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Celts, Consumerism and Caesar

By N.S. Gill

drawing of amphoraGrapes would freeze in northern Europe, so the Celts drank beverages made from what they could grow – grain – until they came in contact with the Romans, whose favorite beverage, well-watered wine, was superior to Celtic ale. The Celts instantly loved the new intoxicating beverage, which they drank undiluted, without moderation. Realizing the potential profits, Roman merchants encouraged trade relations between Rome and their northern neighbors.

Before Rome had spread across the Italic peninsula, when it was still settled across the seven hills of Rome, Celtic tribes lived throughout much of Europe, from Ireland to the Near East where the name Galatia, known from the New Testament, attests to Gallic settlers. At the time, Celtic chieftains showed their power by the number of their clients (not unlike the senatorial class of the Romans) and by the splendor of their entourage.

Celts enjoyed adornment, especially bronze or, if they could afford them, golden torcs worn around their necks. Women and men wore gold bracelets. Some wore golden body armor. Even when otherwise bare, as certain Gallic fighters seem to have preferred, they wore torc and belt accessories. In Greco-Roman artistic renderings, they also wear brooch-fastened cloaks.

Like their jewelry, they preferred fancy to plain cloth. Many tribes wove colorful checks and stripes into their clothing.

In the area now known as Spain, Iberian Celts sported the famous, expensive Tyrian purple dye in stripes on otherwise gleamingly white tunics. And of course they fastened these tunics with gold-plated belts.

To support their luxurious tastes, the Celts raided settled traders.

Over time, however, powerful neighboring tribes hemmed them in. Their own population grew. Opportunities to plunder disappeared, but the chieftains' need to display power remained.

Conspicuous consumption replaced raids. Louernius, king of the Arverni, is said to have held a fantastic feast. It lasted for several consecutive days, and it was held in an enclosure a mile and a half on each side. Louernius is also said to have lavished bags of gold and silver on his followers.

For their jewelry, clothing, feasts, and followers, Chieftains had to produce wealth, so they turned to the Roman models. From their Roman neighbors they got the idea to develop small towns at the junctions of trade routes, and mint coins. Although this was a break from tradition, it grew to be accepted and Roman patronage even began to confer prestige. Celtic leaders needed Roman protection for the safety of their commerce. Meanwhile, through contact with the Romans, the Celts tasted wine. They were hooked.

To the Romans, this was a godsend. A ready, willing market for their agricultural surplus. A market that had little of value save their own bodies. To the Romans, a slave traded for an amphora of wine, or even a half dozen amphorae for a healthy Gallic male was an almost unbelievable stroke of luck. Thousands of amphorae have been unearthed in Celtic settlements.

photo of wine barrel from Italy, XantenJulius Caesar was heavily in debt when he was given command of Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul. More than his need for money, he needed prestige from foreign victories. In selecting his Gallic campaigns, strategic considerations most assuredly came first, but Caesar must have thrown proximity to the lucrative, wine-drinking Gauls into the equation. Caesar recorded his campaigns (58-51 B.C.) against the three groups of Gauls (Celts), the Aquitani, Celtae (the largest group), and Belgae in his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars (De Bello Gallico). His most impressive victory was over the valiant leader of the Arverni tribe of the Celtae, Vercingetorix, who led several neighboring tribes in a rebellion along the border of Transalpine Gaul. Eventually, Vercingetorix lost and became Caesar's prisoner, paraded before Rome when Caesar celebrated his triumph.

Victorious, Caesar annexed much of the area that is now France, but he didn't destroy the Gallic market towns. They were necessary for successful empire building. At first the conquered Gauls would buy wine, then other Roman products. As they grew accustomed to Roman amenities, they would soon stop thinking of the Romans as conquerors. Over time they would be absorbed body and mind by the Roman Empire.

The plan worked.

© N.S. Gill

Photo of Italian wine barrel from the Regional Museum in Xanten, Germany by Irene Hahn

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