia. An agreement was reached that the River Ebro divided the Carthaginian interests to the south-east from the Roman interests to the north-west, but it was short-lived and in 218 BC Rome declared war on Hannibal. The Second Punic War, as it became known, culminated in the west with the surrender of Gades (Cadiz) to the Roman army in 206. With Rome now firmly in control of the south-east of the Iberian peninsula, the territory could be organized into two provinces - Hither Spain and Further Spain. Now attention turned to the subjugation of the warlike tribes of the interior, and it was not until 133 BC, when the native stronghold of Numantia was destroyed, that some semblance of peace was established.

The impact of these Iberian campaigns on southern Gaul was considerable. During the Second Punic War, Roman and Carthaginian armies passed through the region, and after the war the coastal routes were regularly used by the Roman army to send supplies and reinforcements to the Iberian conflict zone. Along these same routes new governors and their entourages would have passed, together with traders eager to open up the new markets and to bring booty back to Rome. The constant flow of people and material through southern Gaul in the late 3rd and 2nd centuries BC must have had an impact on indigenous communities, even though the flow of traffic would have kept to the Greek cities: it would also have made the Roman audience more aware of Celtic barbarian culture, not least because the native hill tribes soon began to realize that the Roman supply columns and the Greek ports offered profitable targets for raiding bands. The eastern part of the route, where the Alpes Maritimes came close to the sea, was particularly unsafe. The baggage trains of governors en route to Spain were attacked in 189 and 173, and in 181 and 154 the Massaliots appealed to Rome for help against Ligurian attacks on the coastal cities. Armies were sent to drive back the raiders but with little lasting effect.

In 125, the problem escalated. This time the Saluvii - immediate neighbours of Massalia - urged on by increasingly belligerent tribes in the Massif Central and the Rhône valley, began to pose a serious threat to the city. Roman consular armies were sent, but this time they were here to stay. The Saluvian capital of Entremont was destroyed in 123 and a permanent military base was established nearby at Aquae Sextiae (Aix-en-Provence). The next year the war was taken deep into the barbarian hinterland along the Rhône valley, culminating, in 121, with a decisive victory for the Romans against a Celtic confederation led by the Allobroges and the Arverni fought out somewhere close to the confluence of the Isère and Rhône.

In the aftermath of the war of 125-121, southern Gaul became the Roman province of Transalpina. A citizen colony of Narbo Martius (Narbonne) was founded in 118 with a new market town of Forum Domitii not far from the old Greek port of Agatha. All the new establishments were linked by a major highway - the Via Domitia - joining Italy to Iberia.

But all was by no means peaceful. From 109, a hoard of northern barbarians - the Cimbri and Teutones - caused havoc in the new province, until their final destruction in two battles, at Aquae Sextiae in 102 and Vercellae in northern Italy in 101. The unrest encouraged the Volcae to rebel, slaughtering a Roman garrison at Tolosa (Toulouse). This resulted in a brutal counterattack by the Romans, ending in the sacking and permanent occupation of the city in 106. It was during this campaign that the Roman general Caepio destroyed a Celtic temple and took for himself its treasure of gold and silver. In writing of these events, Strabo mentions that the Celts had deposited large quantities of silver and gold in lakes and that the Romans now sold off the lakes so that entrepreneurs could recover the loot. These were, presumably, ritual deposits which the Celts had dedicated to their deities. The profanity of the Roman act was deeply resented.

But troubles did not end there. In 90, the Saluvii rebelled, and there were uprisings in the province in 83. Then followed a period of unrest when Transalpina was caught up in the power struggles between Roman warlords operating in Italy and Iberia. The 60s saw further native unrest caused by the exploitative attitudes of successive Roman governors. The focus of this was the Allobroges of the Rhône valley and the troubles required successive military expeditions to quell.

In summary, we can say that the period 218-60 BC saw the Roman world take an increasingly active role in the affairs of the Celts and Ligurians of southern Gaul. Most of the native people for much of the time were allies and trading partners. The early conflicts were largely the result of small-scale raiding: the few major confrontations were restricted to the further frontiers in the upper reaches of the Rhône valley and the valley of the Garonne. Transalpina must have been, for many Romans, an exciting place - a frontier territory full of opportunity where there was money to be made through trade and exploitation - but also a place of fascination where the mêlée of peoples, native Celts, old Greek families, and new brash Italians, jostled together, communicating in a mixture of languages, all attempting to accommodate to the fast-changing world. To Mediterranean scholars with an interest in ethnography, Transalpina offered a laboratory for study.

One man who took up the challenge was Posidonius (c. 135-c. 50 BC), a Greek Stoic philosopher and polymath born in Apamaea in Syria. In 95 BC, aged about 30, he settled in Rhodes, one of the great centres of intellectual activity at the time, and from there he travelled widely throughout the Roman world collecting information for his numerous and varied studies. Most of his writing would have been done in Rhodes, where he had access to one of the world’s best libraries, no doubt holding the works of Pytheas, Timaeus, and other major primary sources, but of his extensive output, including his great work Histories, nothing now survives other than as quotations in the writings of other authors.

Among his travels, Posidonius visited Gaul, during the period 95-50 BC, observing and recording the beliefs and lives of the Celts and tracing for himself the famous journey which Hannibal had made through the Alps. From what has survived of his writings, it is evident that he was a shrewd and industrious observer, well aware that he was viewing a people in a state of rapid transition. On several occasions, he was careful to tell his readers that a particular practice belonged to ‘former times’.

This raises the interesting question of whether he was simply recording the recollections of an informant or contrasting his own observations with accounts he had read in earlier sources. It is seldom possible to distinguish his first-hand observations from his library research, except where he cites a source.

We cannot, however, assume that Posidonius was an impartial reporter. He was a Stoic philosopher who believed in idealizing primitive people, contrasting their innocent simple state to the corruption of the civilized world. The Stoic philosopher Seneca, writing in the first half of the 1st century AD, actually said, ‘In that age we call Golden Posidonius believes that those who ruled were confined to the wise.’ A later writer, Athenaeus (fl. c. AD 200), refers to the ‘stoic philosopher Posidonius describing many customs of many peoples in his Histories which work he composed in accordance with his philosophical convictions’. So the warning is clear - when Posidonius describes the Celts and the Druids, he does so through the eyes of one believing in the ‘noble savage’.

Although the original writings of Posidonius do not survive, he was much quoted by later writers, though rarely with acknowledgement. The scholar J. J. Tierney, who some 50 years ago attempted to reconstruct the Celtic ethnography of Posidonius, argued that much of what was said of the Celts by Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, Athenaeus, and Caesar was derived directly from the lost Histories. This is certainly so of Athenaeus, who explicitly says he is quoting from the twenty-third book of Posidonius’ Histories, and there are certain close similarities in the accounts of Diodorus Siculus and Strabo which suggest that they too used this source, though not necessarily exclusively. Caesar poses a different problem. He may have been aware of the Posidonian account, but he is also likely to have gleaned much from personal observations made as he fought his way through Gaul. For this reason, we will deal with his contribution separately later.

If we accept that Athenaeus, Strabo, and Diodorus Siculus all relied heavily on Posidonius as a source for the Celts, then what they say must be based largely on a text composed in the first half of the 1st century BC by a scholar who had visited the area and had seen the rapidly changing society for himself. While his philosophical stance may have influenced his presentation, his observations are likely to have been accurately made from real-life situations.

What then can we learn of the religious systems of southern Gaul in the early 1st century BC?

Strabo’s text is the fullest and offers a detailed insight into the intellectual elite of Celtic society. Among all the tribes, he says, there are three classes of men comprising the elite: the Bards, the Vates, and the Druids: ‘The Bards are singers and poets; the Vates the interpreters of sacrifice and the natural philosophers; while the Druids, in addition to the science of nature, study also moral philosophy.’ He then goes on to provide details of the judicial powers of the druidic class:

They are believed to be the most just of men and are therefore entrusted with the decision of cases affecting either individuals or the public; indeed in former times they arbitrated in war and brought to a standstill the opponents when about to draw up in line; and murder cases have been mostly entrusted to their decision.

He concludes with a general observation that they believe the souls of men to be indestructible.

Diodorus, presumably using the same Posidonian text as Strabo, offers a little more detail. The Bards, he says, are lyric poets: ‘They sing to the accompaniment of instruments resembling lyres, sometimes a eulogy and sometimes a satire.’ The second class, the Vates (whom Diodorus calls ‘seers’), are men thought to be ‘worthy of high praise’ who, ‘by their augural observances and by the sacrifice of sacrificial animals can foretell the future and they hold all the people subject to them’. Then there are the Druids, ‘philosophers and theologians who are treated with special honour’. He goes on to say that no-one would offer sacrifice without a philosopher being present since only a philosopher can communicate with the gods. The description ends with a comment about how they can intercede to stop battles, concluding ‘Thus even among the most savage barbarians anger yields to wisdom’ - a nice evocation of the ‘noble savage’.

This same tripartite division of wise men is also echoed by the late 4th-century AD writer Ammianus Marcellinus whose source was the 1st-century AD Alexandrian historian Timagenes. Timagenes, like Strabo and Diodorus, may also have derived his knowledge of the Celts from Posidonius.

The Posidonian tradition, then, makes a clear distinction between the three classes of wise men. It is a distinction that we will see later in the Irish vernacular texts, in which the three classes are named as baird, filidh, and druïdh. The distinction between the Vates and Druids is worth emphasizing. The Vates were those with powers to foretell the future through augury and whose duties included carrying out the sacrifices. They were directly equivalent to the haruspices of the Etruscans and Romans. The Druids, on the other hand, were the philosophers and the intermediaries between man and the gods, as well as being the ultimate justices and being skilled in ‘the science of nature’.

Diodorus adds further details about the Vates:

When enquiring into matters of great import they have a strange and incredible custom; they devote to death a human being and stab him with a dagger in the region above the diaphragm, and when he has fallen they foretell the future from his fall and from the convulsions of his limbs and, moreover from the spurting of the blood, placing their trust in some ancient and long-continued observation of these practices.

(Hist. V, 31, 3)

Strabo mentions the same practice adding:

There are also other accounts of their human sacrifices; for they used to shoot men down with arrows, and impale them in the temples, or making a large statue of straw and wood, throw into it cattle and all sorts of wild animals and human beings, and thus make a burnt offering.

(Geog. IV, IV, 4)

The theme of human sacrifice is also taken up by Julius Caesar:

The Gauls believe the power of the immortal gods can be appeased only if one human life is exchanged for another, and they have sacrifices of this kind regularly established by the community. Some of them have enormous images made of wickerwork, the limbs of which they fill with living men; these they set on fire and the men perish, enveloped in the flames. They believe that the gods prefer it if the people executed have been caught in the act of theft or armed robbery or some other crime, but when the supply runs out they even go to the extent of sacrificing innocent men.

(BG VI, 16)

There is sufficient similarity between the three quotations to suggest that all three writers were using the same source material, which we may assume to be Posidonius. Strabo, writing at the beginning of the 1st century AD, is careful to place these sacrifices in the past (‘for they used to …’), having just said that ‘The Romans have put an end to their sacrificial and divinatory practices’, but this could allow that the practices were still live when Caesar was in Gaul half a century earlier.

It is worth emphasizing that the texts at no time implicate the Druids with the act of sacrifice and augury - those were the functions of the Vates. The Druids, however, were present at these ceremonies. Diodorus says that no-one would make a sacrifice without a Druid being present, and Caesar confirms this by saying, ‘the Druids officiate at such sacrifices’. This may seem like splitting hairs, but the issue is of particular interest in showing the sophisticated nature of Celtic ritual and belief systems, their practices separated between different participants with their own specific skill sets. This does not, however, mean that the Druids were innocent, even unwilling, bystanders at the gory sacrifices. They were an essential part of the process and were thus complicit.

The Posidonian tradition provides other details of Celtic beliefs and practices. Strabo records the practice of head-hunting, describing how when they leave the battlefield they attach the heads of their enemies to the necks of their horses, and when they reach home they nail the heads to the doors of their houses. He goes on to say:

Posidonius says that he saw this sight in many places and was at first disquieted by it, but afterwards, becoming used to it, could bear it with equanimity. But they embalmed the heads of distinguished enemies with cedar-oil and used to make a display of them to strangers and were unwilling to let them be redeemed even for their weight in gold.

(Geog. IV, IV, 4)

Exactly the same story is given by Diodorus, though without quoting his source. There is every reason to accept this account as an accurate description of Celtic behaviour in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC. The native temple sites in southern Gaul provide direct evidence of the central position played by the cult of the severed head, and isolated human skulls are found in archaeological contexts throughout Gaul and Britain. This was another practice to which the Romans put an end.

The information provided about sacred sites is rather more anecdotal. Diodorus reports that ‘the Celts of the hinterland’ have, what is to him, ‘a strange and peculiar custom’ with regard to religious loci:

for in the temples and sanctuaries which are dedicated throughout the country a large amount of gold is openly placed as a dedication to the gods, and of the natives none touch it because of religious veneration.

(Hist. V, 26, 4)

Much the same point is made, though obliquely, by Strabo, in his reference to lakes - presumably sacred lakes - in which they deposited quantities of silver and gold. He continues:

In Tolosa, moreover, the temple was … greatly esteemed by local inhabitants and for this reason the treasure there was unusually large since many made dedications and none would profane them.

(Geog. IV, I, 13)

Strabo also refers to sacred islands. One, off the mouth of the Loire, is populated only by women who ‘are possessed by Dionysus’. There were no men on the island, but the women were allowed to sail to the mainland for sexual gratification. Once a year they took the roof off their temple and re-roofed it within the day. All the women carried roofing material but one was deliberately nudged so that she dropped the load. She was immediately torn to pieces by the others, who paraded with the body parts around the temple, ‘crying out “euoi” and do not cease until their madness passes’. He also quotes a 2nd-century BC geographer, Artemidorus, who tells of ‘an island beside Britain in which sacrifices are performed like those performed in Samothrace in honour of Demeter and Core’. This is rather obscure but may suggest some kind of rite associated with the fertility of seed corn. It is interesting to wonder how Artemidorus came by this story - the most likely source would be Pytheas. Finally, another sacred island - the island of Sena, ‘in the British Sea facing the shore of the Ossimians’ - is mentioned by a 1st-century AD writer, Pomponius Mela, as the home of an oracle. The recurrence of sacred islands off the Atlantic coast is a reminder that the supernatural power of the sea must have featured large in the Celtic belief system. Islands, and perhaps promontories, would have been thought of as liminal places between land and ocean and as such charged with power.

The Posidonian tradition presents a coherent picture of the ritual and religious world of the Celts in which the Druids played an essential part as wise philosophers, revered for their justice, the keepers of natural and celestial knowledge, and the intermediaries between the gods and humankind. They were essentially specialists in a far more widespread system of beliefs and practices which involved other specialists - the Vates, who conducted the sacrifices and foretold the future; and the Bards, whose power lay in strengthening individuals through eulogy and destroying others through satire. Through the eyes of Posidonius we glimpse the system in all its complexities, but already the heavy hand of Rome was beginning to curtail those practices of which they purported to disapprove. Yet there is comparatively little censure in what Posidonius had to communicate - as he says himself, at first sight he was alarmed at some of what he saw but soon learned to be tolerant, as any good ethnographer should. His account gives us a rare insight into barbarian religious behaviour in the brief moment before Romanization caused irreparable change. All subsequent accounts reflect a disintegrating system viewed through a filter of Roman disapproval.

One incident provides a link between the old and the new. In the 60s of the 1st century BC, a German tribe, the Suebi, intent on moving into Gaulish territory, had encouraged the Gaulish Sequani to take up arms against their neighbours, the Aedui - a tribe who had been traditionally friendly to Rome. About 60 BC, the tribe sent their chief magistrate, Divitiacus, who was a Druid, to Rome to seek help, and tradition has it that he addressed the Senate though to no good effect. Whilst in Rome he met Cicero and probably Caesar, who subsequently came to regard him as a friend. Cicero briefly mentions the meeting, noting that Divitiacus ‘declared that he was acquainted with the system of nature which the Greeks call natural philosophy and he used to predict the future both by augury and inference’. The use of the past tense is interesting in that it implies that the role of Druids was changing and also perhaps that there may have been some blurring of functions between Druids and Vates. Divitiacus’ return home was followed two years later by the first campaign in Caesar’s war against the Gauls.

At the time of Divitiacus’ visit to Rome, Julius Caesar’s career was reaching a point of no return. Heavily in debt and confronted by powerful enemies, he desperately needed an opportunity to make a fast fortune and to establish a loyal military following. Both could be accomplished with a provincial command that offered the possibility of wars of conquest, and in 59 BC, as consul, he managed to engineer just such a command - the governorship of Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum - which, by a special law, he was given for the exceptional period of five years. From this power base he could legitimately move against the Gauls or the Dacians under the guise of protecting the interests of Rome. After the Senate had agreed to add the province of Transalpine Gaul to his brief, he chose Free Gaul as the focus of his aggressive attentions, claiming that the routes to Spain had to be protected from disruption caused by unstable Gaulish tribes around the borders and that the movement of the German Suebi was a threat to Rome. To stir the deep-seated fear of barbarian attack from the north, ever present in the Roman mind, he claimed that if nothing was done about it, Gaul would be overrun by Germans.

In 58 BC, he moved first against the Helvetii, who were intent on migrating across the centre of Gaul, and in the autumn against the German Suebi. The conquest had begun. It took eight years of intensive campaigning before the exhausted Gaulish resistance petered out. The huge territory from the Pyrenees to the Rhine was now, at least notionally, under the command of Rome and the process of Romanization could begin. In fact, in the decades immediately following the cessation of the war progress was slow and not least because Rome was now caught up in a vicious civil war, but eventually, in 12 BC, with the dedication of the altar to Rome and Augustus at Lugdunum (Lyon), the initial stage of colonization was complete and the new provinces could begin to take their place in the fast-expanding Roman Empire. In eight years of conquest, during which, if we are to believe one near-contemporary commentator, one-third of the Gaulish population was killed and another third sold into slavery, the social and belief systems of Free Gaul were shattered. It took a whole generation and more before the traumas of war faded and a new social order emerged, neither Gaulish nor Roman but Gallo-Roman.

Eight years of relentless campaigning cannot have failed to have taught Caesar much about Gaulish society and yet, in his Commentaries on the Gallic War, he tells us surprisingly little, largely because his theme is a campaign narrative and his intent to glorify his own achievements. There are, however, many small details to be gleaned from his elegantly efficient prose and at one point, in Book VI dealing with the events in the year 53 BC, he breaks off to give a succinct ethnographic account of the customs of the Gauls and Germans, much as would have been expected by his readers. It is quite possible that this section was added to the Commentaries at a later stage when he was editing the work for public consumption. It reads quite differently from the rest and suggests that he may have been consulting texts as he wrote. One of those texts may well have been Posidonius, but if so Caesar was no straight copyist.

Unlike the Posidonian tradition, Caesar does not divide the class of wise men into functional categories: to him, there are only two privileged classes in Celtic society, the Knights and the Druids. Either this can be taken as an oversimplification of the complex ritual system, done deliberately or through ignorance, or it reflects a change that had taken place, with the difference in activities of the Druids and Vates now being obscured in practice. Some have argued that Caesar wanted to present the Druids as dangerous extremists, and thus it was in the interests of effective propaganda to give the impression that they were directly responsible for human sacrifice. This may be so, but it could equally be that Caesar was not concerned with the niceties and simply wanted to give a quick overall impression of Celtic religion.

He begins with a succinct summary:

The Druids are in charge of religion. They have control over public and private sacrifices, and give rulings on all religious questions. Large numbers of young men go to them for instruction, and they are greatly honoured by the people.

and then proceeds to the detail. He repeats what many writers had said before, that the Druids believed that souls did not perish but passed from one body to another, they:

hold long discussions about the heavenly bodies and their movements, about the size of the universe and the earth, about the nature of the physical world and about the power and properties of the immortal gods.

and they ‘officiate at sacrifices’. There is nothing new in any of this; it is dealt with briefly but there are three themes which he warms to and which probably derive from his own observations.

The first is the power the Druids had over society:

In almost all disputes, between communities or between individuals the Druids act as judges. If a crime is committed, if there is a murder, or if there is a dispute about inheritance or a boundary they are the ones who give a verdict and decide on the punishment or compensation appropriate in each case. Any individual or community not abiding by their verdict is banned from the sacrifice and this is regarded among the Gauls as the most severe punishment. Those who are banned … are reckoned as sacrilegious criminals. Everyone shuns them; no-one will go near or speak to them for fear of being contaminated in some way … If they make any petitions there is no justice for them, and they are excluded from any position of importance.

(BG VI, 13)

Although other sources have mentioned the judicial power of Druids, the details which Caesar gives are new and the rather laborious way he makes the point suggests that he was impressed (or he wanted his audience to be) about the near-absolute power that the Druids wielded in society. They controlled the lives of all men.

His second concern builds on this: they were teachers with an eager following. He repeats the point three times. In his Introduction, he says ‘Large numbers of young men go to them for instruction’. Writing of their knowledge of the heavens, he adds that in these subjects, ‘they also give instruction to their pupils’; and later he expands further:

The Druids are exempt from military service and do not pay taxes like the rest. Such significant privileges attract many students, some of whom come of their own accord to be taught while others are sent by priests and relatives.

During their training, he says, they had to learn a great many verses by heart and some people spend as long as 20 years learning the doctrine. The implication here seems to be that a distinction can be made between the general teaching of a large number of the young and the specific, more intensive training needed to become a master of the discipline. Caesar seems not to understand the importance of oral learning among ‘barbarian’ societies, but instead tries to explain it away by suggesting that they do it deliberately to improve the memory and to keep the knowledge inaccessible. By building up the idea of exclusivity and the extent of the influence which the Druids had over the young, Caesar is again stressing their power.


8. ‘An Archdruid in his Judicial Habit’. The aquatint by S. R. Meyrick and C. H. Smith, published in 1815, was a work of fiction but incorporated depictions of real artefacts of differing dates. It was influential in creating the vision of the Druid popular in the public imagination from the 19th century to the present time

Finally, he comes more closely to his main concern - the ability of the Druids to exercise their control across tribal boundaries: they are, he tells us, a pan-national brotherhood ruled by an archdruid with supreme authority over the rest. Succession is through distinction, but if there are several contenders the matter is put to the vote, ‘though sometimes they even fight to decide who will be their leader’. They also held an annual gathering on a fixed date at a consecrated place in the territory of the Carnutes which they believed to be the centre of Gaul. ‘People who have disputes to settle assemble there from all over the country and accept the rulings and judgements of the Druids.’ Such an annual meeting would have presented a potential danger for Rome: they were occasions when anti-Roman attitudes could be aired and the injustices of the occupying forces examined in public. It was well within the power of the presiding Druids to manipulate sentiment and call for unified action. It may be no coincidence that when rebellion came in the spring of 52 BC it began in the territory of the Carnutes, though Caesar makes no mention of Druid involvement.

The annual assembly of the Druids was probably deeply rooted in society, and as Gaul became increasingly Romanized, the need to control it became pressing. The ingenious solution came when, in 12 BC, the Emperor Augustus’ stepson Drusus dedicated an altar to Rome and Augustus at a sanctuary on an island at the confluence of the rivers Rhône and Saône at Lugdunum (Lyon) and proclaimed that here the newly created concilium Galliarum (Council of the Gauls) would meet annually on 1 August - the midsummer Celtic festival of Lugnasad. It was a clever solution, bringing the national assembly under Roman auspices. The date chosen was, by coincidence, the birthday of the emperor.

In selecting what he had to say of the Druids, Caesar was intent to emphasize the very considerable power he believed they held over Gaulish society. While his emphasis may have been deliberate, to provide some justification for his repressive treatment of the Gauls, there is no reason to suppose that he was in any way falsifying the evidence. His account can be accepted as an assessment of the situation as he observed it in the 50s of the 1st century BC.

Caesar has more to say about the religion of the Gauls, though he separates this from his main description of the Druids. The Gauls, he said, were very superstitious; ‘consequently people suffering from serious illness, and people involved in the dangers of battle, make, or promise to make, human sacrifice’. He adds that Druids officiate at such sacrifices, echoing the Posidonian tradition that for a sacrifice to be valid, a Druid had to be present to serve as an intermediary with the gods. Caesar then warms to his theme: ‘The Gauls believe the power of the immortal gods can be appeased only if one human life is exchanged for another, and they have sacrifices of this kind regularly established by the community.’ Then follows a description of the familiar wicker man ritual. While this kind of thing may have been going on in the more remote parts of Gaul through which Caesar had campaigned, the close similarity to the Posidonian text suggests that Caesar may have been importing this colourful description from an earlier source. Perhaps his motive was, as some have suggested, to horrify his readers and to justify his own acts of repression, yet he offers his descriptions of Gaulish sacrifices as crisp reportage devoid of any trace of moral judgement.

There is no doubt that Roman administrators would have found human sacrifice to be an unacceptable practice. Strabo, quoting Posidonius (referring to the Gauls of the province of Transalpina), says as much: ‘The Romans have put an end to this behaviour (head-hunting) and also to their sacrificial and divinatory practices opposed to our customs.’ Caesar would have extended these prohibitions to the rest of Gaul. Pomponius Mela, a mid-1st-century AD writer, provides a little more detail:

There still remain traces of atrocious customs no longer practised, and although they now refrain from outright slaughter yet they still draw blood from the victims led to the altar.

(De Situ Orbis III, 2, 18)

Since the rest of his texts simply recycle scraps gleaned from earlier accounts, most notably Caesar’s, it is quite likely that this detail of surrogate sacrifice reflects the situation at or soon after the time of the Gallic Wars.

Pomponius Mela was writing in the censorious age of the Early Empire when public figures could show shock and horror at the behaviour of the barbarians they had newly conquered: his phrase ‘atrocious customs’ would have struck a chord with his readers. The 1st century AD was a time of official repression. Pliny tells us that ‘magic’ still flourished in Gaul into the time of his own memory, but the Emperor Tiberius had issued a decree against ‘the Druids and the whole tribe of diviners and physicians’ - an interesting statement that still makes the distinction between Druids and Vates. Another writer, Suetonius, in his Life of Claudius, records that the emperor:

very thoroughly suppressed the barbarous and inhuman religion of the Druids in Gaul, which in the time of Augustus had merely been forbidden to Roman citizens.

(Claudius 25)

Taken together, these texts leave little doubt that, in the first half of the 1st century AD, the Roman authorities made sustained efforts to break the power of the Druids. The ‘savage rites’ long since suppressed, the Druids still remained a threat to the state by virtue of their unifying powers over the people. It is quite possible that Druids were involved in fermenting the rebellion that broke out in Gaul in AD 21 led by Florus and Sacrovir, and the later revolt of AD 68 initiated by Vindex - the Gaulish-born governor of the province of Lugdunensis. There is no direct evidence that this was so, but both rebellions began with the Gaulish elite assembling and deciding to go to war. In a telling aside, the historian Tacitus, writing of the fire that destroyed the Roman Capitol in AD 70, adds that ‘The Druids declared, with the prophetic utterance of an idle superstition that [the fire] was a sign of the anger of heaven’ and that it portended the rise of the Gaulish nations. Clearly the Druids were still an articulate force. When Pliny later wrote that ‘we cannot too highly appreciate our debt to the Romans for having put an end to this monstrous cult’, he was thinking more of the stability of the empire than the letting of a little barbarian blood.

The last great set piece description of Druids in action is Tacitus’ description of events in Britain in AD 59/60 when the Roman army campaigning in north Wales approached the island of Anglesey, where the British opposition forces had assembled:

… between the ranks dashed women dressed in black like the Furies, with hair dishevelled, waving torches. All around, the Druids lifting up their hands to heaven and pouring forth dreadful imprecations scared our soldiers by the unfamiliar sight so that, as if their limbs were paralyzed they stood motionless and exposed to wounds.

Eventually Roman discipline prevails, as is usual in these set piece battle accounts, the opposition was routed and:

Their groves, devoted to inhuman superstition, were destroyed. They [the Druids] decreed it a duty to cover their altars with the blood of captives and to consult their deities through human entrails.

(Annals XIV, 30)

There is no reason to doubt that Druids were present at the engagement on Anglesey, and the presence of women is an interesting detail, but the blood and entrails sound rather like an author spicing up his tale by stirring in some old familiar prejudices. Yet it is possible that in a remote island like Britain traditional rituals were still practised in time of great stress. Pliny may have been mindful of this even when he wrote that in Britannia the fascination with magic still remained and rites were performed with much ceremony.

The emotive anti-Druid language of the 1st century AD is redolent of Rome’s intention to stamp out traditional belief systems and behaviour. But there is something more to it - the desire to conjure up in the mind of the reader a vision of barbarous times past and to induce a frisson of fear. Nowhere is the literary ‘topos’ of ‘barbarous religion’ better evoked than in a poem, Pharsalia, written by Lucan in the middle of the 1st century AD.

A grove there was, untouched by men’s hands from ancient times, whose interlacing boughs enclosed a space of darkness and cold shade, and banished the sunlight far above. No rural Pan dwelt there, no Silvanus, ruler of the woods, no Nymphs; but gods were worshipped there with savage rites, the altars were heaped with hideous offerings, and every tree was sprinkled with human gore. On those boughs… birds feared to perch; in those coverts wild beasts would not lie down; no wind ever bore down upon that wood, nor thunderbolt hurled from black clouds; the trees, even when they spread their leaves to no breeze, rustled of themselves. Water, also, fell there in abundance from dark springs. The images of the gods, grim and rude, were uncouth blocks formed of felled tree-trunks. Their mere antiquity and the ghastly hue of their rotten timber struck terror… . Legend also told that often the subterranean hollows quaked and bellowed, that yew-trees fell down and rose again, that the glare of conflagration came from trees that were not on fire, and that serpents twined and glided round the stems. The people never resorted thither to worship at close quarters, but left the place to the gods.

Poetic licence no doubt, but effective nonetheless.

After the flurry of writing on the Druids in the 1st century AD, the record becomes almost silent, though there are a few whispers. In 3rd-century Gaul, the prophecies of Druidesses (dryades) are mentioned on three separate occasions, though in contexts which imply that they were nothing more than lone fortune tellers. It is possible that the word ‘Druid’ was now being used quite unspecifically to refer to any being claiming supernatural powers.

There is, however, some hint that the memory of the Druids of the past was still alive in late Roman Gaul. Ausonius mentions them in two passages. In one, he recalls the tradition that a friend was descended from the Druids of Bayeux, associated with the temple of Belenus, and in another he mentions a man, who was rumoured to have been descended from the Druids of Armorica, becoming a teacher in the university of Bordeaux. In neither case should we put too much store on these remarks - both were based on hearsay - but what is interesting is that now, in the late 4th century, a Druid was considered to be an acceptable ancestor.