- Gallia redirects here - for other meanings, see Gallia (disambiguation). For Gaul after the Roman conquest, see Roman Gaul.
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|History of France|
Gaul (Latin: Gallia) was the name given, in ancient times, to the region of Western Europe comprising present-day northern Italy, France, Belgium, western Switzerland and the parts of the Netherlands and Germany on the west bank of the Rhine river.
In English, the word Gaul (French: Gaulois) may also refer to a Celtic inhabitant of that region, although the expression may be used more generally for all ancient speakers of the Gaulish language (a derivative of early Celtic) who were widespread in Europe and extended even into central Anatolia by Roman times. In this way, "Gaul" and "Celt" are sometimes used interchangeably.
Gauls under Brennus sacked Rome circa 390 BC. In the Aegean world, a huge migration of Eastern Gauls appeared in Thrace, north of Greece, in 281 BC. Another Gaulish chieftain named Brennus, at the head of a large army, was only turned back from desecrating the Temple of Apollo at Delphi at the last minute — he was alarmed, it was said, by portents of thunder and lightning. At the same time a migrating band of Celts, some 10,000 warriors, with their women and children and slaves, were moving through Thrace. Three tribes of Gauls crossed over from Thrace to Asia Minor at the express invitation of Nicomedes I, king of Bithynia, who required help in a dynastic struggle against his brother. Eventually they settled down in eastern Phrygia and Cappadocia in central Anatolia, a region henceforth known as Galatia.
The names Gallia and Galatia sometimes are compared to Gael, which is, however, from Goidhel or Gwyddel, and cannot be directly related. It is uncertain whether the Gal- names are from a native name of a tribe, or if they are exonyms. Birkhan (1997) considers a root *g(h)al- "powerful" (PIE *gelh, well-attested in Celtic, and with cognates in Balto-Slavic), but speculates that the name also could be taken from a Gallos River, comparable to the names of the Volcae and the Sequani which are likely derived from hydronyms. There also have been attempts to trace Keltoi and Galatai to a single origin. It is most likely that the terms originated as names of minor tribes *Kel-to and/or Gal(a)-to- which were the earliest to come into contact with the Roman world, but which have disappeared without leaving a historical record.
In English usage the words Gaul and Gaulish are used synonymously with Latin Gallia, Gallus and Gallicus. However the similarity of the names is probably accidental: the English words are borrowed from French Gaule and Gaulois, which appear to have been borrowed themselves from Germanic walha-, the usual word for the non-Germanic people (Celts and Romans indiscriminately). Germanic w is regularly rendered with French gu / g (cf. guerre = war, garder = ward), and the diphthong au is the regular outcome of al before a following consonant (cf. cheval ~ chevaux). Gaule or Gaulle can hardly be derived from Latin Gallia, since g would become j before a (cf. gamba > jambe), and the diphthong au would be incomprehensible; the regular outcome of Latin Gallia would have been *Jaille in French.
Hellenistic aitiology connects the name with Galatia (first attested by Timaeus of Tauromenion in the 4th c. BC), and it was suggested that the association was inspired by the "milk-white" skin (γάλα, gala, "milk") of the Gauls (Greek: Γαλάται, Galatai, Galatae).
The early history of the Gauls is predominantly a work in archeology — there being little written information (save perhaps what can be gleaned from coins) concerning the peoples that inhabited these regions — and the relationships between their material culture, genetic relationships (the study of which has been aided, in recent years, through the field of archaeogenetics), and linguistic divisions rarely coincide.
The major source of materials on the Celts of Gaul was Poseidonios of Apamea, whose writings where quoted by Timagenes, Julius Caesar, the Sicilian Greek Diodorus Siculus, and the Greek geographer Strabo. 
Many cultural traits of the early Celts seem to have been carried northwest up the Danube Valley, although this issue is contested. It seems as if they derived many of their skills (like metal-working), as well as certain facets of their culture, from Balkan peoples. Some scholars think that the Bronze Age Urnfield culture represents an origin for the Celts as a distinct cultural branch of the Indo-European-speaking peoples (see Proto-Celtic). The Urnfield culture was preeminent in central Europe during the late Bronze Age, from ca. 1200 BC until 700 BC. The spread of iron-working led to the development of the Hallstatt culture (ca. 700 to 500 BC) directly from the Urnfield. Proto-Celtic, the latest common ancestor of all known Celtic languages, is considered by some scholars to have been spoken at the time of the late Urnfield or early Hallstatt cultures.
The Hallstatt culture was succeeded by the La Tène culture, which developed out of the Hallstatt culture without any definite cultural break, under the impetus of considerable Mediterranean influence from the Greek, and Etruscan civilizations. The La Tène culture developed and flourished during the late Iron Age (from 450 BC to the Roman conquest in the 1st century BC) in France, Switzerland, Austria, southwest Germany, Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia, and Hungary. Farther to the north extended the contemporary Pre-Roman Iron Age culture of Northern Germany and Scandinavia.
By the second century BC, Celtic France was called Gaul (Gallia Transalpina) by the Romans. In his Gallic Wars, Julius Caesar distinguishes among three ethnic groups in Gaul: the Belgae in the north (in what is present-day Belgium), the Celts in the centre, and the Aquitani in the southwest. While some scholars believe that the Belgae were a mixture of Celtic and Germanic elements, their ethnic affiliations have not been resolved. The Aquitani may have been the ancestors of the Vascons. In addition to the Gauls, there were other peoples living in Gaul, such as the Greeks and Phoenicians who had established outposts such as Massilia (present-day Marseille) along the Mediterranean coast. Also, along the southeastern Mediterranean coast, the Ligures had merged with the Celts to form a Celto-Ligurian culture.
In the second century BC, Mediterranean Gaul had an extensive urban fabric and was prosperous, while the heavily forested Northern Gaul had almost no cities outside of fortified compounds (or oppida) used in times of war. The prosperity of Mediterranean Gaul encouraged Rome to respond to pleas for assistance from the inhabitants of Massilia, who were under attack by a coalition of Ligures and Gauls. The Romans intervened in Gaul in 125 BC, and by 121 BC they had conquered the Mediterranean region called Provincia (later named Gallia Narbonensis). This conquest upset the ascendancy of the Gaulish Arverni tribe.
Further Roman expansion into northern Gaul occurred under Julius Caesar, who conquered regions as far north as present-day Belgium and raided Britannia and Germania during the Gallic Wars (58 BC - 51 BC). The war's turning point was the decisive Battle of Alesia in 52 BC, in which the Romans defeated a confederation of Gallic tribes united under the leadership of Vercingetorix of the Arverni.
As many as 1 million people (probably 1 in 4 of the Gauls) died, another million were enslaved, 300 tribes were subjugated and 800 cities were destroyed during the Gallic Wars. The entire population of city of Avaricum (Bourges) (40,000 in all) was slaughtered. During Julius Caesar's campaign against the Helvetii (present-day Switzerland) approximately 60% of the tribe was destroyed, and another 20% was taken into slavery.
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 worshippers, which in ancient Gaul meant a separation from secular society as well. Thus the Druids were an important part of Gallic society.
Social structure and tribes
The Druids were not the only political force in Gaul, however, and the early political system was complex, if ultimately fatal to the society as a whole. The fundamental unit of Gallic politics was the tribe, which itself consisted of one or more of what Caesar called "pagi." Each tribe had a council of elders, and initially a king. Later, the executive was an annually-elected magistrate. Among the Aedui, a tribe of Gaul, the executive held the title of "Vergobret," a position much like a king, but its powers were held in check by rules laid down by the council.
The tribal groups, or pagi as the Romans called them (singular: pagus; the French word pays, "region", comes from this term) were organized into larger super-tribal groups that the Romans called civitates. These administrative groupings would be taken over by the Romans in their system of local control, and these civitates would also be the basis of France's eventual division into ecclesiastical bishoprics and dioceses, which would remain in place — with slight changes — until the French revolution.
Although the tribes were moderately stable political entities, Gaul as a whole tended to be politically-divided, there being virtually no unity among the various tribes. Only during particularly trying times, such as the invasion of Caesar, could the Gauls unite under a single leader like Vercingetorix. Even then, however, the faction lines were clear.
The Romans divided Gaul broadly into Provincia (the conquered area around the Mediterranean), and the northern Gallia Comata ("free Gaul" or "long haired Gaul"). Caesar divided the people of Gaulia Comata into three broad groups: the Aquitani; Galli (who in their own language were called Celtae); and Belgae. In the modern sense, Gaulish tribes are defined linguistically, as speakers of dialects of the Gaulish language. While the Aquitani were probably Vascons, the Belgae would thus probably be counted among the Gaulish tribes, perhaps with Germanic elements.
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.
- Roman Gaul
- Gallo-Roman culture
- Gaulish language
- List of peoples of Gaul
- Cisalpine Gaul
- Transalpine Gaul
- Asterix--a French comic about Gaul and Rome set in 40s BC
- Bog burial
- Roman Republic
- Birkhan, H. (1997). Die Kelten. Vienna.
- Pausanias, Description of Greece, Phocis
- Birkhan 1997:48.
- Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (OUP 1966), p. 391.
- Nouveau dictionnaire étymologique et historique (Larousse 1990), p. 336.
- Berresford Ellis, Peter (1998). The Celts: A History. Caroll & Graf. pp. pp.49–50. ISBN 0-786-71211-2.CS1 maint: extra text (link)
- Julius Caesar The Conquest of Gaul