Friday, 25 January 2013

So I'm a Gaul, who am I?





All right, we've all seen the History channel documentaries or some HBO drama - we know what a Gaul looks like, right? Fighting bare-chested with long, platted pony tails, big moustaches, horned helmets and a nasty habit of collecting severed heads for their village altars. I'm not saying this didn't happen, but if we think Gauls still looked like this during the 1st-century BC Gallic Wars, then we might as well cling to the belief that Gulf War soldiers dressed in Civil War uniforms. Just like Roman history, a lot happened in Gallic history too. The Gauls of the 4th-century BC would have been completely unrecognisable to the Gauls of the 1st-century BC. It's possible a 'modern' Celtic Gaul may not have even understood their ancestors as Greek and Latin made the same inroads into their language as French did to Old English after 1066.

The first thing we need to understand is that the Gallic culture and concept of state became increasingly sophisticated as the centuries passed. In both Belgic and Celtic Gaul, the tribal regions were functioning much more like states by the end of the 2nd-century BC, most had central governments, and in Celtic Gaul, kings had largely been supplanted by Senate-like agrarian parliaments that annually elected a new head of state - a Vergobret - identical in concept to a Roman Consul. By this time Gallic society was in a broad sense similar to medieval Europe, with regional land Barons controlling the local peasantry rather than owning slaves. In Celtic Gaul the situation was probably more complicated than that to the north, increasing urbanisation was widening property ownership in the 1st-century BC and we know women shared equal rights of ownership - including sales or purchase - to men. Obviously, as Celtic Gaul moved from an agrarian society to a consumer and trading economy, the sense of feudalism in the cities and towns was fast disappearing when Caesar arrived.  

But what did a 1st-century Gaul look like? In Belgic Gaul (modern day northern France, Belgium and Holland) there's not as much certainty, but we know Gallic women as a whole were very fond of make-up and cosmetics. Julius Caesar say the Gauls - as a people - were very careful of their appearance, and it is very likely Roman fashions were popular in the Celtic cities (central France) at least. As for men? By the 1st-Century BC, Celtic Gauls were clean-shaven and wore their hair short or in the wavy Macedonian style. They were still wearing their plaid trousers tucked into hob-nailed leather boots, and some were probably wearing Roman style tunics as well as their own plaid styles.

A Celtic Warrior from the Gallic War era -
no long  hair, no naked chest and no barbarian


Vercingetorix and his Macedonian hair-style from 52BC 



















As for the soldiering Gaul? On more than one occasion Caesar's men mistook their own legions for Gallic helmet crests and standards, so despite what you saw on HBO, the Gauls that fought Caesar's legions were rather Romanesque. They wore the same chain mail armour (a Gallic invention), they fought with similar long oblong shields and they wore similar helmets with horsehair crests. On the few occasions that Avernian or Aeduan infantry actually fought pitched hand-to-hand battles with the Roman legions, they proved every bit the equal in armour and strategy - so much so that Julius Caesar ended the Gallic Wars by keeping Gallic infantry at arm's length with artillery and battlements.

 In the end, if we want to imagine 1st-century BC Celtic Gaul, we should be picturing a neo-Romano society - where Latin and Greek was widely spoken and written, where the townsfolk were increasingly urbane and the aristocrats more often than not educated in the Roman provinces. These were not the barbarian masses we see in the movies - they were the greatest 'might have beens' of Classical History. As for the Druids and their gruesome human sacrifices...well, that's another post.



Check out my latest book - Vagabond - life in Gaul after the Gallic Wars