Ep. 19 New Gods, Rulers and Togas: Augustan Gallia
As we begin today’s episode we need to explore just how strange the conquest of Gaul was for the Romans and how this shaped the Roman psyche. Before Caesar’s Gallic Wars, the territories that Rome conquered were often older and more ‘cultured’ than Rome itself, and here I’m using cultured to mean more cosmopolitan and connected to other cultures. One of Rome’s first major conquests were the Etruscans, many of whose cities predated Rome. Then Rome conquered Magna Grecia, which were Greek cities in southern Italy and Sicily. After that Rome conquered Carthage, then Greece proper, then many Anatolian kingdoms. Finally, just after Rome conquered Gaul, Augustus seized Egypt from Mark Antony and Cleopatra. All of these civilizations and cultures arose around the same time as Rome, or preceded Rome by millennia. Rome, for much of its history, emulated other cultures, namely the Etruscans and Greeks, because their civilizations were older and more developed, at least in the Roman mind.
The conquest of Gaul presented something entirely new. Rome was no longer the young country overthrowing a decrepit civilization buckling under its own corruption. Gaul was, at least in the Roman mind, a barbarian civilization, one whose culture was poor, whose druidic religion was savage, and whose political organization was primitive. When Augustus came to power he was confronted with the question of what to do with Gaul. Augustus ultimately decided to civilize Gaul and transform it into a Roman culture, starting with its name which he changed to Gallia. This decision by Augustus was crucial in the transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. Under the Roman Republic the city of Rome and its immediate environs dominated but did not try to change, other cultures, because the Romans respected the customs and traditions of many of their conquered territories, especially Greeks. The Roman Empire, however, was typified by a civilizing mission as it sought to turn barbarians into Romans. This process, which began in Gaul, would extend into Britannia, Western Germania and in the few additional provinces that the Roman Empire seized over the next two centuries.
Gaul was incredibly important since it served as one of the great fulcrums that turned the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. Here I am going back to our discussion of ‘catalysts’ versus longue durée in Episode 10. As you’ll recall, catalysts are specific events that lead to momentous change, while longue durée is a French term referring to slow, gradual change over a long period of time. Caesar’s conquest of Gaul gave him the power to overthrow Pompey and the Senate and establish a lifetime dictatorship and was an immediate catalyst for the fall of the Republic. Augustus came into power and decided to impose Roman civilization upon Gaul, a policy which dramatically altered the Roman state. Thus the conquest of Gaul was both a short term and long term cause of Rome’s transition from Republic to Empire.
Today’s episode explores the question: how much did Gaul change? Did Gaul, now Gallia, truly become a little Rome? Or did Celtic culture live on? Last episode we talked about how Augustus remade the physical structure of Gallia through the creation of new cities, the villa system and roads to connect all of these. Now we must talk about politics, religion and culture.
The Gallic system shared many similarities with Rome before occupation. Most Gallic cities were oligarchies that had a deliberative body of usually 100 elder men ruling. These similarities meant that Gauls could easily adapt to the Roman power structure, which didn’t markedly reshape the political structure, but rather added one more strata with Rome [read: Augustus] being on top.
However, these independent political structures posed a threat to Roman administration. Augustus wisely chose to undermine this in a gradual process. First, he made treaties with tribes, in order to separate them from others and cultivate a dependency on Rome and his divine person. Then he made arrangements with local pro-Roman aristocrats directly. Finally he negotiated with individual people, as accepted authority passed from local custom to Roman law. By this process Gallic law broke down as increased Roman incursion into the legal sphere meant that local customs became irrelevant.
Augustus didn’t just undermine Gallic political institutions but Gallic political identity by offering the Latin Rights to loyal Gauls. For those who know their Roman history, the Latin Rights was a legal class that was just below Roman citizenship but above Roman subjecthood. The Latin Rights bestowed trading and legal privileges on those who held it. Before his death, Caesar extended the Latin rights to Narbonensis in order to ensure the province’s loyalty. Augustus wasn’t nearly as liberal, and offered it piecemeal. Many elites jumped at the opportunity to acquire the Latin Rights and eventual Roman citizenship as this allowed them to pursue high legal offices. The Gallic elite quickly understood that the more Roman they became legally, the more power they acquired, while those who didn’t pursue the Latin Rights and Roman citizenship diminished in economic and political standing. In order to achieve the Latin Rights and citizenship, Gallic leaders were expected to raise auxiliary troops for the Roman armies. This process meant that even as individual elite Gauls rose up the political ladder local Gallic power was transferred to Rome.
Latin Rights and Roman citizenship opened many doors to the Gallic aristocracy but of all the occupations they could now pursue, two stood above all others: magistrate and tax collector. The magistrates of cities living under Latin law acquired full Roman citizenship and the ability to pursue numerous offices within the cursus honorum. Meanwhile, the position of tax collector was not necessarily as respectable as pursuing higher office but oh boy could you make a lot of money becoming a tax collector. And it is this position which was pivotal in the transformation of Gallic society under Augustus as Gallia was no longer divided between Roman and Gallic but between economic classes. We’ll come back to this later when we talk about culture, but for now just know that Augustus masterfully pulled the Gallic ruling classes into the Roman orbit. It was Gallic officers and elites, not Romans, who collected taxes and enacted Roman law. Under Augustus poor Gauls were less likely to blame the Romans for their problems and instead blamed the rich exploiters, because increasingly, the Roman and Gallic elite looked and acted the same, especially as the latter began to wear togas.
But, the Gallic elite were not just little Romans. Rather than trading a Celtic identity for a Roman one, rich Gauls possessed both and employed them in different social circles. When in the city these aristocrats attended Roman plays and games, engaged in Roman-dominated civics groups and worshipped at Roman temples. In the country and in their villas they were community leaders who proudly boasted of their ancient heritage and employed custom to regulate and maintain Celtic society. Let me put it this way: the most successful pro-Roman Gauls were those who maintained their heritage and Gallic roots. While Augustus and future Romans may have wanted to wholly replace Celtic culture, practical concerns such as raising troops, meant that they expected Gauls to maintain two identities. A Gallic noble might have a wardrobe filled with togas in the city, but god help him if he didn’t trade those for breeches when he left for the countryside.
Now we turn to religion. Romans, Celts and much of the Mediterranean world practiced polytheism. Conquest did not mean native gods were exterminated and new ones imposed, as in later centuries with Christians and Muslims. Instead, their religions blended together as new deities were added or merged with existing gods. Mercury, became the most popular god in Gaul in a relatively short period of time. Mercury, Hermes in Greek mythology, was the god of travelers and financial gain and Romans and Gauls alike prayed to Mercury for safety as they navigated the rapidly-changing landscape of Gaul. Furthermore, Mercury was also the god of trickery and thieves. By 20 BCE Gallic resistance to Roman rule was weak, but banditry was relatively common and bandits probably prayed to Mercury for aid. Ironic, how both the merchant and the thief prayed to the same god; how Mercury decided to favor one each day, we may never know. In any case, Mercury’s portfolio was often combined with Celtic gods, ensuring that he was the patron god of Gallia, though he took many different forms.
While Mercury was the most popular god in Gallia proper, Hercules was the most popular god along the Rhine, for obvious reasons. The high concentration of soldiers looked to the gods of war for protection, including Hercules, Mars and local Celtic deities. By the end of the first century CE, the mystery cult of Mithras spread to Gaul and was one more god called upon to protect Roman soldiers from the German hordes. When you’re facing Germans it’s best to get as many gods as you can on your side.
But the transference of gods was a two-way street. Even as Roman gods spread to Gallia, Celtic gods spread to Rome, one of the most popular being the Aeduan god Epona, a fertility goddess and protector of horses, and yes, for all the nerds listening Epona’s name is used 2,000 years later as Link’s steed in the Legend of Zelda series.
The priesthood, like the political structure of Gallia, was a process of Romanization. Gallic priests sacrificed and worshipped the Roman gods while encouraging the Gallic people to do the same. This is especially important as the emperors claimed divinity and worship of the Roman gods was literal worship of the state. The priesthood was one more course of honor for Gallic aristocrats to pursue as it brought prestige and power to notable families. The highest position, the ‘priest of the altar’ bestowed sacred reverence comparable to secular political power upon the Celtic religious leaders. But while these Gallic priests did Rome’s bidding they often maintained some measure of Celtic identity, imbuing Roman gods with Celtic traits, or promoting the worship of Gallo-Roman deities. Often Roman temples in Gaul had smaller areas for Celtic deities, such as at Treveri. Outside the temple were three stone seats attached to an altar representing the local deities.
As usual, Rome’s greatest asset was its engineering. The Romans built massive temples across Gallia dedicated to their gods and to Augustus personally. In 7 BCE Augustus subdued Ligurian raiders in Narbonensis. He then built the 115-foot-high Tropaeum, or ‘Trophy,’ just north of modern-day Nice. Originally, this monument was 49 metres high, the main base was 35 metres wide and the rotunda had 24 columns and contained a giant statue of the emperor, all made of limestone and marble. While the statue has been lost to time, much of the Tropaeum’s base remains, along with an inscription of the 44 tribes Augustus brought to heel.
The greatest of all the Gallo-Roman monuments was made in the mid first century CE by Emperor Nero. Pliny the Elder recounts “But all the gigantic statues of this class have been beaten in our period by Zenodorus with Mercury which he made in the community of the Arverni in Gaul; it took him ten years and the sum paid for its making was 40,000,000 sesterces. Having given sufficient proof of his artistic skill in Gaul he was summoned to Rome by Nero, and there made the colossal statue, 106 ft. high, intended to represent that emperor but now, dedicated to the sun after the condemnation of that emperor’s crimes, it is an object of awe.” By all accounts Roman engineering had their intended affect as these colossi demonstrated how powerful the gods of Rome were.
Interestingly, most of the temples and amphitheaters for that matter, were built in the Greek style, not Roman. The Greek city-state Massalia had quite an impact on the culture of Narbonensis. Furthermore, once Gallia was firmly subdued in the 30s BCE and Augustus began resettling veterans, the majority weren’t Romans and probably not even Italian. Veterans came from across the entirety of the empire and as such didn’t have any particular ties to Roman culture, with the exception of the Latin language which served as a common tongue. Romanization was a mostly political and economic strategy as Gallia was brought under Roman authority and into the Roman economic system. Meanwhile, Rome was relatively tolerant of local religion and culture, which meant that when the Romans began their construction projects they allowed the Massalians to build in their traditional Greek style. Furthermore, Rome itself was going through a period known as Neo-Attic in which Romans purposefully emulated Greek architecture. Far from imposing their own culture, the Romans encouraged cosmopolitanism, though with a clear Greek bias.
It would be wrong to say that Roman building and sculpting diluted Gallic religion entirely. Incoming Roman sculptors made statues of the Celtic gods, bringing them to 3d life, where before they were only sketched. This probably allowed for a greater connection and veneration of the Celtic deities by Gauls and Romans alike.
The Gauls influenced Roman temples by attaching healing shrines to them. These shrines were built around springs, creeks and rivers as part of the Gallic worship of water deities and the cleansing power of water. Since Romans loved their baths they happily adopted these healing shrines. These healing shrines could make lots of money. One of the most important was located at the source of the Seine, where archeologists discovered a number of coins. Along with coins, were bronze casts or wood carvings of people’s body parts, which was thought to create a sympathetic link, allowing spiritual powers to heal physical wounds. Many of these bronze votos were of eyes. Fascinatingly, the Gauls actually practiced cataract surgery using needles, though how effective this was we’ll never know.
The greatest triumph of Roman religious incursion was the worship of Rome herself. Romans built shrines to the Eternal City, the Goddess Rome, and her divine ruler on earth, the Emperor. Participation in the cult of Rome was expected for Gauls who desired citizenship. In Lugdunum, the capital of Celtic Gaul, there was an altar to Rome and Augustus, surrounded by the statues of the sixty Gallic cities, symbolizing Roman centrality while still acknowledging local spiritual power of Gallic communities.
Rome was mostly tolerant of Celtic religion, though they ended human sacrifice and persecuted Druidism. It’s difficult to ascertain whether or not the Gauls actually practiced human sacrifice and if so how widespread it was. It’s possible that Roman accounts claimed the Gauls engaged in human sacrifice to make them seem barbaric. Whether they did or not, Rome forbid the practice, but kept the Greco-Roman rite of animal sacrifice.
Druidism was viewed as magic, a dark usurpation of the miraculous power of the gods and therefore incompatible with Roman religion. Later druidic uprisings, which we will cover, led to widespread persecution. Under Tiberius the druids were persecuted to possible extinction, while under Claudius druidism was made illegal.
In summation, Gallo-Roman religion was syncretic as it combined elements of Celtic and Roman polytheism, with gods, beliefs and cultural practices from across the empire. It’s hard to say how much Gallic religion remained, as Gallic beliefs and traditions were dismissed by Romans as superstitions, while they praised worship they understood, to gods familiar to theirs. The Gallic aristocracy and middle class merchants were probably very similar to their Roman counterparts. The urban workers were somewhat within the Roman orbit, as Augustus set up the Augusteles, a proselytizing religious order meant to inspire worship of the emperor. Meanwhile the 85% of people that lived in rural areas were far less affected and probably retained their own gods, beliefs and shrines.
Gallo-Roman culture is a bit of a misnomer. ‘Gallo’ is accurate since the majority of the population were Gauls, but meanwhile most incoming ‘Romans’ weren’t from the city of Rome or even necessarily the Latin provinces but across the empire. Dark-skinned Numidians, brown-skinned Berbers from North Africa, olive-skinned Anatolians, Greeks, Iberians and Italians entered Gaul, each bringing their own cultures. Most of Gallia retained its Celtic culture but the cities became cosmopolitan melting pots. ‘Roman’ culture, then, wasn’t a reflection of Rome but of a general mixing of all Mediterranean cultures.
So this begs the question: what was Gallo-Roman culture and how did it differ from Gallic culture? Romanization was largely an interconnection of people based on economic ties of debt and credit. This system and Rome’s access to markets across the Mediterranean meant that Gallia’s economy roared back to life under Roman control. Rome was an advanced commercial empire with a developed legal system and the capacity for large enterprises. Augustus opened Gallia to entrepreneurs who recognized that the fertile temperate soil in Gallia was far better than the arid Mediterranean. They also knew that with so much government spending on new cities, and with so many troops stationed on the Rhine that they could benefit from this spending. Many Gauls were brought into these new large estates and businesses (namely stonemasonry) because it offered them a chance to make money after the Gallic Wars and Augustan land confiscations. The relative peace meant the economy improved for many, which offset the anger many Gauls had towards losing independence.
Yet even as it grew, the rich grew far richer, while the independent small farmers were turned into poor urban workers. Gauls often lived in clusters of villages, while Romans made self-enclosed towns, which were spread apart, meaning that mobility for regular people was more limited, even as nobles could move more quickly across roads. Romans made loans to Gauls, which bound them to individual Romans through debt. Even as Roman military rule grew more lenient, tax collectors and debtors held a greater presence in Gallia as they enforced contracts and punished shirking debtors. The exacerbation of class differences under Roman rule meant that society was economically divided between the Gallo-Roman elite and the mostly Gallic urban workers. Thus, as we saw before when we examined the change in political power, popular Gallic anger wasn’t against Rome, but against the aristocracy in general.
The poor classes were increasingly pushed off their land into urban centers, where they remained, though it wasn’t all bad for them. Peace and taxation led to more job specialization, and poor urban workers could become artisans, the most famous of which was Zenodorus who constructed the Arverni Mercury. Roman specialists introduced new agricultural techniques and new technologies of storing grain and draining marshes, which resulted in less hunger.
Integration into the empire meant Gauls of all classes consumed more Roman products, including wine, olive oil and fish sauce. Ceramics were incredibly popular, in particular the terra sigillata, red gloss pottery which is like Greek clay pots, except the images were molded into the pottery rather than painted on. Gallic terra sigillata with traditional Celtic designs was a growing industry and was exported across much of the Roman Empire. Rich and poor alike adopted Roman tableware, though the rich tableware was gold and silver, while the poor used cheaper metals. Tableware changed manners and etiquette and importantly the adoption of tableware shows that even the poorest Gauls learned to be poor in the Roman fashion.
There were positive aspects of Romanization for urban workers and some Roman practices were quite popular. Roman baths, mosaics, wall painting, works of art and education were all popular. Gallo-Roman elite took up the practice of patronization and put on circuses, plays, festivals and religious ceremonies.
So far we have focused on the urban centers because historians and archeologists know much more about them than the country, which was slow to change. But even the countryside was affected as aristocrats inhabited both. Furthermore, food went into towns in exchange for artisan products.
What tied town and country together was the Roman villa. The villa was a large-scale farm, owned by a wealthy family that housed poor workers who had lost their land through confiscation, either because they fell into debt or the Roman legions seized it to settle veterans. Poor farmers lost independence in exchange for security. Those farmers that had their own small plots of land were always one bad harvest away from starvation. But with the villas turning agriculture into an industry the farmers were almost always assured they would have food.
The most complete victory of Rome was that of the Latin language. Because the Celts did not possess their own alphabet virtually everything was written in Latin. Furthermore, legal and political documents were in Latin. The Gauls adopted the Latin script to write in their own language but out of roughly ten thousand Gallo-Roman inscriptions found by archeologists around twenty are in Gallic. The aristocrats were quick to learn proper Latin as it was necessary for social advancement. Meanwhile the majority of people developed a mixture of Gallic and Latin which became the basis for communication between the varied ethnicities and cultures that mixed in the cities. This mixture formed the basis of French, Occitan and numerous other Romance languages.
Gallo-Roman culture then, was essentially a Gallic culture, peppered by customs from across the Mediterranean, translated into Gallic-Latin hybrids, and overlaid with a political, economic and religious system that empowered the wealthy while providing security to the poor. Furthermore, these political, religious and economic systems did not erase the difference between Gallic and Roman elite but it did blur the line as the Gallic aristocracy remade themselves in Roman fashion in order to acquire more privileges.
So how Roman were the Gauls? The answer is: as much as they needed to be and no more. Next time, we’ll return to the narrative and explore events as they played out in Gallia, including Augustus’ plans to use Gallia as a launching pad for an invasion of Germania.
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