Latin Essay- Whom is more reliable in their account of the Druids? Caesar in ‘De Bello Galli’, Pliny the Elder in the ‘Naturalis Historia’, or Tacitus?
In comparing these sources, we must first take into account a number of factors. First, when was the account written? Second, what was its purpose? Third, did the opinions/beliefs/morals of the author have any effect on the tone of their account? It must also be noted that the Druids and their culture had been around for a long time before any of these authors started writing about them, and much of the information was already very old when it reached Caesar, Pliny and Tacitus. Nobody had written extensively about the druids, and much of the information was of unknown quality.
Julius Caesar (who henceforth will be known as JC) is alleged to have written his accounts while making his slow, bloody way across much of Gaul (North-Western France) and Britain. His account was written sometime between 58 and 49 BC, at a time when the Druids and their culture were still around. Much of De Bello Galli is endless skirmishes and battles, usually ending in the slaughter of many Gauls, and it is likely that JC made them more dangerous and worthier adversaries to make his conquest more glorious, including the Druids. Modern historians have charged JC with exaggerating the importance and organisation of Gallic druids, and many of his sweeping statements are not backed up by other’s texts. However, History Today asserts that JC is the only writer who could have encountered the Gauls himself, whereas other writers were relying on secondary information. JC himself was a firm polytheistic Roman, and therefore would have had some understanding and respect of the Druids, who were also polytheistic.
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Pliny on the other hand, was writing at a time when Christianity, the ‘new religion’ was starting to gain in popularity as people became disillusioned with the old polytheistic religion, and may have been slightly dismissive of the Druids religious beliefs - refers to them as ‘cranks’. His account was written in 50AD, by which time the Druids were disappearing, and their culture was going with them. As a result, Pliny is much less likely to have seen many Druids, whereas JC would have seen many, and therefore his account was written from rumour, fable and hearsay, with the possibility of embellishment. Pliny was a believer in magic and superstition, and Naturalis Historia is full of unsupported claims, and Pliny’s assertions, which we are unable to test. After being accepted as gospel for centuries, it was rejected by 17th century scientists. While JC’s work is a tribute to Gallic custom, the purpose of Pliny’s work is primarily botany, and concentrates less on the Druids’ custom, but more on mistletoe, their sacred plant.
The third account, that of Tacitus, was written 100 years after that of JC, around the time of Pliny’s work. Tacitus is extremely dismissive of the Druids, mocking them as barbaric, crazy and irreligious. It is possible that Tacitus was a Christian, and would have found the Druids and their custom very strange and unholy, describing their religion as black magic-‘preces diras’, in his account of their last stand on Anglesey. He is unlikely to have visited the Menii straits, between Anglesey and the mainland, describing the region as ‘incolis validam et receptaculum perfugarum’- a haven for refugees and ne’er do wells.
Tacitus is extremely frank about the Druids, accusing them of witchcraft, and comparing their woman to furies. His writing is almost propaganda against the Britons and their culture, extremely mocking, and it is unlikely to be firsthand information, some looks similar to the earlier JC account, and is more a good cautionary tale for the Roman public of the silver age.
In conclusion, all the accounts have their faults and merits, but I think that that of JC is probably the most reliable, as it is definitely true that Caesar travelled much of Gaul and Britain, and is likely to have seen some of their culture while there. Even if it is exaggerated, there is a lot more truth in it than that of Pliny, whose entire Historia Naturalis has been disproved, and of Tacitus, who holds the Druids in contempt on some moral principle. Both of these authors received their information indirectly, and although we can never prove which is actually correct (all three differ in their account of Druidic custom- although this could be due to the fact that their customs may have been different in different areas), it is fair to say that Julius Caesar’s account has probably got more truth in it, although it itself is unlikely to be totally true.