Episode 22: Twilight of the Druids, Madness of Emperors:
In our last episode Emperor Tiberius ended the German wars, after giving up on Augustus’ dream of continual conquest. Tiberius ordered a line of forts constructed across the western side of the Rhine river so that the empire could grow in peace. After the disaster at the Teutoburg Forest this was probably a good idea. However, Tiberius’ strategy had some notable flaws. First, retreating from Germania hurt Roman prestige. Second, the fortifications and the stationing of large armies even during winter was very expensive. Because these fortifications were in Gallia, or bordered Gallia when Germania Inferior and Superior were made provinces, the Gauls had to pay more in taxes. Thirdly, Tiberius figured that the end of the German threat meant he was no longer needed in Gallia and stationed himself in Rome where he could effectively govern the entire empire. Now the Gallic aristocracy couldn’t communicate their grievances since the emperor was gone and they weren’t yet allowed to enter the Senate.
By 21 CE Gallia was stable, peaceful and prosperous. There had been uprisings every twenty years since 30 BCE, but no prolonged, country-wide war since the Gallic Wars. Romanization was occurring: Gauls worshipped Roman gods at Roman temples, partook in Roman political organizations within Gaul and Roman education, and engaged in a Roman economic system. Yet even while Gauls became more Roman they discovered that Romanization divided society into winners and losers. Many aristocrats invested large sums of money into new cities and construction projects in the hopes that they would become even richer as Rome remade Gaul into Roman Gallia. Not all projects were successful and these former notables suddenly fell into crippling debt to angry Roman creditors. While most aristocrats prospered, there were a substantial number of bitter Gallic notables who found themselves on the losing side of this economic system.
Aside from newly-impoverished nobles, there was one other group of Gauls that were unhappy with the Roman system: the druids. Druids had been persecuted by the Romans going back to Caesar. Caesar claimed they were backward and barbaric, practiced magic and sacrificed humans. After conquering Gaul, Romans discouraged druidism and incentivized worshipping Roman gods, the emperor and the city of Rome itself. By 21 CE most Gauls accepted Roman religious practices, since, as we mentioned in a previous episode, there was quite a lot of leeway given to their worship practices. Furthermore, Romans did not abolish Celtic gods but merely incorporated them into their pantheon. But while most Gallic religion was moderately tolerated, druidism was not. Thus, amidst the peace and prosperity in Roman Gallia there were two groups of desperate angry people.
Two Romanized Gauls both named Julius decided to unite these disaffected groups. Julius Florus of the Treveri tribe and Julius Sacrovoir of the Aedui were both aristocrats, Roman citizens, officers of auxiliary regiments within the Roman army and had families connected with Rome. In 21 CE spontaneous uprisings in the Loire valley made Florus and Sacrovir decide to seize power in their own communities. Florus raised a small army and tried to rouse the Belgae against Rome, but instead the Belgae turned on him and crushed his meager forces, at which point he committed suicide. Sacrovoir was initially more successful and captured Augustodunum (Autun). This success spurred uprisings all across Gallia. Yet, not one city declared for Sacrovoir or against Rome. The Gauls wanted relief from taxes, they did not want to fight a war for freedom they would certainly lose. The druids and impoverished aristocrats cheered Sacrovoir’s rabble-rousing but that is all they would do. Sacrovoir then raised an army to face the Upper German legions but the untrained Gauls were no match for seasoned Romans. Sacrovoir’s forces were smashed and he committed suicide before he could be captured.
This revolt was short-lived and opposed by most Gauls. If anything it showed how Roman culture and political rule was accepted by the Gauls. But, for a while the Terror Gallicus, the fear of Gauls as uncivilized brutes who would turn against Rome if given the chance, was revived. In response to the revolt, Tiberius visited Gallia to listen to Gallic complaints and calm tensions. At the same time he persecuted the druids, driving them underground. For the next 16 years of his reign Gallia was peaceful and prosperous. In 37 CE Tiberius died at the age of 78 and was succeeded by his 25 year old great nephew Gaius, son of Germanicus, known to history as ‘Caligula,’ meaning ‘little boots’ because he accompanied his father with the soldiers at a young age.
Caligula was an interesting character to say the least. He was described as a prodigy who looked poised to rule a well-run, stable empire. But as he grew older Caligula grew increasingly cruel and irrational. Why this occurred remains a topic of historical debate. Roman historian Suetonius claims he suffered from epilepsy which may have altered his mind. Other mental illnesses ranging from hyperthyroidism, meningitis and other problems may have made him irrational and prone to anger. What matters to history is that Caligula’s insanity went completely unchecked because he was the emperor. After all, how can you simultaneously tell someone to check their ego while calling them a living god?
Before I detail Caligula’s irrational actions we have to ask if he really did any of the crazy things historians said or if they made it up to slander him. Well, considering that Caligula’s successor Claudius was part of the same Julio-Claudian dynasty and wouldn’t want to be associated with insanity and cruelty, if Claudius and his successors had their way Caligula’s madness would have been erased from history, or at least softened. Yet, the histories go into great detail into Caligula’s debauchery. This has led many historians to conclude that Caligula really did most if not all of what he was accused of, and his wars with gods and non-existent armies were not symbolic acts of devotion but a combination of megalomania and delusion.
When Caligula became emperor Romans rejoiced because they were tired of gloomy old Tiberius. But shortly after becoming emperor Caligula fell seriously ill. It may have been a congenital problem that seriously affected his brain, but Caligula believed he had been poisoned. He suddenly turned paranoid and cruel and killed powerful Romans without trial or evidence. Caligula distrusted the senatorial class, openly mocked and threatened them. Meanwhile he spent absurd amounts of money entertaining the masses. Furthermore he had extravagant tastes; literally. Suetonius claims he had pearls melted down and drank them with vinegar and served guests meat and bread covered in gold, proclaiming “a man ought either to be frugal or Caesar.”
Caligula’s constant spending meant he quickly ran out of money in Italy, at which point he decided to travel to Gallia. Caligula grew up in Gallia travelling around with his father and the legions and he liked the country. So, in 40 CE he left Italy for Gallia to confiscate its wealth to fund his lavish lifestyle from Lugdunum. Upon arrival Caligula forced Gallic nobles to present him with ‘gifts’ and host him at their expense. When that money ran out, the emperor ordered his palaces in Italy be emptied of all their furniture and goods to be sold at auction in Gallia, at highly-inflated prices. He even went so far as to announce certain items belonged to Augustus, or Mark Antony in order to drive up the value of an object. Most of the Gallic elite probably didn’t want these hand-me-downs from Caligulalist, but they figured that buying these would be good for their political careers, or if they didn’t, then they would face repercussions.
What began as farce quickly turned to tragedy. Caligula was bleeding Gallia dry and the money for his extravagant spending ran out. So he started accusing wealthy Gauls of conspiring against him, had them killed, and seized their wealth. Suetonius recounts that one time he was playing a game of dice and ran out of money, at which point he called for the census lists of the Gauls and ordered the wealthiest of them to be put to death. Then when he returned to the dice table he boasted to his fellow gamblers: “Here you are playing for a few denarii, while I have taken in a good one hundred and fifty millions.”
While in Gallia, Caligula undertook his famous campaigns: one against Germania and the other against Britannia. First, he marched near the German border and ordered some of his German soldiers to go hide in a nearby forest. Then he led his legions into the forest and captured these Germano-Roman soldiers and paraded them around his camp as prisoners of war, at which point he proclaimed himself a conqueror of Germania and hero of Rome. Apparently he enjoyed this so much he did it again, and had more German soldiers in Rome’s service hide in the woods at which point he sent an army to capture them and then paraded them as trophies. I am guessing Caligula never learned how to properly play hide-and-seek since even as an adult he was telling people where they had to hide.
If this wasn’t crazy enough, Caligula then marched his armies to the northern coast of Gallia. He assembled his ballista and artillery on the beach, had the legions stand in formation and then order a charge. So the Romans charged…at an empty beach, no doubt looking for something to fight, but only finding waves and the odd crab. Once they reached the water Caligula ordered them to fill their helmets with seashells. After throwing the worst beach party ever, Caligula took these shells and sent them back to Rome as spoils in a victorious war against Neptune. Additionally he sent boats, which he never used in a real military engagement, back to Rome which were carried in a triumph held in his honor.
Historians have tried to make sense of Caligula’s actions as being something other than ‘he was just nuts.’ Some historians have theorized that Caligula actually did capture a handful of Germans in order to secure his title of Germanicus and protector of Gallia. These same historians have also suggested that the sea-shell collecting incident was another ceremony, in which a British chief paid homage to him. But most historians don’t buy these theories, and all evidence points to Caligula just being severely mentally-ill.
During his tenure in Gallia, the Senate regularly sent the emperor envoys who tried to give him news of the empires’ happenings and urge him to return to Rome. But Caligula refused to meet the envoys who he believed were assassins and continued to terrorize Gallia. That is until the money started to run dry, at which point he decided to march back to Rome for his triumphs after conquering Germania and the Ocean. For a moment, the Senate breathed a sigh of relief as the emperor returned to the capital city. But then Caligula announced he was leaving Rome to live in Alexandria where he would be worshipped as a god. The craziness was too much and he was assassinated in January 41. A few senators hoped that Caligula’s death would bring with it a return to a republic, but the Praetorian Guard would have none of it. Rome was now a permanent military state and the civilian senators had no real power.
The Praetorians allegedly found Caligula’s uncle Claudius hiding behind a curtain and proclaimed him emperor. They almost certainly chose Claudius to rule as a weak figurehead, due to his reputation as a pathetic, stuttering fool. Yet, upon his ascendancy Claudius proved a competent and capable ruler who would guide the empire for 13 years.
Claudius’ reign was a welcome relief for Gallia; mostly. Claudius was born in Lugdunum and thus had a special affection for the Gallic people, unlike the Italians who were still prejudiced against the ‘barbarians.’ Claudius invested in the provinces which soon recovered from Caligula’s overspending. In 43 CE Claudius sent a Roman army to invade Britannia, something which had enormous implications for Gallia. First, it meant that Gallia was safe from British raiders. Second, Gallia’s position within the empire was transformed from a peripheral province to the core of the western empire. One hundred years ago under Caesar, Gaul was an unromanized territory surrounded by ‘barbarians.’ Now it was a Romanized, well-developed country that was viewed by Romans as an important civilizer of the western Germans and Britons. Finally, the conquest of Britannia meant that Gallia was a nodal point for the empire’s trade. Before it had occupied a subordinate position as a conduit between Italy and the barbarians. Now, Gallic aristocracy could develop their own relations with Britons and west Germans while under Roman protection.
In addition to economic liberty, Claudius finally gave the Gallic aristocracy political liberty. By 48 CE, but perhaps even earlier, Claudius began opening up the Senate to the Gauls. This was too much for the Italians who balked at their ancient enemy and a non-Mediterranean people, taking a place in the Senate. But Claudius was the emperor so there was nothing to be done. The majority of Gauls were still subjects of the empire, not citizens, so Claudius’ reforms only impacted the elite. It took another century and a half for Gauls to receive the same rights as Italians.
While Claudius brought liberty and prosperity to the upper-class Gauls, it came at the price of the druids. Claudius brutally suppressed the druids, possibly to extinction. The emperor believed Gallia could Romanize but only if it abandoned its superstition and so he made practicing magic and druidism illegal and severely punished anyone who disobeyed.
In 54 CE Claudius died. Nearly all accounts claim his wife Agrippina poisoned him to put her son Nero on the throne, but the trope of the treacherous woman is so common in Roman literature that it’s hard to tell if this can be taken seriously. In any case, Claudius was replaced by his grand-nephew Nero. Nero was an important emperor because he was the very first to prioritize the Greek-speaking east over the Latin west. Unlike all of his predecessors going back to Augustus, he largely ignored Gallia in favor of events in the east. Nero didn’t care for the West which he viewed as backward, undeveloped and uncivilized. He even considered abandoning Britannia for a while.
While Nero’s reign was violent and contentious in the East, not much notable happened in Gallia. In 58 CE the Frisians attacked a Roman frontier and were repulsed. In 64 CE the infamous fire that burned down Rome occurred. Lugdunum sent Rome a large sum of money to help it rebuild, though ironically it too burned down the next year, and the money was returned. Nero’s neglect of Gallia was probably a good thing for the country as the Gallic elite continued to Romanize and join the ranks of the Senate. Yet a strange thing happened during this period: the Gallic elite watched Nero’s debauchery, his violence and his mismanagement of the empire, not as Gauls but as Romans who were disgusted that he would sully the reputation of Rome and of a good Roman family. Gallia was particularly incensed as Nero overtaxed it and Britannia in order to fund his wars in the east.
Nero’s poor relations with Gallia proved his undoing. There was a governor in Gaul, named Gaius Julius Vindex, descended from Aquitanian royals. Vindex had been raised to admire the Roman way of life. He was educated in Roman oratory and had worked his way up the cursus honorum to achieve his position. In 68 CE he led a revolt against Nero. But it wasn’t a nationalistic revolt to free Gallia; it was a Roman-style uprising by people who believed that only a new emperor could restore true Roman glory to the empire. According to Roman historian Cassius Dio, Vindex delivered a speech to a group of beleaguered people in Gallia, wherein he said Nero
“has despoiled the whole Roman world, because he has destroyed all the flower of the senate, because he debauched and then killed his mother, and does not preserve even the semblance of sovereignty. Many murders, robberies and outrages, it is true, have often been committed by others; but as for the other deeds committed by Nero, how could one find words fittingly to describe them? I have seen him, my friends and allies, — believe me, — I have seen that man (if man he is who has married Sporus and been given in marriage to Pythagoras), in the circle of the theatre, that is, in the orchestra, sometimes holding the lyre and dressed in loose tunic and buskins, and again wearing in general-soled shoes and mask. I have often heard him sing, play the herald, and act in tragedies. I have seen him in chains, hustled about as a miscreant, heavy with child, aye, in the travail of childbirth — in short, imitating all the situations of mythology by what he said and what was said to him, by what he submitted to and by what he did. Will anyone, then, style such a person Caesar and emperor and Augustus? Never! Let no one abuse those sacred titles. They were held by Augustus and by Claudius, whereas this fellow might most properly be termed Thyestes, Oedipus, Alcmeon, or Orestes; for these are the characters that he represents on the stage and it is these titles that he has assumed in place of the others. Therefore rise now at length against him; succour yourselves and succour the Romans; liberate the entire world!”
What a turn the Gauls had taken, from being Rome’s most hated enemy to now rising up for the glory of Rome. Vindex understood he wasn’t popular enough to replace Nero and instead announced his support for Servius Sulpicius Galba, the governor of Hispania, who claimed he would become the new Emperor in order to save Rome from Nero. While Galba marched with his armies towards Rome civil war broke out in Gallia as some cities declared for Galba while others remained loyal to Nero. Vindex performed admirably against auxiliary armies but he was no match for the legions stationed along the German border, who defeated his armies. Vindex committed suicide and Gallia quieted down.
But even as Gallia capitulated, the empire turned against Nero. The Senate tried him in absentia and his own guard abandoned him. Realizing it was hopeless, Nero made his secretary stab him. When Galba arrived in Rome the Senate wisely sided with him and he became the new emperor and ruled a long, peaceful, prosperous reign.
Just kidding, things went bad real quick. Galba was an uninspired, unpopular old man; he was after all 68 when he assumed power, at a time when even most noble Romans couldn’t expect to live to that age. Galba made things infinitely worse when he tried to bring order to Gallia. The legions there were expecting Galba to give them booty and honor for doing their job in suppressing a revolt, but Galba didn’t see it that way. The legions had killed Vindex and the other Gauls who originally supported his claim as emperor. Galba gave clemency, wealth and land to Vindex’s allies, while ignoring the legions on the German frontier. Furthermore, Galba actually punished those Romans who remained loyal to Nero by confiscating their land. This was unthinkable to them; after all they were just trying to be good Roman citizens who obeyed Roman laws and refused to join in with local rebellions. Now Galba was punishing them because they didn’t revolt against the established Roman authority for this usurper general. This was too much for the legions and Gallia proper.
While Gallia had helped put Galba in power, events there would bring about his downfall. Hell broke loose the very first day of the new year, as January 1st 69 CE turned into the Year of the Four Emperors.
Ancient History Encyclopedia
King, Anthony, Roman Gaul and Germany, 1990.
Guerard Albert Leon French Civilization: From Its Origins to the Close of the Middle Ages, 1921.
Woolf, Greg, Becoming Roman, 1998
Seutonius, De Vita Caesarum
Cassius Dio, Roman History
Drinkwater, J.E., Roman Gaul, 1983
Cassius Dio’s Roman History
Plutarch’s biographies of Roman emperors.
Suetonius’ De Vita Caesarum
Tacitus’ Annals and Histories