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The Philosopher and the Druids: A Journey Among the Ancient Celts

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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.

221 pages, Hardcover

First published January 10, 2006

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About the author

Philip Freeman

47 books345 followers
I teach Classics and Celtic studies at Luther College in the beautiful little town of Decorah, Iowa. I did my doctoral work at Harvard and taught at Boston University and Washington University in St. Louis before coming to Luther to help run the Classics department. I love teaching and see my writing as an extension of my work in the classroom. I hope you enjoy the books as much as I enjoyed writing them.

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5 stars
57 (22%)
4 stars
106 (41%)
3 stars
74 (29%)
2 stars
16 (6%)
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2 (<1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 45 reviews
Profile Image for Andy.
735 reviews3 followers
January 5, 2018
This book was interesting, though it would have benefited greatly from a professional editor. There are several grammatical errors which, while not critical to understanding the book, do pull the reader out of the narrative. There are also a few inconsistencies in the text (Luvernius is identified as the father of a deposed King in an epigraph to one chapter while he is identified as the son of the deposed King later in that chapter). Overall these issues to not seriously detract from the information, though I think an attention to detail is more important in this book than some other non-fiction books. I think this mainly because the author does not use footnotes or endnotes and expressly states that he largely conducted his own translations. Therefore, much of his information is based on his knowledge, which is not as transparently provided as would be normal in a non-fiction book of this sort, making errors in details that should have been easily caught by an editor all the more glaring.

Beyond that this book is both more limited and more expansive than I initially thought. My initial thought based on its summary is that it would have some discussion of Ireland and Britain, but very little is covered from these (unsurprising given the reliance on primary sources and the Islands relatively late arrival into written history). So, this book is really about mainland Celts. However, it does not limit itself to Gaul as I would have expected of the focus on mainland Celts. There is a good discussion of the Galatians and the Celtiberians in addition to the discussion of the Gauls.

Overall I would recommend this book for an introduction, though there are more comprehensive and detailed texts available.
Profile Image for Jimmy.
Author 6 books203 followers
March 9, 2021
Posidonius firmly believed in the Greek idea of autopsy--literally seeing something for oneself. In ancient Greece, it was a style of investigation shared by historians such as Polybius, Pytheas, and Posidonius. Some ancient writers openly scoffed at the need to examine evidence firsthand. They were content to sit in a library and sort through the available sources. But in his writings, Posidonius constantly states, "I saw with my own eyes."

In the ancient Celtic world, poets were rock stars. The praise of a bard was the measure and means of respect in a world where honor was everything. Without the songs of a bard, there was no way to achieve everlasting glory.

The famous Irish warrior Finn was also a poet. He once worked for a master bard named Finneces, who had waited seven years by a pool to catch a magic salmon of wisdom. Whoever first ate of the salmon would gain its magic power of wisdom. When Finneces finally caught the salmon, he was so tired he gave it to Finn to cook but not to eat. But the boy burned his thumb when he touched the fish and put his thumb in his mouth. Now Finn had the magical power of the salmon. Whenever he needed wisdom, all he had to do was suck his thumb.

Lucian tells a story of the Gauls depicting Hercules as an old man with a chain attached to his tongue. This upset Lucian until he got the explanation: Wisdom comes with age and the power of words.

The Ancients knew the need for many gods. How can one god watch over everybody and everything? We need a god to get bicycles for kids and another one to feed the poor. Let's get back to that.
Profile Image for Jrobertus.
1,069 reviews29 followers
November 16, 2014
The Greek philosopher Posidonius traveled around the Celtic world in the late first century BC using a scientific method of observation to try to separated fact from fancy about these "barbarians". Sadly all his books are lost, but we have many uotes from secondary sources. The author uses these, as well as prior Greek commentators, like Polyphemus, and later ones like Tacitus, together with the writings of Julius Caesar who subdued the Gauls, to create a picture of the Celtic/Gaulist life. It is very well done. I think a main lesson is that the Celtic reputation for war and bravery is true, as is a certain amount of human sacrifice, that the Celt/Gauls were not just howling savages. They were superb craftsmen in iron and precious metals, had towns and hill forts, engaged in trade over great distances, and some could read and write. Freeman breaks up his narrative into geographic areas, historical periods, and aspects of their culture, politics, oral traditions,war, family, and religion.
Profile Image for Marian Deegan.
Author 1 book19 followers
August 29, 2014
If I had ever known that the Celts populated the continent far beyond Britain into Spain, Germany, Italy and all the way to Egypt, I forgot. But Freeman refreshed my recollection, presenting an impressive understanding of the ancient world with jaunty intelligence in a story of a philosopher’s journey that was a treat to read.

Posidonius was a Greek Stoic possessed of scientific and cultural curiosity. Thanks to a social standing that provided the funds for a daring journey, he made his way in his 30s beyond Greece and into Europe to mingle with the legendary barbaric Celts, measuring tides and calculating the
circumference of the earth along his way. Although his record of his journey has been lost, Freeman is able to cobble together an outline, using quotes scooped up by Posidonius’s contemporaries, general history, and a lively-though disciplined & cautious imagination. The results make for a delightful and thought provoking read.

I couldn’t help but grin at the image of this curious little toga-clad fellow making his way through camps populated by hairy hard-bodied warriors known for their hard drinking, beheaded-enemy décor, (sometimes, they’d drink hard out of the skull of their enemies, combining cultural qualities) and-for the times-forward thinking attitude toward women.

Sort of, anyway.

A Celtic woman could divorce her husband if he lost control of his gut and was unable to perform sexually to her satisfaction. You go, girl. Of course, if body fat protruded over the Celtic Warrior waistband, said chubby was roundly disgraced by his fellows, which was admittedly an fitness incentive with more teeth in it; especially when you keep in mind the Celtic propensity for open homosexuality. But hey, Queen Boudicca is claimed by the Celts, and she whupped Roman settlements right down the coast to Londontown (which she burned to the ground) until the Roman Paulinus stopped her army of 80,000 in a strategically chosen valley. And then there was Camma, who revenged herself on the man who slew her husband in order to claim her for his own by poisoning the wedding chalice, so she could take her enemy down with her in a scheme worthy of Shakespeare.

Okay. So there’s more barbary than victory, but this was the savage BC world, after all. At birth, Celt babies were dipped in frigid rivers to prepare them for the rigors of life; which ought to tell you sumpin. A girl can only do so much.

They would occasionally go into battle naked, claiming that they were so tough they didn’t need armor to defeat their enemies.

The Celts! Favorite god? Mercury. Favorite pastimes: feasting, drinking from the skulls
of their enemies (and occasionally killing each other around the dinner table), and
listening to Bards (the Celtic rockstars). If you like history well told, you’ll enjoy this little volume.
Profile Image for Crystal.
205 reviews8 followers
November 22, 2022
Non-Fiction>History, Celts

This is a great short book about Celtic history. Freeman looks at this through the writings of Posidonius, but starts with the earlier influences that Posidonius may have had and other sources he had probably read. The most interesting part to me is that we think of 'Celts' as being Irish, but really the Celtic people were all over Continental Europe.
The chapter headings pretty much go topic by topic and the book flows mostly in chronological order. There is a penultimate chapter specifically about Druids, but be aware that there isn't a whole lot to be said for certain. This is more a book about Celts from Roman times until the Middle Ages than it is a book about Druids.

"Romans came perilously close to being wiped out forever. If Gauls had succeeded in their attack, as they almost did, the Roman Empire would never have existed and generations of students would have been spared learning Latin grammar."

"Celtiberian language and culture survived Posidonius, but by the early Christian era, the unique Celtic culture of Spain was only a memory."

"In the end, trying to understand Celtic religion will always be an exercise in frustration if we expect answers to all our questions. It's very much as if some future age would try to reconstruct the whole of Christianity based solely on a church newsletter and a few casual remarks from non-Christian writers."

"Although we don't know everything we would like about the Druids, the scant information we do possess is both fascinating and surprising."
Profile Image for Ashley.
31 reviews
December 27, 2022
I had to read this for a history class, but I found it pretty interesting. The title is definitely misleading. Druids barely appear in the book and only really have one chapter. My other issue with the book is that, although there is a lot of evidence scattered about the book, it’s also full of conjecture on what Posidonius and others mentioned “would have” done or known or said. The transitions between Posidonius and the Celts are also pretty jarring as it seems he’s trying to maintain the focus between the two subjects.
Profile Image for Beverly.
266 reviews19 followers
May 20, 2018
Interesting book. It got put aside and forgotten for a while,but that's not unusual in my interest of all things Druid. There is so little known about this ancient religious group of priests. This book reinforced the way I look at them, as well as added to my understanding. I don't know that this book is for everyone. It reads like a history book. I came across this book at a used book store in Portland, Oregon and grabbed it up immediately. I have done research reading on Druids on and off for years for no reason other than my own pleasure. I was a little disappointed because I thought it would have more of a journal feel to it. The ancient Greek philosopher traveled and lived among the Druids for a better understanding of them. I thought it would be a translation of his findings. Instead it was an interpretation of his writings which was found in many different sources. It was well done though and added to my knowledge.
Profile Image for Paul Kruta.
1 review
June 21, 2020
Freeman does an excellent job of telling the story of both the Celtic peoples and Posidonius (the Philosopher of the title) taking extra care to point out what we can be sure is fact, and what is most likely myth.

I highly recommend this to anyone who has an interest in the history of the Celtic people.
Profile Image for Michelle.
67 reviews8 followers
August 2, 2015
This book is fantastic! Freeman's style is easy-going and fun so a book that should be a boring text on classical history is instead an enjoyable educational adventure. I will read anything he writes, based off of my experience with this text.
Profile Image for Victoria Blacke.
120 reviews26 followers
June 30, 2016
A wonderful book. Despite seeing overlapping timelines in our youth grade school lessons, this book really brings home the clashing of two very different civilizations and how extraordinary it was they existed in the same space and time. Fascinating, entertaining read.
19 reviews1 follower
February 6, 2020
I almost gave this book two stars just because of the title. It's super misleading, the book title equivalent of clickbait. It purports to tell the story of Posidonius and his observations of the druids. The druids don't even get their chapter until 2/3 of the way into the book. And it turns out that we only really have scraps of Posidonius' writings, so a bulk of the book is built up with informed speculations about what the philosopher might have observed, based on other archaeological and historical evidence.

I gave a star back, considering the book for what it really is: a general history of the Celts and their relationship with Rome, with Posidonius acting as a frame story. And for that purpose, the book was actually pretty useful. Before reading it, the Celts were sort of a black box in my knowledge of the Classical Age. After reading, I feel like I have a pretty good idea of who they were and what they were about. It also fills in a lot about the Roman Conquest of mainland Europe, plugging some famous Roman and Celtic names into a narrative that helped me put them into context.

If you have similar gaps in your knowledge, and are willing to put up with the frame story and the speculative style it forces on the author, it could be useful to you too. Not sure if you could find a general overview of the Celts that is as concise and entertaining.
Profile Image for Pat MacEwen.
Author 18 books7 followers
December 8, 2018
Well-written and full of interesting details about the ancient Celts sought out by the Greek philosopher Posidonius some forty years before Julius Caesar conquered Gaul. While none of Posidonius' own books have survived, he was much quoted by other writers of his own and later times, including Caesar. The author of this book has reconstructed his travels among and descriptions of the Gauls and other Celtic groups, including their feasting and burial customs, their methods of warfare, the places of women in Celtic societies, religion, the administration of justice and, of course, the Druids and their practices. There were many surprises. I had not realized, for example, that many of Ptolemy's troops in Egypt were Celtic mercenaries, or that the Galatians in the New Testament were descended from Celtic mercenaries who settled in what is now Turkey. I could wish for more about the Druids and their beliefs but as the author notes, they did not write it down and purposely kept the bulk of it secret even from their own people. Recommended.
Profile Image for McCarthy Writes.
6 reviews1 follower
July 19, 2017
The author Philip Freeman takes the reader on a trip through time here, going back to pre-Roman, Pre-Viking eras in history to a time in the Celtic lands in Gaul, when humans worshiped land, the stars, and nature. He does this using the Greek philosopher Posidonius and his ancient research to bring a true sense of time and expanse to history. I appreciated the sense of humor the Freeman has throughout, breaking up any textbook style history into enjoyable and entertaining prose. Posidonius also reveals a sense of humor and his descriptions of "lovely ladies on islands" (Celtic priestesses and warriors alike) are much more fun in modern context than he may have intended.
For history buffs, a fresh approach. For simple summer reading, a fun way to re-educate oneself in the ways of humans before Christianity bore down on civilization.
Profile Image for B.
81 reviews
February 9, 2021
REALLY well researched!

But as a self-proclaimed spiritual Celt and Druidic scholar, I found the modern contextual commentary to be a little needless. I can see how other readers could need the commentary, but Freeman should have some self-awareness that many interested in the field don't necessarily need the cushion.

While the perspective is fantastic based more on the world of Gaul, I would have liked more parallels to the British Isles. But hey, Freeman's "The Philosopher and the Druids" would be a FANTASTIC launching pad for a good, long, and super well-researched podcast. I'm in if anyone else is!
138 reviews1 follower
July 21, 2017
Thoroughly enjoyable, non- pretentious, light hearted approach to an interesting topic. It's not for the serious student but a perfect beach book to enjoy during summer- especially if you get the chance to read it in Gaul with a glass of wine. ( Which I didn't, sadly!)
There are decent notes, photos, nice maps and a time line, all of which make it very accessible.
Profile Image for Michelle.
56 reviews8 followers
December 30, 2018
An excellent read for anyone interested in the ancient Celts. Freeman takes you on a fascinating journey through various aspects of Celtic culture and history, while making clear where sources may be biased. The gaps in our knowledge of the Celts due to long-lost oral tradition is truly saddening, but this book gives modern enthusiasts plenty to sink your teeth into.
Profile Image for Don Conway-Long.
31 reviews1 follower
September 21, 2022
A mostly enjoyable review of what we do know of the Celtic peoples, though limited by Freeman's masculinist christian refusal to entertain the true depth of goddess images among the Celts, or of women's general power as a sex in Celtic society. His facts are clear, but his interpretations are sometimes far off the mark.
August 15, 2017
It was really interesting until I got to the last three to two chapters. At that point, it sounded like a Roman History lecture. I wish it had a better pronunciation guide some of the words and names I wasn't sure how to say; a more detailed timeline is needed as well.
Profile Image for Valeria.
224 reviews8 followers
February 15, 2022
2,5 I’m gonna count this as read because I read almost all of it except the conclusion. It was cool learning about all the different type of celts that I didn’t know existed. BUT this guy assumed a lot
Profile Image for Jacquie.
103 reviews
June 22, 2022
I found this book exasperating. The title is entirely misleading, as the druids enter the scene in the 14th chapter, and then exit stage left. The author does not know which audience to target -- academic or general reader. It misses its mark on both accounts. I struggled, but finished.
Profile Image for Pete daPixie.
1,505 reviews3 followers
May 11, 2011
Quite enjoyable history of the Celts. Couldn't decide between three and four stars and decided on the latter. Philip Freeman has featured the writings of Posidonius, a Greek philosopher, who's intrepid exploration of Celtic Gaul was undertaken sometime around 90b.c. Just a few decades before the subjugation of these lands and tribes by Julius Caesar. Although the original travelogue has not withstood the ravages of time, Freeman has squeezed the last drop from surviving fragments that were quoted by later classical writers, including Caesar. So 'The philosopher and the druids' published 2006 contains many insights into tribal societies, their gods, warrior elite, customs, bards and druids, the author also using modern archaeological discoveries to add weight to the observations of Posidonius.
The book also includes Freeman's recommended further readings, which include:-
The world of the druids by Miranda Green 1997.
The Celtic Gauls:Gods,Rites and Sanctuaries by Jean-Louis Brunaux 1988
Boudicca:The British revolt against Rome ad60 by Graham Webster 1993
The extraordinary voyage of Pytheas the Greek by Barry Cunliffe 2002
The ancient Celts by Barry Cunliffe 1997.
Profile Image for Mary Jones.
15 reviews15 followers
August 7, 2011
A good introduction for the layman, though there's nothing here anyone already versed in the subject doesn't know already. Freeman attempts to reconstruct the journey of Posidonius, the influential Greek philosopher and proto-anthropologist, whose works are unfortunately lost and survive only in quotations of later writers. Posidonus's influence is felt among later writers on the Celts, especially Julius Caesar and Diodorus Siculus, as (aside from Caesar himself), he was one of the few writers to actually journey deep into the territory of the Celts.

Using Posidonius, Freeman introduces the reader to the rudiments of Celtic religion (hence the Druids of the title), warfare (including headhunting), and social structure.

I liked Freeman's Ireland and the Classical World better, but then, that's probably because much of the information was new to me when I read it. So the three stars is mainly because it's a good book, one I'd recommend to any newcomer, but if you're already familiar with the Gauls/Celts, it's not really groudbreaking.
Profile Image for Remy.
57 reviews7 followers
August 12, 2014
What an interesting life Posidonius seems to have probably led. He even sat down to a traditional Celtic barbarian feast, perhaps maybe.

It’s just all too unfortunate that we can’t hear much about it from the man himself. How tantalizing it is that he wrote as extensively as Aristotle, and yet barely scraps remain. Anyway, the author does a pretty good job of assembling what we do know into a rousing yarn. There is quite a bit of speculation; the reader will notice heavy reliance on the phrases “he must have been”, “he would have”, etc. I imagine the book would have been too dry if he hadn't, though.

The Celts are apparently another topic we know very little about. However, instead of forgetting about them entirely like with Posidonius, we've turned them into legends. Much of what is said about them today is supposedly nonsense, so yet another book separating the facts from the supposition is welcome.
Profile Image for Sally.
1,477 reviews50 followers
December 2, 2014
Posidonius (135-51 BC) was a Greek-speaking Stoic philosopher born in what is now Syria. He was also a scientist who made a very close estimate of the circumference of the earth as well as findings about the relation of the tides to the moon, among other things. He traveled among the Celts or Gauls of what is now France, Austria, Spain and Switzerland a few decades before Caesar's conquest of Gaul, and then wrote a well-respected history detailing his travels, which has been lost except for quotations from it made by other Classical authors. Freeman provides a compact, readable account of the ancient Celts centering on Posidonius's travels, though drawing on material from many other sources. A good introduction to the ancient Celts and what information we have from ancient authors, archeology and later Celtic traditions.
281 reviews13 followers
September 25, 2016
A glance at Celtic and Druidic life through wandering philosopher, Posidonius. His works haven't survived in time, but allusions to them have.

Best parts: the ones about the Druidic practices, how druids believed firmly in reincarnation, a lot like what Pythagoras taught, whom Freeman felt it possible Pythagoras was influenced by the East - Hinduism and Buddhism lines of thinking.

The book seemed to glance along the edge of knowing about the Celtic people, as if the book was an almost-report, but that's the best that could be done with missing information. While a little can be known of the Celtic people, most of it seems shrouded in mystery. Which may be the point of the book. A very thin knowing, leading to greater intrigue of a people nearly lost to time, except what remnants there are of them in Irish, Gaelic and Briton-area cultures.
48 reviews10 followers
October 13, 2009
Prior to Julius Caesar, the Greek philosopher Posidonius is the only classical writer known to have direct contact with the mysterious Celtic people to the north and west of the Mediterranean world. The original text was lost but fragments were preserved in many sources. Freeman introduces us the Posidonius, the man and the culture he came from before retracing his landmark journey. A must for anyone studying the original source material for the ancient Celts. Gracefully written, good notations. Don't be deceived by the rather easy going style. There is significant information here from a keen original observer. I really appreciated the background on Posidonius, including the school of philosophy he followed. He was the first individual to record the Atlantic tide cycle.
Profile Image for Georgene.
1,288 reviews47 followers
April 2, 2015
I found this while wandering through my book shelves. I thought it might be one of those book which takes FOREVER to read, but I polished it off in a day.

Although only scraps and bits of the original book remains, usually in quotes by other ancient authors, this is quite an interesting story of how a young Greek philosopher, Posidonius, traveled from his home in Rhodes and up into the Celtic areas not yet conquered by Rome. He traveled in the first century B.C. when travel was extremely dangerous. From Rhodes to Rome then up into the lands of the Celts, he survived to return to Rhodes to write his "History". His first-hand observations of the Gaullic Celts, their customs, religions and their mythologies make quite interesting reading.
Profile Image for Pedro.
66 reviews2 followers
July 17, 2009
A nice book about how Ancient Celts were presented by the ancient philosopher named Possidonio.
Possidonio's works, however, didn't survive except by quotes made by other authors such as Strabo.
Freeman is able to cover different aspects of Celtic societies mentioned by classical authors in a very easy reading way.
When you first give a general look at the book, by its title and other aspects, it might seem to be just one more esoteric book about Celts but that's just not true. Freeman is a good scholar and his books are a good prove of that.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 45 reviews

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