In Latin class, we are translating parts of Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War. One thing that struck me as odd is how Caesar describes the customs of the Gauls, especially in Book 6, where he briefly describes the Druids. He mentions in chapter 14 of Book 6 that the Druids use Greek characters in writing. Greece is rather far from Gaul, so how did the Gauls and their Druids come into contact with the Greek language and learn it by the time of Caesar's campaign?

Source: http://classics.mit.edu/Caesar/gallic.6.6.html

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    They 'came into contact' because they co-existed on the same continent. Learning a trading partner's language was as important then as it is now. Dec 10, 2019 at 18:50
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    Or he's confusing the use of Greek characters as speaking Greek.
    – John Dee
    Dec 11, 2019 at 1:14
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    Just for example, the Greek community around what is now modern Marseilles was over 200 years older in Caesar's time than Plymouth Rock is today. One might as well ask: "How did all those Apache/Navaho/Iroquois/Algonquian learn the Roman alphabet in only 350 years of exposure?" Dec 11, 2019 at 2:24

6 Answers 6


They most probably got that knowledge from cultural exchange with the greek city-states from southern France, like Massilia (Marseille), which was founded around 600 BCE and had plenty of relations with the sorrounding celtic tribes: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Marseille

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    This wikipedia entry is also useful - Greeks in pre-Roman Gaul.
    – J Asia
    Dec 10, 2019 at 12:20
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    Its worth considering that the druids were practically an entire social class dedicated to study. When we think of primitive people we imagine them to be dumb but the reality is often a lot more complex. I wouldn't be surprised if some druids didn't spend many years of "study" in an actual greek state. Celtic interactions with greece were not uncommon. Dec 10, 2019 at 15:35
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    There were also Greek colonies in modern Spain... which is closer (by sea anyway) to Britain. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_colonisation
    – AllInOne
    Dec 10, 2019 at 16:29
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    @AllInOne Not sure what relevance Britain has here.
    – JimmyJames
    Dec 10, 2019 at 21:45
  • Caesar may have been wrong about this; the druids perhaps used Greek in relation to trade with Marseille, but I haven't yet (in two minutes of internet searching) found archaeolgical evidence of them using Greek to record their own customs.
    – Strawberry
    Dec 12, 2019 at 10:39

It's quite possible, but don't be so credulous of Caesar's judgement and reporting. Not everything he's written has turned out to be 100% accurate.

I don't know about the nuances of the original Latin, but that translation reads "they use Greek characters". That's not the same thing as using the Greek language. Right now, this post is using Latin characters. It's written in English, but it is using a character set called Latin-1.

So it's quite possible what this is saying is that he found them doing some writing in an alphabet borrowed from the Greek alphabet. Latin itself borrowed its alphabet indirectly from Greek (as did arguably most alphabets in use today), so this isn't exactly remarkable. It also doesn't mean they borrowed those glyphs directly from the Greeks.

However, if the Gauls wanted to borrow the Greek alphabet, they certainly had the opportunity to do so. Only 200 years prior they controlled territory running all the way from the Atlantic nearly to the Black Sea, with enclaves on the Black Sea coast, and in Anatolia, and were invading Greece proper. 100 years before Caesar was born, a Roman army was fighting Gauls in Anatolia (Galatia). Those Gauls at least were surrounded by Greek speakers. There were reportedly still Gallic tribes living around the Danube by Caesar's time.

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Celtic domains at their maximum extent, around 270BC. info/source/key

What we know historically after Caesar is that the oldest surviving writing we have from the Gauls comes from more that 100 years after his time, and nearly everyone seems to agree that it was Latin-derived.

Before Caesar, the only written Celtic language I could find known exemplars for was Celtiberian (as the name implies, spoken in modern Spain). Its script appears to have been borrowed from the Iberian script*, which was probably derived from Phoenician (making it sort of sibling script of Greek). So this is another possible vector for the script Caesar observed. It's not Greek, but it might have looked it to him.

* - The Iberian language itself was not Indo-European. It's possibly related to Basque

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    A minor quibble: I had thought that the Romans borrowed their alphabet from the Etruscans who borrowed it from the Greeks. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latin_alphabet
    – AllInOne
    Dec 10, 2019 at 22:14
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    @AllInOne - Transitively from Greek though. The parenthetical statement relies on this same transitive relation of borrowing (otherwise its clearly wrong). Its not a bad clarification nonetheless, but adding it to the text wouldn't sit well with my parenthetical in that statement. I'll throw the word "indirectly" in there, and hopefully it won't be too confusing.
    – T.E.D.
    Dec 10, 2019 at 22:19
  • @T.E.D. - I doubt this statement is correct: "What we know historically after Caesar is that the oldest surviving writing we have from the Gauls comes from more that 100 years after his time ...". By which you mean all recovered Gaulish texts are post-Julius Caesar? Are there none before Romans invaded Gaul?
    – J Asia
    Dec 11, 2019 at 6:25
  • @JAsia - I found some earlier Celtiberian (Celtic, but not Gauls), but none for the Gauls themselves. I'd love to be proven wrong on this, and fold new older examples into the answer. Heck, they might even change the answer.
    – T.E.D.
    Dec 11, 2019 at 16:44
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    Minor technicality, but I believe your post is actually using UTF-8, not Latin-1. Also, there are definitely non-Gaulish Celtic languages attested before Caesar, such as Lepontic. It’s also worth mentioning that the Gauls from Galatia were probably distinct from the ones in Gaul – though their languages were seemingly quite similar and they were no doubt related peoples, there’s nothing to suggest that the Gallic Gauls had ever been in the Greek-speaking areas to the east. Dec 11, 2019 at 21:09

First of all, there is inscriptional evidence that the Eastern Greek Alphabet was indeed used to write the Gaulish language in gallia narbonensis. The actual alphabet and some inscriptions are shown in the Wikipedia article on the Gaulish language. The reason for the adoption of this alphabet is obviously the Greek colony at Marseille.

This was not the only alphabet used for the Gaulish language, in gallia cisalpina a different alphabet (Lepontic) was used. Later, the Gauls adopted the Latin alphabet with the addition of a special letter named tau gallicum.


Other answers indicate the prevalence of colonization, I add this one to suggest a reason why remote colonies would be founded (it's a long way from Britain and France to Greece).

If you want to make bronze you must have tin (and copper).

Europe has very few sources of tin. Therefore, throughout ancient times it was imported long distances from the known tin mining districts of antiquity.

Cornwall, Devon and Brittany and were one of few major sources of tin in Europe. And by the time Caesar came to Gaul these sites had been mined for thousands of years.

Ancient Tin sites

By studying the isotopes of ancient bronze objects it has been demonstrated that the tin often has origins very very far from the point that the object has been discovered, even when the design of the object matches the local culture, suggesting the object was local and the tin was imported.

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    What does this have to do with Gaul?
    – JimmyJames
    Dec 10, 2019 at 21:48
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    @JimmyJames Druids were in Britain and Gaul. Caesar does not specify that the use of Greek applies only to Druids in Gaul so I have include both Brittany (in France) and Devon/Cornwall (in Britain) references.
    – AllInOne
    Dec 10, 2019 at 21:52
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    @JimmyJames the OP is asking about Book 6 Chapter 14, in the previous Chapter Caesar discusses the practices of Druids in Britain. Perhaps he is doing so here as well.
    – AllInOne
    Dec 10, 2019 at 21:55
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    @JimmyJames, not necessarily, only that the use of Greek characters is not extraordinary due to tin trade... from cited wiki: "Evidence of direct tin trade between Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean has been demonstrated through the analysis of tin ingots dated to the 13th-12th centuries BC from sites in Israel, Turkey and modern-day Greece; tin ingots from Israel, for example, have been found to share chemical composition with tin from Cornwall and Devon (Great Britain)"
    – AllInOne
    Dec 10, 2019 at 22:06
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    @JimmyJames, well, they could migrate with the coconuts and unladen swallows.
    – user28434
    Dec 11, 2019 at 13:56

In addition to the answer already given, the Celts were certainly aware of the Greeks by the 3rd century BCE, as they had formed a colony in Asia minor and were slowly being Hellenized. It's not beyond the realms of possibility that the Celts in Anatolia kept in contact, due to trade or personal relationships, with those still in Gaul, and in the process exchanging various aspects of Greek culture.

See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galatia


As a rule, they did not speak Greek. Roman generals often wrote in Greek to each other so that their enemies could not understand.

On the other hand, Greek alphabet was as common at the time in Europe as Latin alphabet is today. Even Latin alphabet itself is based on Greek alphabet.

Many unrelated languages used (often modified) Greek letters for writing. This includes Etruscan, Macedonian, various Balkan and Anatolian languages (Phrygian, Illirian Thracian, Dalmatian), as well as Germanic runes. So, it is no surprise.

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