The Ancient Gauls: History & Explanation

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

This lesson will be an overview of the Ancient Gauls from the fifth century B.C.E. until their eventual conquest by the Roman Republic in the first century B.C.E.

Who Were the Ancient Gauls?

The Ancient Gauls, or Gallic peoples, were originally Celts, and the Celts were originally part of the Indo-European tribes that lived near the Caucasus mountains. The Celts first appear in the historical record around 1300 B.C.E. with the Urnfield Culture, which extended from France to Hungary and from the North Sea to the Alps. The Urnfield culture is known as such because of their practice of cremating the dead and burying them in large cemeteries full of urns.

During the Halstatt Culture, the Celts moved south into Britain and Spain, during which time they gained the use of iron. On the continent, this was followed by the La Tene Culture, beginning in the mid-fifth century B.C.E. The La Tene Culture was located in what is now France, but at that time it was known as Gaul, and the La Tene Celts on the continent became known as the Gauls. The map below shows the various Gallic tribes in the region.

Ancient Gaul, a region of Western Europe, centered mostly in what is now France, in the time of Caesar
Ancient Gaul

Culture

The most recognizable part of La Tene culture, the culture of the Gauls, was the intricate spirals and interlace they put on their metals, leather, and jewelry. Both designs are found to this day in Welsh, Scottish, and Irish-made objects. The development of iron also meant that swords could be forged - formed and then hammered into a fine edge, as opposed to the metal being put into a mold, as it had been with bronze. This made for stronger swords, and with them, more deadly warriors.

An interlace pattern on a door knocker
Celtic Interlace

The Gauls' religion was not the strict belief system of Christianity, or even of the Greeks or later Germanic people. Instead, there were several gods that most Gauls worshipped, along with other gods that were only locally or regionally important. Gauls believed that most sources of water were holy, as were certain places, like mountains with unusual physical features.

Society

The Celtic tribes only united in time of crisis, such as when Rome threatened their existence. Under normal circumstances, each tribe had its own council of elders, as well as a king, that served as legislative and executive branch of the government, respectively. A king had wide powers, but he could not break the laws laid down by his council. Several tribes located in the same region might also be organized into a sort of super-tribe. Apart from the individual and super-tribes were the druids. Not much is known about them, but they seem to have been the priests, law-speakers, bards, and doctors. They also weren't connected to any of the tribes, but were respected by them all. This unique standing would have given them a great deal of power in settling inter-tribal disputes and uniting the tribes in time of need.

An Ancient Druid
Druid

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