The ancient Gauls (and what the French think of them)

Ancient ancestors of many native French people today, the Gauls (often misspelled “guals”) are at once mysterious and familiar (thanks in part to the beloved Astérix comics), historical and controversial.

Let’s learn more about this important civilization and how it’s influenced modern-day France and French.

Who were the Gauls?

The Gauls, or les Gaulois in French, were a people who populated most of what is modern-day France (not to mention a significant portion of central Europe) from around the 5th century BC to the 5th century AD. For a period in the third century BC, the Gauls even had an empire that extended from present-day Portugal to nearly the entire Mediterranean coastline.

The Gauls are considered Celts, with the same or similar deities, social practices, dress, and other cultural factors as the Celts in Britain. Like those Celts, the Gauls spoke dialects of a Celtic language. The most common dialect among them is the Gaulish language, which went extinct by 1000 AD.

Farmers, warriors, and artisans, the Gauls were powerful and had control of many trade routes. They were known for being pale, with light-colored hair. The men often had mustaches. If their hair wasn’t naturally light-colored, they bleached it with lime, a common Celtic practice that one of my old college professors used to compare to punks like Billy Idol bleaching their hair in the ‘80’s.

As their distinct style may suggest, the Gauls were also known for their boldness, bravery, and strength. The modern French word gaillard (a strong, strapping person) is a remnant of this reputation of strength and bravery.  

The Gauls don’t seem to have created portraits of themselves, but we have a number of ancient Greek and Roman statues that depict them, including the famous “Dying Gaul” . One of the most interesting details in this sculpture is the Gaulish man’s mustache, a typical facial hair choice among the Gauls at that time. The Gaulish man is also wearing a torque, a typical Celtic necklace.

Many Gauls lived in an oppidum — a large walled town or city. Oppida often had paved roads and were protected by a stone wall.  In terms of social structure, Druids ruled the communities. Women often had the same or similar rights as men. The Gauls were considered talented metalworkers. They made weapons and armor as well as jewelry and sculptures. Musical instruments have also been found at excavation sites, including the carnyx, a metal horn that rose high in air, with an opening in the shape of an animal’s head. You can hear what one sounded like in this video.  

In addition to their skill at metalwork, the Gauls were also the inventors of the barrel. (Other ancient cultures used vessels like amphorae to transport liquids.)

The Gauls generally identified themselves as clans or regional groups, not as one large people or nation. Clans sometimes even warred with each other. Still, there were times when they came together to fight common enemies. Gaulish hero Vercingetorix (whose statue – a 19th century homage – is our featured image) is famous for uniting many of the clans against the Romans during the Gallic Wars (58-50 BC), for instance. Unfortunately, despite the Gauls’ bravery, they ended up losing to the Romans. Vercingetorix was sent to Rome as a prisoner (and prize), and Gaul became a Roman territory.

Do we have any artifacts from the Gauls?

Close up of the opening of a carnyx, a metal horn. This one's animal head looks like a horse.
Modern reproduction of a carnyx

You can find some metalwork, including weapons and armor, musical instruments, and sculptures created by Gaulish people in a number of museums, especially in France. The “Gauls” Wikipedia page is a good place to start for a glimpse at several different Gallic artifacts.  An online search for “Gaulish artifacts” will reveal more – not to mention additional, more specific articles.

You can also visit the website of France’s musée d’Archéologie nationale to see and learn about some of the Gaulish artifacts in the permanent collection.  

Several archaeological sites related to the Gauls have also been excavated, including the oppidum of Bibracte, which has been set up for tourists and groups to visit.

Why don’t we know much about the Gauls?

Despite their reach and longevity, the Gauls aren’t as familiar as other ancient civilizations like the Greeks, Egyptians, or Romans. This in large part because, like other Celtic cultures, they didn’t have a written language and didn’t build long-lasting monuments.

Where does the word “Gaul” come from?

The word “Gaul”, (la Gaule in French), as well as the word Gaulois(e), a Gallic/Gaulish person, or something Gallic, have origins as surprising as the culture they’re related to.

La Gaule and gaulois have roots going all the way back to the Proto-Germanic word *walhaz, which meant “a foreigner or outlander”.

Interestingly, while Julius Caesar referred to Gaul as “Gallia” in Latin, this is not a word the Gauls used for themselves and it doesn’t have the same origin as Gaul, either.

On the relatively rare occasions that the clans referred to themselves as a larger culture, they used a word like “Celt”.

Today, we use all of these terms, as well as the adjective “gallic” to refer to what we commonly think of as the Gauls.

Was there a Roman genocide of the Gauls?

A modern historical reenactor's torso in what looks like bloody cloth. His hands and neck are in chains and behind him is a man in a Roman soldier uniform.

In 58-50 BC, Julius Caesar waged what’s known as the Gallic Wars, in an ultimately successful attempt to take over Gaul. For the people who experienced it, it was a brutal and at times particularly cruel conflict.

Some people today have interpreted Caesar’s acts during the Gallic Wars as genocide against the Gauls.This is not only incorrect, but it erases an important part of the origins of modern-day French culture, not to mention an understanding of ancient and early medieval European history.  So, let’s set things straight.

First of all, it’s important to understand the exact definition of “genocide”. This word isn’t just about mass killings, but about killings that are intended to wipe out an entire group of people, motivated not by things like strategy or revenge, but by ideas like hatred and prejudice.

The Romans did not as a rule practice genocide. In fact, while the Romans did impose their way of life and their beliefs on populations that they took over, they were extremely inclusive. Their ultimate goal was to build an empire where everyone worked together to contribute to the greater glory of Rome.  They had no time or interest in wasting military effort with opinion-based issues. Some people might point to the persecution of the Christians, but even here, the idea was strategic: Christians may not be loyal to the Roman Republic and may create uprisings and disorder.

In Commentarii de Bello Gallico (The Gallic Wars) his famous account of the conquest of Gaul, Julius Caesar boasts that of the 3 million Gauls, he and his armies slaughtered 1 million and made slaves of an additional million, thus wiping out a third of the population.

But let’s unpack that, too.

There is some question about how Cesar was able to know the exact population of Gaul, since there was no written language, and Gaulish clans weren’t exactly known for working together or even identifying with each other in such a way as to foster a project like a census. There were census records in Greek for some clans or regions, but was the Gaulish population accurately counted anywhere?

The death and slavery numbers that Cesar gives should be taken with a grain of salt for another reason: Commentarii de Bello Gallico was Cesar’s way to glorify himself and make inciting this controversial war seem worth it to the Romans.

As for the slavery part, in our time, especially for cultures like Americans, slavery is often tied to a sense of hatred, the idea being that enslaved people are considered lesser or subhuman by those who are enslaving them. For the Romans, however, it didn’t matter what race, ethnicity, religion, etc., a person belonged to; slaves were seen as spoils of war, since they could be sold to others. It’s also important to note that slaves in the Roman Empire weren’t necessarily condemned to be slaves for life; they could buy their freedom or be freed by their “masters” and become regular members of society. Some even became successful merchants.

Slavery is still cruel and inexcusable, but it’s important to remember that under the Roman Empire, hatred or disrespect for a particular group didn’t come into it – and this is also true for slavery in many other ancient cultures, for that matter.

There are some cases in Commentarii de Bello Gallico where Caesar boasts of killing an entire Gaulish clan or at least says that this was his intention. However, scholars point out that this was always either an act of vengeance for the clan’s betrayal of Rome, or because the clan was seen as a threat. Here, again, the idea of wiping out a people because of hatred or racism doesn’t factor in, as it would in a case of genocide.

In fact, some other Gaulish cultures had already become allies of Rome, or even citizens of the Roman Empire. Some Roman troops fighting for Rome in the Gallic Wars were Gauls, themselves. There was no racism or segregation — they were treated just as other Roman soldiers were.

Commentarii de Bello Gallico is a valuable historical resource. Ironically, since the Gauls didn’t have a written language, it’s become one of our most important sources of information about them. But scholars agree that the memoir is also propaganda. Caesar wanted to take over Gaul for financial reasons and for his own personal glory, and he had to make the Romans, who he wanted to win over, think of him as doing it all for Rome and being a brave and unconquerable hero.  

There were still heavy casualties and the Gallic Wars changed Gaul forever. But this wasn’t motivated by a sense of needing to exterminate the Gauls. In fact, once the Wars were over, cooperation was the goal. There were some uprisings, and it’s not to say that all Roman soldiers and rulers were kind to the local population, but the intention, as with all peoples conquered by Rome, was for everyone to live and work together peacefully.

For the most part, Romans tried to integrate local populations into their culture, finding similarities with local religions and sharing their knowledge and technology, while appreciating and sometimes integrating local products and skills, as well.

You can read more about Roman thought, Roman wars with other groups that had similar incidents and outcomes to battles and events in the Gallic Wars, and more, in this fascinating article on the Roman Times blog . You can also read this interesting reddit thread with comments from a number of different history experts and fans for further insight.  

In the end, the Gauls that did survive the Roman conquest became integrated into Roman culture. This is why in some very old French cities you’ll often find the remnants of structures like amphitheaters and Roman baths.  It’s also why French is a Romance language – that is, a dialect (of sorts) of Latin, the language of the Romans.

There’s an entire name for this cultural melting pot and the culture it produced: Gallo-Roman (Gallic + Roman). The Gallo-Roman period lasted from around the 1st century BC to the 5th century AD in most of modern-day France and influenced architecture, language,religion, infrastructure (to give just one example, the famous Pont du Gard aqueduct was constructed during this time), entertainment, literature, and more.

Without Gallo-Roman culture, modern-day France and French culture as we know them wouldn’t exist.

What is the legacy of the Gauls?

A view of the stone steps of the city of Lyon's Gallo-Roman theater, built in the early centuries A.D.
Seating in le Théâtre antique de Lyon, a Gallo-Roman theater built mostly in the early centuries AD.

In addition to some Gaulish artifacts and even some significant ruins, like those of the oppidum at Bibracte, there are some other traces of Gaulish culture and language in modern-day France. These include:

● Barrels. The same barrels you see storing wine in French vineyards today are descendants of a Gaulish invention.

● Vocabulary. More than a hundred modern French words have Gaulish roots. That’s not many, but it’s still significant! These words include: petit, cheval, crème, and the verb aller

● French word gender. As this fascinating comment thread explains, linguists have recently found evidence that during the Gallo-Roman period, the genders of some Latin words were likely changed to  match the genders of Gaulish words , leading to the genders used for each of these words in modern French today.   

● French place names. Many French cities have names related to what they were called by the Gauls who lived there. Others are named for particular clans. For instance, Lugdunum, the city of Lug, god of light, eventually evolved into the name Lyon. Paris is named for the Parisii, the Gallic clan that inhabited the city and its surrounding area.

Here’s a list of some other French place names with Gaulish origins.  

● French geography. Many regions of France also have names that go back to the Gauls. This is because Gallic clans made up regional and administrative groups whose organization would more or less remain the same up to the French Revolution.

● Astérix. Okay, unlike every other item on this list, the Astérix comics aren’t directly inherited from the Gauls. They were created by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo in 1959…ACE. But these comics, which follow the funny adventures of a group of Gauls in an imaginary village that’s resisting the Romans’ attempts at takeover, show how much the French still identify with and relate to the Gauls. Astérix and his friends are meant to symbolize the French, resisting globalization.  

Do the French identify as Gauls?

“Gallic”, an adjective form of “Gaul”, is sometimes used to describe French people and their culture. And of course, there’s that whole thing about Astérix and his friends being allegorical representations of the French. So, do most modern-day French people identify as gaulois(e)?

As I wrote in our article on how to say “French” in French, some French people might describe themselves as gaulois(e), but this would generally be seen as either overly patriotic or joking because of that patriotism.

That said, identifying oneself or others as gaulois(e) can be a loaded term because it’s been appropriated by two groups.

How the terms Gaule and gaulois(e) have been appropriated by political groups

From a genetic and cultural point of view, most, if not all, native French people could technically identify as gaulois(e), even though most probably wouldn’t since the term seems old-fashioned or overly patriotic.

But from a more manipulative perspective, that sense of patriotism that the Gauls evoke has been usurped by the Extreme Right in France.

On the opposite end of the political spectrum some Leftists also identify with the Gauls – or have used them as an example of victims of things like genocide and cultural erasure.

Both uses cast a shadow over an ancient people who are fascinating and important in their own right – and who were not allied with either way of thinking.

Luckily, you can talk about the Gauls in a perfectly neutral way when you discuss or learn about history, or if you’re talking about literary or pop culture works like the Astérix comics. Otherwise, if you hear the words Gaule or Gaulois thrown around, the best thing to do is read the room to determine how they’re being used.

Are French and Gaulish culture the same?

Although the Gauls are widely considered the common ancestor of native-born French people, and although words like “Gaul” and “Gallic” are often associated with the French, the Gauls aren’t the only ones who contributed to modern-day French culture. There are also influences like the Romans  and the Franks (a Germanic people from whom we get the words “France” and “French”). And of course, the passing of time also makes a difference in how people see the world and experience everyday life.

Still, there is a fondness for the Gauls that persists in France. After all, many French people will understand if a countryman calls himself gaulois, but they wouldn’t instantly get romain or franc. Maybe the fact that this ancient culture is at once known and unknown, familiar and strange, is part of its allure – not to mention the note of resistance that runs through the most famous episodes of Gaulish history.

Special thanks to French Together reader Emm, whose comments and questions about the appropriation of the Gauls and the issue of genocide during the Gallic Wars inspired this article.

Must reads

  1. What are the best French learning apps in 2024?
  2. The 16 best websites and apps for French conversation practice
  3. Duolingo French review: The good, the bad and the ugly

Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. She recently published her first novel, Hearts at Dawn, a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling that takes place during the 1870 Siege of Paris. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.