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Romans and druids

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Romans and druids
Romans and druids

When, in the first century CE, during the reign of emperor Claudius, the Romans invaded the British Isles. The hordes of Celtic warriors, despite fierce and courageous resistance, finally had to succumb to criminal and well-trained legionaries, and “Pax Romana” quickly became an accomplished fact on the islands. However, not everyone liked the Roman occupation. The most numerous group in the anti-Roman opposition were druids, whom the Romans ruthlessly persecuted. But who were the druids?

In general, they were the Celtic priesthood. They were also healers, poets, teachers, prophets, soothsayers, judges and advisors of chiefs and kings. They also served as guardians of the Celtic cultural heritage. They were the ones who remembered and passed on to future generations stories and legends, both those regarding folklore and those containing the then legal code. For these reasons, the druids enjoyed enormous admiration, respect and reverence among the Celts.

However, Britain was not the first province where the Romans met druids because they encountered them much earlier during Conquest of Gaul by Caesar. Caesar, in his “Commentaries on the Gallic War”, considered them to be a social class on par with warriors, that is, belonging to a tribal aristocracy. Caesar also believed that druidism was born in Britain and from there he came to Gaul:

This institution is supposed to have been devised in Britain, and to have been brought over from it into Gaul; and now those who desire to gain a more accurate knowledge of that system generally proceed thither for the purpose of studying it.

Julius Caesar, Commentaries on the Gallic War, VI 13

On the other hand, Pliny the Elder was of a different opinion, who in his “Natural History” stated that druidism arose in Gaul and from there he went to Britain. Pliny also claimed that the word “druid” came from a word that in Greek was “drys,” or oak, for there would be nothing more sacred to the druids than the mistletoe and the tree on which it grew, or oak.

Interestingly, many ancient authors (e.g. Diodor Sicilian, Diogenes Laertios, Caesar, Strabon) considered druids to be philosophers, which probably resulted from the fact that both the Greeks and the Romans encountered such a priesthood in the Celtic world, which in no way it resembled Greek or Roman, especially in the last centuries BCE.

However, the Romans were unable to accept druids. Their activities had previously been banned in Gaul, and in Britain they were mercilessly exterminated. Why? It wasn’t the difference between the pantheons of Roman and British deities. As for religious reasons, the Romans were very tolerant and adaptive, which is exemplified by the fact that they willingly accepted the various deities of other nations into their pantheon. So they were not disturbed by the worship of the god Bela, in which they saw Apollo, the god Lera was considered Neptune, and the goddess Morrigan, was considered the equivalent of Bellona. However, the Romans had far less tolerance for druids. The main reason for this was that the druids never accepted the Roman occupation of the British Isles and kept adding oil to the ever-smoldering flame of rebellion. Regularly, they managed to light those flames in quite a big fire. Druids, I say, instigated such chiefs as Caratacus or Kattigern, encouraged rebellion of queen Boudica, and also regularly urged Queen Kartimandua to break alliance with Rome. Another reason for the Romans’ dislike of the druids was their inhumane religious practices. Druids, in order to honor their gods, wicker hut in the shape of a human, so-called “wickerman”, in which they locked people (or animals) and burned alive. Caesar wrote about such practices even during the fighting in Gaul in his “Commentaries on the Gallic War”:

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 to do so, 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.

Julius Caesar, Commentaries on the Gallic War, VI 16

Also on the altars and in the sacred groves dedicated to the Celtic deities, human blood was shed abundantly and ritual torture and executions took place. These were deeds that the “civilized” Romans could not accept, even though they themselves willingly watched the bloody gladiator fights in the arenas and no less bloody executions. The sacred groves of the druids were cut down, and they were taken “under the sword”. One of the largest massacres took place on the island of Mona (today’s Anglesey). Tacit described the landing on the island and the course of the fighting in his “Annals” as follows:

On the beach stood the adverse array, a serried mass of arms and men, with women flitting between the ranks. In the style of Furies, in robes of deathly black and with dishevelled hair, they brandished their torches; while a circle of Druids, lifting their hands to heaven and showering imprecations, struck the troops with such an awe at the extraordinary spectacle that, as though their limbs were paralysed, they exposed their bodies to wounds without an attempt at movement. Then, reassured by their general, and inciting each other never to flinch before a band of females and fanatics, they charged behind the standards, cut down all who met them, and enveloped the enemy in his own flames. The next step was to install a garrison among the conquered population, and to demolish the groves consecrated to their savage cults: for they considered it a duty to consult their deities by means of human entrails.

Tacitus, Annales, XIV, 30

Despite the fierce Romans, they never managed to fully eradicate druids who survived in the far north, as well as in Cornwall, the Welsh mountains and Ireland, throughout the Roman occupation and probably when in the last 407 the Roman legion left Britain, the druids thanked for Gods, burning a number of prisoners in “Wickerman”. However, are you sure? In the 5th and 6th centuries CE, the British Isles were already strongly Christian. The British church has its martyrs already in the third century: St. Albana, Saint. Julius and St. Aaron, and in the year 314 he is already so respected and recognized that his representatives are invited to the synod in Arles. The bishopric of Eburacum (today’s York), which is the oldest in England, dates back to the same year. In the sixth century, the Welsh monk Gildas writes about druids and pagan deities as phenomena long forgotten and immersed in non-existence.

Author: Marcin Gwizdalski
  • Gąsowski Jerzy, Mitologia Celtów, Warszawa 1979
  • Julius Caesar, Komentarze do wojny galijskiej
  • Pliny the Elder, Natural history
  • Tacitus, Annales

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