Primary sources are a historian’s best friend, and sometimes worst enemy. Primary sources are essential to our understanding of the past, but if not handled carefully, they can also be deceptive. For a case in point, here are a couple of comments on the Gauls of northern Italy in the third and second centuries BCE.
The Gauls were a warrior elite who had migrated into northern Italy over about a century and established themselves as leaders of scattered towns and settlements in the Po river valley. Some of these groups settled down and built up local power bases based on agriculture and trade. Others made their living by raiding the rest of the Italian peninsula or taking service as mercenaries in the many local wars being fought between Italian peoples like the Etruscans, Romans, Sabines, and Samnites. The native people of the Po valley sometimes resisted Gaulish influence and sometimes assimilated into Gaulish culture. By the second century, the expansion of Roman power had subdued or eliminated many of these groups, while some others had allied themselves with Rome.
The cultural realities of northern Italy were complicated. The view from Rome tended to be simplifying and stereotyping, but even the stereotypes themselves could be complicated.
Here is how the Greek author Polybius, who lived in Rome and aligned himself with Roman culture, described the Italian Gauls:
They lived in unwalled villages without permanent structures. Sleeping on leaves and eating meat, they knew nothing but war and farming; they lived simple lives and had no acquaintance with any art or science.
– Polybius, History 2.17-18
(My own translations)
The image is one of poverty in both material and cultural terms. Polybius’ Gauls are little better than wild animals.
Should we take Polybius’ account as an authoritative statement on what the Romans and their Greek allies thought about the Gauls? There is no doubt that the image of Gauls as feral savages lacking even the rudiments of civilized life was common in the ancient Mediterranean, but it was not the only possibility. In fact, just the opposite was also possible.
Cato the Elder, a Roman statesman, took a different view of the Gauls. Most of his account is lost, but a couple of fragments survive in quotations in later works:
The Gauls devote themselves most diligently to two things: war and cunning talk.
– Cato the Elder, Origins 2, quoted in Charisius, Ars Grammatica 2
The Insubres [a Gaulish tribe] in Italy lay up cuts of pork, three or four thousand at a time, and the pigs grow so big that they cannot stand on their own or walk anywhere. If they want to take a pig somewhere, they must put it in a cart.
– Cato the Elder, Origins 2, quoted in Varro, On Farming 1.2.7, 2.4.11; Columella, Res Rustica 3.3.2; Pliny, Natural History 14.52
Cato was no friend to the Gauls any more than Polybius was, but his view of them is different. Unlike Polybius’ ignorant savages with no art or sceince, Cato’s Gauls are cunning talkers. In contrast to the poverty of unwalled villages and beds of leaves, Cato pictures Gauls as so rich in agriculture that their pigs grow too fat to walk unaided.
Polybius and Cato were roughly contemporary and moved in the same elite social circles in Rome. Despite the differences in their points of view, they both reflect attitudes that must have been current among the Roman upper class. We can explain the differences in their views by their different audiences. Polybius was writing primarily for his fellow Greeks and aimed to portray the Romans as a force for order and stability in the Mediterranean. The more wild and bestial he could make their enemies, the more he could burnish the Romans’ credentials. Cato, by contrast, was writing for a Roman audience in the aftermath of Rome’s complete conquest of the Po valley. By building up the Gauls as a worthy foe, he made the conquest seem more glorious.
The variations in these perspectives should not surprise us. It is rare that any group of people has a single opinion about anything. Even the most reductive stereotypes are rarely universal among the people who hold them. Individuals and groups alike can hold multiple attitudes at the same time, calling up one opinion or another as the occasion demands.
For more recent historical periods when we have richer records of peoples’ thoughts and words, it is easier to get a fuller sense of this sort of complexity. In more distant periods of history when we have much more limited records, it can be tempting to assume that the documents we do have represent an accurate picture of what people thought on a given topic. Polybius and Cato are a good cautionary example that even among people who traveled in the same social circles in the same places and times, multiple different opinions were equally possible.
History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.