The Philosopher and the Druids

A Journey Among the Ancient Celts

Publication date: February 8, 2008

Early in the first century B.C. a Greek philosopher named Posidonius began an ambitious and dangerous journey into the little-known lands of the Celts. A man of great intellectual curiosity and considerable daring, Posidonius traveled from his home on the island of Rhodes to Rome, the capital of the expanding empire that had begun to dominate the Mediterranean. From there Posidonius planned to investigate for himself the mysterious Celts, reputed to be cannibals and savages. His journey would be one of the great adventures of the ancient world.

Posidonius journeyed deep into the heart of the Celtic lands in Gaul. There he discovered that the Celts were not barbarians but a sophisticated people who studied the stars, composed beautiful poetry, and venerated a priestly caste known as the Druids. Celtic warriors painted their bodies, wore pants, and decapitated their foes. Posidonius was amazed at the Celtic women, who enjoyed greater freedoms than the women of Rome, and was astonished to discover that women could even become Druids.

Posidonius returned home and wrote a book about his travels among the Celts, which became one of the most popular books of ancient times. His work influenced Julius Caesar, who would eventually conquer the people of Gaul and bring the Celts into the Roman Empire, ending forever their ancient way of life. Thanks to Posidonius, who could not have known that he was recording a way of life soon to disappear, we have an objective, eyewitness account of the lives and customs of the ancient Celts.


Harper’s Magazine (February 2006) by John Leonard:
Nonviolence was not only not an option, it was probably not even a concept among imperial Romans and tribal Celts with whom we spend a surprisingly amiable time in Philip Freeman’s The Philosopher and the Druids: A Journey Among the Ancient Celts (Simon & Schuster, $25). Freeman, a classics scholar who teaches at Luther College in Iowa and visits at the Harvard Divinity School, has hitched his narrative wagon to those fragments that survive of a History scribbled down on fifty-two papyrus scrolls by a Syrian-born Greek philosopher and Stoic named Posidonius, who embarked by cargo ship in the first century B.C. to Rome, Cadiz, Massalia (Marseilles), and the wild interior of Gaul, where he would spend a couple of years eating meat, drinking wine, and taking ethnographic notes under the watchful gaze of the severed heads of the many enemies of his colorful hosts.

Sometime in the first century B.C., the Greek philosopher Posidonius traveled among the “barbaric” people known today as the Celts. His written account of that adventure is essentially lost, though fragments of it exist as citations by other ancient authors. Freeman set himself to reconstruct the route of Posidonius and to conjure, from other writings and from archaeological sources, what Posidonius would have experienced. In vivid, sometimes breezy language, Freeman describes the landscapes among which the Celtic tribes lived as well as their appearance and daily life. Most fascinating are his reconstructions of Celtic warfare and how a Greek stranger might have witnessed it, and his examination of the druidic religious faith of the Celts. This book, which fills a void in the academic literature, is written so clearly and compellingly that it should be a crossover hit with a general, popular readership as well.

– Patricia Monaghan

Library Journal:
Freeman (Classics, Luther College; St. Patrick of Ireland) aims to piece together the lost account of the first-century B.C.E. journey of the Stoic philosopher Posidonius from Rhodes into the wild Celtic northlands in Gaul (now parts of Spain and France). Along the way, Freeman describes Posidonius’s education and training as well as the range of knowledge available to him about the Celts, skillfully quoting from many different ancient narratives with his own translations. Although the supposition in Rhodes had been that the Celts were a race of savages, Posidonius discovered that they were a complex and articulate society╦ťalbeit one that practiced a ritual involving human sacrifice. The philosopher’s account proved to be a valuable study of a people soon to be conquered by Julius Caesar. In examining ancient Celtic history and culture in tandem with Greek and Roman attitudes, Freeman has turned out an engrossing study that both students and lay readers will enjoy. Highly recommended for public and undergraduate collections.

– Robert Harbison, Western Kentucky Univ. Lib., Bowling Green

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