Thursday, 10 July 2014

The La Tène religion of the Celtic elite ― part 2: Introduction

Augustus as Pontifex Maximus
the head of the Roman religion
 Most of what we know about Celtic gods is due, not to Caesar's account (VI.17) which gives only the equivalent Roman names, but to Augustus who created a hierarchy of Roman deities with the Roman native Vesta at the top of the list. Anyone who has looked into Celtic deities will undoubtedly have come across the term Interpretatio Romana. The Latin term, which only exists in Tacitus' Germania where he notices a resemblance between two German gods and the Roman Castor and Pollux might seem to many to be some sort of official Roman policy to bring "barbarian" gods into the Roman pantheon. Augustus was far too clever a man to have attempted such a thing. Even if the idea had dawned on him, he would have likely known that it would not work. Instead, he set up a system of Imperial recognition of deities based on his own considerations of what seemed most proper to his vision for a new Rome. Vesta was placed at the top because she was the most native of all deities worshipped in Rome. The priests and priestesses of these religions could expect rewards commensurate with the new status of their deity. These rewards included an allotment of land, not only for the temple itself, but it included arable land that could then be leased to farmers bringing income to the priests. There were also other rewards such as payments to the temples and even choice seats at games and other festivities.

The Romans were familiar with Greek and other culture's customs of absorbing local deities into a more general pantheon where the more widespread deity acquires a second name ― that of the local deity. A well known example being the Greek Egyptian Zeus Ammon. Religions change over time, and throughout different regions, through syncretism. The process brings local deities together in a new identity and absorbs various stories into the framework of the more widespread religion. It can be a "top down" or "bottom up" phenomenon but, as Augustus undoubtedly knew, the latter is far more effective and permanent. When people take on a new belief they frequently see their old beliefs as being, in part, an expression of some aspect of the new belief, for example, as metaphor. Some events are also transposed into the new religion: Androcles, upon entering a cave, finds a lion there in pain from a thorn in its paw. Androcles removes the thorn and the lion becomes his pet. Later, St. Jerome becomes a hermit in a cave and of course finds a lion with a thorn in its paw...

Augustus' influence has lasted and even in fairly scholarly writing we get the idea that the Romans brought civilization to the Celts in Gaul and Britain, and before that they were, as the Romans called them, barbarians. Yet, the oldest city in France (Massalia, now Marseille) was not established by the Romans but in about 600 BC by Greeks from Phokaia, now part of Turkey. At that time, and for a few hundred years later, the Greeks saw the Romans as barbarians. It was Massalia that paid the ransom after the Celts had captured Rome in 387 BC (Justin, Trogus, 43,8 and traditionally given as 390 BC)

Priests of the local religions in Gaul were not slow in applying to Rome for support under Augustus' plan and they associated their deity with the most appropriate Roman equivalent. Essentially, the Gaulish priests "converted" themselves for personal profit. Gaul was very wealthy and Augustus had to deal with various corruption as a result. A Gaulish freedman, Licinius (an ex slave of Caesar), had amassed a large amount of illicit wealth, and while Augustus knew that he was guilty, Licinius claimed that he had gathered the wealth for the Roman people, so Augustus could do nothing about it.

La Tène art is mostly reserved for military equipment and the finery of warriors and their family. For a very long time, the Celts had numbers of private armies that could be hired and the Greeks made good use of this. Polybius mistranslated Gaesatae as mercenaries, but the term really means "spearmen" and they, like all the other Celtic private armies were really auxillaries. The term mercenary has taken hold, though, and gives a casual reader a very different take on Celtic involvement in Greek military events.

Distribution of the Celtic peoples settled in Italy
author: Agrippa87
The map on the left shows Celtic tribes that had settled in Italy. In the case of the Boii and the Senones, this land was mainly used as military bases for the Mediterranean campaigns, but northern Italy had also seen a considerable peaceful Celtic presence in the earlier Golasecca culture. It was quite the cosmopolitan area and Celtic/Etruscan intermarriage was fairly common. The Celts were well-travelled and throughout their ventures encountered many different beliefs. No doubt, experiences like Tacitus seeing similarities of belief were common and were absorbed into a picture of the nature of religions that were not shared by their agrarian countrymen back home. These experiences likely predated the setting up of military bases in Italy, and Celtic warriors traveling through different parts of Gaul would have encountered many deities that would have seemed almost interchangable to them. There are more than thirty different Celtic deities associated with Mars, on later inscriptions, for example.

It is also imprtant not to associate Druids with priests. No Classical author labels them as such and the Druids are commonly called philosophers. From Caesar, we learn that Druid schooling could be up to twenty years duration, that they acted as judges in all disputes, and that the society was divided into two factions from the ruling class right down to the family level. Each segment of those factions had Druids to represent the people, and they had the power even to halt hostilities between tribes by order. Sean B Dunham argues very well that the Druids were actually the rulers. It is difficult to picture the Celts as uncivilized "barbarians", but many people seem to manage it somehow.

So this series will examine Celtic/Greek syncretism mainly through the iconography of La Tène decoration. Tomorrow, we will start with the influences that created a culture within a culture: what the Druids saw, and how they managed to install themselves as a definable sub-culture of elites.

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