In a sense French civilization began with “Aurignacian man” 30,000 years before Christ; for even then, as the caves of Montignac attest, there were artists capable of rich color and vivid line. From that Old Stone Age of hunting and herding, France passed, about 12,000 B.C., to the settled life and tillage of the Neolithic Age, and, after ten long millenniums, to the Age of Bronze. About 900 B.C. a new race, “Alpine” and roundheaded, began to filter in from Germany and spread across France to Britain and Ireland and down into Spain. These “Celts” brought with them the Halstatt iron culture of Austria, and about 550 B.C. they imported from Switzerland the more developed iron technology of La Tene. When Rome became conscious of France she named it Celtica; only in Caesar’s time was this changed to Gallia, Gaul.
The immigrants displaced some native groups and settled down in independent tribes whose names still lurk in the cities they built. The Gauls, said Caesar, were tall, muscular, and strong; they combed their rich blond hair back over their heads and down the nape of their necks; some had beards, many had powerful mustaches curling around their mouths. They had brought from the East, perhaps from the ancient Iranians, the custom of wearing breeches; to these they added tunics dyed in many colors and embroidered with flowers, and striped cloaks fastened at the shoulders. They loved jewelry and wore gold ornaments- even if nothing else- in war.
They liked abundant meat, beer, and undiluted wine, being “intemperate by nature” if we may believe Appian. Strabo calls them “simple and high-spirited, boastful… insufferable when victorious, scared out of their wits when defeated”; but it is not always a boon that our enemies should write a book. Poseidonius was shocked to find that they hung the severed heads of their foes from the necks of their horses. They were easily aroused to argument and combat, and sometimes, to amuse themselves at banquets, they fought duels to the death. “They were,” says Caesar, “our equals in valor and warlike zeal.” Ammianus Marcellinus describes them as
at all ages fit for military service. The old man marches out on a campaign with courage equal to that of the man in the prime of life…. In fact a whole band of foreigners will be unable to cope with one Gaul if he call in his wife, who is usually far stronger and fiercer than he, above all when she swells her neck, gnashes her teeth, and poising her huge arms, begins to rain down blows and kicks like shots from a catapult.
The Gauls believed in a variety of gods, now too dead to mind anonymity. Belief in a pleasant life after death was so keen as to be in Caesar’s judgment an important source of Gallic bravery. On the strength of it, says Valerius Maximus, men lent money to be repaid in heaven; and Poseidonius claimed to have seen Gauls at a funeral write letters to their friends in the other world and throw them upon the pyre so that the dead man might deliver them; we should enjoy a Gaul’s opinion of these Roman tales. A priestly class, the Druids, controlled all education and vigorously inculcated religious belief.