Julius Caesar’s Writings on the Druids, the Ancient Celtic Priesthood Who Practiced Human Sacrifice
Julius Caesar’s Writings on the Druids, the Ancient Celtic Priesthood Who Practiced Human Sacrifice…
In Julius Caesar’s book, The Conquest of Gaul, there is a relatively detailed description of the mysterious Druids, who are described by Caesar as a sort of Celtic priesthood. Caesar’s book focuses on the Roman campaign in Gaul (which loosely corresponds to modern-day France and other neighbouring countries) and then later into Britain. The Gallic wars lasted from around 58 BC to 50 BC.
Obviously, Caesar is a biased source, as the Druids had power amongst tribes that Caesar was trying to conquer; namely, the Celts in Gaul and Britain. We also know that Caesar’s book was written as a piece of propaganda for a Roman audience. Caesar was well aware that his book, which is strangely written in the third person, would be read back in Rome. This explains why Caesar constantly portrays Caesar as a figure who solves all problems that arise, whether that be in his own ranks, or amongst the barbarian hordes, as Rome saw them.
Despite these reservations, Caesar’s description of these enigmatic people is still fascinating. Caesar starts by describing the organization of the Gauls, writing that the Druids and the Knights are the two privileged classes. “The Druids officiate at the worship of the gods, regulate public and private sacrifices, and give rulings on all religious questions,” according to Caesar (Caesar 1982: 140).
The Druids also played a legal role, as they acted “as judges,” and this attracted young men to them for guidance (Caesar 1982: 140). Each year, the Druids held a large meeting in the country of Carnutes, the centre of Gaul, where disputes were settled. Interestingly, Caesar wrote that the Druid tradition was imported to Gaul from Britain, which, at the time of writing in the first century BC, was still the place to study Druidism.
The Druids enjoyed many advantages, including being “exempt from military service” and not paying takes like other citizens did (Caesar 1982: 140). Furthermore, in line with Celtic traditions, the Druids memorized a lot of information and verses, and did not write a lot down, but apparently, they used the Greek alphabet when they did have to write.
Caesar’s commentaries tell us that the Druids engaged in long discussions about the universe, the nature of the gods, and the physical makeup of the world. As Caesar wrote, they believed that the “soul does not perish, but after death passes from one body to another; they think that this is the best incentive for bravery, because it teaches men to disregard the terrors of death” (Caesar 1982: 141).
Caesar also argues that the Gauls were extremely superstitious and that the Druids practiced human sacrifice. According to Caesar:
“As a nation the Gauls are extremely superstitious; and so, persons suffering from serious diseases, as well as those who are exposed to the perils of battle, offer, or vow to offer, human sacrifices, for the performance of which they employ Druids. They believe that the only way of saving a man’s life is to propitiate the god’s wrath by rendering another life in its place, and they have regular state sacrifices of the same kind.
Some tribes have colossal images made of wickerwork, the limbs of which they fill with living men; they are then set on fire, and the victims burnt to death. They think that the gods prefer the execution of men taken in the act of theft or brigandage, or guilty of some offence; but when they run short of criminals, they don’t hesitate to make up with innocent men” (Caesar 1982: 141).
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Julius Caesar (1982) The Conquest of Gaul (London: Penguin Group).
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