Druids and their roles have perplexed many, and the limited nature of Caesar’s references to the druids in his De Bello Gallico has contributed to this perplexity among both the ancients and the moderns. In the entire work, Caesar mentions the druids within the Gallic ethnography of 6.13-6.20 alone and discusses the druidic class directly in 6.13-14 alone. While this paper does not claim to resolve the enigmatic nature of the druids, it argues that examining the perspective of an elite Roman pontifex can help us better understand Caesar’s choices in representation. His reflections of the Roman pontificate in the Gallic druids adds even more weight to Schadee’s (2008) and Riggsby’s (2006) cogent arguments that Caesar crafted his work in order to demonstrate the suitability of the Gauls for incorporation into the Roman empire. To emphasize this aspect of Gallic adaptability, Caesar opens his German ethnography by noting the total absence of druids among this people (6.21).
In 6.13, Caesar addresses the druids’ priestly and judicial functions, social class, and process of selection as his introduction to the druidic stratum of Gallic society. I will compare this highly selective account about the druids to attestations of the Roman pontificate from Caesar’s contemporary, Cicero. In his De Legibus especially, but also in his speeches De Domo Suo and De Haruspicum Responsis, Cicero highlights the importance of Roman pontifices not only for private matters but also for the good of the entire state. Pontifices presided over sacrifices and other priestly matters, advised the senate about religious matters, and judged in any religious situations (North 1990). All these duties of the pontifices held civic importance in Roman society.
Caesar, as the current Roman pontifex maximus, surely had these pontifical roles in mind when writing of the Gauls’ druids and their priestly and judicial functions in 6.13 of De Bello Gallico. It is particularly significant that both Cicero and Caesar use the phrase “private and public” to describe the scope of the priestly and judicial pronouncements of pontifices and druids. In fact, Caesar uses this phrase twice of the druids’ functions in 6.13, sacrificia publica ac privata procurant and again, fere de omnibus controversiis publicis privatisque constituunt. Cicero stated in his speech De Haruspicum Responsis that the pontifices oversee sacra religionesque et privatas et publicas (vii.14). This phrase seemed essential to both authors as a qualifier of the importance of the groups being described, and it shows the pervasive nature of these groups’ roles in their societies. In addition, Caesar places the druids above the equites and the plebs; this aligns the druids’ importance to the Gallic society directly with the senatorial class in Roman society, from which the Roman pontifices came.
Thus, Caesar chose to emphasize the correlation between the Roman and Gallic elite classes through the similarity with the pontifices specifically instead of any other senatorial connection. This choice on Caesar’s part helps to explain why the druids receive any mention at all and then only here in De Bello Gallico. The correlation in Caesar’s work between the Gallic druids and Roman pontificate illustrated how the Romans shared similarities with the Gauls in even the most traditional and elite part of society, through which they could further communicate with, Romanize, and incorporate the Gauls.
Pagan Priests: Religion and Power in the Ancient World. Ed. Mary Beard and John North. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1990.
Riggsby, Andrew M. Caesar in Gaul and Rome: War in Words. 1st ed. Austin, TX: U of Texas P, 2006.
Schadee, Hester. “Caesar's Construction of Northern Europe: Inquiry, Contact and Corruption in De Bello Gallico.” The Classical Quarterly 58.1 (2008): 158-180.