Ancient Roman authors, such as Caesar and Tacitus, perceived the druids of Gaul and Britain as savages. According to the Romans, the druids took part in strange rituals which possibly required human sacrifice. But is there any truth to these accounts? Get ready to discover who the Druids of Roman Britain really were.
Accounts Of The Druids In Roman Britain
The oldest description of the Druids is Julius Caesar’s De Bello Gallico or the ‘Gallic Wars’. Penned by Caesar in the first century BCE, the work introduced the Roman world to the Druids. Other popular Roman authors, including Cicero, Tacitus and Pliny the Elder also provided accounts. Yet they all depicted the Druids and their practices as barbaric. It was not uncommon for Roman authors to describe unknown and foreign peoples in this way. But because the Druids did not document their own practices and religion, there was no way to dispute Roman accounts.
According to Caesar, who had encountered druids in Gaul, they were an essential class of the Gallic society. The Druids recognized a single leader who ruled the group until his death. They met at a sacred place in Gaul every year, while Britain remained the center of druidic studies. Caesar notes that the Druids who wished to undertake further druidic education often made pilgrimages to Britain to improve their knowledge which sometimes lasted over twenty years.
The Druids did not take part in war and were exempt from military taxes and enlistment. Instead, they studied lore, medicine, astrology, and philosophy, among many other subjects. According to Caesar, they did not record their practices, but they did make use of the Greek alphabet in different spheres of their public and private accounts. Caesar’s most disturbing recording is the practice of human sacrifice, for which the Druids used criminals. The victim would be sacrificed through burning in a wicker man.
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The wicker man was a large wicker effigy in which the body was placed. Yet archaeology has not provided any evidence of this practice nor of its associations with the Druids. Indeed it is not unlikely that Caesar exaggerated specific claims to exemplify Gaul and Britain’s conquest. Caesar depicted the Druids as both learned and barbaric. But just how much of this account is exaggerated, we will probably never know.
Tacitus’ Annals, written in the first century CE, is the only source for Roman Britain’s Druids as other Roman accounts mainly discussed Druids’ presence in Gaul and its surroundings. Tacitus’ account took place during the Roman invasion of Anglesey in Wales when Britain was under the control of the Roman Suetonius Paulinus. Paulinus prepared to attack the populated island of Mona (Anglesey). Tacitus writes that once the Roman infantry disembarked on the island, they were met by the opposing army, which included women dressed in black, and Druids.
The Druids were raising their hands to the skies and chanting dreadful imprecations which terrified the Roman soldiers. The Roman troops stood motionless in front of the unfamiliar sight. As the generals urged their troops forward, the island’s defenders were routed, and some soldiers were dispatched to destroy the sacred groves. These groves, according to Tacitus, were devoted to inhumane superstitions, as the Druids saw it as a duty to cover their altars in the blood of captives. The Druids also consulted their deities using human entrails.
Tacitus provides a hostile account of the Druids, which later Roman writers also took up. Interestingly, recent archaeological discoveries have confirmed Anglesey’s status as the ‘island of Druids.’
Less Extensive Roman Accounts Of The Druids
Marcus Tullius Cicero, a contemporary of Caesar, also recorded his experience with the Druids of Gaul. In his On Divination, Cicero states that he had met a Gallic druid from the Aedui tribe named Divitiacus. Divitiacus knew much about the natural world and performed divination by reading auguries.
Another less extensive account comes from Diodorus Siculus’ Bibliotheca Historica or Library of History. Writing in around 36 BCE, Diodorus described the Druidic order and their roles in Celtic society. Among these roles, Diodorus notes that the Druids were theologians and philosophers, bards, and singers. These roles match those described by Caesar and those reiterated later by Strabo.
Strabo’s Geography, also from the early first century CE, discussed the roles the Druids played in Celtic society. Among the Gauls in particular, the Druids held three honorable positions. The first and most respected position was that of the bard or bardoi, comprising of singers and poets who retold tales and legends. The second position was that of Druids possessing specialist knowledge of the natural world and practicing divination known as the ovates. The last honorable position was that of the philosopher or druidai.
Pliny the Elder
Pliny the Elder is yet another first-century CE Roman author. In Natural History, Pliny described the prominence of mistletoe in Druidic ceremonies. He stated that the plant was sacred and always employed in rituals. Pliny notes that the oak was also sacred. Certain rituals were performed within the groves of oak trees. For the Druids, everything that came from the oak had come directly from heaven, and the appearance of mistletoe was proof that the tree was divine. Pliny further describes a religious ritual in which the mistletoe was a key component and noted that the Druids practiced ritual cannibalism by eating their enemies’ flesh to gain spiritual powers.
The Druids Of Irish And Welsh Literature
Only after the British Isles had been Christianized in the Middle Ages did any writings on the Druids appear in Britain. By this time, however, the ancient Druids, as described by the Roman authors, had largely disappeared. The Irish and Welsh accounts were also not recorded by members of the Druidic order, but by Christian monks. Consequently, by the time these accounts were written down in the 7th and 8th centuries, the Druids had moved into the realm of legend.
Irish literary accounts, namely the Uraichech Becc, have described the druids or draoi as possessing supernatural abilities. In this literature, the Druids became more connected with magic powers and divination than their ancient predecessors. The Irish fili or filid was a class like the ovates described by Strabo. These fili held a higher position in Celtic society than the Druids, according to the Uraichech Becc.
The appearance of Druids in Welsh literature is far rarer than in the Irish. Most of the Welsh descriptions come from the 10th century Hywel Dda, which set out laws pertaining to the Druids. The Welsh accounts of Druids or dryw did not connect them with sorcerers and wizards but with prophets and ancient priests.
Archaeology Of The Druids
The Roman and Christian accounts should be read with a pinch of salt. Many of the Roman authors had their own agenda and therefore, it is difficult to determine what is fact and what is fiction. Our best resource for the Druidic presence in Gaul and particularly Britain is archaeological evidence. Unlike literary accounts, the archaeological evidence has no motive to persuade an audience and no political agenda. A common misconception is that the Druids were responsible for constructing Stonehenge and the stone circles at Avebury. But with archaeological advancements, we now know that these structures were built around 4000 years ago, preceding the ancient Druids by 2000 years.
Yet, thanks to archaeological evidence, we are now aware of Druids’ existence in areas all around the British Isles. In 1996, a skeleton buried with medical equipment, divination tools, and herbs was found in Colchester. The burial of the skeleton named the ‘Druid of Colchester’, has been dated to the first century CE.
Many archaeologists have attempted to prove the early Roman accounts of Druids and Druidic practices in Gaul and Britain. The most interesting of these practices would be the human sacrifice as described by Caesar and Tacitus.
The Lindow Man’s discovery in an English bog in the 1980s carries implications of possible human sacrifice by the Celts. The bog-body was identified as a young man with high social standing. Studies have revealed that the body was indeed a human sacrifice and that the victim had been killed by blunt force trauma, strangulation, and throat slashing. His death has been dated to around 60 CE, and scholars have suggested that he was sacrificed to persuade the Celtic gods to stop the Roman offensive against the Celts.
Although the accounts of the Druids in Roman Britain are few and should be viewed with caution, archaeology has once again provided the missing details. Many scholars had dismissed Druidic human sacrifice and cannibalism as Roman propaganda. Yet with recent archaeological discoveries, perhaps we should re-evaluate the Roman accounts.