Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.03.50 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.03.50

Holger A. Müller​, Herrschaft in Gallien: Studien zur Entwicklung der keltischen Herrschaftsformen im vorrömischen Gallien​.   Gutenburg:  Computus Druck Satz und Verlag, 2013.  Pp. 215.  ISBN 9783940598172.  €69.90.  

Reviewed by James Thorne, University of Manchester (

[The reviewer apologises for the lateness of this review.]

This work surveys the forms of political organisation found amongst Celts in both Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul before their incorporation under Roman rule. It is overwhelmingly based on literary evidence, though some use is made of archaeology; indeed, and unsurprisingly, the attempt to reconcile the archaeological and literary pictures gives rise to some of the most interesting parts of the argument.

A substantial introductory chapter deals with terminology and considers the problems of the main sources to be used: Polybius, Posidonius, Diodorus, Trogus, Livy, Pausanias. (Caesar is considered from this point of view on pages 70-2.) The terms considered here give some impression of the concerns of the whole book: μόναρχος, βασιλεύς, βασιλίσκος, δυνάστης, ἡγεμών, rex, regulus, dux, princeps, senatus, imperium. The second chapter reviews in detail the literary evidence for political organisation in Cisalpine Gaul, with little archaeological input; the third chapter (much longer, comprising nearly half the whole work) looks at Transalpine Gaul in the same way, but adds a much greater contribution from archaeology. A short fourth chapter considers some of the peculiar (though not unique) features of Celtic political organisation.

In so far as we can rely on Livy’s account, in the time of Tarquinius Priscus (ca. 600 BC) the Celts who migrated from France to the Po valley brought with them a monarchical form of government. Such they certainly had in later, better-attested, times: in 237 BC the Boii killed their two kings (the date is given in error as 225 on page 59); in the Hannibalic period and just after they are spoken of as having βασιλίσκοι or reguli. Similar evidence exists for the Insubres and Senones, and, early on, for the Cenomani. It is this last tribe that provides the only, and at that tentative, evidence for an aristocratic form of rule in Celtic Italy: the seniores (a possible senate), who had so little influence in 197 BC (Liv. 32.30).

North of the Alps, monarchy is indicated by all the evidence for the earliest events: the migration to Italy, but also interactions with Massilia when first founded. By Caesar’s time there was a mixture of aristocracies and monarchies. Müller discusses each people in turn, focussing on their status as a monarchy or aristocracy, and the not infrequent reversions from one form to the other that are familiar from the pages of Caesar. Some of the more interesting discussions are of earlier episodes: for example, the decision of the supposedly sixth-century king, Ambigatus, to send his sister’s son out on the migration to Italy. His choice of his nephew as the leader of the expedition has sometimes been taken to be evidence of matrilineal succession; however, as Müller points out, it does not show this: perhaps Ambigatus was retaining his own sons to rule at home (and at the same time removing potential competitors, a suggestion that can be found in Kristiansen 1998: 332). There is also an interesting and on the whole sensible discussion of the Gaesati (96-7), though it is hard to agree that the prevailingly bellicose relations between different tribes would have made it difficult for their members to cooperate in a mercenary band: even in the epoch of modern nationalism, history furnishes plenty of contrary examples, not least the French Foreign Legion, coincidentally headquartered in Aubagne, not far from the supposed base of the Gaesati in the Rhône valley.

Perhaps the fundamental question is, when did the aristocratic form of rule emerge in Gaul, and why? Müller follows Raimund Karl (along with Gerhard Dobesch an important influence on this work) in thinking that the transition occurred in the second century BC, by the mechanism of a need on the part of kings for a comitatus. The necessity of dividing spoils with aristocrats, thus enriching and empowering this social tier, led to a situation where they could take power, perhaps assisted by a diminution of royal strength and influence brought about by inheritance splitting (139). In this discussion, Müller asks, ‘how do we identify comites [Gefolgsherren] in an illiterate society?’ (133); it is a shame he does not bring in here the so-called ‘Ghost Cavalry’ of the oppidum of Gondole, whose unusual style of interment has been linked in discussion to such social configurations (Deberge, Cabezuelo et al. 2009: 52). This is perhaps a result of Müller’s too sparse reading in the French literature, something to which I will return.

The brief final chapter summarises the discussion under the headings of particularly (though not exclusively) Celtic forms of rule: double monarchy, petty kings, claims to ‘world-kingship’ (the case of the Bituriges); female rulers, including Onomaris, a continental queen who led a third-century migration into the Balkans (Tractatus de Mulieribus, 14); the vergobret; and the important issue, again, of clients and the comitatus.

The book is not without its problems. The evidence is not always handled as sensitively as it could be: for example, Müller maintains (42) that when successive issues of coinage bear the name of the same individual, this indicates a long-lasting, and therefore monarchical, rule; conversely, an often-changing legend would attest the succession of magistrates within an aristocratic constitution. Unfortunately for this argument, the absolute chronology of the Gallic coinage is so poorly established that one cannot exclude the possibility that a ‘long’ series of issues really represents a flurry of minting in a very short period, such as might result from a flare-up of warfare. In fact, this is exactly what happened in the case of Vercingetorix, the serial minter about whom we know the most, and whose rule was much shorter than that of most magistrates within aristocratic systems is likely to have been.

At times there is also inconsistent argument. For example, since the Aulerci Eburovices were ruled by a senate, Müller assumes that the other branches of the Aulerci must have been ruled in the same way (90-1); yet the Remi and the Suessiones are taken to show the opposite: that very closely aligned and related peoples could have different modes political organisation (102-3). Despite being fratres consanguiniique and sharing the same leges, imperium, and magistratus in 57 BC (B Gall 2.3), the Remi had a senate and the Suessiones had a king. Müller can’t have it both ways.

In fact, the simplest explanation for the difference between so closely linked a pair of peoples is that suggested by Wightman (1985: 26): the Remi seceded from the Suessiones in the immediate crisis brought about by Caesar’s wintering in central Gaul in 58/57. It could be added that, if a body of aristocrats from associated oppida and pagi broke away from the rule of a monarch, a senate was a quite feasible form of government for them to adopt. Wightman’s view implies that Caesar’s description telescopes the pre- and post-secession time frame into one. This is hardly a problem: a literal reading of his present tenses (utantur, habeant) certainly can’t be insisted upon, since the two peoples, fighting on opposing sides in a war, patently no longer shared a single imperium and magistratus. A final point on the Remi: Müller thinks that they changed to an aristocratic form of rule shortly before Caesar’s arrival. But the ATISIOS REMOS coinage cannot be adduced as evidence of a pre-Caesarian king (who would get in the way of Wightman’s hypothesis): it has for some time been thought to be post-Caesarian (Delestrée 1996: 110), and recently as late as 35/30 BC (Doyen 2005: 7-9).

The most serious problem with this book is the lack of French works consulted: I count only twelve items in the bibliography. Obviously the French-language literature on Iron-Age Gaul is vast, and it is a moot point whether one can approach Müller’s topic at all without reading at least some of the more important works of synthesis. To name but one omission, there is (or rather, isn’t) Fichtl’s Peuples Gaulois, a recent work that covers much of the same ground as Müller. Fichtl included a careful discussion about how one might best represent the political divisions of pre-Roman Gaul on a map. Müller’s map (174), on the other hand, leaves a lot to be desired. As important a people as the Bituriges are omitted, which leaves room for the Senones to be somewhat adrift (by no means were this people of the Paris basin centred on the confluence of the Loire and Allier), and the Aedui and Sequani are actually transposed.

That said, Müller does at least bring together up-to-date German scholarship, and presents a compendium of the literary sources in their original language, with German translation and commentary. To that extent this is a very useful work.

Works cited:

Deberge, Y., Cabezuelo, U., et al. (2009) ‘L’oppidum arverne de Gondole (Le Cendre, Puy-de-Dôme). Topographie de l’occupation protohistorique (La Tène D2) et fouille du quartier artisanal: un premier bilan’, Revue archéologique du Centre de la France R.A.C.F. Online 48.
Delestrée, L.-P. (1996) ‘Numismatique gauloise et chronologie: exemples des potins et de l'or’, Revue archéologique de Picardie 3-4: 105-112.
Doyen, J.-M. (2005) ‘Les monnaies gauloises, romaines et medievales des rues Saint-Symphorien et Eugène Desteuque à Reims’, in S. Sindonino (ed.), Reims (Marne), 19 rue Eugène Desteuque, Rapport final d’opération (INRAP report, Metz), Annex, 1-40.
Fichtl, S. (2004) Les Peuples Gaulois: IIIe – Ier siècles av. J.-C. Paris.
Kristiansen, K. (1998) Europe Before History. Cambridge.
Wightman, E.M. (1985) Gallia Belgica. London.

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