Ancient France

From Clovis, the legendary first King of France, to the brutal Gallic Wars fought against Caesar’s Rome, the world of ancient France is a fascinating chapter in the history of early Europe.

French Royalty – Clotilda & Clovis. Costumes of all nations (1882)
The Ancient World of the Gauls and the Franks

A Gallic bronze head representing an unknown deity

Perhaps no other military events in Roman history are as well known then the climatic campaigns known collectively as the Gallic Wars. Long known to have been the primary adversaries to Rome, the Gauls were epitomized as the barbarians at the gates of this great city. In reality very few sources of information outside of Cesar’s accounts exists of early Gaulish society and culture, and these have to be viewed with the understanding of a certain bias towards the tribal people of Europe. The Romans did their best to remove these Celtic traditions from their Empire, but eventually the Romanized culture of Gaul manged to preserve much of it’s local identity and traditions. Later as the Roman Empire crumbled Gaul was again invaded, this time by Germanic tribes known as the Franks. They left their Mark on Gaul both ethnically and culturally, but eventually even they succumbed to the assimilating forces of Gaulish society, and began adopting their local version of Latin and becoming the precursors to the modern French people today.

Origins of the Gauls

A Gaulish Helmet, showing the high degree of Celtic metalwork

At the dawn of history in Europe, the Celts in present-day France were known as Gauls. Their descendants were described by Julius Caesar in his Gallic Wars. There was also an early Celtic presence in northern Italy. Other Celtic tribes invaded Italy, establishing there a city they called Mediolanum (modern Milan) and sacking Rome itself in 390 BC following the Battle of the Allia. A century later the defeat of the combined Samnite, Celtic and Etruscan alliance by the Romans in the Third Samnite War sounded the end of the Celtic domination in Europe, but it was not until 192 BC that the Roman armies conquered the last remaining independent Celtic kingdoms in Italy.

The earliest Celts who were major players in the classical world were the Gauls, who controlled an area extending from France to Switzerland. It was the Gauls who sacked Rome and later invaded Greece; it was also the Gauls that migrated to Asia Minor to found their own, independent culture there, that of the Galatians. Through invasion and migration, they spread into Spain and later crossed the Alps into Italy and permanently settled the area south of the Alps which the Romans then named, Cisalpine Gaul.

The Gauls were a tribal and agricultural society. They were ruled by kings, but individual kings reigned only over small areas. Occasionally a single powerful king could gain the allegiance of several kings as a kind of “over-king,” but on the whole the Gauls throughout Europe were largely an ethnic continuity rather than a single nation.

The Torque used by the Gallic Celts in particular

The Torque used by the Gallic Celts in particular

Ethnic identity among the early Gauls was very fluid. Ethnic identity was first and foremost based on small kinship groups, or clans—this fundamental ethnic identity often got collapsed into a larger identity, that of tribes. The main political structures, that of kingship, organized themselves around this tribal ethnic identity. For the most part, the Gauls did not seem to have a larger ethnic identity that united the Gaulish world into a single cultural group—the “Gauls” as an ethnic group was largely invented by the Romans and the Greeks and applied to all the diverse tribes spread across the face of northern Europe. The Gauls did have a sense of territorial ethnicity; the Romans and Greeks tell us that there were sixteen separate territorial nations of Gauls. These territorial groups were divided into a series of pagi, which were military units composed of men who had voluntarily united as fellow soldiers.

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The Lands of the Gauls

The Ancient Lands of the Gauls

The Gauls, however, were not the original Europeans. Beginning in an area around Switzerland, the Celts spread westward and eastward displacing native Europeans in the process. These migrations begin around 500 BC. The Gaulish invasion of Italy in 400 was part of this larger emigration. The Romans, however, pushed them back by the third century BC; native Europeans in the north, however, were not so lucky.

Two Celtic tribes, the Cimbri and the Teutones (“Teuton,” an ethnic for Germans, is derived from the Celtic root for “people”), emigrated east and settled in territory in Germany. The center of Celtic expansion, however, was Gaul, which lay north of the Alps in the region now within the borders of France and Belgium and part of Spain.

The earliest account of the Gauls comes from Julius Caesar. In his history of his military expedition first into Gaul and then as far north as Britain, Caesar described the tribal and regional divisions among the Gauls, of which some seem to have been original European populations and not Celtic at all.

The Gaulish tribes or territories frequently built fortifications that served as the military and political center of the region. These fortified centers took their names from the larger tribe—for instance, Paris took its name from the tribe of Parisi and Chartres was originally named after the tribe, the Carnuti, which had built it.

Gaulish society, like all of Celtic society, was rigidly divided into a class system. Similar class systems predominated among the Indians as well with largely the same categories. According to Julius Caesar, the three classes of Gaulish society were the druides, equites, and plebs , all Roman words. The druids were the educated among the Gauls and occupied the highest social position, just as the Brahmin class occupied the highest social position among the Indians. The druids were responsible for cultural and religious knowledge as well as the performance of rituals, just as the Brahmins in India. However obscure these religious functions might be, the druids were regarded as powerful over both society and the world around them. The most powerful tool the druids had was the power of excommunication—when a druid excommunicated a member of a tribe, it was tantamount to kicking that person out of the society.

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Vercingetorix and the Gallic Wars

Vercingetorix, the last great rebel leader of the Gauls

In 53 BC, when Caesar had left for Italy after the summer campaign season, the Gallic tribes rebelled under the leadership of Vercingetorix, who raised an army against the Roman legions still wintering in Gaul.

Hearing of the rebellion, Caesar crossed the mountains in the south, digging through snow drifts six feet deep, to rejoin his troops. “The very vigour and speed of his march in such wintry conditions,” says Plutarach, “was a sufficient advertisement to the natives that an unconquered and unconquerable army was bearing down upon them.” To deprive the Romans of food and supplies, Vercingetorix had ordered a scorched-earth policy, and all the neighboring villages and farms were burned, “until fires were visible in all directions.” But one tribe, already having torched twenty towns in a single day, refused to destroy its capital at Avaricum (Bourges), “almost the finest in Gaul, the chief defense and pride of their state.”

Vergingetorix relented and set about to help defend the fortified town, which held a large supply of grain so desperately needed by the Romans. Caesar began a siege that lasted twenty-seven days. It now was early spring 52 BC, and, in spite of incessant rain, two wheeled towers, eighty-feet high, and ramps 330 feet long, over which they could be rolled into place, as well as a high siege terrace, were constructed in less than a month. The Gauls did all they could to counter or destroy the siege works. As the towers increased in height, so the defenders raised their own. They attacked the soldiers at work and tunneled under the terrace to undermine it. As the terrace approached the height of the wall, the defenders became desperate. Caesar writes that “They felt that the fate of Gaul depended entirely on what happened at that moment, and performed before our eyes an exploit so memorable that I felt I must not leave it unrecorded.” It was almost midnight when they again had dug under the terrace and set it on fire. Opposite one of the towers, a Gaul was throwing pitch and tallow onto the fire when he was killed by an arrow from a catapult. Another man stepped forward to take his place and he, too, was killed. Another came forward and also was killed. This continued throughout the night until the fire finally was extinguished.

A Gaulish attack on Romans

A Gaulish attack on Romans

The next day, it began to rain heavily and, as the defenders took shelter, one of the siege towers was moved into position. The Gauls, taken by surprise, were dislodged from the walls and, panicked at the sight of the Romans surrounding them, threw down their weapons and fled. Exasperated at the length and difficulty of the siege, the Romans massacred the inhabitants. No-one was spared, “neither old men nor women nor children. Of the whole population–about forty thousand–a bare eight hundred who rushed out of the town at the first alarm got safely through to Vercingetorix.”

Later that year, Vercingetorix and his men were trapped in the stronghold of Alesia, near present-day Dijon. Caesar surrounded the oppidum and began to construct siege works. The defenders had food only for a month, and Caesar hoped to starve them into surrender before reinforcements could arrive. The circumvallation extended around the town for ten miles, too large to be occupied by the Romans. It therefore was made more secure by a series of defenses. First, facing the town, a trench twenty-feet wide was dug to protect against surprise attack. Six hundred and fifty yards behind this ditch two more trenches were dug, each fifteen feet wide and the inner one filled with water. Behind these trenches was a palisade rampart twelve feet high, with a breastwork of earth studded with forked branches. Around the entire circuit of the wall, towers were erected every 130 yards.

Still, there were attacks by the Gauls, and the siege works were strengthened even more. Tree trunks and strong branches were cut and sharpened, and buried securely in rows in front of the trenches. In front of them, diagonal rows of pits also were dug, each three-feet deep with a thick sharpened stake at the bottom and covered with brush to hide the trap. And, in front of these, blocks of wood were buried in the ground with iron barbs (stimuli) fixed in them. Aware that Vercingetorix had sent for reinforcements to break the siege, Caesar had an similar line of defense constructed facing outward to protect against attack from a relief force. By now, the food in the town had been exhausted, and it was determined that all those who could not fight were to be turned out. The inhabitants of Alesia, who had given refuge to Vercingetorix and his men, now were compelled to leave the town, together with their wives and children. Starving, they begged the Romans on the surrounding walls to take them in as slaves. But the population was refused any refuge and left to die of hunger between the two armies.

Caesar writes that 250,000 infantry and 8,000 cavalry assembled to relieve the besieged town. But the Gauls had difficulty communicating across the Roman siege works that ringed the oppidum and were not able to coordinate their efforts. Now surrounded, themselves, the Romans were able to repel the first assault. At midnight the next day, the Gauls suddenly attacked again, and Vercingetorix led his men out of the town in support. But it was too dark to see and, when the relief army came nearer the Roman defenses, “they suddenly found themselves pierced by the goads or tumbled into the pits and impaled themselves, while others were killed by heavy siege spears discharged from the rampart and towers.” Before he could even reach the trenches, Vercingetorix heard the army retreating and was forced back behind the town walls. Again, the relief force reassembled: “The Gauls knew that unless they broke through the lines they were lost; the Romans, if they could hold their ground, looked forward to the end of all their hardships….on that day, he said, on that very hour, depended the fruits of all their previous battles.” There was a desperate struggle. The Gauls filled the trenches with dirt and bundles of sticks, pulled down the breastworks with hooks, and drove the Romans from the towers. But Caesar, his presence marked by a scarlet cloak, attacked with cavalry and additional cohorts. The Gauls broke and fled, the relieving army giving up and returning to their homes.

Vercingetorix was forced to surrender and allowed himself to be given up to the Romans. The Gallic chieftain languished in the Tullianum at Rome for five years before being publicly beheaded as part of Caesar’s triumph in 46 BC. Two years later, Caesar, himself, was dead.

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Gauls and Romans

A Gaulish Chieftain taunts his enemies

Under Caesar the Romans conquered Celtic Gaul, and from Claudius onward the Roman empire absorbed parts of the Celtic British Isles. Roman local government of these regions closely mirrored pre-Roman ‘tribal’ boundaries, and archaeological finds suggest native involvement in local government. Latin was the official language of these regions after the conquests.The native peoples under Roman rule became Romanized and keen to adopt Roman ways. Celtic art had already incorporated classical influences, and surviving Gallo-Roman pieces interpret classical subjects or keep faith with old traditions despite a Roman overlay.

Roman influence lead directly to the decline of the druid priests. Prior to Roman conquests, the druids exercised enormous spiritual and political power among the Celtic peoples. The druid religion was seen as a major impediment to the “Romanization” of the newly conquered Celts. Thus began a deliberate policy on the part of the Roman conquerors to replace the old Celtic political structure with Roman institutions. The elimination of the druid class was instrumental to cementing Roman authority.

This led the birth of many Romano-celtic deities, as old Celtic gods took on new Latin names and aspects of Roman divinities, and began to be worshiped alongside the more traditional Jovian pantheon.

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Religion of the Gauls

The Gauls practiced a form of animism, ascribing human characteristics to lakes, streams, mountains, and other natural features and granting them a quasi-divine status. Also, worship of animals was not uncommon; the animal most sacred to the Gauls was the boar, which can be found on many Gallic military standards, much like the Roman eagle.

Their system of gods and goddesses was loose, there being certain deities which virtually every Gallic person worshiped, as well as tribal and household gods. Many of the major gods were related to Greek gods; the primary god worshiped at the time of the arrival of Caesar was Teutates, the Gallic equivalent of Mercury. The “father god” in Gallic worship was “Dis Pater,” who could be assigned the Roman name “Saturn.” However there was no real theology, just a set of related and evolving traditions of worship.

Perhaps the most intriguing facet of Gallic religion is the practice of the Druids. There is no certainty concerning their origin, but it is clear that they vehemently guarded the secrets of their order and held sway over the people of Gaul. Indeed they claimed the right to determine questions of war and peace, and thereby held an “international” status. In addition, the Druids monitored the religion of ordinary Gauls and were in charge of educating the aristocracy. They also practiced a form of excommunication from the assembly of worshipers, which in ancient Gaul meant a separation from secular society as well. Thus the Druids were an important part of Gallic society.

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An Account from Ceasar's Gallic Wars

The Dying Gaul, a Roman marble that shows the naked warrior with distinctive hair and mustache

Commentarii de Bello Gallico is Julius Caesar’s firsthand account of his nine years of war in Gaul, written as a third-person narrative. In Commentarii de Bello Gallico, Caesar describes the battles and intrigues that took place in the nine years he spent fighting local armies that opposed Roman domination. The “Gaul” that Caesar refers to is sometimes all of Gaul except for the Provincia Narbonensis (modern day Provence), encompassing all of modern France, Belgium and some of Switzerland. On other occasions he refers only to that territory inhabited by the Celts (whom the Romans called Gauls), from the Channel to Lugdunum (Lyon). The following is an excerpt from the volume.

“All Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit, the Aquitani another, those who in their own language are called Celts, in ours Gauls, the third. All these differ from each other in language, customs and laws.The river Garonne separates the Gauls from the Aquitani; the Marne and the Seine separate them from the Belgae. Of all these, the Belgae are the bravest, because they are furthest from the civilization and refinement of [our] Province, and merchants least frequently resort to them, and import those things which tend to effeminate the mind; and they are the nearest to the Germanic people, who dwell beyond the Rhine, with whom they are continually waging war; for which reason the Helvetii also surpass the rest of the Gauls in valor, as they contend with the Germanic people in almost daily battles, when they either repel them from their own territories, or themselves wage war on their frontiers. One part of these, which it has been said that the Gauls occupy, takes its beginning at the river Rhone; it is bounded by the river Garonne, the ocean, and the territories of the Belgae; it borders, too, on the side of the Sequani and the Helvetii, upon the river Rhine, and stretches toward the north. The Belgae rises from the extreme frontier of Gaul, extend to the lower part of the river Rhine; and look toward the north and the rising sun. Aquitania extends from the river Garonne to the Pyrenaean mountains and to that part of the ocean which is near Spain: it looks between the setting of the sun, and the north star.”

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The Franks

The Franks were a group of Germanic peoples inhabiting the lower and middle Rhine Valley by the 3d century AD, when they are first mentioned by classical authors.

Identified by these writers as the Salians, Ripuarians, and Chatti, they are said to have shared the same language and to have had many similar laws. Toward the middle of the 3d century the Franks began penetrating the Roman frontier around Mainz. They were driven back by Emperor Probus. In 358, Julian the Apostate handed over Toxandria, the region between the Meuse and the Scheldt rivers, to the Salian Franks, who became Roman allies and provided troops for the imperial army.

The Salian Franks were divided into several groups led by chiefs (reguli). One of these groups, the Merovingians, which took its name from the chief Merovech (Merowen), was particularly successful. Merovech and his successor, Childeric (d.481), extended Salian domination to the south, perhaps as far as the Somme River. Childeric aided the Romans, but after the death (461) of Emperor Majorian he sought to overthrow Aegidius, the imperial governor in northern Gaul. Aegidius forced Childeric into exile among the Thuringians, but he returned after a few years and, in alliance with some Saxons, defeated the Romans. Syagrius, Aegidius’s son and successor, was able to keep Childeric from moving his people south of the Somme, but another regulus took control of Le Mans. Cambrai and Therouanne were also held by Salian reguli. CLOVIS, Childeric’s son, conquered most of Gaul and unified the Franks under the Merovingian dynasty. Clovis also converted to Christianity.

The Ripuarian Franks and the Chatti raided across the middle Rhine frontier during the first quarter of the 5th century. In the wake of the Hunnic invasion of Gaul, a band of Ripuarians gained control of Cologne. By c.470, Trier was in Ripuarian hands, and thereafter Metz, Toul, and Verdun fell to the Franks. The Carolingian dynasty, which succeeded the Merovingians, is considered to have been of Ripuarian origin. Under the Carolingians, the Franks formed a vast empire that reached its pinnacle in the reign (768-814) of Charlemagne. This empire was divided in the mid-9th century, from it emerging the West Frankish kingdom (France) and the East Frankish kingdom (Germany).

Much is known about the material civilization of the Franks during the period before they became Christians. Thousands of graves have been discovered in which have been found not only skeletons but various kinds of weapons, jewelry, and even bits of cloth and leather. The most celebrated find was the grave of Childeric, discovered at Tournai in 1653. A great wealth in gold, including a signet ring with his portrait on it, and the severed head of his horse were among its contents.

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