The Romans brought a lot to the world. Incredible construction and logistical techniques, bleeding edge technology, technical democracy and law. They also wrote the textbook on cultural genocide. It’s well established that as a rule the Romans absorbed cultures and traditions, blending them with their own interpretations. However this process significantly, yet subtly changes those cultures. They come out of the Roman period entirely unrecognisable. Rome was the greatest homogenising force the world has ever seen, if they were a colour they would be beige.
This destructive influence is particularly thorough when applied to cultures that didn’t write stuff down. In this case the Celts. Spirituality and religion appear to have played a huge role in the everyday life of the people of the Celtic tribes. Whilst customs, cultural practices and even technologies varied from tribe to tribe, they were all connected through a common mythology. They were united through their religious officials, druids. These men trained for a lifetime to learn all of the stories and practices in the worship of their Gods. They also had a law making and judicial role in settling disputes brought before them. Druids appear to have been universally respected if not liked by the tribes who mostly couldn’t agree on what colour the sky was.
This is where the problem lay, the only knowledge of their mythos were in the heads of the Druids. Their traditions and histories were entirely oral. So when the Romans came along, slaughtered the Druids and worked their beige magic on the native practices the result was the total eradication of the original system of belief.
You may be asking why, given we know the Celts were capable of reading and writing, did they not write any of their religious doctrine down. My best guess is for the same reason that the only people allowed access to the Bible for centuries were priests. It ensured the power remained with the church; you couldn’t have lay people going around interpreting the will of the Gods in a different way to the Church.
What primary sources we do have are from the Romans who, as we have already established, viewed the world through a very specific lens and wrote absolute histories based on their biases. They also saw anyone not Roman as a barbarian and thus didn’t really put too much effort into anthropological or sociological study unless it aided in subjugating and Romanising a people. They readily drew parallels between their Gods and the Gods of the people they wanted to occupy. It was extremely helpful that they were initially pantheistic and so accepted that the universe was absolutely rammed with Gods. It was helpful to them when they encountered a people with a God who had a very similar origin story to one of their Gods. You can see this in places like Bath in England where they joined their Goddess Minerva with the Celtic Goddess Sulis, creating a temple to Sulis-Minerva.
The focus of this post is to look at the Celtic God Camulos (or Camulus … given the Celts never wrote it down its hard to imagine they could possibly care how you spell his name). Camulos was a Celtic God of War … we think. The Romans equated him with Mars and thus reterospectively linked him to the Hellenistic Ares. His features appear on a few coins struck in Gaul during the imperial Roman period and it’s believed the Roman town Camulodunum (Modern day Colchester) translates into Fort of Camulos.
This is where I start to struggle a bit. Very few cultures, including the Greeks and Romans had a “God of War”. Ares was A God of War. Most pantheistic cultures attribute different elements of war to different deities. Ares, with his sons Phobos (Panic) and Deimos (Fear) represent the horror of war, the slaughter and the terror. Whereas Athena represents the nobility of war, leadership, strategy and victory. I have even recently heard a very convincing and well-reasoned argument that Aphrodite was technically a Goddess of War. Aphrodite’s origins being outside of Greece, she first appears in the Hellenistic world in Sparta. The Spartans absolutely didn’t have an issue with Aphrodite being simultaneously a Goddess of War and Sexual Love. However the rest of Greece felt it was a contradiction too far and dropped War from her portfolio. However we still see elements of her origins in later stories. If Homer is to be believed she was the inciting incident in the Trojan War. She is often called upon throughout their mythology to illustrate patriotism and militaristic pride. So my question is, have the Romans drawn a line between Camulos and Mars/Ares because of the simple War titles, they saw the Celts as brutal savages and experience no shortage of slaughter at the hands of the tribes. Or did they dig a little deeper and find a more substantial connection?
Side Note: Honestly I think it makes sense, how many times have love and lust led to conflict in human history? Can you think of a better representation for the nebulous chaos and agony of the melee than a Goddess of Love? Let it not be said that I am not a romantic.
To the best of our knowledge the Celts were highly militaristic peoples; admittedly this is based on Roman accounts of them. Given the Romans were spanked by the Celts on more than one occasion it’s totally possible their military prowess is exaggerated to make Romes defeats seem more understandable and their victories more glorious. However presuming they were a pantheistic, combat driven group of societies it would make sense that they would conform to the multiple god of war framework to represent different facets of war. It’s possible the Celtic Goddess Andraste was the noble counterbalance to Camulos innate savagery.
Camulos was the patron God of a tribe called the Remi on mainland Europe. What descriptions we have (admittedly from Roman sources) was that they saw Camulos as a defender and protector. Additionally he was attributed to Camulodunum, one of the first and largest fortified settlements on Britain. All of this is about defence which absolutely wasn’t Mars style; he was much more about apoplectic rage and blind slaughter. All offence and no defence.
To further complicate things the coins we have found depict Camulos with the horns of a stag or alongside a boar. Both of which may have more to do with hunting than war. But it’s unlikely they would equate a manly man like Camulos with a woman, even the Goddess Diana. For all we know at this point he may be the God of Cuckolds and Bestiality. It’s difficult to develop any real sense of Camulos without either applying my own cultural bias or considering the depictions so openly that I consider the frankly absurd.
There is however some archaeology. At a place called Bar Hill near Cambridge in England an alter was found in the eighteenth century. It is broken and missing its base, this was either due to the ravages of time or its excavation and preservation. It reads Deo Marti Camulo Milities Cohortis Hamoirum (To The God Mars Camulos, The Soliders of the First Cohort of Hamians … ). Unfortunately the rest of the text has been destroyed however based on similar finds around Britain at the time it feels likely to me that it would read something like “willingly and deservedly fulfilled their vow”. There is a knife of some sort drawn next to the inscription. I think it’s fair to make some marshal assumptions when we consider the link with Mars in the same text.
When I started researching Camulos I expected paintings and coins and long Roman descriptions. In reality what we have is about six latin inscriptions, a few coins which may or may not depict him and a short description by Julius Caesar. We have drawn a huge amount of narrative from these few sources. When I start researching something I usually start with a quick google to see what there is out there before trying to locate primary sources. Every online source I could find cited the same details –
- He was widely worshiped and had towns named after him – Every site refers to Camulodunum and no other town.
- He was linked by the Romans to Mars – I can’t dispute that, looking at the descriptions.
I am not even convinced the coins depict Camulos, the word CAMULO is found on any coin from the period struck in Camulodunum. I know I am often dismissive of the Romans in the context of their historical records and in this case they only really give us a name. I have unfortunately found no convincing evidence that the Celts worshipped a God of War called Camulos.
Things I Found
In researching this I stumbled across a couple of free online resources that were amazing and led me down a series of long nights that were entirely unrelated to what I was meant to be researching.
British Museum Virtual Gallery – The British Museum have utilised Google Street View to create a virtual tour of their various exhibit rooms. For this post I spent a lot of time looking around Room 50. This led to me reaching out to the Museum for some information and they were incredibly helpful.
Roman Inscriptions in Britain – This site has catalogued Roman period inscriptions found in Britain and entered them into a searchable database.