Roman or Celt?

By Legal Eagle

My sister and I have this really daggy game where we challenge each other as to which historical group we would like to belong, and justify the answers. It started out with Venetian or Florentine? (As I recall we were both Venetians). Then we went to Roman or Celt? You can see why I’m addicted to those Facebook silly quizzes; this obsession started long before Facebook.

I suspect I’m unusual because I answer the Roman or Celt question differently from most people I know. My answer is Celt. Yes, I know they didn’t have plumbing and running water, but somehow I think Celt suits me better. Ideally, perhaps, I’d be Gallo-Roman so that I could get the benefit of those hot baths and running water…

Sometimes, rather than seeing myself as an eternal butt of lawyer jokes, I find it cheering to think of myself in the same tradition as Taliesin, when law and lore were less estranged. I have been meaning to write a post for ages on the strange synchronicity between lawyering and being a historian, a writer, a bard and a religious figure.

Perhaps you think it crazy that I link barding with lawyering. But anyone who has studied early Indo-European history will likely be familiar with Georges Dumézil’s “trifunctional hypothesis“. Dumézil argued that Indo-European societies and mythology reflected three categories: priests/sovereigns, warriors and creators (farmers/artisans). Each caste was equal and necessary, and ideally, the monarch should embody aspects of all three.

Dumézil’s hypothesis has been criticised, but one can see its resonances. He saw it as informing the development of the Indian caste system. Medieval European feudal society also reflects this division with its notions of oratores (those who pray), bellatores (those who fight), and laboratores (those who work). One only has to think of the Three Estates in France to see how this notion carried through into relatively recent times.

The priestly function had two subcategories two distinct and complementary sub-parts. The Wikipedia entry on the trifunctional hypothesis explains:

One part was formal, juridical, and priestly, but rooted in this world. The other was powerful, unpredictable, and also priestly, but rooted in the other, the supernatural and spiritual world.

So being a priest or a druid was one part of the function. However, other functions included being a historian, a writer, a bard, or a lawyer. The Irish filid combined all these functions at once, later specialising into different areas:

The file is to be regarded as in the earliest times as combining in his person the functions of magician, lawgiver, judge, counsellor to the chief, and poet. Later, but still at a very early time, the offices seem to have been divided, the brehons devoting themselves to the study of law, and the giving of legal decisions, the druids arrogating to themselves the supernatural functions, with the addition, possibly of some priestly offices, and the filí themselves being henceforth principally as poets and philosophers. The division seems to have already existed in Ireland at the time of St Patrick, whose preaching brought him into constant opposition with the druids, who were evidently, at that time, regarded as the religious leaders of the nation, though there does not seem to be much sign that they were, as they undoubtedly were, even at an earlier age in Britain and Gaul, sacrificing priests.

(Eleanor Hull, Textbook of Irish Literature 1906)

In my head, I have a less respectful but affectionate name for those who inhabit the priestly function: “bullshit artists.” Seriously. If you think about it – all these functions are about the lore/law, and about recording it, interpreting it and explaining it to others in a way that makes it accessible. It’s all about story telling, and explaining to others what has happened or what should happen in a way that is accessible. I think sometimes lawyers forget that this is their primary function.

It’s no surprise that I am fascinated with religion, history, law, writing and teaching. Even blogging could be fitted into this category. All those bloggers out there – how do you like the thought of being a 21st century bard?


  1. Posted July 20, 2009 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    Robert Graves wrote an anecdote somewhere about Druidic initiation ceremonies. In one the candidate was required to lie in a shallow grave that was filled with water, in winter, overnight. Whilst lying there he had to compose and memorize a poem. His recital of such in the morning decided success or failure.

    I suppose that explains the literary heritage.

  2. Posted July 20, 2009 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Hang on, I put my harp down somewhere and I can’t speak ’til I find it… 🙂

  3. Posted July 20, 2009 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    You are right about being both? Weren’t famous Romans from Picenum accused of celtish ancestry?

    And I’ll give you a Roman example of “historian, a writer, a bard and a religious figure”, and also a considerable legal figure: Cicero.

    A bit weak on the history, perhaps, but then again, he played a significant part in it. Writer? Yes – on nearly everything – and also, I think, an early user of a novel meter – one later used by Virgil I think. (OK not a great bard as poet – but in prose – Golden!).

    Religion? Official augur, writer of “On Divination”, and yet promoter of Greek philosophy through his “idiot guides to greek philosophy for those people who only know Latin”.

    And anyway – I suspect SL would probably prefer pre-Aryan/pre-Horse days – before Apollo defeated Python, or when Ishtar was as important as El. But we know too little of those days. (And no, not accusing ANYONE of being a priestess of Ishtar!)

    The “hero” fighting of the Celt, versus “as one” fighting of the Romans perhaps reflects the difference between the full-on-libertarian view (Maggie Thatcher’s “There is no such thing as society”) and the socialist view. So I’d choose Rome – but the antimilitarist types, the Ciceros.

    But I’d MUCH rather have lived in 4th Century Athens, or in Library-gifted Alexandria, where some great stuff happened.

  4. Posey
    Posted July 20, 2009 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    Fabulous post, LE.

    The Celts were way more darkly spiritual weren’t they, well as far as we can tell?

  5. Posted July 20, 2009 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    Adrien, your story probably accounts for the sad nature of much Celtic music.

    To the Gaels of Ireland
    The men that God made mad
    For all their wars are merry
    And all their songs are sad

  6. Posted July 20, 2009 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    It’s Gilbert.

  7. su
    Posted July 20, 2009 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

    Whose Father Brown, as quoted in Brideshead Revisited, made me shudder in horror (and still does) with the line ” I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.” Nightmarish. I’m not at all curious about what it would be like to welcome that twitch although I am extremely curious about those who do.

    Being wet and cold and under duress seems to be a common way to test suitability from druids to knights to the modern military – my brother was made to stand overnight in a Washington winter in a box just big enough to sit in as part of a survival training exercise. When he sat down, water was thrown over him.

    A really interesting post LE – I’d never heard of the trifunctional hypothesis before.

  8. Posted July 20, 2009 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    Oooh, I enjoyed that post. The Celts seem to have a fair bit of historical street cred, don’t they?

    According to the introduction to the Penguin edition of The Annals of Tacitus, & I Claudius, in Rome, history and oratory were inextricably linked. Histories were meant to be declaimed, performed even. Probably something to do with the Homeric tradition: history as epic poem.

  9. Posted July 21, 2009 at 12:38 am | Permalink

    That’s why they gave generals (and other people) such ripping speeches before battles, too — even though they were all completely made up, of course. No-one was there to hear any speeches being made.

    I’ve always found it interesting, too, that Roman writers always gave their Celtic opponents the best speeches. In fact, Vercingetorex, Boudicca and Calcagus get absolute barnstormers, including some of the most memorable lines in all literature (solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant).

    Now that line is in an essay about how great the writer’s father-in-law is, and we know the writer was passionately in love with father-in-law’s daughter. But he still gives his father-in-law’s Celtic enemy a great speech.

    For some reason, the Romans respected the Celts. Their writing about other enemies is nowhere near as flattering. Also interesting (on the bardic and speechifying front) is what happens when an ancient writer tries to do the speechifying thing and it’s not part of his cultural tradition. The dreadful attempts at speechmaking that litter Josephus’ writing — in an otherwise gracefully written work — have to be read (or better, ignored) to be believed.

  10. Posted July 21, 2009 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    For some reason, the Romans respected the Celts.

    You’ve read Bonfire of the Vanities? Remember, the Jewish Assistant DA who wants to be Irish? And why?

    We didn’t respect the Romans back. Sleeping in beds, washing with warm water, wearing clothes in battle.


  11. Dave Bath
    Posted July 21, 2009 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    I’d rather face an angry roman woman than a boudicaa any day. And i believe when celts or whoever invaded italy (bce), both sides were scared of facing the women in the baggage train, which is why the invaders rarely retreated during battle. (and read gibbon on why the germans didn’t cheat on their wives)

  12. Posted July 21, 2009 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

    Although I strongly suspect that the Romans could get awfully Godfather/Prizzi’s Honour/Goodfellas when push came to shove…

  13. Posted July 22, 2009 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    The “Roman or Celt” question is put today in a form much discussed by the ancients: “Wine or Beer”?

  14. su
    Posted July 22, 2009 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    I looked for a quote about celtish women, David and found this:
    “A whole troop of foreigners [i.e. Romans] would not be able to withstand a single Gaul if he called his wife to his assistance. […] Swelling her neck, gnashing her teeth and brandishing her sallow arms of enormous size, she begins to strike blows mingled with kicks as if they were so many missiles sent from the string of a catapult.”
    Ammianus Marcellinus

    The same site claimed that the celts used soap before the romans (?) so maybe some of the reputation for general barbarity is part of the usual colonial propaganda. The celts fined people for obesity as well.

  15. Posted July 22, 2009 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Su, great a.m. quote. What period are we talking about? The Gauls loved Julian (a mate of a.m. and hero of his book) for tax breaks against imperial orders.

  16. su
    Posted July 22, 2009 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    LOL. I suppose the celts made wine of a sort, just not the grape variety. Elderberry wine perhaps, which sounds a little disgusting to me – anyone tasted it?

    I found that quote on David but it wasn’t dated (my own “knowledge” is limited to that gleaned from Goscinny and Uderzo : ) ).

    Another great quote was left at another forum (at by a woman who studies celtic food.

    “Being inordinately fond of wine they gulp down what the merchants bring them quite undiluted…. Many Italian merchants, prompted by their usual cupidity, consequently regard the Gauls’ taste for wine as a godsend. They take the wine to them by ship up the navigable rivers or overland by cart and it fetches incredible prices: for one amphora of wine they receive one slave, thus exchanging the drink for the cup bearer.”


    Looks like the celts agreed with you LE.

  17. Posted July 22, 2009 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    Although I strongly suspect that the Romans could get awfully Godfather/Prizzi’s Honour/Goodfellas when push came to shove…
    Indeed. The real story behind the crucifixion of Christ. He shouldna upset the money laundering thing. Don’t get between an Italian and the money.

  18. Posted July 23, 2009 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] said : “He shouldna upset the money laundering”

    This High Court of Australia transcript has a discussion of this as religiously motivated violence intended to intimidate a portion of the population: i.e. terrorism.

  19. Posted July 23, 2009 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    Roundhead. Definitely. New model army with no congenital idiots in charge. Also anything to annoy the Vatican.

    “What happens when the end doesn’t come?” Why don’t entrepreneur skeptics get the gullible sects to sign over all property to the entrepreneur “maturing” the day after the predicted end of the world.

    And thanks for drawing my attention to the Levellers and Diggers. That’s a toughy for socialist me! Levellers. Acquisition on behalf of the people not destruction.

    And on milleniallists – I think one of Ronnie Raygun’s cabinet members (for energy or environment, cannot remember) actually promoted the line that we may as well dig up the coal/oil and burn it, not worrying about destroying nature, etc, because the second coming was approaching anyway. Seriously scary.

  20. Posted July 24, 2009 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    Cavalier. Very much Cavalier.

  21. Posted July 24, 2009 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]: “cavalier”
    are you referring to the style of your oft amusing comments here?
    Another reason for my roundhead choice is wanting to avoid the hassle of curling my hair or rug-wearing. (braiding under the roundhead helmet would be good padding. I suspect thats why the spartans at the hot gates were doing rather than trying to be stylish).
    That and the impractical lacy clothes of the cavaliers.
    LE: Any chance of this being a regular game?

  22. Posted July 25, 2009 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    it’s the Cavaliers’ sense of style, isn’t it?

    Mmm mmm.

    And let’s face it Oliver’s army were no fun. Charles II might’ve been an absolutist but at least he was a liberal absolutist. And.. well, let’s just say it was good to be the King. 🙂

  23. Posted July 25, 2009 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] “good to be the King”
    Aaaah, one of my favorite movies, but about a Plantagnet (perhaps the most interesting dynasty for good and ill) not a Stuart.

  24. Posted July 25, 2009 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Dave – What movie was that? I was quoting History of the World Part I. The King represented was a Valois.

    And except for Charles II, I would like to take this opportunity to apologize on behalf of the clan for the Royal Stuarts – pack of wankers.

  25. Posted July 25, 2009 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    Adrien asks What film/play? ‘its good to king’
    ‘The Lion in Winter’ (o’toole/hepburn). Jed Bartlett’s favorite film, but the quote in WW ‘when the fall is all there is, it matters a great deal’. The ultimate dysfunctional family Xmas movie.

2 Trackbacks

  1. By Roman or Athenian? « Balneus on July 22, 2009 at 3:48 pm

    […] Brain Networks in ChildrenHow To Kick Bad Policy HabitsThe Wrong Kind Of Affront To DemocracyComment on Roman or Celt? by suMission possible: researchers make online text self-destructMining and the environmentUTube Ripper […]

  2. By skepticlawyer » The magic of the word on May 5, 2010 at 8:21 pm

    […] being a lawyer makes one even more respectful of the power of the word. As I’ve said before, I sometimes like to think of the links between bards, lawyers, historians and religious figures: they are all purveyors of […]

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *