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8-10-2015, 13:57


It would be wrong to think in terms of a sphere of political activity in Celtic society clearly separate from economic or social concerns, but in a social structure characterized to such an extent by a concern for status, social relationships were focused on attempts to maintain or enhance it. Where supreme power was in the hands of a king, succession to this office was confined to the royal lineage, but without a rule of primogeniture. Within the royal line succession was open to any suitable adult male; often a brother or nephew succeeded, but where there was more than one suitable contender, a struggle could ensue.

Caesar records a different political structure which had emerged in Switzerland and central France by the middle of the first century BC. Though the institution of kingship still survived in other regions of France, here it had been eclipsed by the adoption of a system based on a council and magistrates elected according to known laws, not unlike the consuls and senate of Rome (Nash 1978b). Political conflict revolved around factions which were trying to maintain the new structures and those which sought to restore the kingship; among the Aedui, for instance, the noble brothers Dumnorix and Diviciacus were the rival leaders, respectively for and against restoration of the kingship.

Political relationships between groups were likewise characterized by competition for power. Depending on the particular circumstances, this could be achieved either by hostile or by amicable means. Armed warfare could be aimed at the defeat and subjugation of other polities; by accepting an inferior status, they would augment the authority and power of the victor. Such an arrangement could also be symbolized by payment of tribute, and the offering of hostages by the defeated. Alternatively, raiding could be intended for the acquisition of booty; early Irish history records many such raids, sometimes to avenge a wrong, but often just for loot. Cattle were often the target, since they were a prime source of wealth, and could easily be driven off to the victor’s home (Lucas 1989; 125-99); in the Christian period, monasteries were also a target, as a source of valuable treasure.

In other circumstances, treaties and alliances could provide an alternative source of political support. Their mere existence could be a source of power, but their ultimate value lay in the possibility of mobilizing allies for political or military activity. Such alliances were often sealed by a dynastic marriage; Caesar describes how Dumnorix of the Aedui had arranged a web of such alliances; ‘he had given his mother in marriage to the noblest and most powerful man among the Bituriges, he had himself taken a wife from the Helvetii, and had married his half-sister and female relations to men of other states’ {De Bello Gallico I. i8).