“The Soanes use poison of an extraordinary kind for the points of their weapons; even the odour of this poison is a cause of suffering to those who are wounded by arrows thus prepared.”So the arrowhead was poisonous, but why stop there? Sometimes they ensured that the barbs on the arrowhead were also coated with the deadly concoction. The Roman poet Ovid, who was exiled to the Black Sea, got a good look at these poisonous plus arrows and reported them as “native arrow-points have their steel barbs smeared with poison, carry a double hazard of death.” He also described the poisonous ingredient as “yellow with vipers gall.”
Category Archives: Enemies
(The Dying Gaul, or the Dying Galatian, an ancient Roman depiction of a defeated Celtic warrior)
After victory in 45 B.C., Caesar was crowned Dictator Perpetuo and thus the 500-year reign of the Roman Republic imploded, due to the insidious cancers of autocracy and the cult of personality.
In the wider scope of Roman history, Caesar’s political victory was the result of his military accomplishments, especially his success in Gaul. Among his men, Caesar commanded complete authority and trust, and because of this, Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico – his third-person account of the wars – is replete with examples of Roman courage and prowess in battle.
In Gaul, not only every tribe, canton, and subdivision of a canton, but almost every family, is divided into rival factions. At the head of these factions are men who are regarded by their followers as having particularly great prestige, and these have the final say on all questions that come up for judgement and in all discussions of policy.
Unlike the Germans and the Belgic tribes who were ruled by kings, the Gallic tribes were predominantly ruled by oligarchies composed of warrior noblemen, who are called “knights” in most English translations of Caesar’s text. These Gallic knights acted as magistrates, military leaders as well as serf-holding landowners. In this, they eerily presaged the later feudal system of the medieval period – a system that saw its greatest heights in France, no less.
According to Caesar, the development of the Gallic oligarchies was brought about in order that “all the common people should have protection against the strong.”
Caesar, who came from a family with a history of supporting people’s assemblies and other populist causes, more than likely found this praiseworthy. Throughout his notes he is keen on showing how the Gauls, who had by this time become acquainted with Roman and Mediterranean customs due to trade, differ from the more “uncivilized” Germans.
The Druids officiate the worship of the gods, regulate public and private sacrifices, and give rulings on all religious questions. Large numbers of young men flock to them for instruction, and they are held in great honour by the people. They act as judges in practically all disputes, whether between tribes or between individuals; when any crime is committed, or a murder takes place, or a dispute arises about an inheritance or a boundary, it is they who adjudicate the matter and appoint the compensation to be paid and received by the parties concerned.
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 (emphasis mine).
This horrendous image of a colossal wicker man filled with living humans bound for a fiery death is arguably the most culturally important image in The Conquest of Gaul. Specifically, Caesar’s brief description of a certain type of human sacrifice practiced by the Gallic tribes inspired not only a 1967 British horror novel by David Pinner, but also a whole genre of cinematic horror – Mark Gatiss’ “folk horror.”
This mixture of fact and fiction is at the core of Caesar’s account and since few popular representations of Gallic and/or Celtic paganism can escape Caesar’s text, it still remains that The Conquest of Gaul is the seminal, yet biased authority on all matters Celtic. So perhaps in spite of Caesar’s best propaganda efforts, he still left an important historical reference.
But this once common view has fallen out of favor in recent years, due to a renewed interest not only in the foibles of Rome’s imperial culture, but also in the overlooked accomplishments of the so-called “Dark Ages.” Author of “Why the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ were just as civilized [sic] as the savage Roman Empire,” Dr. Dominic Selwood laments how it is popularly believed that “the ‘glory’ of Rome was ruthlessly snuffed out, trampled under hooves that sought only plunder.”
Worse still, these defilers of culture are often misrepresented as “boorish hordes” who propelled Europe backwards rather than forwards.
It is Dr. Selwood’s assertion, however, that these Germanic raiders were little different from their Roman opponents, as “violence and ruthlessness” were the primary pillars upholding imperial Rome. In order to back-up this grand claim, Dr. Selwood points to Tacitus’s Annals (14-68 AD), which provides a graphic depiction of the Roman army’s utter destruction of the druids on the Welsh island of Anglesey:
Reassured by their general, and inciting each other never to flinch before a band of females and fanatics, they charged behind the standards, cut down all who met them, and enveloped the enemy in his own flames.
Of course there is little doubt among historians—both amateur and professional—that ancient Rome was a warlike power. One does not capture most of the known world through diplomacy alone. And so, it is not shocking that a society that originally built itself upon its martial prowess would see little wrong with the occasional slaughter.
The reasons for this are many, but chief among them is the well-known fact that Tacitus was repulsed by imperial Rome’s slip into decadence. Like the much later British historian Edward Gibbon, Tacitus bemoaned the decline of the virtues of the Republican era. In particular, he disliked imperial Rome’s acceptance of debauchery, from orgies to rampant infidelity. In the conservative tradition of Cato the Elder, Tacitus believed that Rome was rotting from the inside due to its easy acceptance of the Greek philosophies of Hedonism and Epicureanism.
In Germania, Tacitus juxtaposes the morals of the Germanic peoples with those of Rome.
During the time of Germania’s construction, the Roman Empire stopped at the Rhine, and this served as the boundary between ‘civilization’ and ‘barbarism’. Roman legionaries patrolled this desolate region with stern stomachs, for despite Rome’s technological superiority, the Germanic tribes were widely feared due to their supposed love of battle and their fierce bravery.
Their marriage code, however, is strict, and indeed no part of their manners is more praiseworthy. Almost alone among barbarians they are content with one wife, except a very few among them, and these not from sensuality, but because their noble birth procures for them many offers of alliance.
Tacitus also details how Germanic wives are reminded during their wedding ceremonies that they are bound to share the sufferings of war, alongside their husbands. This spirit of mutual allegiance and courage is especially vaunted by Tacitus.
But the real thrust of Germania is this: it is partially a politically-minded critique of Roman society that uses the Germanic barbarians as a counter-example, while at the same time upholding Roman civilization as the one culture that undertakes war and adventure for more complex reasons than simple rites of passage.
Then in a strange twist, Germania became a favored book among the nascent German nationalists of the nineteenth century.
As Christopher Krebs shows in A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus’s Germania From the Roman Empire to the Third Reich, German nationalists and their coterie of militarist partisans used Germania to testify to the moral superiority of the ancient Germanic peoples. These writers, politicians, and agitators saw in Tacitus’ account a clear history of the otherwise little known pre-Christian Germanic peoples, as well as definitive indication that Germanic culture was separate from and relatively untouched by Greco-Roman culture.
Furthermore, Germania was not written for Germans but for Roman citizens—the people who earnestly believed that their culture could be adopted across the world (a lesson they learned from Alexander the Great).
In another cruel irony, the people who mistake Germania as a paean to the glories of Northern Europe’s pre-Christian past also overlook the historical fact that the Germanic tribes who caused the downfall of the Western Roman Empire were themselves Christian—a religion they adopted after their prolonged exposure to Greco-Roman culture.
It appears then that the old lines between civilized and barbarian, Roman and Germanic were more than a little blurred.