How Gaul ‘Barbarians’ Influenced Ancient Roman Religion
The continental neighbors of the Romans, the Gauls were considered barbaric entities which the Republic and Empire attempted to colonize multiple times. Caesar’s numerous conquests on the mainland allowed for constant military encampment within Gaul, resulting in a need to bring the Gallic religion under some kind of Roman control. This culminated in what is now known as the Gallo-Roman religion, an amalgamation of the two faiths.
Caesar’s Gallic Wars
Stretching through modern day France and Spain, the Romans came into contact with the Gauls consistently throughout their history, most prominently when Julius Caesar made it his mission to dominate the tribes on the coast of the English Channel. In doing so, he paved the way for two marches on the British Isles, most notably his infamous "crossing the Rubicon," though both times he failed to conquer the Insular Gauls.
‘Vercingetorix Throws Down His Arms at the Feet of Julius Caesar’ (1899) by Lionel Noel Royer. (Public Domain) The painting depicts the surrender of the Gallic chieftain after the Battle of Alesia - 52 BC.
However, Caesar conquered much of Gaul during his Gallic Wars, so the Roman military often made their home in various Gallic territories—both for the battles, and to keep the Roman power in place following their victories. Because of this, it is believed that the Roman soldiers needed a way to worship their own gods and goddesses in this new territory.
Assimilating the Gods of the Gauls
One of the ways in which they accomplished this, also desiring to prevent overwhelming resistance from the native Gauls, was through assimilation, wherein the gods of the Gauls were likened to the Roman gods. This act is known as translation.
It is important to understand that the gods of the Gallic religion were not the same as those of the Romans. The Romans believed, like the Greeks, that their gods were idealized humans—they not only took human shape but also participated in various forms of human interaction and experience. That is to say that they loved, argued, took revenge, etc.
The Gallic gods, on the other hand, were representational deities—manifestations of the natural world. Not anthropomorphic, the springs and rivers and mountains and forests were worshipped as supernatural beings - but did not to take on human form. Worship, therefore, took place at the specific locations, and there were few—if any—specific temples dedicated to these natural forces.
A druid and warriors in Gaul. (Erica Guilane-Nachez /Adobe Stock)
Gallic art reveals their belief in the gods quite clearly as, before the Romanization of the region, the gods were merely depicted as a consolidation of geometric shapes and stylized forms rather than bodily representations. Epona, for example, the goddess of horses in the Gallic faith, was often represented as a horse by the natives rather than as a woman.
It was only when she was adopted by the Romans, one of the few deities taken from the Gauls and fully translated into the Roman pantheon, that she was depicted as a woman on a horse, riding into battle, alongside the Roman armies. Without the Roman influence, Epona would have remained a metaphor in art rather than a woman.
Epona, a resulting goddess from the Gallo-Roman fusion, was "the sole Celtic divinity ultimately worshipped in Rome itself." (THIERRY /Adobe Stock)
Gallic Gods Renamed by the Romans
According to one of his written accounts, Caesar's Gallic Wars describes five primary gods of the Gallic religion. Their names, however, were given as those of five Roman gods: Mercury, Jupiter, Mars, Apollo, and Minerva. This was undoubtedly because the Romans associated the Gallic gods with their known Roman gods, believing—in a way—that all other pantheons were merely misnamed versions of their own.
With their legions spread throughout Gaul, and desiring to worship their native gods anyway, it was not all that difficult to associate the two faiths and thus retitle the Gallic deities. Adding a Roman epithet to the Gallic name allowed the two faiths to blend in such a way that the Gauls could still refer to their own gods while venerating those of Rome. This move was then followed by artistic integration, similar to the Roman adoption of Epona.
The Celtic gods soon began to take on human forms, forms similar to the depiction of their Roman counterparts in the empire. There is no known definite iconography that the Gauls had for their gods, so transforming the metaphorical images was not very difficult. Lugh, the god of light, soon came to look like Mercury; the protector Nodens began to hold the sword and helmet of Mars; Sulis became known for armor that looked eerily similar to Minerva's, and so on.
The five "primary" Gallic gods became very Roman in their appearance, thereby allowing the Gauls to continue to worship their deities in a Roman guise. This anthropomorphism was furthered by the Romans coupling the Gallic and Roman gods, creating intercultural relationships to reflect what was happening among the humans. Roman gods were given Gallic wives in the native regions, further cementing the idea in the minds of the Gauls that the Romans were there to stay.
Political Motives for Religious Integration
Though the Gallic-Roman integration was mostly spearheaded by the religious desires of the Roman legions, it is important to understand the ways in which this integration allowed the Romans to expand their empire with little resistance. By associating Roman gods with the native Gallic ones, the Romans were actually quite clever—instead of making the Gauls feel as though their religion was being forcibly removed, the Romans chose to show their "take-over" as a unification of ideas instead.
- Locusta of Gaul – Nero’s Notorious Poison Maker
- Tintignac, Where the Gauls’ Favor of the Gods Couldn’t Last Forever
- Gallic Warriors Reaped, Embalmed Then Displayed the Heads of Their Slain Enemies
A votive offering to an unnamed Gallo-Roman deity. (Siren-Com/CC BY SA 3.0)
This attempt was undoubtedly intended to help prevent rebellions, as threatening the belief system of another culture can have drastic effects, and the Gauls were already seeing a shift in their political system with the coming of Rome.
Integrating religions allowed for an assumed level of respect between cultures (whether or not it was truly meant) and it created an idea that the gods wanted such an action to occur, as they themselves were merging with one another. Art was the fiercest tool the Romans had at their disposal when the Gallic Wars were won, and they did a very good job of merging the two faiths to show a false equality among cultures.
Top Image: Gallo-Roman mosaic on a wall in Saint Romain en Gal, France. The Gallo-Roman religion is an amalgamation of the Gaul and Roman faiths. Source: Ricochet64 /Adobe Stock
By Ryan Stone
Updated on September 24, 2020
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