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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 137

In Gaul the Roman power broke the sway of the Druids, aided perhaps by the spread of Christianity, but it was Christianity alone which routed them in Ireland and in Britain {313} outside the Roman pale. The Druidic organisation, their power in politics and in the administration of justice, their patriotism, and also their use of human sacrifice and magic, were all obnoxious to the Roman Government, which opposed them mainly on political grounds. Magic and human sacrifice were suppressed because they were contrary to Roman manners. The first attack was in the reign of Augustus, who prohibited Roman citizens from taking part in the religion of the Druids. Tiberius next interdicted the Druids, but this was probably aimed at their human sacrifices, for the Druids were not suppressed, since they existed still in the reign of Claudius, who is said to have abolished Druidarum religionem dirae immanitatis.1069 The earlier legislation was ineffective; that of Claudius was more thorough, but it, too, was probably aimed mainly at human sacrifice and magic, since Aurelius Victor limits it to the "notorious superstitions" of the Druids.1070 It did not abolish the native religion, as is proved by the numerous inscriptions to Celtic gods, and by the fact that, as Mela informs us, human victims were still offered symbolically, while the Druids were still active some years later. A parallel is found in the British abolition of S[=a]ti in India, while permitting the native religion to flourish.

Probably more effective was the policy begun by Augustus. Magistrates were inaugurated and acted as judges, thus ousting the Druids, and native deities and native ritual were assimilated to those of Rome. Celtic religion was Romanised, and if the Druids retained priestly functions, it could only be by their becoming Romanised also. Perhaps the new State religion in Gaul simply ignored them. The annual assembly of deputies at Lugudunum round the altar of Rome and {314} Augustus had a religious character, and was intended to rival and to supersede the annual gathering of the Druids.1072 The deputies elected a flamen of the province who had surveillance of the cult, and there were also flamens for each city. Thus the power of the Druids in politics, law, and religion was quietly undermined, while Rome also struck a blow at their position as teachers by establishing schools throughout Gaul.1073

M. D'Arbois maintains that, as a result of persecution, the Druids retired to the depths of the forests, and continued to teach there in secret those who despised the new learning of Rome, basing his opinion on passages of Lucan and Mela, both writing a little after the promulgation of the laws.. But neither Lucan nor Mela refer to an existing state of things, and do not intend their readers to suppose that the Druids fled to woods and caverns. Lucan speaks of them dwelling in woods, i.e. their sacred groves, and resuming their rites after Cæsar's conquest not after the later edicts, and he does not speak of the Druids teaching there. Mela seems to be echoing Cæsar's account of the twenty years' novitiate, but adds to it that the teaching was given in secret, confusing it, however, with that given to others than candidates for the priesthood. Thus he says: "Docent multa nobilissimos gentis clam et diu vicenis annis aut in specu aut in abditis saltibus," but there is not the slightest evidence that this secrecy was the result of the edicts. Moreover, the attenuated sacrificial rites which he describes were evidently practised {315} quite openly. Probably some Druids continued their teaching in their secret and sacred haunts, but it is unlikely that noble Gauls would resort to them when Greco-Roman culture was now open to them in the schools, where they are found receiving instruction in 21 A.D.1077 Most of the Druids probably succumbed to the new order of things. Some continued the old rites in a modified manner as long as they could obtain worshippers. Others, more fanatical, would suffer from the law when they could not evade its grasp. Some of these revolted against Rome after Nero's death, and it was perhaps to this class that those Druids belonged who prophesied the world-empire of the Celts in 70 A.D.1078 The fact that Druids existed at this date shows that the proscription had not been complete. But the complete Romanising of Gaul took away their occupation, though even in the fourth century men still boasted of their Druidic descent.1079


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