For months now, I’ve been focusing obsessively on the history of the Celts in Gaul and Britain: their ancient dominion, conflict, conquest and eventual subjugation by the Roman Empire. In part, it’s a personal quest to understand a period, culture and language that fascinates me. I’m seeking detail for a sensed personal history there; past life, perhaps, or ancestral memory. The sound and rhythm of the Gaulish language, the look of dress and weapons, place names, votive inscriptions – they stir something in me. I follow the stirring.
This obsession of mine is also a contemplation of disaster. I’m drawn over and over again to the accounts of battles lost, uprisings crushed, tribes decimated and destroyed by the inexorable tread of imperial conquest. Why this restless recycling of dead stories, dead languages, dead histories? Why this focus on the past, I’ve been asked by friends. Instinct, I answer. Something haunts me. I sense a crucial lesson buried in these histories; something that matters very much for our time, something we need to learn from the destruction of Gaul.
What are the lessons of Gaul? I’m still piecing it together, but I can’t escape certain glaring parallels with the struggles of our time. It has seemed to me that we are seeing a conflict within our civilization where the survival, integrity, and sovereignty of the common people are under attack by a ruling elite. This ruling elite – a class of wealthy plutocrats who control the machines of war, the halls of governance, and the mechanisms of finance and industry – maintains its position through subjugating, pacifying, and exploiting populations across ethnic and national boundaries, while extracting their wealth and concentrating it in trans-national centers of hegemony. Does this not sound familiar? It’s no secret that the ruling elites look to Rome as their model for a powerful and successful civilization. Why? Because the Romans won. The great Celtic homeland of Gaul with its fierce, indomitable tribes was brought to its knees. At the end of the Gallic Wars, it is estimated that the population of Gaul was reduced to one-third of what it had been. Whole tribes of thousands of human beings were destroyed, slaughtered or sold into slavery in other parts of the empire, while the legendary gold and agrarian wealth of Gaul flowed into Rome. Those who remained were quickly Romanized, their tribal systems dissolved and re-organized into the Roman system of social order. The Gaulish language and its neighboring Celtic tongues died out within a few centuries.
I am no scholar of history, nor a military tactician. But here is what I see, so far. The story of Gaul is in part a story about tribal sovereignty versus the hegemony of empire. This, I sense, hinges on identity. Our Celtic ancestors held tribal identity above nationhood – the unit of kinship and ethnic identity was the tribe, not the Celtic nation. Thus we see tribes fighting each other at times when standing together might have allowed them to better resist the crush of empire. We see tribes refusing opportunities to collectivize and protect another tribe’s lands, because the locus of sovereignty was the tribal lands of one’s own kin. We see tribes forming temporary alliances with the forces of empire, maneuvering for advantage against other Celtic peoples as they had done for centuries; while from our hindsight perspective we can see how these alliances invited the march of empire into their lands.
These apparently self-defeating moves were driven, I think, by the fundamentally tribal nature of Celtic identity. They did not seem to conceive of the notion of a national identity, at least not in the way that the Romans legions did, where personal ties, kinship, and tribe were all dissolved into an allegiance and identity within the state. This difference of identity seems to pervade every aspect of the conflict between Gaul and Rome. I think it was our undoing. They say that the advantage of the Romans, which allowed them to prevail in battle after battle, was their uniformity in action on the battlefield. Celts were known for their passion, their bravery, their ferocity; they could strike terror into an enemy from their fierce, mad, seemingly fearless rush into battle. Their approach to warfare was characterized by individual honor and bravado, by contests of champions, by a fearless personal devotion to winning honor or a glorious death. Romans were known for their uniformity in training, their consistency, their ability to operate under strict discipline. They were known for the effectiveness of their shield-walls, the strength of which depends on every man holding the line, every man holding together as one creature. The technology of warfare.
So I’ve been contemplating the shield-wall, as a symbol of empire, and perhaps a key to the lessons of the period. It seems to encapsulate the characteristics of hegemonic empire that were our downfall. I note that in the earlier period of Celtic expansion and dominion in Europe, there were conflicts with Rome – and in most of these, the Celts dominated. In fact, they overran and looted Rome, and this early sacking of their city engendered the grudge that lent fuel and vitriol to the Roman drive to conquer the Gaulish tribes. What was different in the early period, and why did the Celts prevail then as they could not in later years? I don’t know, but I suspect the answer is tied up with the evolution of Rome from tribal city-state to Republic to empire. In those later years they had perfected warfare as an institutionalized function of a hegemonic state, and the individualized, honor-driven tribal warriorship of the Gauls could not stand against the shield-wall.
We face something like this in the present time, don’t we? People who wish to stand up for individual rights, for civil liberties, for freedom and justice, for the sacredness of personal sovereignty – we face the shield-wall. The forces of empire have increasing control of the guns, armies, tanks, police forces, communications systems, financial systems, surveillance systems. These mechanisms of control are held tightly together against protest and counter-action, like the shields locked into the shield-wall. How to break through or escape? How to face this overwhelming force?
I don’t have this answer yet either, but the question has been haunting me more and more. Two nights ago, the Morrigan spoke to me again in a dream, and She said, “It is time to resist.” How? I ask, again and again. How?
The only clue She gave me was an image. A tribal group, feet painted blue with woad, like the Picts are said to have done.
The Picts, and the other tribes of northern Britain, were among the few Celtic groups who were never conqured, never subjugated by the Roman empire. Again, I don’t claim to be a historian, but it’s my impression that the Pictish and Caledonian tribes didn’t survive by prevailing against the shield-wall. Open-field conflicts between massed armies were relatively few in the northern British campaigns. The northern tribes survived by fighting guerilla-style; by taking advantage of their treacherous, mountainous terrain; by picking off targets of opportunity, by making it impossible for the Romans to ever decisively destroy them. At the end of decades of tribal guerilla warfare, the Romans finally decided the cost to subjugate these savage folk was too great, and they built a wall to protect the territory they had taken, and backed off behind it.
Is this perhaps the lesson of Gaul? Don’t meet the shield-wall. Resist fluidly, subtly, invisibly, so you can never be decisively beaten. Disappear and reappear, take them unaware, erode their will to subjugate you. By contrast, I think of Alesia, and the final decisive battles in Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. Vercingetorix had managed finally to gather almost all of the tribes of Gaul into a mighty army of the Celtic nation – perhaps the only time in history this was ever done. And he met Caesar on the battlefield, on Roman terms – army to army, shield-walls and siege machines, at the walled city of Alesia. The Romans employed their technological advantages to perfection and utterly destroyed the Celtic national army that vastly outnumbered them.
I can’t help wondering if the lesson here isn’t that we cannot win by adopting the form, tactics, and identity of our adversary. That our very strength is that tribalism, that unshakeable personal sovereignty and kinship identity. That we should never have tried to become a great national force like that of empire, because in attempting to remold ourselves into what we are not, we give away our power, and our sovereignty, the very thing we seek to protect. We cannot resist empire by becoming it.
Still contemplating this, I turn to you, readers. “It is time to resist,”said the Queen. How?