The Celtic Literature Collective

Ammianus Marcellinus
Roman History

BOOK XV: The Origin of the Gauls

1. Now then, since, as the sublime poet of Mantua has sung, "A greater series of incident rises to my view; in a more arduous task I engage,"— I think it a proper |73 opportunity to describe the situation and different countries of the Gauls, lest, among the narration of fiery preparations and the various chances of battles, I should seem, while speaking of matters not understood by every one, to resemble those negligent sailors, who, when tossed about by dangerous waves and storms, begin to repair their sails and ropes which they might have attended to in calm weather.

2. Ancient writers, pursuing their investigations into the earliest origin of the Gauls, left our knowledge of the truth very imperfect; but at a later period, Timagenes, a thorough Greek both in diligence and language, collected from various writings facts which had been long unknown, and guided by his faithful statements, we, dispelling all obscurity, will now give a plain and intelligible relation of them.

3. Some persons affirm that the first inhabitants ever seen in these regions were called Celts, after the name of their king, who was very popular among them, and sometimes also Galatae, after the name of his mother. For Galatae is the Greek translation of the Roman term Galli. Others affirm that they are Dorians, who, following a more ancient Hercules, selected for their home the districts bordering on the ocean.

4. The Druids affirm that a portion of the people was really indigenous to the soil, but that other inhabitants poured in from the islands on the coast, and from the districts across the Rhine, having been driven from their former abodes by frequent wars, and sometimes by inroads of the tempestuous sea.

5. Some again maintain that after the destruction of Troy, a few Trojans fleeing from the Greeks, who were then scattered over the whole world, occupied these districts, which at that time had no inhabitants at all.

6. But the natives of these countries affirm this more positively than any other fact (and, indeed, we ourselves have read it engraved on their monuments), that Hercules, the son of Amphitryon, hastening to the destruction of those cruel tyrants, Geryon and Tauriscus, one of whom was oppressing the Gauls, and the other Spain, after he had conquered both of them, took to wife some women of noble birth in those countries, and became the father of many children; and that his sons called the districts of which they became the kings after their own names.

7. Also an Asiatic tribe coming from Phocaea in order to escape the cruelty of Harpalus, the lieutenant of Cyrus the king, sought to sail to Italy. And a part of them founded Velia, in Lucania, others settled a colony at Marseilles, in the territory of Vienne; and then, in subsequent ages, these towns increasing in strength and importance, founded other cities. But we must avoid a variety of details which are commonly apt to weary.

8. Throughout these provinces, the people gradually becoming civilized, the study of liberal accomplishments flourished, having been first introduced by the Bards, the Eubages, and the Druids. The Bards were accustomed to employ themselves in celebrating the brave achievements of their illustrious men, in epic verso, accompanied with sweet airs on the lyre. The Eubages investigated the system and sublime secrets of nature, and sought to explain them to their followers. Between these two came the Druids, men of loftier genius, bound in brotherhoods according to the precepts and example of Pythagoras; and their minds were elevated by investigations into secret and sublime matters, and from the contempt which they entertained for human affairs they pronounced the soul immortal.

1. This country then of the Gauls was by reason of its lofty mountain ranges perpetually covered with terrible snows, almost unknown to the inhabitants of the rest of the world, except where it borders on the ocean; vast fortresses raised by nature, in the place of art, surrounding it on all sides.

2. On the southern side it is washed by the Etruscan and Gallic sea: where it looks towards the north it is separated from the tribes of the barbarians by the river Rhine; where it is placed under the western star it is bounded by the ocean, and the lofty chain of the Pyrenees; where it has an eastern aspect it is bounded by the Cottian Alps. In these mountains King Cottius, afier the Gauls had been subdued, lying by himself in their defiles, and relying on the rugged and pathless character of the country, long maintained his independence; though afterwards he abated his pride, and was admitted to the friendship of the Emperor Octavianus. And subsequently he constructed immense works to serve as a splendid gift to the emperor, making roads over them, short, and convenient for travellers, between other ancient passes of the Alps; on which subject we will presently set forth what discoveries have been made.

3. In these Cottian Alps, which begin at the town of Susa, one vast ridge rises up, scarcely passable by any one without danger.

4. For to travellers who reach it from the side of Gaul it descends with a steepness almost precipitous, being terrible to behold, in consequence of the bulk of its overhanging rocks. In the spring, when the ice is melting, and the snow beginning to give way from the warm spring breezes, if any one seeks to descend along the mountain, men and beasts and wagons all fall together through the fissures and clefts in the rocks, which yawn in every direction, though previously hidden by the frost. And the only remedy ever found to ward off entire destruction is to have many vehicles bound together with enormous ropes, with men or oxen hanging on behind, to hold them back with great efforts; and so with a crouching step they get down with some degree of safety. And this, as I have said, is what happens in the spring.

5. But in winter, the ground being covered over with a smooth crust of ice, and therefore slippery under foot, the traveller is often plunged headlong; and the valleys, which seem to open here and there into wide plains, which are merely a covering of treacherous ice, sometimes swallow up those who try to pass over them. On account of which danger those who are acquainted with the country fix projecting wooden piles over the safest spots, in order that a series of them may conduct the traveller unhurt to his destination; though if these piles get covered with snow and hidden, or thrown down by melting torrents descending from the mountains, then it is difficult for any one to pass, even if natives of the district lead the way.

6. But on the summit of this Italian mountain there is a plain, seven miles in extent, reaching as far as the station known by the name of Mars; and after that comes another ridge, still more steep, and scarcely possible to be climbed, which stretches on to the summit of Mons Matrona, named so from an event which happened to a noble lady.

7. From this point a path, steep indeed, but easily passable, leads to the fortress of Virgantia. The sepulchre of this petty prince whom we have spoken of as the maker of these roads is at Susa, close to the walls; and his remains are honoured with religious veneration for two reasons: first of all, because he governed his people with equitable moderation; and secondly, because, by becoming an ally of the Roman republic, he procured lasting tranquillity for his subjects.

8. And although this road which I have been speaking of runs through the centre of the district, and is shorter and more frequented now than any other, yet other roads also were made at much earlier periods, on different occasions.

9. The first of them, near the maritime alps, was made by the Theban Hercules, when he was proceeding in a leisurely manner to destroy Geryon and Tauriscus, as has already been mentioned; and he it was who gave to these alps the name of the Grecian Alps. In the same way he consecrated the citadel and port of Monaecus to keep alive the recollection of his name for ever. And this was the reason why, many ages afterwards, those alps were called the Penine Alps.

10. Publius Cornelius Scipio, the father of the elder Africanus, when about to go to the assistance of the citizens of Saguntum—celebrated for the distresses which they endured, and for their loyalty to Rome, at the time when they were besieged with great resolution by the Carthaginians—led to the Spanish coast a fleet having on board a numerous army. But after the city had been destroyed by the valour of the Carthaginians, he, being unable to overtake Hannibal, who had crossed the Rhone, and had obtained three days' start of him in the march towards Italy, crossed the sea, which at that point was not wide, making a rapid voyage; and taking his station near Genoa, a town of the Ligures, awaited his descent from the mountains, so that, if chance should afford him an opportunity, he might attack him in the plain while still fatigued with the ruggedness of the way by which he had come.

11. But still, having regard to the interests of the republic, he ordered Cnaeus Scipio, his brother, to go into Spain, to prevent Hasdrubal from making a similar expedition from that country. But Hannibal, having received information of their design by some deserters, being also a man of great shrewdness and readiness of resources, obtained some guides from the Taurini who inhabited those districts, and passing through the Tricastini and through the district of the Vocontii, he thus reached the defiles of the Tricorii. Then starting from this point, he made another march over a line previously impassable. And having cut through a rock of immense height, which he melted by means of mighty fires, and pouring over it a quantity of vinegar, he proceeded along the Druentia, a river full of danger from its eddies and currents, until he reached the district of Etruria. This is enough to say of the Alps; now let us return to our original subject.

1. In former times, when these provinces were little known, as being barbarous, they were considered to be divided into three races: namely, the Celtae, the same who are also called Galli; the Aquitani, and the Belgae: all differing from each other in language, manners, and laws.

2. The Galli, who, as I have said, are the same as the Celtae, are divided from the Aquitani by the river Garonne, which rises in the mountains of the Pyrenees; and after passing through many towns, loses itself in the ocean.

3. On the other side they are separated from the Belgians by the Manio and the Seine, both rivers of considerable size, which flowing through the tribe of the Lugdunenses, after surrounding the stronghold of the Parisii named Lutetia, so as to make an island of it, proceed onwards together, and fall into the sea near the camp of Constantius.

4. Of all these people the Belgians are said by ancient writers to be the most warlike, because, being more remote from civilization, and not having been rendered effeminate by foreign luxuries, they have been engaged in continual wars with the Germans on the other side of the Rhine.

5. For the Aquitanians, to whose shores, as being nearest and also pacific, foreign merchandise is abundantly imported, were easily brought under the dominion of the Romans, because their character had become enervated.

6. But from the time when the Gauls, after long and repeated wars, submitted to the dictator Julius, all their provinces were governed by Roman officers, the country being divided into four portions; one of which was the province of Narbonne; containing the districts of Vienne and Lyons: a second province comprehended all the tribes of the Aquitanians; upper and lower Germany formed a third jurisdiction, and the Belgians a fourth at that period.

7. But now the whole extent of the country is portioned out into many provinces. The second (or lower) Germany is the first, if you begin on the western side, fortified by Cologne and Tongres, both cities of great wealth and importance.

8. Next comes the first (or high) Germany, in which, besides other municipal towns, there is Mayence, and Worms, and Spiers, and Strasburg, a city celebrated for the defeats sustained by the barbarians in its neighbourhood.

9. After these the first Belgic province stretches as far as Metz and Treves, which city is the splendid abode of the chief governor of the country.

10. Next to that comes the second Belgic province, where we find Amiens, a city of conspicuous magnificence, and Chalons, and Rheims.

11. In the province of the Sequani, the finest cities are Besancon and Basle. The first Lyonnese province contains Lyons, Chalons, Sens, Bourges, and Autun, the walls of which are very extensive and of great antiquity.

12. In the second Lyonnese province are Tours, and Rouen, Evreux, and Troyes. The Grecian and Penine Alps have, besides other towns of less note, Avenche, a city which indeed is now deserted, but which was formerly one of no small importance, as even now is proved by its half-ruinous edifices. These are the most important provinces, and most splendid cities of the Galli.

13. In Aquitania, which looks towards the Pyrenees, and that part of the ocean which belongs to the Spaniards, the first province is Aquitanica, very rich in large and populous cities; passing over others, I may mention as pre-eminent, Bordeaux, Clermont, Saintes, and Poictiers.

14. The province called the Nine Nations is enriched by Ausch and Bazas. In the province of Narborme, the cities of Narbonne, Euses, and Toulouse are the principal places of importance. The Viennese exults in the magnificence of many cities, the chief of which are Vienne itself, and Arles, and Valence; to which may be added Marseilles, by the alliance with and power of which, we read that Rome itself was more than once supported in moments of danger.

15. And near to these cities is also Aix, Nice, Antibes, and the islands of Ilieres.

16. And since we have come in the progress of our work to this district, it would be inconsistent and absurd to omit all mention of the Rhone, a river of the greatest celebrity. The Rhone rises in the Penine Alps, from sources of great abundance, and descending with headlong impetuosity into the more champaign districts, it often overruns its banks with its own waters, and then plunges into a lake called Lake Leman, and though it passes through it, yet it never mingles with any foreign waters, but, rushing over the top of those which flow with less rapidity, in its search for an exit, it forces its own way by the violence of its stream.

17. And thus passing through that lake without any damage, it runs through Savoy and the district of Tranche Comté; and, after a long course, it forms the boundary between the Viennese on its left, and the Lyonnese on its right. Then after many windings it receives the Saone, a river which rises in the first Germany, and this latter river here merges its name in the Rhone. At this point is the beginning of the Gauls. And from this spot the distances are measured not by miles but by leagues.

18. From this point also, the Rhone, being now enriched by other rivers, becomes navigable for large vessels, which are often tossed about in it by gales of wind; and at last, having finished the course which nature has marked out for it, foaming on it joins the Gallic Sea in the wide gulf which they call the Gulf of Lyons, about eighteen miles from Arles. This is enough to say of the situation of the province; I will now proceed to describe the appearance and character of the inhabitants.

1. Nearly all the Gauls are of a lofty stature, fair, and of ruddy complexion; terrible from the sternness of their eyes, very quarrelsome, and of great pride and insolence. A whole troop of foreigners would not be able to withstand a single Gaul if he called his wife to his assistance, who is usually very strong, and with blue eyes; especially when, swelling her neck, gnashing her teeth, and brandishing her sallow arms of enormous size, she begins to strike blows mingled with kicks, as if they were so many missiles sent from the string of a catapult.

2. The voices of the generality are formidable and threatening, whether they are in good humour or angry: they are all exceedingly careful of cleanliness and neatness, nor in all the country, and most especially in Aquitania, could any man or woman, however poor, be seen either dirty or ragged.

3. The men of every age are equally inclined to war, and the old man and the man in the prime of life answer with equal zeal the call to arms, their bodies being |81 hardened by their cold weather and by constant exercise, so that they are all inclined to despise dangers and terrors. Nor has any one of this nation ever mutilated his thumb from fear of the toils of war, as men have done in Italy, whom in their district are called Murci.

4. The nation is fond of wine, and of several kinds of liquor which resemble wine. And many individuals of the lower orders, whose senses have become impaired by continual intoxication, which the apophthegm of Cato defined to be a kind of voluntary madness, run about in all directions at random; so that there appears to be some point in that saying which is found in Cicero's oration in defence of Fonteius, "that henceforth the Gauls will drink their wine less strong than formerly," because forsooth they thought there was poison in it.

5. These countries, and especially such parts of them as border on Italy, fell gradually under the dominion of the Romans without much trouble to their conquerors, having been first attacked by Fulvius, afterwards weakened in many trifling combats by Sextius, and at last entirely subdued by Fabius Maximus; who gained an additional surname from the complete accomplishment of this task, after he had brought into subjection the fierce tribe of the Allobroges.

6. Caesar finally subdued all the Gauls, except where their country was absolutely inaccessible from its morasses, as we learn from Sallust, after a war of ten years, in which both nations suffered many disasters; and at last he united them to us in eternal alliance by formal treaties. I have digressed further than I had intended, but now I will return to my original subject.

Ammianus Marcellinus. Roman History. London: Bohn (1862) Book 15. pp.45-82. edited for the web by Roger Pearse. ULR: