The Celtic aristocracy was to all appearance a high nobility, for the most part perhaps the members of the royal or formerly royal families; as indeed it is remarkable that the heads of the opposite parties in the same clan very frequently belong to the same house. These great families combined in their hands financial, warlike, and political ascendency. They monopolized the leases of the profitable rights of the state. They compelled the free commons, who were oppressed by the burden of taxation, to borrow from them, and to surrender their freedom first de facto as debtors, then de jure as bondmen. They developed the system of retainers, that is, the privilege of the nobility to surround themselves with a number of hired mounted servants-- the -ambacti- as they were called (18)--and thereby to form a state within the state; and, resting on the support of these troops of their own, they defied the legal authorities and the common levy and practically broke up the commonwealth. If in a clan, which numbered about 80,000 men capable of arms, a single noble could appear at the diet with 10,000 retainers, not reckoning the bondmen and the debtors, it is clear that such an one was more an independent dynast than a burgess of his clan. Moreover, the leading families of the different clans were closely connected and through intermarriages and special treaties formed virtually a compact league, in presence of which the single clan was powerless. Therefore the communities were no longer able to maintain the public peace, and the law of the strong arm reigned throughout. The dependent found protection only from his master, whom duty and interest compelled to redress the injury inflicted on his client; the state had no longer the power to protect those who were free, and consequently these gave themselves over in numbers to some powerful man as clients.

Abolition Of The Monarchy

The common assembly lost its political importance; and even the power of the prince, which should have checked the encroachments of the nobility, succumbed to it among the Celts as well as in Latium. In place of the king came the "judgment-worker" or -Vergobretus-,(19) who was like the Roman consul nominated only for a year. So far as the canton still held together at all, it was led by the common council, in which naturally the heads of the aristocracy usurped the government. Of course under such circumstances there was agitation in the several clans much in the same way as there had been agitation in Latium for centuries after the expulsion of the kings: while the nobility of the different communities combined to form a separate alliance hostile to the power of the community, the multitude ceased not to desire the restoration of the monarchy; and not unfrequently a prominent nobleman attempted, as Spurius Cassius had done in Rome, with the support of the mass of those belonging to the canton to break down the power of his peers, and to reinstate the crown in its rights for his own special benefit.

Efforts Towards National Unity

While the individual cantons were thus irremediably declining, the sense of unity was at the same time powerfully stirring in the nation and seeking in various ways to take shape and hold. That combination of the whole Celtic nobility in contradistinction to the individual canton-unions, while disturbing the existing order of things, awakened and fostered the conception of the collective unity of the nation. The attacks directed against the nation from without, and the continued diminution of its territory in war with its neighbours, operated in the same direction. Like the Hellenes in their wars with the Persians, and the Italians in their wars with the Celts, the Transalpine Gauls seem to have become conscious of the existence and the power of their national unity in the wars against Rome. Amidst the dissensions of rival clans and all their feudal quarrelling there might still be heard the voices of those who were ready to purchase the independence of the nation at the cost of the independence of the several cantons, and even at that of the seignorial rights of the knights. The thorough popularity of the opposition to a foreign yoke was shown by the wars of Caesar, with reference to whom the Celtic patriot party occupied a position entirely similar to that of the German patriots towards Napoleon; its extent and organization are attested, among other things, by the telegraphic rapidity with which news was communicated from one point to another.

Religious Union Of The Nation Druids

The universality and the strength of the Celtic national feeling would be inexplicable but for the circumstance that, amidst the greatest political disruption, the Celtic nation had for long been centralized in respect of religion and even of theology. The Celtic priesthood or, to use the native name, the corporation of the Druids, certainly embraced the British islands and all Gaul, and perhaps also other Celtic countries, in a common religious- national bond. It possessed a special head elected by the priests themselves; special schools, in which its very comprehensive tradition was transmitted; special privileges, particularly exemption from taxation and military service, which every clan respected; annual councils, which were held near Chartres at the "centre of the Celtic earth"; and above all, a believing people, who in painful piety and blind obedience to their priests seem to have been nowise inferior to the Irish of modern times. It may readily be conceived that such a priesthood attempted to usurp, as it partially did usurp, the secular government; where the annual monarchy subsisted, it conducted the elections in the event of an interregnum; it successfully laid claim to the right of excluding individuals and whole communities from religious, and consequently also from civil, society; it was careful to draw to itself the most important civil causes, especially processes as to boundaries and inheritance; on the ground, apparently, of its right to exclude from the community, and perhaps also of the national custom that criminals should be by preference taken for the usual human sacrifices, it developed an extensive priestly criminal jurisdiction, which was co-ordinate with that of the kings and vergobrets; it even claimed the right of deciding on war and peace. The Gauls were not far removed from an ecclesiastical state with its pope and councils, its immunities, interdicts, and spiritual courts; only this ecclesiastical state did not, like that of recent times, stand aloof from the nations, but was on the contrary pre-eminently national.

Italian Books
Theodor Mommsen
Classic Literature Library

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