Pliny the Elder, The Natural History

Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79) was a Roman natural philosopher who was educated in Rome and came into contact with Celts during his military service in Germany and Gaul.

The following is an adaptation of Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, trans. John Bostock and H. T. Riley. London: Henry Bohn, 1855.

§ 3.3. It is evident that the Celtici have sprung from the Celtiberi, and have come from Lusitania, from their religious rites, their language, and the names of their towns […]

§ 4.30. Opposite to this coast is the island called Britannia, so celebrated in the records of Greece and of our own country. It is located to the north-west, and, with a large tract of intervening sea, lies opposite to Germany, Gaul, and Spain, by far the greater part of Europe. Its former name was “Albion”; but at a later period, all the islands, of which we shall just now briefly make mention, were included under the name of “Britanniæ.”

§ 8.73. The thick, fleecy wool has been esteemed for the manufacture of carpets from the very earliest times; it is quite clear, from what we read in Homer, that they were in use in his time. The Gauls embroider them in a different manner from that which is practised by the Parthians. Wool is compressed also for making a felt, which, if soaked in vinegar, is capable of resisting even iron; and, what is still more, after having gone through the last process, wool will even resist fire; the refuse, too, when taken out of the vat of the scourer, is used for making mattresses, an invention, I fancy, of the Gauls. At all events, it is by Gallic names that we distinguish the different sort of mattresses at the present day […]

§ 8.74. Babylon was very famous for making embroidery in different colours, and hence materials of this kind have obtained the name of “Babylonian.” The method of weaving cloth with more than two threads was invented at Alexandria; these cloths are called polymita; it was in Gaul that they were first used to create a checkered pattern.

§ 12.2. It is related that the Gauls, separated from us as they were by the Alps, which then formed an almost insurmountable bulwark, had, as their chief motive for invading Italy, its dried figs, its grapes, its oil, and its wine, samples of which had been brought back to them by Helico, a citizen of the Helvetii, who had been staying at Rome, to practice there as an artisan. We may offer some excuse, then, for them, when we know that they came in quest of these various productions, though at the price even of war.

§ 12.3. Let men even, at the present day, wear gold upon the arms in form of bracelets known as dardania, because the practice first originated in Dardania, and called viriolæ in the language of the Celts, viriæ in that of Celtiberia, let women wear gold upon their arms and all their fingers, their necks, their ears, the tresses of their hair […]

§ 16.95. Upon this occasion we must not omit to mention the admiration that is lavished upon this plant by the Gauls. The druids — for that is the name they give to their magicians — held nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the tree that bears it, supposing always that tree to be the oak. Of itself the robur is selected by them to form whole groves, and they perform none of their religious rites without employing branches of it; so much so, that it is very probable that the priests themselves may have received their name from the Greek name for that tree. In fact, it is the notion with them that everything that grows on it has been sent immediately from heaven, and that the mistletoe upon it is a proof that the tree has been selected by God himself as an object of his especial favour.

The mistletoe, however, is but rarely found upon the oak; and when found, is gathered with rites replete with religious awe. This is done more particularly on the fifth day of the moon, the day which is the beginning of their months and years, as also of their time cycles, which, with them, are only thirty years. This day they select because the moon, though not yet in the middle of her course, has already considerable power and influence; and they call mistletoe by a name which signifies, in their language, the all-healing. Having made all due preparation for the sacrifice and a banquet beneath the trees, they bring thither two white bulls, the horns of which are bound then for the first time. Clad in a white robe the priest ascends the tree, and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, which is received by others in a white cloth. They then sacrifice the victims, offering up their prayers that God will render this gift of his auspicious to those to whom he has so granted it. It is the belief with them that the mistletoe, taken in drink, will impart fecundity to all animals that are barren, and that it is an antidote for all poisons. Such are the religious feelings which we find entertained towards trifling objects among nearly all nations.

§ 17.4. There is another method, which has been invented both in Gaul and Britain, of enriching earth by the [use of] marl [loose spoil of clay and lime]. This soil is looked upon as containing a greater amount of fertilizing properties, and acts as a fat in relation to the earth […] The Aedui and the Pictones have rendered their lands remarkably fertile by the aid of limestone, which is also found to be particularly beneficial to the olive and the vine.

§ 18.28. The Gauls were the first to employ the bolter [straining screen] that is made of horse-hair.

§ 18.72. The mode of getting in the harvest varies considerably. In the vast domains of the provinces of Gaul a large hollow frame, armed with teeth and supported on two wheels, is driven through the standing grain, the beasts being yoked behind it; the result being that the ears are torn off and fall within the frame. In other countries the stalks are cut with the sickle in the middle, and the ears are separated by the aid of paddle-forks. In some places, again, the corn is torn up by the roots; and it is asserted by those who adopt this plan, that it is as good as a light turning up for the ground, whereas, in reality, they deprive it of its juices. There are differences in other respects also: in places where they thatch their houses with straw, they keep the longest stalks for that purpose; and where hay is scarce, they employ the straw for litter. The straw of panic is never used for thatching, and that of millet is mostly burnt; barley-straw, however, is always preserved, as being the most agreeable of all as a food for oxen. In the Gaulish provinces panic and millet are gathered, ear by ear, with the aid of a comb carried in the hand.

§ 19.2. [Mattresses] are an invention for which we are indebted to the Gauls: the ancient usage of Italy is still kept in remembrance in the word stramentum, the name given by us to beds stuffed with straw.

§ 22.2. I remark, in the first place, that there are some foreign nations which, in obedience to long-established usage, employ certain plants for the embellishment of the person. That, among some barbarous peoples, the females stain the face by means of various plants, there can be little doubt, and among the Daci and the Sarmatæ we find even the men marking their bodies. There is a plant in Gaul, similar to the plantago in appearance, and known there by the name of glastum: with it both married women and girls among the people of Britain are in vile habit of staining the body all over, when taking part in the performance of certain sacred rites; rivalling hereby the swarthy hue of the Ethiopians, they go in a state of nature.

§ 22.3. We know, too, that from plants are extracted admirable colours for dyeing; and, not to mention the berries of Galatia, Africa, and Lusitania, which furnish the coccus, a dye reserved for the military costume of our generals, the people of Gaul beyond the Alps produce the Tyrian colours, the conchyliated, and all the other hues, by the agency of plants alone.

§ 24.62. Similar to savin is the herb known as selago. Care is taken to gather it without the use of iron, the right hand being passed for the purpose through the left sleeve of the tunic, as though the gatherer were in the act of committing a theft. The clothing too must be white, the feet bare and washed clean, and a sacrifice of bread and wine must be made before gathering it: it is carried also in a new napkin. The druids of Gaul have pretended that this plant should be carried about the person as a preservative against accidents of all kinds, and that the smoke of it is extremely good for all maladies of the eyes.

§ 25.25. The people of Gaul, when hunting, tip their arrows with hellebore, taking care to cut away the parts about the wound in the animal so slain: the flesh, they say, is all the more tender for it.

§ 28.51. Soap, too, is very useful for this purpose, an invention of the Gauls for giving a reddish tint to the hair. This substance is prepared from tallow and ashes, the best ashes for the purpose being those of the beech and yoke-elm.

§ 30.4. The Gallic provinces, too, were pervaded by the magic art, even within living memory; for it was the Emperor Tiberius who outlawed their druids, and all that nation of wizards and physicians. But why make further mention of these prohibitions, with reference to an art which has now crossed the very ocean even, and has penetrated to the void recesses of nature? At the present day, struck with fascination, Britain still cultivates this art, and that, with such awe-inspiring rituals that she might almost seem to have been the first to communicate them to the people of Persia. To such a degree are nations throughout the whole world, totally different as they are and quite unknown to one another, in agreement upon this one point!

This being the case, we cannot too highly appreciate the obligation that is due to the Roman people for having put an end to those monstrous rites, in accordance with which, to murder a man was to do an act of the greatest devoutness, and to eat his flesh was to secure the highest blessings of health.

§ 32.11. Before it was known in what estimation coral was held by the people of India, the Gauls were in the habit of adorning their swords, shields, and helmets with it.