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The Just War: Graeco-Roman texts as colonial discourse
by Jane Webster
In their bid for power, the Aztecs, like all imperial nations, made a
convenient marriage of politics and piety.
Roland Wright, Stolen Continents (1992 34)
Thomas wants Cortes to be seen as a great man, so he plugs away at the
theme of Aztec human sacrifice, thereby hoping to attenuate the moral
queasiness we feel at Cortes’ actions.
Frank McLynn, Epic Thuggery (Review of Hugh Thomas The Conquest
o/Mexico, New Statesman & Society, 12 Nov 1993 41)
TIle search for justification in wars of territorial conquest is as old as war itself (MacKenzie
1992: 3). Justificatory processes attempt to deflect both external and internal criticism, and
have been a feature of even the most profitable colonial wars Thus, the desire to deflect
criticism at home was an important sub-text of the pro-colonial I iterature which accompanied
the Spanish conquest of the New World (cf Harris 1992 011 Francisco de Vitoria’ s 1539 lectures
De Indis et De Jure Belli), and of the intense justificatory process at the time of the nineteenthcentury British colonial campaigns (MacKenzie 1992: 4) The literature which accompanied
the territorial expansion of the Roman Empire reflects a similar tension, wherein the rhetoric
glorifying Rome as the ‘capital of the world’ (Balsdon 1979 \), and her people as chosen for
the greatness of Empi re is enacted through tropes which betray an uneasy recognition of the
need to justify expansion into the world of the ‘other’
This paper employs tools offered by colonial discourse analysis to suggest that
deconstruction of tropes of the ‘just-war’ in pre- and early post-Conquest accounts of Gaul can
offer vaJuable insigllts into Graeco-Roman perceptions of the relationship between coloniser
and colonised. At the same time, it is argued that failure to read these Classical accounts as
specifically colonial discourses has led us to offer simplistic readings of pre-Conquest ‘Celtic’
religion. Two topics from the Classical literature will be examined here: aitia (origin myths),
and references to Gallic human sacrifice. Both themes have a moral and religious thrusC aitia
by recourse to Classical myth, human sacrifice by stressing the barbarity of Gallic religion.
Colollial Discourse: decentering the West
One of the Illost important features of recent anthropological and ethnographic self-critique has
been an exploration of the relationship between imperialism, colonialism, and ethnographic
practice, in the generation of modern ethnography Many anthropologists, including Asad
(\973), Clifford and Marcus (1986), Fabian (1983), and Marcus and Cushman (1982) have
examined the constraints which colonial contexts place on ethnographic practice, and the 2 Jane Webster
power asymmetries stmcturing colonial discourse. This debate, it is argued here, has an
immediate relevance for contemporary readings of Graeco-Roman ‘ethnographies’ of the
The development of post-colonial critique within modern ethnography in turn owes much
to the broader post-stmctural interest in the deconstmction of European categories of
knowledge (see Young 1990: 1- 20 and 119-156). Young (1990: 11) emphasises the
importance of the European colonial encounter within this project, as a point of questioning of
the categories and assumptions of Western thought. Analysis of colonial discourse, defined by
Hulme (1992: 2) as ‘an ensemble of linguisticaJly-based practices unified by their common
deployment in the management of colonial relationships’ is similarly contexted here. The
present paper is indebted to critiques of colonial discourse offered by Hulme (1985, 1992),
Fabian (1983), Said 1993), and Spivak (1985).
Herodotus and Columbus
Hulme (1992: 21) has argued that ‘Herodotean’ discourse is one of the discursive networks
informing the earliest documentary record of the European colonial encounter with the
Caribbean – Columbus’ Journal of 1492-3. He goes on to argue that the Atlantic colonial
discourse formulated after 1492 drew specifically upon the ‘Herodotean’ discourse of savagery,
and emphasises that Herodotus was an unacknowledged source for the various topoi of the
discourse of savagery ‘as they journey through Hellenic and Latin texts up to Middle Ages and
early vernacular literature’ (1992: 270). Given that the present paper inverts Hulme’s insight to
suggest that Classical discourse can be read in terms of post-1492 colonial literature, a
potential problem of circularity presents itself here. Two comments may be offered.
First, and fundamentally, modern colonial writing and Classical texts offer insights into
each other, because they encode essentially similar discourses. This point is underscored, from
the 1492 perspective, by Hulme himself:
The advantage of reference to Herodotus (or Pliny) is that it stresses the
discursive nature of these [textual] phenomena, purely ‘other’ to the thus
confirmed humanity of the Graeco-Roman and later Christian world.
(Hulme 1992 270)
This is not to argue that all colonial discourses are simply interchangeable. There is no single
colonial experience. Each colonial encounter generates discursive strategies of its own, and the
shared ‘discourse of savagery’ which Hulme traces between Classical literature and post-1492
Caribbean texts is thus only one aspect of the colonial discourse of either world. But ancient
and modern colonial discourse share a discursive similarity which renders them contextually
analogous. Thus, insights on the western construction of the Orient (Said 1978) which for
Hulme (1992: 33) is a quite separate discursive network to the Herodotean discourse of
savagery, nevertheless offers important analytical tools for the analysis of Rome’s construction
of its others.
Secondly, it is important, in this context, that as the above quote implies, Hulme uses
‘Herodotus’ as a shorthand term embracing other strands of Classical ethnography. Hulme’s
contention that in 1492 ‘the discourse of savagery had in fact changed little since Herodotus’
‘investigation’ of Greece’s ‘barbarian’ neighbours’ (1992: 21) perhaps unintentionally denies
the changes that occurred in Classical ‘barbarian’ discourse during the Graeco-Roman period The Just War: Crraeco-Roman texts as colonial discourse 3
itself Herodotus may be credited with the invention of an ethnographic logos (Tierney 1960,
Hartog 1988), but this was initially employed in accounts of distant and even mythical peoples.
Much of the writing Hulme groups under his ‘Herodotus’ shorthand concerns peoples far
nearer to home, and was written in the specifically colonial milieu of Roman Imperial
expansion. The textual similarities Hulme rightly finds between ancient and modern
‘barbarian’ discourse are contexted in colonial rule: and the line which Hulme traces between
Classical ethnography and post-1492 colonial discourse underscores the argument of this paper:
that we should resituate Classical ethnography as colonial discourse.
Myth and Territorial Sanction: Aitia
As Asad argues (1986: 164), there are assymetrical tendencies in the languages of dominant
and dominated societies. Inequality is embedded in the ethnographies of a conqueror. Among
the most tangible expressions of this inequality is the denial of indigenous traditions of origin
through the imposition of external mythical schema.
A itia, tales drawing foreign peoples into the compass of Graeco-Roman mythical
geography, are a common feature of Classical writing on the barbaroi Most Classical versions
of Gallic origins are of this type. Indeed, the sole writer to mention the Gauls’ own belief in
their origins (as autocthonous descendants of j)is Pater) is Julius Caesar (6.18, I), and even
here the deity in question is appropriated for Rome by the use of interpretatio (Webster, in
Although the genre yields some of the earliest Greek references to western Europe, the
aitia of Gaul have received little attention (for a brief treatment see Rankin 1987 81–2) The
most common Classical protagonist in these tales is HeracleslHercules. An archetypal hero,
Heracles performed miraculous feats at the farthest ends of the eal1h. The tenth Labour of
Heracles – the capture of the cattle of Geryon – sent the hero to the far west of Spain, as
Geryon was said to live in the Islands of Erythea ‘on the shore of the Ocean near Gadeira,
outside the pillars of Hercules’ (Herodotus, Histories 4, 8). There is no doubt that this Greek
tractition of Heracles as a wanderer in the far west is extremely early, even pre-dating Greek
colonisation in the western Mediterranean. As early as the eighth century, Hesiod (fheogony
289-294) wrote of Heracles returning overland to Greece from Erythea. Aeschylus (525-456
BC) mentioned Heracles’ arrival among the Ligurians in the same context (Prometheus
Unbound Frg. 326, repeated in Strabo (/eography 4.1, 7) and the fourth-century writer Ephorus
was said by Strabo (Geography 31 , 4) to have referred – erroneously – to a temple of
Heracles at the Sacred Cape (Cape St. Vincent).
These early aitia represent the imposition of an external mythical a Heliocentric
form of cultural imperialism (Hartog 1988: 246). However, it may be argued that under the
Roman hegemony, mythopoeia becomes a more complex form of colonial discourse, with the
heroic paradigm serving to sanction territorial claims through the creation of a colonial family.
In the early references mentioned above, Heracles simply passed through Gaul but around
150 BC a territorial claim to Gaul was staked for the hero. Nicander of Colophon (writing c .
150 BC, cited in Antonio Liberalis 46) stated that the Celts, defeated in their plot to steal the
Geryon Cattle from Heracies, thus forfeit their lands to him. In the period between the
annexation of the Southern Provincia (c 125 BC) and the death of Augustus (AD 14) Gallic
aitia occur more frequently than at any time before or after, and all make territorial claims to
Gaul. References from this period are: Diodonrs (Bibliotheke 5.24, Parthenius
(Narrationes Amatoriae Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Antiquitates Romanae lAO, 3, 14.1, 4 Jane Webster
Livy (.4b Urbe Condita 5.34 passim). A much later tale by Ammianus Marcellinus (159, 4),
is probably drawn from a lost work by Timagenes (b.c 80 BC). These references, bracketing the
annexation of both Gallic provinces, are characterised by two the hero as civiliser and
the hero as forefather
Civilisation and Heroics
The claim to disseminate a higher civilisation is a common tapas of the just war, and is
frequently accompanied by the denigration of indigenous cultural achievement. Garlake’s
(1982) documentation of white settler responses to the ruins of Great Zimbabwe is instructive in
this context. Following the occupation of Mashonaland and Matabeleland by the British South
Africa Company in 1890, white settlers – prompted by RJlOdes – actively promoted the myth
that the white race was returning to a land it had formerly mled. The mins of Great Zimbabwe
were held up as evidence not of the complexity of Shona culture, but as the remnant of an
earlier phase of white civilisation. The contention that lost whites had shaped the prehistory of
Zimbabwe employed claims to a mythically early phase of white mle to sanction a later
territorial sequestration. Rhodes recognised the considerable propaganda value that evidence of
ancient foreign settlement, preferably white and successful and with Biblical origins, would
have (Garlake 1982: I). Christian mythopoeia, as Garlake’s comment implies, was a critical
factor in a justificatory process aimed not only at external opinion, but at the white settler
Heracles, as Hartog remarks (1988: 26) was first and foremost a civilising hero. He was
commonly depicted as bringing the benefits of civilisation to the lands through which he
travelled. In the course of time, Heracles’ lessons were forgotten, and the people returned to
barbarity One of Diodoms’ accounts of Heracles in Gaul (Bibliotheke 4, 19) employs this trope
Heracles … took his army and passing into Celtica and transversing the length
and breadth of it he put an end to the lawlessness and the murdering of
strangers to which the people had become addicted … and he founded a great
city which is named Alesia (Ale) after the wandering on his campaign. But he
also mingled among the citizens of the city lllany natives, and since they
surpassed the others in multitude, it came to pass that the inhabitants as a
whole were barbarised. The Celts up to the present time hold the city in
. honour, looking upon it as the heal1h and mother city of all Celtica.
(Bibliotheke 4, 19)
Diodorus’ encyclopedic Bibliotheke, begun c 56 BC and not circulated until the reign of
Augustus, was lIlany years in the making. But as these dates suggest, the work was compiled
during the early years of Roman occupation of northern Gaul. Diodoms uses the trope of
Heracles as civiliser to suggest a much older claim to Gaul. It is not insignificant that the
specific site named in this passage as an Heraclean foundation is }\jesia, publicised by
Diodorus’ contemporary, Caesar (Ciallic War 7.33- 56), as the scene of the collapse of unified
Gallic resistance. Caesar’s text, and his Gallic war triumph, during which the Arvernian
Vercingetorix was publicly strangled (Rankin 1987 129), had etched AJesia into both the
national consciollsness and the vocabulary of Roman imperialism. The Just War: (iraeco-Roman texIs as colonial discourse 5
Roman Imperialism: Greek perspectives
Diodorus was a Greek, born in Agyriulll, Sicily, and Heracles is foremost a figure of Greek
myth It is an over-simplification (though one often made) to assume the existence of a single,
Graeco-Roman viewpoint on the barbaroi. Whilst there is little to suggest that any Greek
ethnographer produced overtly anti-Imperialist literature (Balsdon 1979: 182ff), it is important
to remember both that Greek portrayal of peoples who, like themselves, were subject to Rome,
would not necessarily mirror Roman concepts, and that Roman territorial expansion was not
viewed in entirely the same way by Romans and Greeks (Momigliano 1975) For the majority
of Greek writers by the late Republic, ideological identification with the success of Rome
negated any anti-Roman feeling. Momigliano (1975) stressed that the large-scale infiltration of
Hellenistic thOUgllt and custom into the Roman world in the third and second centuries Be
provided a common basis of understanding for Greek and Roman intellectuals, whilst at the
same time the interests of the Greek elite were intimately tied to the survival of the Empire.
Nevertheless, social stigma remained for many Greek intellectuals, for whom, as Wiseman
remarks (1982, 34) ‘the question of social definition is comparatively straightforward since
dependent status was inherent in their very Greekness’. This dependency was unlikely to
promote public expression of anti-Roman sentiment, but such sentiments remained. Timagenes,
an Alexandrian brought to Rome as a slave in 55 BC, was asked why he cried on seeing a
burning house in Rome. His answer was: that a bigger one would be built in its place.
Heracles was of course adopted into the Roman pantheon, and there is no doubt that
Heraclean ailia, in both Greek and Roman usage, sanction Roman territorial claims. But
throUgll the subtle reminder that Heracles, not Hercules, was there first, the Gallic ailia may
also have served a peculiarly Greek agenda, enabling Greek writers to countenance a
colonialism which, from their perspective, was not to be welcomed unequivocally.
In claiming A1esia for Heracles, Diodoms sanctions Roman rule in Gaul in much the same
way Rhodes was to do for Zimbabwe. Each colonial encounter develops its own discourses,
however, and while for white SOUtll Africans, the issue of race precluded the development of
claims of biological ancestry, this was not the case in Roman Gaul, where the notion of a
mythical but direct ancestry was commonly promoted.
Heracles: a mati of many ways
Following annexation of the f’rovincia, and particularly after the Conquest of northern Gaul,
Heracles was promoted to founding father of the Gallic race. The antiquity of the earliest
Heraclean aitia have already been mentioned, and traditions of Heracles as an ancestral father
of non-Greeks are similarly old. Herodotus (4, 8-10) gave a Black Sea Greek version of the
origins of the Scythians in such terms, and as Hartog remarks (1988 27) the Heliocentric
placing of a Greek hero as the father of non-Greek peoples is a constant feature of Greek
anthropology. But under the Roman hegemony, the Heliocentric lopas of the ‘founding
marriage’, which as Hartog argues had in early Greek usage served to distance the Scythians
both spatially and culturally from the Greeks (1988: 23), became an allegory in which the
power asymmetries of the Roman colonial encounter are embedded.
Analysing the tropes by which coloniser-colonised relationships were defined in the
Americas, Hulme (1985: 20) points Ollt that tropes of mobility and sexuality were often united
in the heroisation of leading (male) protagonists of early colonial encounters. Hulme refers to
these heroes as ‘ polytropic’. Mobility is of course a defining characteristic of the heroes of 6 Jane Webster
Classical myth – the term polytropic derives from an epithet used by Homer for Odysseus, and
means ‘the man of many ways’ (Hulme 1985: 20)
In ailia written after the Gallic War, Heracles assumed a polytropic role. His travels
became sexual encounters, partnering the hero with a variety of Gallic spouses. Through the
resultant eponymous offspring, Heracles is presented as the forefather of the Gallic race.
Parthenius offers an example:
Hercules, it is told, after he had taken the kine of Geryones from Erythea, was
wandering through the country of the Celts and came to the house of
Bretannus, who had a daughter called Celtine. Celtine fell in love with
Hercules and hid away the kine, refusing to give them back to him unless he
would first content her. .. . a son called Celtus was born to them, from whom
the Celtic race derived their name.
(Narrationes Amatoriae 30)
In a similar tale from Diodorus (Bibliotheke 5.24, 1), the son of Heracles is called Galates.
These aitia are allegories. They enable colonialist discourse to allegorize a personal
relationship between the coloniser and the colonised. At the same time, as Hulme (1985, 1992)
has argued for the naming of new lands by colonists of the Americas, the sexual opposition of
male:coloniser, female:colonised embedded in the allegory affirms the power asymmetries
structuring the colonial relationship itself (cf. the engraving of Vespucci’ s encounter with the
female’ America’ by Jan van der Straet (c 1600): Hulme 1992 Fig I). Through allegories such
as these, the colonial ‘family’ was constructed and the dominant position of the coloniser
Heroism and Empire
MacKenzie (1992 115) draws a comparison between the heroes of nineteenth-century
imperialism and those of earlier myth. Entering geographic and ethnic space, both types of hero
prepared the way for moral conquest, and so justified the rise of the imperial state. As
MacKenzie notes, the ‘imperial heroes’ of the nineteenth-century (Havelock, Livingstone,
Gordon, and TE Lawrence) were located not in myth, but in the present. But the mythical
Heracles may have served a similar role in Graeco-Roman colonial discourse. As suggested
above, it may be a particularly Greek subtlety that emphasises Heracles as the hero of Gallic
aitia: but at same time, heroisation itself was cmcially important in imperial contexts.
Operating through the collective consciousness the hero ‘gave specific corporeal shape to the
combination of god-like virtues, dilemmas of power, and the major spiritual and personal
anxieties that represent the human condition’ (MacKenzie 1992: 135). In this sense, Heracles
and Havelock may be seen as analogous.
The barbarity of human sacrifice
In the just war, the trope of Rome as civiliser is employed in a second context the
demonstration of the unsuitability of the conquered to mle themselves. The unfitness of the
Gauls for self-determination is a subtext of many accounts of Gaul, and most play the shared
tune of human sacrifice. The earliest reference to human sacrifice is Sopater’s comment
(C ‘omedy Frag. 6, cited by Athenaeus) that the Cia/alae sacrifice prisoners of war to the gods. The Just War: Graeco-Roman texIs as colonial discourse 7
Sopater (d. c230 BC) was conceivably referring to Gaul, but more probably to the Galatians of
Asia Minor. The majority of Classical sources date to the Later Iron Age (for Gaul, La Tene III
– Gallo-Roman pn!coce 120 BC – AD 14). Accounts are given by Posidonius (in Strabo
Geography 4.4, 6), Caesar (Gallic War 6.16, 1-5), Cicero (Pro Fonteio 13.31, De Res Publica
3.9,15), Varro (in St. Augustine City of God 7.19), Diodorus (Bibliotheke 5.31, 4, 5.32), and
Strabo (Geography 4.4, 5).
Most accounts do not specify the victim, but two prevalent categories may be noted:
captives (specifically those taken in battle), and criminals. Caesar does mention the sacrifice of
‘innocents’ – a term at once emotive and opaque .. – but captives and criminals are the main
categories. It is difficult to know how to read these references. First, the stress on the sacrifice
of prisoners could reflect combative experience. But at the same time, the sacrifice of prisoners
of war was an emotive issue, as it broke Graeco-Roman codes of conduct in war, and to stress
the theme thus offered a double emphasis on Gallic barbarity. It is also clear that some writers
made personal capital by labouring this point. A good example here is Cicero’s Pro Fonteio
(13.30). Fonteius, a governor of the Provincia, had been accused of embezzlement by the
Allobroges. As Fonteius’ advocate, Cicero’s defence proceeded from the position that, as
practitioners of human sacrifice, the Allobroges lack pielas, and could not be considered
trustworthy under oath. Fonteius was acquitted.
Yet at the same time, a sense of moral outrage pervades the literature. Was this, too,
cynically professed? There is much to suggest that condemnation of Gallic sacrifice was a
complex colonial discourse. Contra Wait (1985: 194), who suggests Gallic human sacrifice had
a real oddity value for Classical commentators, human sacrifice was not as far removed from
Graeco-Roman culture as writers tended to imply in their condemnation of the rites among the
barbaroi (Rankin 1987 286-7). It was not until 97 BC that human sacrifice was forbidden in
Rome, and the elder Pliny remembered the interment alive of a Greek and Gallic couple in
Rome (Balsdon 1979) As late as AD 213, CaracaUa, having slept with a Vestal Virgin, was
responsible for her burial alive at the CoUine Gate (Balsdon 1979). That such rites could
apparently be overlooked in condemning barbarian sacrifice is for many writers explicable only
as Roman hypocrisy, or remains an inexplicable paradox (Brunaux 1988 129).
It may be argued that frequent reference to the rite in the Later Iron Age is partly to be
explained by the very fact that Rome had so recently abolished similar practices. Reference to
human sacrifice among the barbaroi offered the potential for self-congratulation and reassured
the Romans as to their own, newly-acquired higher measure of civilisation. This process of
reassurance involved a further collusion, in that Romans were brought up to believe that human
sacrifice had been shunned deliberately or else abolished at an early period (Balsdon 1979).
In such ways, later Republican and early Imperial writers were able to draw clear, but
uneasy, conceptual distinctions between some of their own practices, and those of the Gauls.
For Brunaux (1988: 129) it is paradoxical that texts condemn the sacrifice of criminals in Gaul,
when the execution of criminals was legal in Greece, and when the Romans themselves
employed execution in the course of a warrior rite (the public strangulation of high-rankjng
enemies, as noted for Vercingetorix, above) This duality is not a simple matter of hypocrisy it
illustrates the collusive power of colonial discourse. By the mid first century AD, human
sacrifice had been harnessed to the trope of Rome as civiliser, and writers contended that Rome
had put paid to this aspect of Gallic barbarity. Writing c43 AD, Pomponius Mela (De
Chorographia 3.2. 18) asserted that human sacrifice had been replaced by a symbolic act, and
Pliny (Natural HistOlY 30.4) also referred to the cessation of human sacrifice. 8 Jane Wehsfer
The archaeology of human sacrifice
Human sacrifice is the most frequently documented Gallic rite in Classical literature. But as the
above discussion suggests, it is extremely likely that this is an exaggeration effected by
colonialist discourse. Human sacrifice has nevertheless entered the modern construct of ‘Celtic’
religion. It has done so on basis of the above mentioned literary sources, because, as Brunaux
concluded (1988: 136), our knowledge of Iron Age human sacrifice rests almost wholly on text
Archaeological evidence for human sacrifice is almost always equivocal. To demonstrate the
votive character of human bone deposits is not to preclude the possibility of fortuitous death,
and as Brunaux (1988: 133) points out, even where human remains occur in unequivocal cult
contexts, as at Gournay-sur-Aronde Brunaux et al. 1985) and other Picardy sites
including Ribemont-sur-Ancre (Cadoux 1991), the demonstration of violent death and postmortem mutilation of human remains is not itself evidence for human sacrifice (see also
Brunaux 1986: 323-4). The texts themselves offer little help in this context, since nothing is
said of the post-mortem deposition of sacrificial remains, on which archaeological approaches
to human sacrifice must necessarily concentrate.
Human sacrifice is on occasion argued from archaeological evidence de Navarro (1972:
17-18), for example, argued for human sacrifice at La Tene, and Wait (1985: II7 and 119)
suggested that complete inhumations under ramparts in Southern Britain represent foundation
sacrifices. A more recent contender has been the Lindow bog body (Ross 1986: 162-4) whose
multiple injuries – axe blows, strangulation by garrotte, and a cut throat – are unlikely to
have been the result of a simple act of violence (Stead et al. 1986). But it is through the
literature that human sacrifice retains its high profile in accounts of Celtic religion, and in this
respect, modern narratives often out do the Graeco-Rom3n ones. Green (1986: 28), for
example, took Caesar to suggest that it was through human sacrifice alone that the Gauls
controlled the power of the gods, although Caesar nowhere made such an assertion in his
account of Gaul. The discourse of savagery remains a persuasive one.
Pax Romana: tropes of peace
A just war must be followed by a just peace, and under the early Empire, the Just war tropes of
sacrifice and civilisation are harnessed to the discourse of pacification. This is a discourse
which serves to subvert and to mask resistance, but which at the same time encodes the power
asymmetries structuring the relationships between the coloniser and the colonised. This paper
has suggested that for Caesar’s (;alli(‘ War, as for Columbus’ Journal, the deconstruction of
colonial discourse is an important analytical tool in the articulation of such relationships. The Just War: (;raeco-Roman texts as colonial discour … ;e 9
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