Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Death of Gaulish: Part 3

Language and Identity in the Roman Empire

[from Ancient Web]

The most detailed records we have of ancient Europeans come to us from early Greek historians who describe the various tribes and peoples that lived at the periphery of their known world. A common thread that runs though these narratives is a a distinct sense of otherness, for the peoples being described that were not of Hellenic or Greek stock. These “Barbarians”, a term coined by the later Romans because of the beards they wore, were bereft of any value and systematic forms of civilizations that existed in the Greek world. They were alien to them, useful perhaps as slaves or hired mercenaries, but not a part of the “polis”, the citizen city state that differentiated the perceived noble races form those who still maintained the attributes of the archaic and uncivilized past.

The Romans thoroughly adopted this belief system, and used it as a moral objective to justify their conquest of first the Latin tribes. In the 2nd century BCE , when they quickly expanded from the Italian peninsula , they encountered those same Indo-European peoples as the Greeks had a few centuries earlier. The concept of Roman versus Barbarian become adopted in the social consciousness of every a citizen of the emerging Roman Empire. It was done for political reasons, but also because it had been formulated as a strategic survival myth of origin their earliest tribal history when the Romans were just a confederacy of hill tribes fighting for survival among the various established cultures of Italy. These native inhabitants of the Italian peninsula were part of the earliest migrations to italy, and were predominately made up of Etruscan, Oscan, Samnian, and Umbrian speaking peoples. The Etruscans first controlled the early Latin tribes but were then overthrown by the Romans when they rebelled against their tyrannical kings. Although much of this early history is steeped in legend, one thing is for certain – when the Romans finally overcame their Etruscan overlords, they wanted to establish an identity that was uniquely their own. Those who were seen as not sharing the egalitarian principles of the Romans, and the citizen state republic they had founded, were meant to be conquered and subjugated.

In the first century BCE, the Italian mainland having already been unified under a single banner, the Romans encountered the Celtic tribes of the Po river valley. These Celtic people were the ancestral enemies of the Italians, and started meeting with resistance from Romans as they began encroaching on the northern fringes of Italy. The area south of the Alps was a fertile plain that for centuries had been settled by the Celtic descendants of the first La Tene cultures to inhabit central Europe. These people were not only fundamentally different the the Italic tribes, but were also being pushed upon the Italian borders from the pressure of Germanic tribes moving west. These tribes in turn were being pressured to migrate due to the existence of Slavic tribes that were leaving the steppes of Asia. All these people shared several things in common, in that they represented an earlier warrior centric society that was much different then the "civitas" that the Romans had exemplified. To the Romans, they were all simply "Barbieri", the apotheosis to civilized clean shaven roman centurion. As the Romans conquered and expanded their Empire, they brutally suppressed many of these ancestral cultures of Europe and it is though the Roman conquerors that we have the most detailed narratives of Gauls, Celts, Britains, Germans, Slavs and many other groups of people they conquered. All these depictions have a fundamental flaw that obscures our visibility into the distant reality of theses ancient lives. And although the Roman historians speak of them as heroic warriors worthy of confrontation, they consistently reject them as uncivilized and undeserving of the culture the Romans could share with them.

Later, the Romans carved out provinces out of their lands, and ordered these based on what they perceived to be the cultural and linguistic groupings of these people. These provinces were somewhat artificial as the languages and regional differences of the tribes within each cultural area was tremendous,There was also not a clear distinct division between tribes that formulated the border zones of one cultural sphere to another. In the province of Hispania for example, the hinterland between the Celtic late comers, and the original Iberian inhabitants, was populated by hybrid Celti-Iberian tribes that possessed qualities of both these peoples. In the province of Gaul, the Celts were in fact part of a larger cultural entity primarily based on a the notion that they shared the same Brythonic Celtic language. But pockets of pre-Celtic people still existed in the peripheries, some disappearing from the record completely, while others existing to this day like the Vacones (Basques) and Rheatian speaking peoples of Switzerland. On the borders of the empire things were even more transient with Celto-Germanic tribes mixing with Germanic or Slavic speaking peoples. The Belgae, inhabiting roughly the same region as their namesake today, were actually various tribes with varying degrees of Celtic and Germanic influences. In the 1st century CE as the Romans began conquering lands further east they encountered various mountain tribes and nomadic tribes of the Pannonian plains, whom they simply grouped as Dacians despite the ethno-linguistic differences in their region. Over time the Romanization of these regions created a new ethnic commonality. In a sense, the Romans helped create new and more homogenous groups of people based on provincial boundaries they created. Even Greece itself did not achieve political unity until the Romans declared her a possession. Their conquest hastened the dissolution of the regional dialects of Ionic or Doric peoples, but helped preserve the development of a Greek nation state based on a common language.

But who were these people through their own eyes? Where they the blue painted Celts that had sacked Rome, only to be driven back north to their cold northern forests? Where they the Germanic barbarians that later invaded the crumbling empire destroying all that remained of civilization? Or were they the ancestors of the people that inhabit those regions today?


This article is very illuminating. For one thing, it shows how the Romans were usurpers in the central peninsula. The Etruscans and Umbrians were extremely advanced, and I believe did not need the Romans and/or an imperial superpower to influence the less technologically advanced regions. If Etruria was like the United States, then the Romans were like today's Globalists.

The first part of the third paragraph (italicized in red) absolutely hits the nail right on the head as far as the Cisalpine Gauls were concerned, and how they were perceived by the central Italic tribes in a historical, cultural, and ethnic context. "These Celtic people were the ancestral enemies of the Italians...." Okay, the wording of that is in an ancient context, but it still accurately sums up the situation which existed.

The Roman's carved out borders which changed even the identity of various peoples. It's interesting to note that Greece, like the southern Italian peninsula, was made up of different cultures with different languages and customs; and only later under the Roman provincial administration, did they become unified. Of course, they were probably pretty similar to start with and had a common history.

Lastly, and this is extremely interesting, there were pre-Celtic tribes existing in Gaul itself. Perhaps very ancient Alpine tribes, just like existed in Cisalpine Gaul. Also in Hispania, with Alpine tribes like the Vacones (Basques) living side-by-side with Celtiberian tribes. I don't believe that these tribes were of Mediterranean stock, but were the descendants of some of the very first Europeans.


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