By Benjamin Welton
When it comes to Julius Caesar’s accounts of the Gallic wars, it’s clear to see that propaganda was his chief concern. Of course, he claims to have recorded his conquest for the purposes of posterity, namely that his notes would be the source material for a later, more qualified Roman historian. But despite his main motivations, his accounts have, in fact, become one of our most important resources regarding a mysterious peoples.
Dying Gaul

(The Dying Gaul, or the Dying Galatian, an ancient Roman depiction of a defeated Celtic warrior)

Covering modern-day France, Belgium, and parts of Switzerland and Germany, the Gallic Wars (58-50 B.C.) saw Caesar conquer most of the Celtic world on the Continent.
Not only that, but it also included two Roman invasions of Britain, neither of which netted the distant island for the empire. (That, of course, came later in 43 AD under the leadership of the emperor Claudius.) Ultimately, after many years of campaigning and putting down several Gallic rebellions, Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 B.C. on his way to winning the civil war for the Populares, or the Roman aristocratic leaders who relied on the people’s assemblies and tribunate for power.

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.

While these passages are intended to show the brilliance of Caesar’s command, they also serve to highlight something starker – the inferiority of the Gauls (according to Caesar) and the Gallic way of war.
Much like the later Germania by Tacitus, which primarily concerns itself with an ethnographic view of the Germanic tribesmen, who would eventually bring down the Western Roman Empire, Caesar’s The Conquest of Gaul offers up a sociological analysis of a “barbarian” people from the point-of-view of their conquerors.
Sadly, history has only left behind fragments of the Gaulish language, and few, if any, of these documents pertain to the Gallic Wars. In this sense, Caesar’s account of the Gauls is still the best resource for scholars interested in France’s Celtic past.
Gallic Warriors

(Modern interpretation of ancient Gallic warriors)

In Caesar’s account, the Gauls are described as somewhat lazy, fiercely independent, and prone to violence, although not as warlike as their Germanic neighbors. In Book VI, Caesar writes:
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.

Caesar’s notes from the Gallic Wars also include some of the earliest descriptions of Gallic religious traditions, especially in regards to the Druids. Long the favorites of horror and suspense writers, the mysterious Druids were the priestly class among the Celts, and as such, Caesar spends some time in describing their manner:
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.
Two Druids

(A 19th-century engraving of two Druids)

Caesar’s descriptions do not stop there either, for he also claims that the Druids, unlike the common people, were ruled by a single and supreme priest, who either earned the office owing to his merits or was elected to it by his peers. Furthermore, the Druids of Continental Europe looked to Britain as the origin and seat of all Druidic doctrine.
Of all the claims that Caesar’s notes make about Gallic customs, none is more sensational than a single line entry concerning human sacrifices:
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.”

Chief among these films is Anthony Shaffer’s The Wicker Man. A strange, disturbing film about an isolated pagan outpost in the Scottish Hebrides, it has helped like none other to popularize Caesar’s text, which before had been mostly known for its exemplary use of unadorned, straightforward Latin.
Wicker Man

(The Wicker Man awaits)

Some historians and classicists may cringe at the idea that Caesar’s account of his campaigns in Gaul has primarily inspired horror movies as well as Astérix, René Goscinny’s beloved comic series about a village full of lovable Gauls.
However, it remains that his writings and descriptions allow for such inferences, because despite the many discussions concerning military tactics and battlefield politics, The Conquest of Gaul is a stylized portrait of a peculiar people. Moreover, because the Gauls, along with their Celtic brethren on the Continent, still remain enigmatic, the opportunities for speculative interpretations are many.

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.