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Latin Book Club — Julius Caesar And The Druids

This article has been reviewed in accordance with our editorial policy.

Julius Caesar’s “the Gal­lic Wars” is not all about bat­tles, troop move­ments, and strat­e­gy. There are many troop move­ments, yes, but there are also descrip­tions of places, peo­ple, lead­ers, and details in the cul­tures Cae­sar came to con­quer. One such descrip­tion is that of the Gal­lic druids.

Julius Cae­sar is one of history’s most promi­nent per­sons. Lawyer, mil­i­tary tri­bune, quaestor, pon­tif­ex max­imus, gov­er­nor, con­sul, and dic­ta­tor. War­lord and reformer. The man had many strings on his lyre.

After hav­ing been con­sul of Rome, a con­sul­ship that he shared with Mar­cus Calpurnius Bibu­lus, Cae­sar spent nine years on mil­i­tary cam­paigns in the provinces of Gaul, Illyricum, and Transalpine Gaul (and on the uncon­quered lands bor­der­ing to these provinces). 

It is about these cam­paigns that Cae­sar wrote in his De Bel­lo Gal­li­co. The work con­tains eight books where one book is more or less equiv­a­lent to one year’s cam­paign­ing. The last book was, how­ev­er, most like­ly not writ­ten by Cae­sar at all. 

Today, we will read chap­ters 13 and 14 from book 6 and the very famous pas­sages about the Gal­lic druids.

This pas­sage is not only famous because it fea­tures the Celtic druids, ever shroud­ed in mys­tery, but because it is the old­est detailed descrip­tion of druids that we pos­sess today. The druids them­selves did not write any­thing down.

You will find the orig­i­nal Latin text below, along with an Eng­lish trans­la­tion. I hope that you will read with me!

If you want to learn more about Cae­sar and read/listen to more from De Bel­lo Gal­li­co – Check out Chap­ter 6 of our dig­i­tal Anthol­o­gy 2000 years of Latin Prose.

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Latin text (B.G. VI. 13–14)

Capitulum 13

1 In omnī Gal­liā eōrum hominum, quī aliquō sunt numerō atque honōre, gen­era sunt duo. Nam plēbēs paene servōrum habē­tur locō, quae nihil audet per sē, nūl­lō adhibē­tur cōnsiliō.

2 Plērīque, cum aut aere aliēnō aut mag­nitū­dine tribūtōrum aut iniūriā poten­tiōrum pre­mu­ntur, sēsē in servitūtem dicant nōbilibus: in hōs eadem omnia sunt iūra, quae dom­inīs in servōs.

3 Sed dē hīs duōbus gener­ibus alterum est druidum, alterum equi­tum. 4 Illī rēbus dīvīnīs inter­sunt, sac­ri­fi­cia pūbli­ca ac prīvā­ta prōcūrant, religiōnēs inter­pre­tan­tur: ad hōs mag­nus adulēs­cen­tium numerus dis­ci­plī­nae causā con­cur­rit, mag­nōque hī sunt apud eōs honōre.

5 Nam ferē dē omnibus con­trōver­siīs pūblicīs prīvātīsque cōn­sti­tu­unt, et, 6 sī quod est admis­sum fac­i­nus, sī caedēs fac­ta, sī dē hērēditāte, dē fīnibus con­trōver­sia est, īdem dēcer­nunt, praemia poenāsque cōn­sti­tu­unt; sī quī aut prīvā­tus aut pop­u­lus eōrum dēcrētō nōn stetit, sac­ri­fi­ciīs inter­dī­cunt. Haec poe­na apud eōs est gravissima.

7 Quibus ita est inter­dic­tum, hī numerō impiōrum ac scel­erātōrum haben­tur, hīs omnēs dēcē­dunt, adi­tum ser­mōnemque dēfugiunt, nē quid ex con­tāgiōne incom­modī accipi­ant, neque hīs peten­tibus iūs red­di­tur neque honōs ūllus commūnicātur.

8 Hīs autem omnibus druidibus praeest ūnus, quī sum­mam inter eōs habet auc­tōritātem. 9 Hōc mor­tuō aut sī quī ex reliquīs excel­lit dig­nitāte suc­cēdit, aut, sī sunt plūrēs parēs, suf­frāgiō druidum, nōn­numquam eti­am armīs dē prīn­cipātū contendunt.

10 Hī certō annī tem­pore in fīnibus Carnū­tum, quae regiō tōtīus Gal­li­ae mediā habē­tur, cōn­sī­dunt in locō cōnse­crātō. Hūc omnēs undique, quī con­trōver­siās habent, con­ve­ni­unt eōrumque dēcrētīs iūdi­ciīsque pārent. 11 Dis­ci­plī­na in Bri­tan­niā reper­ta atque inde in Gal­liam trānslā­ta esse exīs­timā­tur, 12 et nunc, quī dīli­gen­tius eam rem cognōscere vol­unt, plērumque illō dis­cendī causā proficīscuntur.


Capitulum 14

1 Druidēs ā bel­lō abesse cōn­suērunt neque tribū­ta ūnā cum reliquīs pen­dunt; mīli­ti­ae vacātiōnem omni­umque rērum habent immūnitātem.

2 Tan­tīs excitātī praemiīs et suā sponte multī in dis­ci­plī­nam con­ve­ni­unt et ā par­en­tibus propin­quīsque mittuntur.

3 Mag­num ibi numerum ver­su­um ēdis­cere dīcun­tur. Itaque annōs nōn­nūl­lī vīcēnōs in dis­ci­plīnā permanent.

4 Neque fās esse exīs­ti­mant ea lit­terīs mandāre, cum in reliquīs ferē rēbus, pūblicīs prīvātīsque ratiōnibus Graecīs lit­terīs ūtan­tur. Id mihi duābus dē causīs īnsti­tuisse viden­tur, quod neque in vul­gum dis­ci­plī­nam effer­rī velint neque eōs, quī dis­cunt, lit­terīs cōn­fīsōs minus memo­ri­ae studēre: quod ferē plērīsque accid­it, ut prae­sidiō lit­terārum dīli­gen­ti­am in perdis­cendō ac memo­ri­am remittant.

5 In prīmīs hoc vol­unt per­suādēre, nōn interīre ani­mās, sed ab aliīs post mortem trān­sīre ad aliōs, atque hōc max­imē ad virtūtem excitārī putant metū mor­tis neglēc­tō. 6 Mul­ta praetereā dē sīderibus atque eōrum mōtū, dē mundī ac ter­rārum mag­nitū­dine, dē rērum nātūrā, dē deōrum immortāli­um vī ac potestāte dis­putant et iuven­tūtī trādunt.

English Translation

Chapter 13

Through­out all Gaul there are two orders of those men who are of any rank and dig­ni­ty: for the com­mon­al­i­ty is held almost in the con­di­tion of slaves, and dares to under­take noth­ing of itself, and is admit­ted to no deliberation. 

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The greater part, when they are pressed either by debt, or the large amount of their trib­utes, or the oppres­sion of the more pow­er­ful, give them­selves up in vas­salage to the nobles, who pos­sess over them the same rights with­out excep­tion as mas­ters over their slaves. But of these two orders, one is that of the Druids, the oth­er that of the knights. The for­mer are engaged in things sacred, con­duct the pub­lic and the pri­vate sac­ri­fices, and inter­pret all mat­ters of reli­gion. To these a large num­ber of the young men resort for the pur­pose of instruc­tion, and they [the Druids] are in great hon­or among them. For they deter­mine respect­ing almost all con­tro­ver­sies, pub­lic and pri­vate; and if any crime has been per­pe­trat­ed, if mur­der has been com­mit­ted, if there be any dis­pute about an inher­i­tance, if any about bound­aries, these same per­sons decide it; they decree rewards and pun­ish­ments; if any one, either in a pri­vate or pub­lic capac­i­ty, has not sub­mit­ted to their deci­sion, they inter­dict him from the sac­ri­fices. This among them is the most heavy pun­ish­ment. Those who have been thus inter­dict­ed are esteemed in the num­ber of the impi­ous and the crim­i­nal: all shun them, and avoid their soci­ety and con­ver­sa­tion, lest they receive some evil from their con­tact; nor is jus­tice admin­is­tered to them when seek­ing it, nor is any dig­ni­ty bestowed on them. Over all these Druids one pre­sides, who pos­sess­es supreme author­i­ty among them. Upon his death, if any indi­vid­ual among the rest is pre-emi­nent in dig­ni­ty, he suc­ceeds; but, if there are many equal, the elec­tion is made by the suf­frages of the Druids; some­times they even con­tend for the pres­i­den­cy with arms. These assem­ble at a fixed peri­od of the year in a con­se­crat­ed place in the ter­ri­to­ries of the Car­nutes, which is reck­oned the cen­tral region of the whole of Gaul. Hith­er all, who have dis­putes, assem­ble from every part, and sub­mit to their decrees and deter­mi­na­tions. This insti­tu­tion is sup­posed to have been devised in Britain, and to have been brought over from it into Gaul; and now those who desire to gain a more accu­rate knowl­edge of that sys­tem gen­er­al­ly pro­ceed thith­er for the pur­pose of study­ing it.

Chapter 14

The Druids do not go to war, nor pay trib­ute togeth­er with the rest; they have an exemp­tion from mil­i­tary ser­vice and a dis­pen­sa­tion in all mat­ters. Induced by such great advan­tages, many embrace this pro­fes­sion of their own accord, and [many] are sent to it by their par­ents and rela­tions. They are said there to learn by heart a great num­ber of vers­es; accord­ing­ly some remain in the course of train­ing twen­ty years. Nor do they regard it law­ful to com­mit these to writ­ing, though in almost all oth­er mat­ters, in their pub­lic and pri­vate trans­ac­tions, they use Greek char­ac­ters. That prac­tice they seem to me to have adopt­ed for two rea­sons; because they nei­ther desire their doc­trines to be divulged among the mass of the peo­ple, nor those who learn, to devote them­selves the less to the efforts of mem­o­ry, rely­ing on writ­ing; since it gen­er­al­ly occurs to most men, that, in their depen­dence on writ­ing, they relax their dili­gence in learn­ing thor­ough­ly, and their employ­ment of the mem­o­ry. They wish to incul­cate this as one of their lead­ing tenets, that souls do not become extinct, but pass after death from one body to anoth­er, and they think that men by this tenet are in a great degree excit­ed to val­or, the fear of death being dis­re­gard­ed. They like­wise dis­cuss and impart to the youth many things respect­ing the stars and their motion, respect­ing the extent of the world and of our earth, respect­ing the nature of things, respect­ing the pow­er and the majesty of the immor­tal gods.

Trans­la­tor. W. S. Bohn. 1869

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren, M.A. and co-founder of Latinitium, is a published author, illustrator and historian. She specializes in daily life, has a soft spot for historic curiosities, and works as a museum educator at the world’s oldest open air museum, Skansen.
Written by Amelie Rosengren

Written by Amelie Rosengren

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