Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Celtic Government and Society

by Annie Whitehead

In this series examining the lives of the peoples known as The Celts, I’ve looked at their origins, how they lived, the members of the community, and their occupation and leisure activities. Now, in the final post on this topic, I’m looking at their Government and Social Structure.


Among the Celtic tribes, the form of government was either monarchical or oligarchical. The Bretons were governed by several kings and chiefs, while the Caledonii had a democratic government. In Gaul and the British Isles, the power of the king was probably not very great, as they were almost certainly chosen by the people and could be easily deposed if the need arose.

In some tribes, there seems to have been a chief magistrate, “Summus Magistratus.” He had the power of life and death, and was elected by the priests and magistrates. He was appointed for a year only, and he could not leave the territory of the city.

At the beginning of each war, the Gauls usually convened an armed assembly. The law stated that all young adults must attend the meeting armed. The last man to arrive was tortured and put to death in public. When dealing with civic affairs, the assemblies were still attended by armed men. Anyone creating a disturbance would, according to Strabo [1] have had a chunk removed from his sagum (cloak). Approval was shown by a clanking of weapons, instead of applause. The assemblies only met in grave circumstances -  there is no evidence to suggest that they were held regularly.

A reconstructed Celtic 'La Tène' village

Caesar described the plebeians of Gaul as living in a state bordering on slavery, never being consulted about anything. There were two categories of vassals; the free vassals, “Soer-cheli”, and the non-free vassals, “doer-cheli”. These vassals were bound to their overlord by a contract based on livestock. There were five social classes: kings, nobles, free landowners, free men without property, and non-free men.

There is no firm evidence that children - of either sex - who waited on tables at banquets were slaves. It is clear, however, that the Celts brought back slaves from their expeditions.

The historian, Fustel de Coulages [2] described the structure of Celtic society thus: “A great number of peasants and a tiny urban class, many men attached to the soil and few land-owners; many servants and few masters; a plebeian class lacking utterly in status and importance, and a very powerful warrior aristocracy.”

In judicial matters, the authorities intervened only rarely, most disputes being settled privately between the parties. Certain disputes were decided by duelling. Poseidonius [3] reported that in Gaul, when hams were served at banquets, the strongest guest would seize the ham for himself. If he was challenged, the two men would fight to the death.

The Dying Gaul

In Irish law, duelling was one of the accepted means whereby parties to a legal dispute could settle their differences. If a contract had first been concluded with the consent of both parties, the family of the slain contender had no right to claim compensation for his death.

In cases of crime or murder, Caesar wrote that the Druids decided the issue and set the fine or punishment. The Celts generally prescribed a severe punishment for the killing of a stranger. The penalty for this was death, compared with the exile imposed on the murder of a fellow citizen.

An Arch Druid in His Judicial Habit -
wearing a Bronze Age gold collar

Anyone convicted of theft, highway robbery, or certain other crimes, was burnt alive. Diodorus [4] wrote that the Gauls used to keep their criminals in prison for five years, and then, in honour of the gods, they burnt them, along with numerous other offerings, on large pyres. Any Gaul caught hiding or stealing part of the booty obtained in war, or any object deposited in a sacred place, was put to death after the most cruel torture.

Fines were imposed on any young people whose waist measurement exceeded the standard, for as we saw in previous articles, much importance was placed on the perfection of the male body.

Diodorus also wrote that the Gauls had poets known as bards, and theologians known as druids. When singing their songs of praise, or reproach, the bards accompanied themselves on instruments similar to lyres. They sang of the deeds of the great, and kept alive the memory of the heroes of the past through their poems.

Druids Inciting the Britons to Oppose the Landing of the Romans

Anne Ross [5] suggests that the evidence we have about the druids in no way justifies the aura of romanticism which has surrounded them. The religious functions of the druids mainly involved attendance at ceremonies. They were responsible for the conduct of sacrifices, both public and private. Yet it appears that their presence during the ceremonies was more in response to the wishes of the people, and that they did not play a principal role in the sacrifice itself. Strabo and Diodorus agree on this point. Strabo says that the Celts made their sacrifices “with the assistance” of the druids, while Diodorus wrote that the Celts never offered a sacrifice without a philosopher present.

At the time of Pliny, magic was popular in Gaul and in the British Isles, and in his opinion the druids, whom he translated as “Magi”, were magicians and fetishists who held all kinds of magical secrets and medical remedies. The Gaulish druids believed that the mistletoe of the robur oak had special sacred powers. Sacrifices and divination were two important religious practices, but magic secrets, entrusted to druids at the time of Pliny (AD23-79) were normally left to sorcerers of lesser repute.

The druids were thought to be the most just among men, and they were made judges in public and private disputes. As we have seen, the druids were the ones to set the amount of fines and the type of punishment to be imposed in cases of crime, murder, or disputes about inheritance.

The idea that the druids were both physical and moral philosophers contrasts strongly with Pliny’s idea of their rather humble role. The explanation could be that, from the earliest times,the druids consolidated their power not merely by their knowledge, but also by the practice of certain magical arts. When Roman domination caused them to lose the judicial and political roles, all that was left for them was the equivalent of quackery.

Roman soldiers murdering druids and burning their groves
on Anglesey, as described by Tacitus

The origin for many later traditions about the druids can be found in Caesar’s writing on the subject. He described their role thus: “All the druids are under one head, whom they hold in the highest respect...The druids are exempt from military service and do not pay taxes like other citizens… It is said that their pupils have to memorise a great number of verses - so many, that some of them spend twenty years at their studies… A lesson they take particular pains to inculcate is that the soul does not perish, but after death passes from one body to another; they think that this is the best incentive to bravery, because it teaches men to disregard the terrors of death. They also hold long discussion about the heavenly bodies and their movements, the size of the universe and of the earth, the physical constitution of the world, and the power and properties of the gods; and they instruct the young men in all these subjects.” [6]

Lloyd Laing [7] agreed that the druids were powerful men, that there was an arch-druid, and that there were schools for the instruction of the young in druidic lore, but that it was unlikely that they believed in the transmigration of souls. Nor did he think it likely that they were rustic philosophers, who debated astronomy and the physical constitution of the earth, for "philosophy is was essentially the product of the civilised mind and had no real place in barbarian society."

Two Druids, as imagined by 19th c
artist  Bernard de Montfaucon

Perhaps it will always be a case of “You pays your money and you takes your choice.” Were the druids little more than ‘witch doctors’ to a primitive and undoubtedly very ancient religion, as Lloyd Laing suggested, or was their role much more significant? Caesar appears to have thought so.

Over this series, we have seen that the Celts were masters of many techniques; that they wove and used dyes, their art was advanced and they were expert miners. They were very concerned with hygiene, the women were faithful and loyal, and the men had no fear of death. On the one hand, they indulged in barbaric rituals, but enjoyed relatively sophisticated government. There are recognisable elements of what would become ‘feudalism’. They worked the land, they played games and music. A warrior society, certainly, but much more besides.


[1] Strabo was a Greek geographer who lived from about 58BC-AD25
[2] Quoted from The World of Celts, G Dottin
[3] Poseidonius was a Greek Stoic philosopher who lived from 135-51BC
[4] Diodorus was a Greek historian who lived 90-30BC
[5] Pagan Celtic Britain
[6] Caesar’s The Conquest of Gaul
[7] Celtic Britain

See the other articles in this series: Who Were the Celts?, How the Celts Lived, The Celtic Community
All above images are in the public domain


Annie Whitehead is a history graduate and prize-winning author. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great, who came to be known as the Lady of the Mercians. It was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016, and it has been awarded a B.R.A.G. Gold Medallion.

Her second novel, Alvar the Kingmaker, is a tale of intrigue, deceit, politics, love, and murder in tenth-century Mercia. It charts the career of the earl who sacrificed personal happiness to secure the throne of England for King Edgar, and, later, Aethelred the Unready. It too has just been awarded a B.R.A.G. Gold Medallion.

Most recently, she has contributed to the anthology of short stories, 1066 Turned Upside Down, in which nine authors re-imagine the events of 1066, and which has just been awarded HNS Editors’ choice and long-listed for Book of the Year 2017.

Author Page
Alvar the Kingmaker
To Be A Queen
1066 Turned Upside Down

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