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.
Sometime during the first century B.C., the Greek Stoic philosopher Posidonius traveled north and west to see for himself the mysterious culture of the Celts, which he had read about in Herodotus, Plato and Aristotle. Although none of Posidonius' writings survive, Freeman, a professor of classics (St. Patrick of Ireland), sketchily recreates the philosopher's world out of the fragmentary writings of Polybius, Strabo and Caesar, using the philosopher's journey as a flimsy excuse to draw on his own noted expertise in Celtic history and culture. The speculative observations about Posidonius fill only two to three pages of each chapter; the bulk of the book records information about the ancient Celts that readers can find elsewhere, including in Freeman's earlier books. For example, we learn that Celtic feasts were often boasting contests between two tribes and that the Celts were fierce warriors who engaged in one-on-one combat, headhunters and religious people whose priests, the Druids, viewed the natural world as sacred. Posidonius was neither the first to discover all this nor the first to write about it for Hellenistic culture, and Freeman's bewildering book reveals little new on the subject. 8 pages of b&w illus. not seen by PW, 2 maps. (Jan.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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Simon & Schuster
January 09, 2006
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Excerpt from The Philosopher and the Druids by Philip Freeman
"Celtic"...is a magic bag, into which anything may be put, and out of which almost anything may come.... Anything is possible in the fabulous Celtic twilight.
-- J. R. R. Tolkien
One warm summer day in the year 335 B.C., a young Alexander the Great was sitting outside his tent on the banks of the Danube River. His father, Philip of Macedon, had been murdered just the year before during a wedding, but Alexander had lost no time in seizing his father's throne and firmly establishing his own rule throughout Macedonia and Greece. Philip had long nursed a dream of invading the mighty Persian Empire to the east, a vast kingdom stretching from the borders of Greece to Syria, Egypt, Babylon, and all the way to India. Alexander shared this vision and prepared for the upcoming Persian campaign by securing his northern frontiers against the wild tribes of Thracians and Scythians who rode south to raid and pillage whenever they saw an opportunity.
Alexander had just defeated these fearsome warriors of the north in battle using the legendary daring and determination that would soon gain him the largest empire the world had ever known. But on this day the twenty-one-year-old Macedonian general and former student of the philosopher Aristotle was content to rest from war and enjoy the glow of victory with his companions. Among them was a young man named Ptolemy, a childhood friend of Alexander who now served as a trusted lieutenant. Twelve years later, after Alexander's death, Ptolemy would seize control of Egypt and establish a ruling dynasty that would end with his descendant Cleopatra.
Ptolemy's memoir records that as Alexander sat before his tent, a small group of warriors approached the camp and asked for an audience with the king. They were unusually tall men with drooping mustaches, each wearing a gleaming gold torque -- a sort of thick necklace -- around his neck, and a brightly colored tunic that reached halfway to his knees. They carried long swords in finely decorated scabbards attached to chain belts, while flowing cloaks of checkerboard green were fastened around their shoulders with enormous gold brooches. Strangest indeed to the eyes of a civilized Greek was the utterly barbaric way they dressed below the waist -- they wore, of all things, pants.
The embassy approached the astonished King and presented themselves as Celts who had traveled from the mountains of the west to seal a pact of goodwill with the victorious monarch. Alexander welcomed them warmly, assured them of his peaceful intentions toward their people, and invited them to share a drink of fine Greek wine. The Celts gladly accepted, though they refused an offer to dilute the wine with water as was the Mediterranean custom. Aristotle had taught Alexander never to pass up an opportunity to discover something new about the world, so the young general eagerly inquired about Celtic culture, history, and religion.