They conducted a colorful ritual, in sacred groves more often than in temples; and to appease the gods they offered human sacrifice of men condemned to death for crime; the custom will appear barbarous to those who have not seen an electrocution. The Druids were the only learned, perhaps the only literate, part of the community. They composed hymns, poems, and historical records; they studied “the stars and their movements, the size of the universe and the earth, and the order of nature,” and formulated a practicable calendar. They served as judges and had great influence at the courts of the tribal kings. Pre-Roman, like medieval, Gaul was a political feudalism clothed in theocracy.
Under these kings and priests Celtic Gaul reached its zenith in the fourth century B.C. Population expanded with the productivity of the La Tene techniques, and the result was a series of wars for land. About 400 B.C. the Celts, who already held most of central Europe as well as Gaul, conquered Britain, Spain, and north Italy. In 390 they pushed south to Rome; in 278 they pillaged Delphi and conquered Phrygia. A century later their vigor began to wane, partly through the softening influence of wealth and Greek ways, partly through the political atomism of feudal barons.
Just as in medieval France the kings broke the power of the barons and established a unified state, conversely, in the century before Caesar, the lords of the manors broke the power of the kings and left Gaul more fragmentary than before. The Celtic front was pushed back everywhere except in Ireland; the Carthaginians subdued the Celts in Spain, the Romans drove them out of Italy, the Cimbri and Teutones overran them in Germany and southern Gaul. In 125 B.C. the Romans, eager to control the road to Spain, conquered southern Gaul and made it a Roman province. In 58 B.C. the Gallic leaders begged Caesar to help them repel a German invasion. Caesar complied and named his own reward.
Caesar and Augustus reorganized Gaul into four provinces: Gallia Narbonensis in the south, known to the Romans as provincia, and to us as Provence, then largely Hellenized through the Greek settlements on the Mediterranean coast; Aquitania in the southwest, chiefly Iberian in population; in the center Gallia Lugdunensis, overwhelmingly Celtic; and in the northeast Belgica, predominantly German. Rome recognized and abetted these ethnic divisions to forestall united revolt.
The tribal cantons were retained as administrative areas; the magistrates were chosen by owners of property, whose allegiance was secured by Rome’s support of them against the lower classes; and Roman citizenship was granted as a prize to loyal and useful Gauls. A provincial assembly of representatives chosen from every canton met each year in Lyons; at first it limited itself cautiously to the ritual of Augustan worship, but soon it passed on to sending requests to the Roman governors, then recommendations, then demands. The administration of justice was taken out of the hands of the Druids, who were suppressed, and France received Roman law.