Druids and other oligarchs


“Oligarchy,” said our visiting speaker, “is the normal—one might say natural—situation of human society. Our own country is constitutionally a monarchy, politically a parliamentary democracy, but de facto an oligarchy: an oligarchy of of the rich, the famous and the controllers of the mass media.”

This statement was the subject of warm debate with the sixth formers afterwards: some of them felt outraged by it. But mention was made of the successful government of ancient Corinth, a city managed for centuries by the oligarchy of shipowners and traders; this in some people’s minds had similarities with the Venetian empire and the Dutch ascendancy in the 17th century. Someone added that to call ultra-rich businessmen oligarchs is a very honest usage.

The Chambers dictionary defines oligarchy as:
‘government by a small exclusive class; a state so governed; a small body of people who have the supreme power of the state in their hands.’

One question raised in a subsequent discussion was the oligarchy in pre-Roman Gaul and Britain. Julius Caesar says that the ordinary population was kept almost in a state of slavery, taking no initiative and never being consulted; and that their rulers were the Druids and the Equites. The latter were presumably the rich, who kept their power in the manner that the rich normally do; but how did the Druids keep their ascendancy? The answer seems to be that they did it by keeping entire control of religious observances and the administration of justice, and by restricting all knowledge of those things—and indeed knowledge of any kind—to their own close group by never committing it to writing. All this they did so successfully that most of our knowledge of the Druids amounts to those two chapters in Book 6 of de Bello Gallico. In fact the only information we have about Druids is from Roman sources; and beyond that, the array of notions in modern ’Druidism’ is fiction originating from the Romantic movement in the 18th and 19th centuries.

But one question will remain unanswered: did the Druids have their own exclusive language? They must have had their own register,* but did it become a language, like that of the mandarins in ancient China?

Next post: Language and power.

*See earlier post: http://teacherofclassics.com/?p=567