III. Social Structures

Strabo’s Geography states, "The whole race…is madly fond of war, high-spirited and quick to battle.. They wear ornaments of gold torques on their necks…It is this vanity which makes them unbearable in victory and so completely downcast in defeat" (4.4.2).

Julius Caesar yet again oversimplified Celtic Gaul society by describing only two significant classes: knights and druids. The rest of society he thought to be little better than slaves (Cunliffe1999: 107).

The Aristocracy or ‘knights’:

It seems widely recognised among scholars that small scale raiding parties and migrations of warriors were generally early characteristics of the Celts in Europe. It seems that some scholars go so far as to say that "the imperative to raid was the central focus of Celtic society" (Cunliffe, 1999:89). The oppida or hillfort became the common settlement for this elite warrior class. From their hill top advantage they controlled craft specialists, the surrounding arable/grazing territory and inter-regional trade often called the ‘prestige-goods’ trade (Witt 2008:19). For more details on ‘oppida’ return later to the main wheel.

Mercenary or paid soldier duties became the norm for many warriors giving the Gallic warrior a fearsome reputation. Overpopulation and the need to raid further afield for prestige reasons assisted this trend. Adventurous Gauls even settled in Galatia, Turkey (278-277 B.C.). Another thing that characterised this military reputation was the followers’ apparent blind loyalty to their warrior leader.

Importantly, Celtic social class was undergoing a transformation just prior to Roman conquest in the mid 50s B.C. Mediterranean trade had blurred the class-based distinctions between the elite aristocracies and their followers. Alternative ways to power and status were available. New men were rising through the ranks.

Like the Romans, kingship was abhorrent to most Gauls. Livy mentions kings in 5th cent B.C. such as Ambigatus of the Bituriges Cubi tribe and Posidonius mentions the Arverni kings in 2nd cent B.C. (Collis 2000:232). Admittedly, in the north and north-west of Gaul near today’s nation of Luxembourg, the Treveri and Remi tribes ruled with evidence of rich burial tombs close to oppida. This social trend reveal ‘intermediate and periphery social zones’ where kings still ruled from oppida and where elite status was still shown in rich Halstatt-like burials (Cunliffe 1999:233).

But for most Gauls especially in central Gaul (the ‘core social zone’) the aristocracy or oligarchic (rule by a few or elite) was the norm. A form of elected magistrates or council was only a few generations old prior to Roman conquest. Ironically, it’s highly likely that they owed their rise to power through trade with the Mediterranean world (Crumley 1987: 410). Now their positions were being challenged by former, more affluent followers.

Among the aristocracies of Gallic tribes ‘ascribed status’ (birth-rite) had been replaced by ‘achieved status’ (Crumley 1987: 411). Gallic elite warriors could gain a loyal following of warrior ‘clients’ in a number of ways including:

  • astute marriages
  • bravery in battle
  • status symbol oppida (hillforts)
  • generosity of ‘prestige goods’ like wine, feasts and crafted gifts in order to gain indebtedness

Clientship was a major source of power for Gallic leaders (Crumley 1897: 141). One Helvetian warrior called Orgetorix had a clientele or ‘household’ that numbered more than 10,000 (Cunliffe 1999:107).

The net effect of having so many powerful individuals in a tribe was the growth of political parties called factiones’ or factions. Even brothers were recorded as leading faction fighting. The Aeduan brothers Dumnorix and Diviciacus argued over the need for an alliance with Rome. The latter faction led by Diviciacus and Rome won the day!

Another way to look at the polity of the Gauls is the concept of 'heterarchy'. Groups or individuals are heterarchial when “they are either unranked relative to each other or possess the potential for being ranked in a number of different ways.” (Crumley 1987b: 3). Social processes like clientship, arranged marriages, hostage-taking, inheritance, feasting, oppida status and fighting prowess may all contribute to a warrior’s reputation and rank order among other tribal aristocrats. These social processes are fluid, they change; therefore, Gallic warriors’ standing and of course, power in their communities tended to rise and fall with these changes (Crumley 1987a:406).

A 'hierarchy' on the other hand, tends to be more stable and highly structured with more definite and stable levels of social status and power. Julius Caesar complained about the difficulties of dealing with the many Gallic factions and how fragile alliances could be if a new warrior faction gained more influence in their tribe.

Importantly for the majority of Gallic tribes, no one warrior was allowed to become too powerful. Many examples of stifling the creation of a kingship hierarchy exist. For example, the execution of Celtillus by his fellow Arvernians was one such case. Ironically his son Vercingtorix was to later unite many Gauls against the legions of Julius Caesar. However all his followers knew that his power was not permanent, only lasting for the crisis (Witt 2008:24). In this regard the Celts were similar to the Romans who could elect a ‘dictator’ in emergencies but only for 6 months! Caesar went over this time limit suffering the same fate as Celtillus.

Caesar, gold aureus, 48 B.C. showing a Gallic trophy captured in Gallic Wars

Aristocracy- priests or ‘Druids’:

Druids belonged to the social elite or aristocracy too. They were the ‘proud keepers’ of an oral, practice-based tradition with a vast Celtic collective knowledge (Crumley 1987b:140). The name is believed to mean ‘knowledge of the oak’ or ‘deep knowledge’ (Cunliffe 1999:190).

Much speculation has surrounded the role of the druids in western Iron Age societies. Unfortunately, the image of the druids is not based on archaeological data. Most of the druidic image of a fortune-telling ‘seer’, ‘magician’ come ‘healer’ hovering over human sacrifices is based on biased Roman ‘post-conquest’ accounts written from the mid 1st. Century A.D.


Ancient source

Pliny the Elder

A.D. 23/24-79


 Historia Naturalis:





·      Druid mistletoe cutting  ceremony

·     Use of plants

·     Druids’ egg, anguinum, a druidic lucky charm; A Vocontian tribesman put to death by Claudius for hiding one

·     Tiberius banned them along with diviners.


A.D. 56/57-120/123

 Annals: 14.30

Histories: 4.54

·       Druids cursed

·      Prophesied end of Roman   Empire


Early 2nd century A.D.


Claudius 25

·      Claudius suppressed Druids which had been forbidden by Augustus


c. A.D. 170-236


Philosophumena 1.25

·     Pythagorean philosophers,   seers and magicians.


A.D. 225-250




·      As above

·     Pronounce by means of riddles and dark sayings


Julius Caesar: Earlier written accounts give a different picture especially Julius Caesar, the only detailed eve-of-conquest description. A debate does still surround the timing of the writing of his Gallic Wars commentaries De Bello Gallico ( 6.13-14, 6.16.1-3, 6.18.1). It was written either during or after the Gallic War 58-50 B.C. (Webster 1999:4). Caesar’s motives for writing his Commentaries may be gained by knowing its timing. For example, a later writing of the Commentaries would imply Caesar’s main motive in writing his Commentaries was to justify his ten year Gallic Wars to a very suspicious, hostile Roman Senate back home. After all, Caesar did make many enemies in Rome during his autocratic, if not ‘illegal’, consulship in 59 B.C.

Caesar stated that his main reasons were:

1. to stop Celtic Gaul becoming German once the ‘German’ Suebi tribe led by Ariovistus crossed the Rhine River to support their ally the Sequani tribe in their conflict with the Aedui tribe of today’s Burgundy region

2. To support Rome’s ally in that of the Aedui tribe (Cunliffe 1999;238)

It’s argued that his ‘portrait’ of the Gauls is biased in putting himself in the best light with little interest in portraying a true account of the Gauls.

Another scholars’ debate centres on the degree of Caesar’s own observations and ‘intelligence’ reports in his portrait of the druids. Some historians argue that Caesar borrowed heavily from Posidonius, a Syrian stoic scholar, who wrote 52 books on the history of Rome from 146 B.C. Posidonius visited the newly occupied Gallic southern province of Provincia in c. 100-90 B.C. However, Jane Webster (1999) argues strongly that Posidonius only visited southern Gaul around the Marseille region whilst Caesar ventured much further inland into central and northern Gaul. Webster believes that most of Caesar’s observations were his own (Webster 1999:9).

Despite these source reliability and bias debates, Caesar’s image or ‘portrait’ of the druids is fundamental to gaining an understanding of their role in Iron Age society (Webster 1999:4).



Druids officiate at sacrifices and interpret ritual questions. They have the power to ban others from attendance at sacrifices.


Druids were teachers. Young men gathered around them for instruction. Their education took up to 20 years. Writing was not used in teaching, but Greek letters are used in other ways.


Druids were judges and arbiters in all disputes, including crime, inheritance and land disputes

Pan-tribal order

They have an Order (disciplina). An overall leader is elected once a year in the territory of the Canute tribe. Order may have originated in Britain.

Tax exemption

Druids pay no tax and were exempt from warfare.

Teaching on the soul

They teach that one’s soul never dies; “Death passes from one body to another” (Caesar De Bello Gallico:6.16)


Other interesting things to note about the druids from various ancient/modern sources:

  • It’s highly likely that all aristocratic men took some druidic training (Crumley 1987:410)
  • Druids like their warrior aristocracy served as patrons for the lower class. Some Druid patrons could claim thousands of supporters
  • Druids organised the election of the vergobret or tribal magistrate
  • Women could become a druid
  • Druids of all Gaul met annually near present-day Chartres to address any inter-tribal grievances and other complicated issues.
  • They most likely officiated over a fairly democratic polity with a tribal Senate 
  • Places of worship varied including:
  • Sacred groves of oak trees (Quercus robur) with venerated mistletoe (Viscus):
  • “A grove (in southern Gaul) 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 from above...gods were worshipped there with savage rites, the altars were heaped with hideous offerings and every tree was sprinkled with human gore...dark night fills the sky, the priest himself dreads their (gods) approach and fears to surprise the lord of the grove”.

    Lucan, Pharsalia 3.400-25

  • sacred lakes and river sources: shrine of Sequana (source of Seine) and Chamalieres near Clermont-Ferrand. There are many rivers in Gaul.
  • Rivers link: http://blog.croisieres-en-seine.fr/category/fleuves/






    Over 150 oak votive offering statuettes were found in 1963-66 at Sequana’s source of the Seine River (Dijon Museum). Sequana was a healing goddess.

    -       There were sanctuaries within oppida (hillforts) such as Mont Bouvray and Gournay-sur-Aronde and many in southern Gaul

    • isolated country sanctuaries such as Ribemont-sur-Ancre
    • large temple-like structures at Entrement, St. Blaise, Enserune, Gergovie and Nimes
    • The druids with their religious monopoly may have created a lot of jealousy among the emerging warrior aristocrats; therefore, many of the aristocratic elite were willing participants in ‘remodelling’ Gallic religion' in Roman Gaul (Woolf 2003:230;218)
    • No single cosmology shared by the Gauls and druidic rituals and main gods/goddesses varied too from the same religious 'building blocks' (Woolf 2003:213-214)
    • Druidism was stigmatised as ‘superstitio’ (irrational fear) by the post-conquest Roman writers (Woolf 2003: 215)
    • Cunliffe believes the Romans feared more their ability to ‘galvanise’ Celtic rebellion (Cunliffe 1999:191)
    • Druids may have been in charge of the supervision of the forests (Crumley 1987:cht.6)
    • Boudicca’s revolt (A.D. 60-61) by the Iceni and Trinovantes tribes in Britain may have been a direct response to the slaying of the druids by the Romans at Anglesey, Wales.

    Iceni silver coin from hoard, AD 61

    • There is evidence that it was the ‘seers’ or special diviners who actually sacrificed to the gods and that the druids may have only officiated 
    • Pit and bog bodies do show ritualistic killings like Lindow Man in Cheshire, England and at Tollund Man in Denmark
    • Tollund man link: http://www.tollundman.dk/tollundmandens-krop-256.html
    • Gaul was also noted by Caesar and many Roman sources for ritualistic killings.

    For example, at Gournay-sur-Aronde in Gaul a 40 metre long enclosure with a palisade revealed a ditch with 100s of deliberately broken weapons, many bones of animals and 12 decapitated human heads.

    In the 1963-64 an enormous 70 hectares Gallic sanctuary was discovered by aerial photography at Ribemont-sur-Ancre some 17 km NE of Amiens. During the Celtic period, the site represents the largest Celtic trophy-sanctuary dedicated to a victorious battle currently known in Europe.

    Here an entire structure was built from the long bones of some 200 people, mostly young men (Hamilton 2009: 23). Over 5000 weapons were also buried with the decapitated victims believed to be the Lexovii, a Gallic tribe living in Normandy at that time. Pollen and seeds confirm the battle took place toward the end of summer probably in 280-260 B.C. (Romanarmytalk.com)


    Romanarmytalk.com link: http://www.romanarmytalk.com/rat/viewtopic.php?f=25&t=26252



    Decline of the Druids:

    The decline of the druids was basically a post-conquest devolution of status, power and influence.

    This religious elite’s interests soon came to be at odds with a new Imperial Rome whose new leader or princeps, Augustus, had an extreme distrust of the subversive potential of astrologers, diviners and prophets. In 12 B.C. Augustus ordered the burning of 2000 books on prophecy in Rome (Webster 1999:13). Speculation about the future especially the emperor’s life was bad luck in itself. He also banned Roman citizens from practising druidism.

    In this context along with Imperial Rome’s empire-wide encouragement of elites to worship the new Imperial cult, it’s not difficult to see the inevitable demise of Gaul’s indigenous religious elite, the druids.

    Woolf (2003:230-235) gives several reasons for the demise of the ‘old order’ that included the druids:

    1. The end of druidism that had monopolised knowledge i.e. Coligny calendar a possible legacy!

    2. Roman requirement for 'municipia' status that called for a new religious order in laws and constitutions

    3. New Gallic elites' sensitivities towards Roman attitudes of ‘humanitas’ or noble conduct and ‘civilized’ culture

    4. Roman conquest itself showed success and a way forward

    5. Euergetistical (gift-giving) priesthood offered elite new monopoly of authority within Gallo-Roman societies

    6. 'New order' made sense, justified! The internalisation or model of Roman religion was part of this conquest and grasp of reality

    Simply, their interests were “incompatible with those of Rome” (Webster 1999:16). It’s likely that the druids’ rebellious response has been marginalised by Roman historians to the point of insignificance (Webster 1999:17). A good comparison in Australian history is where the British colonial governments’ deliberate understatement of the Aboriginal resistance to white settlement. Aboriginal warriors were regarded as citizen-like criminals or renegades rather than resistance fighters defending their lands.

    The Gallic tribesmen or ‘slaves’

    As there was a great variation in culture, languages, dialects and economies among the Gallic tribes it stands to reason that the lot of the common tribesman also varied considerably throughout Gaul’s 535,000 square kilometres.

    Caesar described 5 levels of habitation in Gaul:

    • scattered farmsteads and small villages or hamlets (aedificia)
    • larger villages (vici)
    • fortified strongholds (oppida).
    • he also mentions towns he calls civitates within Provincia
    • a few other larger oppida settlements he calls urbs. Some of these urbs were Gergovie (Arverni tribe), Alesia (Aedui tribe) and Avaricum (Bituriges Cubi tribe)

    However, most Gauls lived in the countryside living in farmsteads or hamlets- small villages (aedificia). "Gaul was a world of villages" (Woolf 2003:111).

    Stage 1 beginning of 2nd century B.C.

    Stage2: end of 2nd century A.D.

    An Arverni tribal hamlet called at Le P√Ętural, Auvergne.

    Click on this icon to see more on Gallic farms

    Gallic farm link : http://www.archeologie-aerienne.culture.gouv.fr/en/

    Haussler (1994) in his study of the Vangiones tribe that inhabited the western Rhineland territory around present day Worms and Mainz agrees that most of the Vangiones Gauls lived in their late La Tene hamlets and single farmstead settlements or aedificia. In post-conquest Gaul, there was a slight and noticeable shift from less accessible areas to the plains and towns on Roman roads; however, in general there was “a strong continuity of settlement pattern with hamlets (small villages) and single farmsteads” (Haussler 1994:56).

    Vangiones territory with neighbouring tribes

    However, this rural picture should not be mistaken for backwardness.

    Life in Gaul generally was far from backward:

  • Gauls were subject to taxation
  • possessed good river and road transportation
  • came under complex constitutional laws
  • their administrators had developed a Greek alphabet
  • they sought religious and social guidance from a well educated druidic priesthood
  • Acting as clients to their aristocratic patrons or leaders, they gave them their loyalty and taxes in return for their protection and ‘gifts’.
  • Women were not looked upon as property for they retained their own money on marriage. On the death of their husband they took the lot. They were known to be strong and forthright wives. If divorce ensued, she could take back all of her wealth. It was only if a husband died suspiciously that a Celtic woman could be tortured (Jones2006:52). Women did not break ties with their own families on marriage and they chose their own marriage partners (J. Hoehn 2009:29).

    Tacitus in Germania gives us a few insights into Celtic women although he was referring to the Celtic ‘German’ tribes:




    Rallying troops/liberty


    Armies have been rallied by women who plead to fight on baring their bosoms for inspiration; fear of slavery and loss of liberty

    Prophecy and advice


    Women thought to possess gift of prophecy; their advice not taken lightly



    Women treat wounded soldiers and count and compare the gashes for honour’s sake



    Not free from military hazards or affairs



    Rare but if occurs wife is stripped naked and flogged out of house and village

    Female rule


    Sitones tribe ruled by women; a measure of their decline

    This Roman coin was minted in 48 B.C. showing a female Gaul with a typical Celtic carynx behind. It’s a likely representation of a Gallic prisoner. Hear hair is long in a non-Roman fashion perhaps with limed dreadlocks.

    tribesman- Musee Calvet, Avignon

    Main occupations:  

  • Farmers - Crumley’s study in Burgundy (1987) of the Aedui tribe’s geoeconomy prior to Roman conquest reveals a diverse economy, a ‘multiple-species’ agriculture and pastoralism (Crumley1993:383). Crops like emmer wheat, oats, 2 kinds of millet and barley were grown along with peas, lentils and vegetables. Not all of these were grown at once by farmers and it also varied over time too. However, Burgundy as a whole produced many types of grain and fodder.

    Stockbreeding was also incorporated with horses, cattle, goats, sheep and pigs that ate the plentiful acorns from the forests. Finished products like ham, leather and cheeses were produced too.

    It is also likely that grapes were cultivated to a small degree prior to Roman conquest although this is not confirmed. This trend accelerated greatly in the 1st century A.D.

    The forests were also a valuable source of wealth for the Aeduans. Charcoal burners and timber-cutters worked them probably under druid control. Iron Age woodlands were heavily exploited around the oppida and near the iron-smelting centres (Crumley 1987: chapter 6)

    At Corent oppidum (hillfort) in Arverni tribal territory, excavations by Matthieu Poux have revealed feasts where sheep mixed with cumin was the main thing on the menu followed by goat, beef, dog, horse and chicken. Game like hare and wild boar were rare ( Fouilles de Corent- (Revue de Presse 2004:25). 

  • Artisans - La Tene Gaul was an Iron Age society that prided itself by its fine iron weapons: swords, spears and helmets. One of the many functions of the oppida such as the Aeduans’ oppidum at Bibracte, Burgundy was to serve as workshops for metal-workers. Apart from weapons, jewellery like fibulae (cloak pins) and coins made from gold and silver (in some cases) were manufactured by these very skilled late La Tene craftsmen. Metalwork was well established by the elite Gauls as a way of ‘acquiring and displaying status’ among their tribe (Woolf 2003:180). It has been suggested that these highly specialised and prized craftsmen were probably given special privileges by their aristocratic patrons such as their own wine supplies.

    At Argentomagus in Bituriges Cubi territory in central Gaul 242 workshops have been found scattered around a 20 km radius territory positioning themselves next to the many mine sites.

    Pottery and glass workshops were other specialised industries. Graufesenque, in Arverni territory, was to become famous for its Samian ware reproductions in the 1st century A.D. under the Romans. It had been occupied from the 2nd century B.C. so its ceramic fame was probably developed from existing Gallic ceramic skills.

    Woolf (2003) believes that the great ‘consumer revolution’ that Gaul experienced under the Romans owed its origins to the earlier craft developments in the late La Tene period (Woolf 2003:173). Celtic Gaul’s industries gave them a good foundation with its medium variety or ‘differentiation’ of products on which was to be built more product variety or ‘differentiation’ in addition to the new Roman imported products (Woolf 2003:193).

    Graufesenque workshop

    Graufesenque ‘Samian’ ware (A.D. 50-60)

    Argentomagus link: http://www.argentomagus.com/fergb.php


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