Who were these classical commentators, and what did they say?
(Research and comment by Frank)
Diogenes was a Greek and a biographer of the Greek Philosophers. He probably lived
somewhere between 200 and 500AD. The chances are that as with much of his work it
was based on other sources rather than any first hand observation. This suggests
that other classical authors known to Diogenes took an interest in the Druids and
categorised them as Philosophers. This is a high complement coming from a people
that birthed some of the greatest Philosophers of all time.
"Vitæ", intro., i:
"Some say that the study of philosophy was of barbarian origin. For the Persians
had their Magi, the Babylonians or the Assyrians the Chaldeans, the Indians their
Gymnosophists, while the Kelts and the Galatæ had seers called Druids and Semnotheoi,
or so Aristotle says in the "Magic", and Sotion in the twenty-third book of his "Succession
"Vitæ", intro., 5:
"Those who think that philosophy is an invention of the barbarians explain the systems
prevailing among each people. They say that the Gymnosophists and Druids make their
pronouncements by means of riddles and dark sayings, teaching that the gods must
be worshipped, and no evil done, and manly behaviour maintained."
He was a Roman. Known to be ruthless but ingenious military leader. His crimes against
the Celts included an invasion of southern Britain, and the conquest of Gaul. He
was contemporary with the Druids who opposed him and who may have played a large
part in the defence of Gaul by helping Vercingetorix of the Arverni unite the tribes
against the Romans. His strategy was divide and rule, conquering one tribe at a time,
so the Druids had became in every real sense his intellectual enemy. Caesar survived
to become emperor and even to be deified. His own accounts of his actions tended
to exaggerate enemy numbers and advantage for propaganda purposes so whilst he is
an important contemporary source he is also an enemy of the Druids known to be prone
"De Bello Gallico", vi, 13,
"Throughout Gaul there are two classes of persons of definite account and dignity.
As for the common folk, they are treated almost as slaves, venturing naught of themselves,
never taken into counsel. The more part of them, oppressed as they are either by
debt, or by the heavy weight of tribute, or by the wrongdoing of the more powerful
men, commit themselves in slavery to the nobles, who have, in fact, the same rights
over them as masters over slaves. Of the two classes above-mentioned, one consists
of Druids, the other of knights.
"The former are concerned with divine worship, the due performance of sacrifices,
public and private, and the interpretation of ritual questions : a great number of
young men gather about them for the sake of instruction and hold them in great honour.
In fact, it is they who decide in almost all disputes, public and private; and if
any crime has been committed, or murder done, or there is any dispute about succession
or boundaries, they also decide it, determining rewards and penalties : if any person
or people does not abide by their decision, they ban such from sacrifice, which is
their heaviest penalty. Those that are so banned are reckoned as impious and criminal;
all men move out of their path and shun their approach and conversation, for fear
they may get some harm from their contact, and no justice is done if they seek it,
no distinction falls to their share.
"Of all these Druids one is chief, who has the highest authority among them. At his
death, either any other that is pre-eminent in position succeeds, or, if there be
several of equal standing, they strive for the primacy by the vote of the Druids,
or sometimes even with armed force. These Druids, at a certain time of the year,
meet within the borders of Carnutes, whose territory is reckoned as the centre of
all Gaul,and sit in conclave in a consecrated spot. Thither assemble from every side
all that have disputes, and they obey the decisions and judgments of the Druids.
It is believed that their rule of life was discovered in Britain and transferred
thence to Gaul; and to-day those who would study the subject more accurately journey,
as a rule, to Britain to learn it."
"De Bello Gallico", vi, 14,
"The Druids usually hold aloof from war, and do not pay wartaxes with the rest; they
are excused from military service and exempt from all liabilities. Tempted by these
great rewards, many young men assemble of their own motion to receive their training;
many are sent by parents and relatives. Report says that in the school of the Druids
they learn by heart a great number of verses, and therefore some persons remain twenty
years under training. And they do not think it proper to commit these utterances
to writing, although in almost all other matters, and in their public and private
accounts, they make use of Greek letters.
I believe they have adopted the practice for two reasons - that they do not wish
the rule to become common property, nor those who learn the rule to rely on writing
and so neglect the cultivation of the memory; and, in fact, it does usually happen
that the assistance of writing tends to relax the diligence of the student and the
action of the memory. The cardinal doctrine which they seek to teach is that souls
do not die, but after death pass from one to another; and this belief, as the fear
of death is thereby cast aside, they hold to be the greatest incentive to valour.
Besides this, they have many discussions touching the stars and their movement, the
size of the universe and of the earth, the order of nature, the strength and the
powers of the immortal gods, and hand down their lore to the young men."
"De Bello Gallico", vi, 16,
"The whole nation of the Gauls is greatly devoted to ritual observances, and for
that reason those who are smitten with the more grievous maladies and who are engaged
in the perils of battle either sacrifice human victims or vow so to do, employing
the Druids as ministers for such sacrifices. They believe, in effect, that, unless
for a man's life a man's life be paid, the majesty of the immortal gods may not be
appeased; and in public, as in private, life they observe an ordinance of sacrifices
of the same kind. Others use figures of immense size, whose limbs, woven out of twigs,
they fill with living men and set on fire, and the men perish in a sheet of flame.
They believe that the execution of those who have been caught in the act of theft
or robbery or some crime is more pleasing to the immortal gods; but when the supply
of such fails they resort to the execution even of the innocent."
"De Bello Gallico", vi, 18, 1, :
"The Gauls affirm that they are all descended from a common father, Dis, and say
that this is the tradition of the Druids."
"De Bello Gallico", vi, 21, 1, :
"The Germans differ much from this manner of living. They have no Druids to regulate
divine worship, no zeal for sacrifices."
A Roman who lived between 106 and 43 BC, he was said to be one of the most versatile
minds of ancient Rome. He introduced the Romans to the chief schools of Greek philosophy
and created a Latin philosophical vocabulary, distinguishing himself as a linguist,
translator, and philosopher. An impressive orator and successful lawyer. Today, he
is appreciated primarily for his humanism and philosophical and political writings.
Cornelius Nepos, the 1st-century BC biographer of Atticus, remarked that Cicero's
letters contained such a wealth of detail "concerning the inclinations of leading
men, the faults of the generals, and the revolutions in the government" that their
reader had little need for a history of the period. Whilst he didn’t say very much
about the Druids, he knew one personally, and he had nothing bad to say.
"De Divinatione", I xli, 90, :
"Nor is the practice of divination disregarded even among uncivilised tribes, if
indeed there are Druids in Gaul - and there are, for I knew one of them myself, Divitiacus,
the Æduan, your guest and eulogist. He claimed to have that knowledge of nature which
the Greeks call "physiologia", and he used to make predictions, sometimes by means
of augury and sometimes by means of conjecture.",
A first century Greek historian who wrote 40 books as part of his ‘Universal History’
of which only 14 are known to survive today. The book about the Gallic War is one
of the missing volumes sadly, but we can only hope that someday it might be found.
He lived at the right time to have met Druids or at least to have heard first hand
accounts of them. It is worthy of note that this Greek also uses the terms philosophers
and theologians when describing the Druids.
"Histories", v, 28, 6:
"The Pythagorean doctrine prevails among them [the Gauls], teaching that the souls
of men are immortal and live again for a fixed number of years inhabited in another
"Histories", v, 31, 2-5:
"And there are among them [the Gauls] composers of verses whom they call Bards; these
singing to instruments similar to a lyre, applaud some, while they vituperate others.
"They have philosophers and theologians who are held in much honour and are called
Druids; they have sooth-sayers too of great renown who tell the future by watching
the flights of birds and by the observation of the entrails of victims; and everyone
waits upon their word. When they attempt divination upon important matters they practice
a strange and incredible custom, for they kill a man by a knife-stab in the region
above the midriff, and after his fall they foretell the future by the convulsions
of his limbs and the pouring of his blood, a form of divination in which they have
full confidence, as it is of old tradition.
"It is a custom of the Gauls that no one performs a sacrifice without the assistance
of a philosopher, for they say that offerings to the gods ought only to made through
the mediation of these men, who are learned in the divine nature and, so to speak,
familiar with it, and it is through their agency that the blessings of the gods should
properly be sought. It is not only in times of peace, but in war also, that these
seers have authority, and the incantations of the bards have effect on friends and
foes alike. Often when the combatants are ranged face to face, and swords are drawn
and spears bristling, these men come between the armies and stay the battle, just
as wild beasts are sometimes held spellbound. Thus even among the most savage barbarians
anger yields to wisdom, and Mars is shamed before the Muses."
Born in Turkey (Then part of the Roman Empire) living 63BC to 24AD, Strabo was widely
travelled and studied under notable philosophers his interest was largely in anthropology,
the study of peoples. His account of the Druids is therefor highly interesting, although
he had lived in Rome it is not clear that he had ever travelled north to Gaul or
Britain so the information about Druids was probably 2nd hand.
"Geographica", iv, 4, c. 197, 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 [of criminals for sacrifice]
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, say that men's souls, and also
the universe are indestructible, although both fire and water at some time or other
prevail over them."
"Geographica", iv, 4, c. 198, 5 :
"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."
A fourth century Roman historian noted for his impartiality and complete accuracy
in his accounts of historical events. He had experience of fighting in Gaul, long
after the repression of the Druids there, yet he has some interesting things to say
about them and I suspect that he had first hand contact or reliable sources.
xv, 9, 4:
"According to the Druids, a part of the population [of Gaul] was indigenous, but
some of the people came from outlying islands and lands beyond the Rhine, driven
from their homes by repeated wars and by the inroads of the sea."
xv, 9, 8:
"In these regions, as the people gradually became civilised, attention to the gentler
arts became commoner, a study introduced by the Bards, and the Euhages, and the Druids.
It was the custom of the Bards to celebrate the brave deeds of their famous men in
epic verse accompanied by the sweet strain of the lyre, while Euhages strove to explain
the high mysteries of nature. Between them came the Druids, men of greater talent,
members of the intimate fellowship of the Pythagorean faith; they were uplifted by
searchings into secret and sublime things, and with grand contempt for mortal lot
they professed the immortality of the soul."
Roman historian 70 AD to 130 AD. Noted the repression of the Druids outlawing their
religion and teaching. He was more interested in telling the story of Roman Emperors
which is why the Druids just get this important but passing mention.
"He [the Emperor Claudius] very thoroughly suppressed the barbarous and inhuman religion
of the Druids in Gaul, which at the time of Augustus had merely been forbidden to
Spanish born Geographer with an education in Philosophy he wrote around 43AD. Is
it possible that his interest in the Druids starts with hearing that they ‘profess
to know the size and shape of the world’ in accord with his own interests? I am speculating,
but if I am correct then he would be an unbiased commentator, his interest having
possibly arisen in this way.
"De Situ Orbis", iii, 2, 18 and 19:
"There still remain traces of atrocious customs no longer practised, and although
they now refrain from outright slaughter, yet they still draw blood from the victims
led to the altar. They have, however, their own kind of eloquence, and teachers of
wisdom called Druids. They profess to know the size and shape of the world, the movements
of the heavens and of the stars, and the will of the gods. They teach many things
to the nobles of Gaul in a course of instruction lasting as long as twenty years,
meeting in secret either in a cave or secluded dales. One of their dogmas has come
to common knowledge, namely, that souls are eternal and that there is another life
in the infernal regions, and this has been permitted manifestly because it makes
the multitude readier for war. And it is for this reason too that they burn or bury
with their dead, things appropriate to them in life, and that in times past they
even used to defer the completion of business and the payment of debts until their
arrival in another world. Indeed, there were some of them who flung themselves willingly
on the funeral pyres of their relatives in order to share the new life with them."
Full name ‘Marcus Annaeus Lucanus’ he lived between 39 AD and 65 AD and was a Roman
Poet. Living in Rome and a one time friend to Nero he would probably not have had
access to Druids himself, but certainly to learned people, soldiers who had fought
against them and access to libraries in Rome itself.
"Pharsalia", i, 450-8:
"And you, O Druids, now that the clash of battle is stilled, once more have you returned
to your barbarous ceremonies and to the savage usage of your holy rites. To you alone
it is given to know the truth about the gods and deities of the sky, or else you
alone are ignorant of this truth. The innermost groves of far-off forests are your
abodes. And it is you who say that the shades of the dead seek not the silent land
of Erebus and the pale halls of Pluto; rather, you tell us that the same spirit has
a body again elsewhere, and that death, if what you sing is true, is but the midpoint
of long life
Pliny (the Elder) :
23 - 79 AD was an author, naturalist, and natural philosopher as well as naval and
army commander of the early Roman Empire and personal friend of the emperor Vespasian.
Spending most of his spare time studying, writing or investigating natural and geographic
phenomena in the field, he wrote an encyclopedic work, Naturalis Historia. Born in
Como, northern Italy. This detail may be significant as to why Pliny is able to give
specific details of Druid rites. The hills surrounding the current location of Como
have been inhabited, since at least the Bronze Age, by a Celtic tribe known as the
Orobii. In 194BC their territory fell to Rome becoming part of the province of Gaul.
Pliny very likely had first hand knowledge of the Druids.
"Nat. Hist.", xvi, 249:
"Here we must mention the awe felt for this plant by the Gauls. The Druids - for
so their magicians are called - held nothing more sacred than the mistletoes and
the tree that bears it, always supposing that tree to be the oak. But they choose
groves formed of oaks for the sake of the tree alone, and they never perform any
of their rites except in the presence of a branch of it; so that it seems probable
that the priests themselves may derive their name from the Greek word for that tree.
In fact, they think that everything that grows on it has been sent from heaven and
is proof that the tree was chosen by the god himself. The mistletoe is found but
rarely upon the oak; and when found, is gathered with due religious ceremony, if
possible on the sixth day of the moon, (for it is by the moon that they measure their
months and years, and also their ages of thirty years). They choose this day because
the moon, though not yet in the middle of her course, has already considerable influence.
They call the mistletoe by a name meaning, in their language, the all-healing.
Having made preparation for sacrifice and a banquet beneath the trees, they bring
thither two white bulls, whose horns are bound then for the first time. Clad in a
white robe, the priest ascends the tree and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle,
and it is received by others in a white cloak. Then they kill the victims, praying
that god will render this gift of his propitious to those to whom he has granted
it. They believe that the mistletoe, taken in drink, imparts fecundity to barren
animals, and that it is an antidote for all poisons. Such are the religious feelings
that are entertained toward trifling things by many peoples."
"Nat. Hist.", xxiv, 103 - 104:
"Similar to savin is the plant called selago. It is gathered without using iron and
by passing the right hand through the left sleeve of the tunic, as though in the
act of committing a theft. The clothing must be white, the feet washed and bare,
and an offering of wine and bread made before the gathering. The Druids of Gaul say
that the plant should be carried as a charm against every kind of evil, and that
the smoke of it is good for diseases of the eyes. The Druids, also, use a certain
marsh-plant that they call samolus, this must be gathered with the left hand, when
fasting, and is a charm against the diseases of cattle. But the gatherer must not
look behind him, nor lay the plant anywhere except in the drinking-troughs."
"Nat. Hist.", xxix, 52:
"There is also another kind of egg, of much renown in the Gallic provinces, but ignored
by the Greeks. In the summer, numberless snakes entwine themselves into a ball, held
together by a secretion from their bodies and by their spittle. This is called anguinum.
The Druids say that hissing serpents throw this up into the air, and that it must
be caught in a cloak, and not allowed to touch the ground; and that one must instantly
take to flight on horseback, as the serpents will pursue until some stream cuts them
off. It may be tested, they say, by seeing if it floats against the current of a
river, even though it be set in gold. But as it is the way of magicians to cast a
veil about their frauds, they pretend that these eggs can only be taken on a certain
day of the moon, as though it rested with mankind to make the moon and the serpents
accord as to the moment of the operation. I myself, however, have seen one of these
eggs, it was round, and about as large as a smallish apple; the shell was cartilaginous,
and pocked like the arms of a polypus. The druids esteem it highly. It is said to
ensure success in law-suits and a favourable reception with princes; but this is
false, because a man of the Vocontii, who was also a Roman knight, kept one of these
eggs in his bosom during a trial, and was put to death by the Emperor Claudius, as
far as I can see, for that reason alone."
"Nat. Hist.", xxx, 13:
"It [magic] flourished in the Gallic provinces, too, even down to a period within
our memory; for it was in the time of the Emperor Tiberius that a decree was issued
against their Druids and the whole tribe of diviners and physicians. But why mention
all this about a practice that has even crossed the ocean and penetrated to the utmost
parts of the earth? At the present day, Britannia is still fascinated by magic, and
performs its rites with so much ceremony that it almost seems as though it was she
who had imparted the cult to the Persians. To such a degree do peoples throughout
the whole world, although unlike and quite unknown to one another, agree upon this
one point. Therefore we cannot too highly appreciate our debt to the Romans for having
put an end to this monstrous cult, whereby to murder a man was an act of the greatest
devoutness, and to eat his flesh most beneficial."
Tacitus: (PubliusCornelius Tacitus):
Tacituslived between AD 56 & AD 117, and was a senator and a historian of the Roman
Empire. He was born in Gaul, so it is possible that he knew Druids. The surviving
portions of his two major works—the Annals and the Histories—examine the reigns of
the Roman Emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero and those who reigned in the Year of
the Four Emperors. The clue to understanding Tacitus value to study of the British
Druids is that his father in law, who he much admired, was a general in the wars
against the British Tribes and a critic of Roman brutality and his father was a procurator
of the Belgic territorries. Tacitus has a lot to say about the way that the Romans
treated the British and I believe that he had some sympathy and admiration for the
"Annals", xiv, 30 :
"On the shore stood the opposing army with its dense array of armed warriors, while
between the ranks dashed women in black attire like the Furies, with hair dishevelled,
waving brands. All around, the Druids, lifting up their hands to heaven and pouring
forth dreadful imprecations, scared our soldiers by the unfamiliar sight, so that,
as if their limbs were paralysed, they stood motionless and exposed to wounds. Then
urged by general's appeal and mutual encouragements not to quail before a troop of
frenzied women, they bore the standard onwards, smote down all resistance, and wrapped
the foe in the flames of his own brands. A force was next set over the conquered,
and their groves, devoted to inhuman superstitions, were destroyed. They deemed it,
indeed, a duty to cover their altars with the blood of captives and to consult their
deities through human entrails."
"Histories", iv, 54 :
"The Gauls, they remembered, had captured the city in former days, but, as the abode
of Jupiter was uninjured, the Empire had survived; whereas now the Druids declared,
with the prophetic utterances of an idle superstition, and this fatal conflagration
[of the Capitol] was a sign of the anger of heaven, and portended universal empire
for the Transalpine nations."