Celts and the Classical World

By David Rankin | Go to book overview

4

Anthropology and Heroics

Distant tribes were a perennial source of fascinating commonplace for Greek and Roman authors. We begin with the picture of the Cyclops’ isolated pastoral incivility in the Odyssey. He is ignorant of the ways of the city-state. Homer considers him the worse for this. Herodotus (1.153) thinks that the absence of an agora, which is essentially the absence of the city-state, promotes honesty and innocence. Where there is no money, only goods, there is less temptation to evil (Schröder 1921:31). This idea became a commonplace, or topos of literature and oratory. Its constituent themes were freely transferred from one natural folk to another by the sophisticated intelligentsia of the Mediterranean. Clitarchus’ opinions about the Indi are applied by Julius Caesar to the Galli (BG 6.19.3) and are matched by Pliny’s view (NH 6.89) about Taprobane, which is modern Sri Lanka (Schröder 1921:30). Poseidonius (1st century BC) took Herodotus’ account of the Scythians (Skythikos Logos) as his model for his description of the Celts of Gaul. Poseidonius’ information is embedded in the texts of Strabo, Diodorus and Caesar. Tacitus in his Germania sees in the Germanic tribes a primal purity resembling that of the most ancient Roman tradition. Not specifically Roman, but none the less to be wondered at, are such customs as the sacrificial killing of a wife when her husband dies, if he happens to be a chief; eating the bodies of the dead, or slaughtering the aged for the same purpose.

The so-called ‘Archaeologia’ at the beginning of Thucydides’ history describes the ethos of very early Greece as being like that of the barbarians of the author’s own times (1.5). He stresses that a wandering life of rapine was preferred to the sedentary routine of agriculture, a preference which Herodotus had attributed to

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