The Celtic Literature Collective

Strabo's Geography

Book IV

Chapter 4: Transalpine Gaul: West Lugdunensis and Belgica

1. After the aforesaid tribes, the rest are tribes of those Belgae who live on the ocean-coast. Of the Belgae, there are, first, the Veneti who fought the naval battle with Caesar; for they were already prepared to hinder his voyage to Britain, since they were using the emporium there. But he easily defeated them in the naval battle, making no use of ramming (for the beamsLink to the editor's note at the bottom of this page were thick), but when the Veneti bore down upon him with the wind, the Romans hauled down their sails by means of pole-hooks; for, on account of the violence of the winds, the sails were made of leather, and they were hoisted by chains instead of ropes. Because of the ebb-tides, they make their ships with broad bottoms, high sterns, and high prows; they make them of oak (of which they have a plentiful supply), and this is why they do not bring the joints of the planks together but leave gaps; they stuff the gaps full of sea-weed, however, so that the wood may not, for lack of moisture, become dry when the ships are hauled up, because the sea-weed is naturally rather moist, whereas the oak is dry and without fat. It is these Veneti, I think, who settled the colony that is on the Adriatic (for about all the Celti that are in Italy migrated from the transalpine land, just as did the Boii and Senones), although, on account of the likeness of name, people call them Paphlagonians.Link to the editor's note at the bottom of this page I do not speak positively, however, for with reference to such matters probability suffices. Secondly, there are the Osismii (whom Pytheas calls the Ostimii), who live on a promontory that projects quite far out into the ocean, though not so far as he and those who have trusted him say. But of the tribes that are between the Sequana and the Liger, some border on the Sequani, others on the Arverni.

2. The whole race which is now called both "Gallic" and "Galatic" is war-mad, and both high-spirited and quick for battle, although otherwise simple and not ill-mannered. And therefore, if roused, they come together all at once for the struggle, both openly and without circumspection, so that for those who wish to defeat them by stratagem they become easy to deal with (in fact, irritate them when, where, or by what chance pretext you please, and you have them ready to risk their lives, with nothing to help them in the struggle but might and daring); whereas, if coaxed, they so easily yield to considerations of utility that they lay hold, not only of training in general, but of language-studies as well. As for their might, it arises partly from their large physique and partly from their numbers. And on account of their trait of simplicity and straightforwardness they easily come together in great numbers, because they always share in the vexation of those of their neighbours whom they think wronged. At the present time they are all at peace, since they have been enslaved and are living in accordance with the commands of the Romans who captured them, but it is from the early times that I am taking this account of them, and also from the customs that hold fast to this day among the Germans. For these peoples are not only similar in respect to their nature and their governments, but they are also kinsmen to one another; and, further, they live in country that has a common boundary, since it is divided by the River Rhenus, and the most of its regions are similar (though Germany is more to the north), if the southern regions be judged with reference to the southern and also the northern with reference to the northern. But it is also on account of this traitLink to the editor's note at the bottom of this page that their migrations easily take place, for they move in droves, army and all, or rather they make off, households and all, whenever they are cast out by others stronger than themselves. Again, the Romans conquered these people much more easily than they did the Iberians; in fact, the Romans began earlier, and stopped later, carrying on war with the Iberians, but in the meantime defeated all these I mean all the peoples who live between the Rhenus and the Pyrenees Mountains. For, since the former were wont to fall upon their opponents all at once and in great numbers, they were defeated all at once, but the latter would husband their resources and divide their struggles, carrying on war in the manner of brigands, different men at different times and in separate divisions.Link to the editor's note at the bottom of this page Now although they are allLink to the editor's note at the bottom of this page fighters by nature, they are better as cavalry than as infantry; and the best cavalry-force the Romans have comes from these people. However, it is always those who live more to the north and along the ocean-coast that are the more warlike.

3. Of these people, they say, the Belgae are bravest (who have been divided into fifteen tribes, the tribes that live along the ocean between the Rhenus and the Liger); consequently they alone could hold out against the onset of the Germans the Cimbri and Teutones. But of the Belgae themselves, they say, the Bellovaci are bravest, and after them the Suessiones. As for the largeness of the population, this is an indication: it is found upon inquiry, they say, that there are as many as three hundred thousand of those Belgae (of former times) who are able to bear arms; and I have already told the number of the Elvetii, and of the Arverni, and of their allies, from all of which the largeness of the population is manifest, as is also the thing of which I spoke above the excellence of the women in regard to the bearing and nursing of children. The Gallic people wear the "sagus," let their hair grow long, and wear tight breeches; instead of tunics they wear slit tunics that have sleeves and reach as far as their private parts and the buttocks. The wool of their sheep, from which they weave the coarse "sagi" (which they call "laenae"), is not only rough, but also flocky at the surface; the Romans, however, even in the most northerly parts raise skin-clothed flocks with wool that is sufficiently fine. The Gallic armour is commensurate with the large size of their bodies: a long sabre, which hangs along the right side, and a long oblong shield, and spears in proportion, and a "madaris," a special kind of javelin. But some of them also use bows and slings. There is also a certain wooden instrument resembling the "grosphus" (it is hurled by hand, not by thong, and ranges even farther than an arrow), which they use particularly for the purposes of bird-hunting. Most of them, even to the present time, sleep on the ground, and eat their meals seated on beds of straw. Food they have in very great quantities, along with milk and flesh of all sorts, but particularly the flesh of hogs, both fresh and salted. Their hogs run wild, and they are of exceptional height, boldness, and swiftness; at any rate, it is dangerous for one unfamiliar with their ways to approach them, and likewise, also, for a wolf. As for their houses, which are large and dome-shaped, they make them of planks and wicker, throwing up over them quantities of thatch. And their flocks of sheep and herds of swine are so very large that they supply an abundance of the "sagi" and the salt-meat, not only to Rome, but to most parts of Italy as well. The greater number of their governments used to be aristocraticLink to the editor's note at the bottom of this page although in the olden time only one leader was chosen, annually; and so, likewise, for war, only one man was declared general by the common people. But now they give heed, for the most part, to the commands of the Romans. There is a procedure that takes place in their assemblies which is peculiar to them: if a man disturbs the speaker and heckles him, the sergeant-at-arms approaches him with drawn sword, and with a threat commands him to be silent; if he does not stop, the sergeant-at-arms does the same thing a second time, and also a third time, but at last cuts off enough of the man's "sagus" to make it useless for the future. But as for their custom relating to the men and the women (I mean the fact that their tasks have been exchanged, in a manner opposite to what obtains among us), it is one which they share in common with many other barbarian peoples.

4. Among all the Gallic peoples, generally speaking, there are three sets of men who are held in exceptional honour; the Bards, the Vates and the Druids. The Bards are singers and poets; the Vates, diviners and natural philosophers; while the Druids, in addition to natural philosophy, study also moral philosophy. The Druids are considered the most just of men, and on this account they are entrusted with the decision, not only of the private disputes, but of the public disputes as well; so that, in former times, they even arbitrated cases of war and made the opponents stop when they were about to line up for battle, and the murder cases, in particular, had been turned over to them for decision. Further, when there is a big yield from these cases, there is forthcoming a big yield from the land too, as they think. However, not only the Druids, but others as well, that men's souls, and also the universe, are indestructible, although both fire and water will at some time or other prevail over them.

5. In addition to their trait of simplicity and high-spiritedness, that of witlessness and boastfulness is much in evidence, and also that of fondness for ornaments; for they not only wear golden ornaments both chains round their necks and bracelets round their arms and wrists but their dignitaries wear garments that are dyed in colours and sprinkled with gold. And by reason of this levity of character they not only look insufferable when victorious, but also scared out of their wits when worsted. Again, in addition to their witlessness, there is also that custom, barbarous and exotic, which attends most of the northern tribes I mean the fact that when they depart from the battle they hang the heads of their enemies from the necks of their horses, and, when they have brought them home, nail the spectacle to the entrances of their homes. At any rate, Poseidonius says that he himself saw this spectacle in many places, and that, although at first he loathed it, afterwards, through his familiarity with it, he could bear it calmly. The heads of enemies of high repute, however, they used to embalm in cedar-oil and exhibit to strangers, and they would not deign to give them back even for a ransom of an equal weight of gold. But the Romans put a stop to these customs, as well as to all those connected with the sacrifices and divinations that are opposed to our usages. They used to strike a human being, whom they had devoted to death, in the back with a sabre, and then divine from his death-struggle. But they would not sacrifice without the Druids. We are told of still other kinds of human sacrifices; for example, they would shoot victims to death with arrows, or impale them in the temples, or, having devised a colossus of straw and wood, throw into the colossus cattle and wild animals of all sorts and human beings, and then make a burnt-offering of the whole thing.

6. In the ocean, he says, there is a small island, not very far out to sea, situated off the outlet of the Liger River; and the island is inhabited by women of the Samnitae, and they are possessed by Dionysus and make this god propitious by appeasing him with mystic initiations as well as other sacred performances; and no man sets foot on the island, although the women themselves, sailing from it, have intercourse with the men and then return again. And, he says, it is a custom of theirs once a year to unroof the temple and roof it again on the same day before sunset, each woman bringing her load to add to the roof; but the woman whose load falls out of her arms is rent to pieces by the rest, and they carry the pieces round the temple with the cry of "Ev-ah," and do not cease until their frenzy ceases; and it is always the case, he says, that some one jostles the woman who is to suffer this fate. But the following story which Artemidorus has told about the case of the crows is still more fabulous: there is a certain harbour on the ocean-coast, his story goes, which is surnamed "Two Crows," and in this harbour are to be seen two crows, with their right wings somewhat white; so the men who have disputes about certain things come here, put a plank on an elevated place, and then throw on barley cakes, each man separately; the birds fly up, eat some of the barley cakes, scatter the others; and the man whose barley cakes are scattered wins his dispute. Now although this story is more fabulous, his story about Demeter and Core is more credible. He says that there is an island near Britain on which sacrifices are performed like those sacrifices in Samothrace that have to do with Demeter and Core. And the following, too, is one of the things that are believed, namely, that in Celtica there grows a tree like a fig-tree, and that it brings forth a fruit similar to a Corinthian-wrought capital of a column; and that, if an incision be made, this fruit exudes a sap which, as used for the smearing of arrows, is deadly. And the following, too, is one of the things that are repeated over and over again, namely, that not only are all Celti fond of strife, but among them it is considered no disgrace for the young men to be prodigal of their youthful charms. Ephorus, in his account, makes Celtica so excessive in its size that he assigns to the regions of Celtic most of the regions, as far as Gades, of what we now call Iberia; further, he declares that the people are fond of the Greeks, and specifies many things about them that do not fit the facts of to-day. The following, also, is a thing peculiar to them, that they endeavour not to grow fat or pot-bellied, and any young man who exceeds the standard measure of the girdle is punished. So much for Transalpine Celtica.

Chapter 5


Strabo. The Geography of Strabo English translation by Horace White. Vol. II. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988. Loeb Classical Library.