Ancient Gaul (France): 20 Facts and history

Learn about the history of Gaul (France), its Celtic tribes and traditions, famous Gallic leaders, the conquest by the Romans, interesting facts and more.
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Reproduction of a Gallic village at Parc Asterix in France
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The legend of ancient Gaul is one that all French children learn in school. The name “Gaul” is considered the historical name of France, and the Celtic tribes considered the ancestors of the modern-day French.

But many of the stories told about the Gallic tribes were not written by the Gauls themselves. Instead, it was written by outsiders and reimagined in the 19th century when political turmoil in France lead to new heros being invented.

So let’s get to a few facts and the history of the Celtic tribes in Gaul, shall we? Allons-y!

1. The Gauls were part of a Celtic group of tribes.

The first written record dealing with the ancient Gauls in France comes from around 500 BC. The Gauls were a group of Celtic tribes who lived in mainland Europe in the Iron Age and the Roman period, from roughly 5th century BC to 5th century AD.

At the time, the Gauls followed pagan traditions and were closely related to the Celts of the British Isles.

2. Gaul was located in Western Europe and mostly corresponds to modern France today.

The ancient territory that is called “Gaul” included lands mostly corresponding to France, Luxembourg, Belgium, most of Switzerland, northern Italy, as well as parts of the Netherlands and Germany on the west bank of the Rhine.

There were no borders at the time, and each Celtic tribe had its own chieftain, origins and culture.

It was a large territory, with several rivers and mountain ranges including the Alps, the Pyrenees, and Massif central providing natural defences against invasion.

3. The name “Gaul” was invented by the Romans.

The name “Gaul” was the name given to these Celtic tribes much later by the invading Romans. According to Julius Caesar’s writings in the 1BC, the Gauls of the province of Gallia Celtica called themselves Celtae in their own language, and were called Galli in Latin.

The Romans later used both names for them interchangeably. In French today, they are referred to as the “Gaulois“, however there was no uniform leader or nation called “Gaul”.

4. The Gauls didn’t keep many written records.

Part of the reason that not much is known about the Celts and the Gauls is that they didn’t keep written records. Although there is evidence that later-tribes used the Greek alphabet as well as some Celtic writings, there are no substantial written records.

Each tribe transmitted their stories and important information orally, to avoid it falling into the wrong hands. As such, most of the information we know about the Celtic tribes in Gaul comes from outside sources like the Greeks and the Romans who did keep detailed records and writings.

5. The powerful Celtic Gauls controlled much of Western Europe in the 4BC.

Before the Roman Empire, it was these Celtic Gauls who dominated Western Europe. By the 4th century BC, the Gallic tribes were at their height as they controlled the trade routes along the river systems of the Rhône, Seine, Rhine, and Danube.

Along with farming the land, they were specially skilled craftsmen, especially in fabricating armaments like helmets, swords, spearheads and arrowheads. They were also good at commerce, constructing roads and river transport routes to facilitate trade.

6. In 390 BC, the Gauls had sacked Rome.

In 390 BC, the Gauls sacked Rome, a conquest that the fearful Romans had marked in their historical records.

The attack was led by Brennus, one of the most famous of the ancient Gauls. He was the chieftain of the Senones, a Gallic tribe that lived around the Seine river near the town of Sens.

He first defeated the Romans at the Battle of the Allia in 390 BC. Later that year, he led an army to Rome and captured most of the city, holding it for several months. Brennus’s spectacular sack of Rome was the only time in 800 years the city was occupied by a non-Roman army before the fall of Roman empire.

7. They followed an ancient Celtic religion overseen by druids.

The Gallic tribes had a complicated power structure, but among high-ranking officials with the tribe were the druids. They were believed to have been literate, but left no written records.

The word “druid” stems from the Romans using Latin, and it is the various Roman writers like Cicero and Caesar whose writings try to explain the role of the druids in the Celtic tribes.

From writings and archaeological excavations, it is believed that the druids oversaw religious ceremonies within the tribe and also served as judges, teachers, political advisors, medical experts, and lore-keepers.

8. The tradition of Halloween comes from Gallic-Celtic celebrations.

Records show that Celtic Pagan celebrations like Samhain in Brittany was similar to those in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales that eventually became known as Halloween.

The Samonios in Gaul, along with the other tribes in the Anglo-Celtic Isles, believed that the dead and spirits of the underworld could walk among us.

For 7 days they would celebrate and rub shoulders with the dead, with the Druids conducting of the festivities. It was also the start of the Celtic New Year.

The belief was that on October 31st, All Hallows Eve (which became Halloween), the Celts celebrated the ghosts of the dead returning to earth. Then on the night before the New Year (November 1 or All Saints’ Day), the worlds of the living and the dead mingled.

9. Menhirs and other Celtic artefacts have been found in France.

Like at Stonehenge in England, menhirs and other Celtic and Gaelic artefacts have been found all over Brittany, with the most famous being site of Carnac. They have also been found in other regions of France like Ardèche, Auvergne, and Vendée.

Erected in the Neolithic era by Celtic tribes, these menhirs, dolmens and stone circles continue to fascinate visitors.

10. They spoke a Gaulish, a Celtic language.

Gaulish is the name given to the language spoken by the Celts in Continental Europe. It was found on fragmentary inscriptions of calendars, pottery accounts, funeral monuments, short dedications to gods, coin inscriptions, property records, and other texts.

Gaulish was first written in Greek script in southern France. It is considered a relative of the Celtic languages spoken in Britain (Scottish, Welsh, Irish, and Cornish) and the Breton language in Brittany.

Interestingly in French, the nation of Wales is referred to as “Pays des Galles”, meaning “Country of the Gauls”.

11. The Gauls were allied with Hannibal.

One of the most fearsome commanders of all time, Hannibal was allied with some of the Gallic tribes. From his military base in Spain, he travelled along the Mediterranean coast towards Rome with his army, encountering many of the local Celtic tribes.

Starting in the spring of 218 BC, he crossed the Pyrenees and reached the Rhône river by conciliating the Gaulish chiefs along his passage before the Romans stop his advance.

Continuing through the Alps with their help, he then used Gallic mercenaries in his invasion of Italy. The Gauls played a part in some of his most spectacular victories, including the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC.

12. The Greek colony of Massilia needed help defending against the Gauls.

One of the most important settlements on the Meditteranean sea at the time was the the powerful Greek colony of Massilia (today Marseille).

The natural harbour at Marseille meant that a settlement here dated back to 600BC. However, the Greeks were not always aligned with the Gauls.

Vieux Port in Marseille
Vieux Port in Marseille

At the time, the Gaillic tribes around Marseille were quite powerful, and the Greeks in Marseille wanted help and protection from them. The Massilians had to appeal to the Roman Republic for defense against them.

In the 2nd century BC, Massalia even entered into an alliance with the Romans in exchange for land that it wanted in order to build a road to Hispania (the Roman name for Spain), to assist in building settlements there, much to the chagrin of the Gauls.

13. The Romans began arriving in Gaul.

After being newly elected Consul of the Roman Empire, General Julius Caesar arrived in Gaul. He was personally deeply in debt, and was looking for riches to pay off his debts.

At the time, Gaul consisted of a multitude of tribes and states. As the Romans slowly encroached on Gaul, the Gallic tribes were torn between trade and fighting. Gaul was not a nation with a central head, so some Gaulish tribes built alliances with the Romans, while others fought to keep their territory.

13. Vercingetorix tried to unite the Gallic tribes against Julius Caesar.

Though the Gallic tribes were almost as strong as the Romans, their internal tribal hierarchy made coordination difficult against the disciplined Roman army.

One of the most famous of the Gauls, Gaelic chief Vercingetorix‘s attempted in 52 BC to unite the tribes against Roman invasion but in vain. He defeated Caesar initially at the Battle of Gergovia, earning a place in the history books.

Romans at Parc Asterix
The Romans at Parc Asterix

14. The Romans won the Battle of Alesia and conquered Gaul.

Although Caesar lost initially, he regrouped his army and attacked once again. Caesar’s elaborate siege at the Battle of Alesia finally forced Vercingetorix and Gauls to surrender.

Julius Caesar and the Roman legionnaires waged several successful battles between 58-54 BC. With the conquest of Gaul, Caesar consolidated his position in Rome and across the Empire.

15. The Gauls were assimilated with a mix of Gallo-Roman culture.

The Romans ruled Gaul for over 600 years from 1BC to 5AD, only withdrawing back to Roman as their empire began to fall. During that time, they established settlements all across the Gaul, bringing their civilization with them.

Arles amphitheatre
Arles Amphitheatre built by the Romans.

The Romans built new roads, amphitheatres, thermal spas, etc. all across Gaul, and gave citizenship rights to those born in the territory. Slowly, many of the Gaillic tribes assimilated and a new Gallo-Roman culture and language emerged.

The language of French is romance language with roots in Latin as well as some words from Gaulish.

After the fall of the Roman empire, it would be the Frankish tribes from the north with Clovis I, who would become the 1st King of the Franks.

16. Many cities across France are named after the Gauls.

The city of Paris is named for the Parisii, the Gallic clan that inhabited the city and its surrounding area.

Other names like Lugdunum is a latinization of the Gaulish Lugudunon, meaning “fortress of the god Lugus“. It eventually evolved into the name Lyon.

The city of Bordeaux is named after the settlement of a Celtic tribe, the Bituriges Vivisci, who named the town Burdigala.

17. The legend of Gaul was resurrected by Emperor Napoleon III in the 19th century.

After the 1789 French Revolution when France decided to guillotine their King, the country was in turmoil. Napoleon Bonaparte came to power and was in turn defeated, with the old Bourbon dynasty restored.

After the Bourbons were overthrown for a second time, Napoleon’s nephew Emperor Napoleon III came to power. After so much turmoil in a span of 50 years, Napoleon decided to resurrect the legend of the Gauls to give the French a sense of legacy and continuity.

As there was no specific territory as “Gaul” and it was roamed by a variety of Celtic tribes, Napoleon III needed a focal point. He asked the “Commission de Topographie des Gaules” to locate the archeological remains of the historic Battle of Alesia when Julius Caesar defeated Gallic chief Vercingetorix.

Statue of Vercingétorix par in Alise-Sainte-Reine, France
Statue of Vercingétorix par Aimé Millet (Myrabella) in Alise-Sainte-Reine, France

After 4 years of digging, archeological remains and a museum were established near the town of Alise-Sainte-Reine in 1862. Napoleon III erected the 7-meter-tall statue in Alise-Sainte-Reineto commemorate Vercingetorix as a symbol of Gallic nationalism.

Vercingetorix became a popular warrior figure and the first hero in France’s national history and identity, studied by school children all across the country.

The need for the legend of the “nation of Gaul” would continue as within a few years would come the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and then two World wars, when the French would need to rally to defend the nation against outside invasion.

18. Asterix and Obelix comics tell the story of the Gauls versus the Romans.

The Gaulish-inspired Asterix and Obelix comics books by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, have been enchanting readers in France and around the world since 1959.

In the comic books, to keep the Romans at bay, The old druid Panoramix (Getafix in the English version) creates a magical potion. If the Romans get too aggressive, Asterix drinks the potion, becomes super-strong and puts them back into their place.

Asterix and Obelix at Parc Asterix
Meet the Locals

With his little dog with his friend Obelix, who fell in the magic potion as a baby, Asterix continues on this merry adventures to this day.

Parc Asterix, the French theme park just outside of Paris, tries to replicate that Gaillic culture and fun of the comic books, although obviously much of it is for entertainment purposes rather than historical accuracy.

Of particular note, unlike in the comic books, the Gauls did not end each name with “ix”. This actually signified the name of the King, like the real-life Gaul chieftain Vercingetorix.

19. The region of Brittany remains proud of its Gallic traditions and language.

The region of Brittany is one of the few that still holds these Celtic and Gaulish traditions in France. It is considered one of 6 Celtic nations along with:

  • Cornwall (known as “Kernow”)
  • Ireland (known as “Éire”)
  • Scotland (known as “Alba”)
  • Wales (known as “Cymru”)
  • Isle of Man (known as “Mannin”, or “Ellan Vannin”)
Flag of Brittany
Flag of Brittany

The black and white flag of Brittany still flies high across the region. It is called the Gwenn-ha-du in Breton, a relative of the Gaulish language.

20. The name “de Gaulle” means “from France”.

An interesting annedote is the surname which is still heard across France “de Gaulle” which means “of Gaul”. It would be French General Charles de Gaulle who would rally the French resistance to fight off the German Reich during WWII.

Statue of Charles de Gaulle on the Champs Elysées in Paris
Statue of Charles de Gaulle on the Champs Elysées in Paris

By all accounts, this was his actual surname and not a name that he adopted for the cause of fighting for the heart of the French nation.

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If you enjoyed that article, you may like to read more about the history of France. A bientôt!

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