Philip Freeman – The Philosopher and the Druids

The Controversy

On a personal note, I would like to mention that the following review has something of a story behind it. As someone who makes it his business to seek out and read every piece of serious scholarship on the Druids, I was interested to learn of the publication early in 2006 of a new book, entitled The Philosopher and the Druids, by Philip Freeman. To my horror I found it to be one of the worst books on the ancient Celts I had ever read, and, disturbed by the poor treatment of a subject so close to my heart, and on an objective level aware of its many errors in scholarship, I wrote a scathing review of the tome. I was banned from the Continental-Celtic yahoo group for attempting to post it; the review later appeared on the Celtic-Well group, the moderator of which expressed his intent to publish it in the next edition of the e-journal Insight. The production of that edition, however, seems to have halted. For a long time this ferocious review lay dormant on my hard-drive, but now I think the time has come, in the interest of fighting the spread of misinformation about the ancient Celts, to make it available to the visitors to my own humble sight, I apologize in advance if some readers may perhaps find the tone of the review too harsh in places. What follows has been slightly modified from the original. In the future I might polish it up with some more references and try to tone it down a bit.


Some questions having been raised on the Continental Celtic group as to the reliability of the book The Philosopher and the Druids by Philip Freeman (specifically with regards to the conflation of Mercury and Lugus), it was asked by a list-member if anyone had found any errors in the book. In response, I wrote the following review.

In my search for inaccuracies I did not need to go further than the cover. The picture on the cover perpetuates the long-standing myth that the Celts built Neolithic stone circles. Also, the title of the book is misleading: the book has relatively little to do with either philosophers or druids; rather, it is a general survey of the ancient Celts, with one out of 15 chapters on the Greek philosopher Posidonius and one more chapter on the druids. The title is a little ironic, given that drawing a distinction between philosophers and Druids is not something any Greek would have done.

In the introduction, Freeman starts out the book with a romanticized description of the famous meeting between Alexander the Great and certain Celts on the Danube. We cannot possibly know that it was a "warm" day or what the individual Celtic ambassadors were wearing, at what moments people did and didn't grin, etc., although of course such license might be forgiven assuming that he is merely trying to flesh out the past for a popular audience in a manner akin to a historical novel. But other problems than an overly florid poetic license soon emerge.

Before getting into factual errors, I would like to briefly survey the issue of cultural bias in Freeman's book. On the first page, I found his dismissal of the Thracians and Scythians as "wild tribes" to be ethnocentric and disturbing. Despite Freeman's occasional praises of the Celts, throughout the book great emphasis is repeatedly laid on the contrast between "civilized" Greeks/Romans and “savage” Celts. "They practiced a religion beyond the imagination of any civilized Greek"; Posidonius encountered Celtic "customs that were so primitive they made him physically sick"; "Posidonius left behind the Celtic world of Druids, bards, and screaming warriors to return to the civilized lands of the Mediterranean" - these are all Freeman's words. He calls the Celts "drunken barbarians" in all seriousness on page 27. I have not seen such rhetoric since Stuart Piggott. Obviously he is taking a traditional hellenocentric view and not a more modern multicultural stance. And all this even while rather hypocritically berating the Greeks for their own dismissal of "barbarians" as uncivilized on pages 11-12.

Moving on to factual errors, we can point in Chapter One to his - contentious to say the least - statements to the effect that the Indo-European Urheimat was in the Ukraine (pages 7-8; repeated on page 19). This is not presented as a possibility but rather as an established historical fact. Many will also be surprised to learn that he assures us the Hallstatt period began in the 7th century BC (page 20; this date is wrong even if we restrict ourselves to the Iron Age Hallstatt phases), that the Celts first moved into Eastern Europe around 400 BC (page 30), and that the Celts appeared in Italy in 1000 BC (page 56) - all of this presented as historical fact. Of course, it is conceivable that the Celts moved into Italy around 1000 BC - but it is also conceivable that Stonehenge was built on a monday. Replacing debates and simple unknowns with invented facts might be fine were this a work of fiction, but I believe that most readers will pick up this book expecting to learn something about the ancient Celts.

The book is based around the story of Posidonius, an historical Greek philosopher who visited Gaul shortly before 100 BCE. Posidonius wrote on the Gauls and the Druids in Greek, but none of these writings survive; there are, however, a number of references to and quotations (false or true) from his work in the writings of other ancient authors. Freeman uses Posidonius’ trip to frame his general discussion of the ancient Celts and their culture(s); digressing to describe what Posidonius “would have” known about the Celts before visiting Gaul, and what he would have encountered when he got there in terms of social structure, religion etc. The catalog of Posidonius’ expectations of Gaul is produced by assuming that he had read everything about the Celts written in Greek before his time. More depressingly, however, Freeman throughout his book seems utterly ignorant of the last several decades of Posidonian scholarship, particularly with regards to which surviving quotations ought to be attributed to him.

Freeman's equation of ethnicity and material goods on pages 30-1 is certainly disturbing. There are many ways for goods to spread other than Freeman's bands of conquering warriors - trade, for instance. While this may surprise post-Victorian archaeologists, there are also linguistic howlers to be found. On page 20 Freeman says that Italic in general and Latin in particular is the closest relative of the Celtic languages, whereas some time has passed since the Italo-Celtic hypothesis lost its former standing; likewise, on page 56, he states flatly that Lepontic was a dialect of Gaulish.

His shallow and glamorous description of Greek history (pages 7-10) would not even be considered by any modern classics professor for course reading. It is Athenocentric, idealized and old-fashioned, all Plato and Parthenons and omitting anything not to the Greeks' credit (such as their treatment of women) let alone anything to do with Greek farmers or polities other than Athens. It brushes over debates even with the field of the classics (in which Freeman is supposedly an expert), such as whether Homer existed, when philosophy really began, or when the Greeks first entered Greece (he is glibly certain that it was about 2200 BC). At any rate his claim that the Iliad was "composed" by "Homer" (pages 20-1) is certainly false; it has long been known that it is the product of a long period of oral formulaic performances and written transmission, rather than the "composition" of a single author.

His description of the invasion of Greece culminating in the sack of Delphi (pp. 31-2) is ahistorical in several respects, such as his comments about the origin of the conflict and his claims that the Celtic armies were composed of "volunteers". While Freeman rightly cautions us about taking exaggerated disparagements of the Celts by the Greeks at face value (p. 34), his own caricatures hardly transcend those of the Hellenes, as Freeman mentions inter alia the Celts' "insatiable greed" (p. 36)

Towards the end of Chapter One, Freeman describes the Celtic lands as "the last place any reasonable Greek philosopher would wish to go". Why should this be so? Were the Celts so terrible that living among them was the worst fate that could be imagined in the ancient world? Certainly, given the reputation of the Druids and "Hyperboreans" as philosophers, one would think that any Greek philosopher would be eager to travel to northern Europe to discuss philosophical ideas.

It is bad enough that he uses the imprecise term "tribe" in the first place to refer to Celtic chiefdoms and states, but it is even worse that he uses it indiscriminately to refer to small groups or huge regional cultures. Thus the Insubres are a "tribe," but the Belgae of the Continent are also a "tribe" (page 56). Since this wasn't ludicrous enough, Freeman confidently assures his reading public that the Belgae tribe took its name from the fact that the personal name Belgos was so popular among Gauls in that area! (p. 56). While this may fool the unsuspecting masses, from a professional Celtic scholar such fabrications evoke little more than a chuckle.

Military historians should be skeptical of his implication on page 59 that the Etruscans only lost to the Celts because the latter had superior numbers, and historians in general should be wary of anything he says about the subject because there are no historical records of the conflicts between the Celts and the Etruscans - although his fertile imagination can certainly fill in the gaps.

Take with a great grain of salt his irresponsible claims about Gaulish social structure on pages 95-6 (there are quite a few of them here). For example, the statements that every Gaulish tribe was headed by a "rix" and that the "rix" was elected from the members of the nobility related to the previous rix are pure fantasy - we know for a fact that the head of the Aedui was called a "uercobretos", and we know practically nothing about the candidates for leadership of Gaulish polities or the manner in which they were chosen to become rulers. What little we do know is not consistent with Freeman's comments. If anything, it seems to have varied from polity to polity, though he insists on a homogenous model.

Of course his incorrect spelling of Sanskrit can be overlooked on page 74 since he is not a Sanskritist (could be a typo anyway). It should be raj- with a macron and a hyphen if he wants to quote the stem, or, if he wants to be consistent with the Latin and Gaulish forms he quotes and use an inflected form, it should be raja with two macrons. Minor point, but I have a tendency to be picky sometimes ...

Oddly enough, in Chapter Four (devoted to Galatia) Freeman switches from his practice of Latinizing Celtic names found in Greek sources and starts giving them in the original Greek forms (Achicorius, but Lutorios). Freeman's characterization - or rather caricaturization - of the Galatians as a bunch of hooligans who did nothing but raid and ravage is reminiscent of Simon James' equally objectionable dubbing of Galatia as "the Robber Kingdom". Certainly Freeman's earlier and infinitely more serious book "The Galatian Language" provides evidence for Galatians in other roles - for instance as craftsmen employed by their Greek neighbors. Certainly a note about the Galatians' contribution to architecture - the Galatian vault - would have helped to soften Freeman's stereotype. Not to mention the Galatians role in establishing a relatively unified and at least partially representative form of government over a large area of central Turkey that would otherwise have been occupied by small and squabbling Greek (and one Thracian) monarchies like Pergamum and Pontus. His never ending comments about them "causing trouble" and "terrifying surrounding regions" not only fail to give the whole story, but also insist on telling the tale from the viewpoint of the Greeks. He never even considers what "trouble" the Greeks and Romans caused for the Celts. It would be interesting to rewrite this chapter, calling Antiochus I the "troublemaker."

Freeman also in Chapter Four talks about an alleged human sacrifice at Gordion. I have investigated the "proof" for the alleged human sacrifice at Gordion with a professional archaeologist and we found it to be quite equivocal. Like others before him, Freeman sees the "sacrifice" as vivid evidence for a Celtic presence. Personally, I find the inscription bearing a Celtic personal name at the site more indicative of a Celtic presence and more worthy of note. But what's more, Freeman continues with talk of animal bones found at the site, taken from beasts that died in the autumn. This is significant, he claims, because it shows they were killed at Samain (page 45). We need hardly point out that, not only does the fact that they died in autumn by no means demonstrate they were sacrificed on Samain (if the Galatians even had such a holiday), but moreover it is no more significant that they died in autumn than it would be if they had died in any other season, since we could certainly posit the existence of Celtic holidays in winter, spring and summer (ever heard of Beltaine?)

Freeman's description of Gaulish gods on pages 148-56 should also be greeted with skepticism. His confident enumeration of the names and functions of a variety of divinities and his equally confident equation of Roman deities with Gaulish and Insular ones merely show how willing he is to stretch the limits of what is actually known.

Freeman devotes one chapter to "Warriors and Head-Hunting". Even using the term "head-hunting" is questionable - the Celts were head-takers, who took trophy heads from battle like most ancient and medieval cultures across the world - but does this mean they were "head-hunters"? Surely by this logic Constantine the Great was a head-hunter, and the Assyrians and Japanese were head-hunting tribesmen. Which of course leads into an important point. He claims that the Celtic habit of decapitating enemies had "no parallel in classical battles" (page 111) and that both the Greeks and the Romans were "shocked" by it (page 113). But surely here he is even going so far as to contradict himself, since he notes quite correctly on page 176 how the Roman general Sulla decorated the forum with the heads of his enemies. We could also point to such incidents as the nailing of Cicero's head in public display, or the handing of Pompey's head to Julius Caesar by the Greek king Ptolemy. Nevertheless, when Freeman notes that other cultures besides the Celts took the heads of their enemies, he points only to the Scythians and tribesmen from New Guinea, conveniently forgetting the Mediterranean practices. Furthermore, Freeman states that "Greeks would never dream of disfiguring the body of even their worst enemy." This is nonsense; on the contrary, Greeks regularly sang about, painted, and acted out in plays, the disfigurement of the bodies of enemies, let alone dream about it. They also practiced it in real life, though it seems to have declined in frequency over time - for this, see Hans van Wees, "Greek Warfare" pages 135-8 (with references). In the poems traditionally attributed to Homer, enemy corpses are routinely mutilated or decapitated; archaic Greek poets assume battlefield slain will be left to rot; during the Persian Wars some Greeks approved of cutting off the heads of defeated Persians; also from the time of the Persian Wars an Athenian vase (British Museum B 658) show Greek hoplites each holding the severed head of a defeated Greek foe. There is even literary evidence suggesting that much later Greeks would mutilate the corpses of the defeated by cutting off their genitals and placing them in the hands of the deceased. Obviously Freeman is not taking any of this into account; especially the pervasive nature of the "Homeric" poems in Greek society. Freeman's description of what the act of head-taking meant to Gauls are also the products of his own imagination - e.g. that cowards were never decapitated, or that decapitation was the greatest tribute that could be paid to a foe.

Moving on to the issue of human sacrifice, Freeman states on page 159 that "the Gauls without a doubt performed gruesome human sacrifices". Now, I have studied extensively the subject of Celtic human sacrifice and am very familiar with the primary evidence for it; there is not a single piece of unequivocal evidence for the practice, so Freeman should not be as certain as he is. (Nevertheless, in all likelihood I would say the Celts did occasionally probably practice this horrifying but fairly common ancient rite). But Freeman especially displays his ignorance of the sources when discussing human sacrifice in other ancient cultures. There is evidence, he tells us on page 160, that the Greeks in the Bronze Age practiced human sacrifice; in reality, there is evidence for Greek human sacrifice well after the Bronze Age and into the Common Era; obviously Freeman has not read the basic work on this subject, "Human Sacrifice in Ancient Greece" by Dennis Hughes. Then he goes on to say that the Phoenicians regularly sacrificed children to their gods - the authenticity of the Carthaginian practice to which he alludes has actually been debated by Phoenician scholars. The coup-de-grace however is his totally bogus statement that the Romans practiced human sacrifice but stopped in the third century BC (still on page 160). On the contrary, even if we are to believe the isolated Roman literary passage about the bannig of human sacrifice (Pliny, Natural History 30.12), this is supposed to have happened in 97 BC not in the third century BC as Freeman has it. But at any rate Pliny is contradicted by numerous other writers and even inscriptions and archaeological evidence for Roman condonation of human sacrifice right up to the fourth century AD. This of course flies in the face of Freeman's assertion (page 93) that Posidonius must have traveled beyond Provincia since the Romans who had recently conquered it would "never" have permitted human sacrifice, warfare or "head-hunting" to take place there at the time Posidonius visited it.

Another error in Freeman's book is the statement on page 170 that the torch-bearing women described by Tacitus on Angelsey were Druidesses. There is no evidence for this, but Freeman presents it as a fact.

His statement that a certain statement of Strabo's, attributed to Posidonius, is the only hint we have of Celtic eschatological beliefs in all of Celtic religion, is again utter nonsense. There are a variety of sources both in ancient literary records and medieval Irish mythology pertaining to this topic.

The above is not a comprehensive list of the questionable points I have found in Freeman's book.

Certainly there are also positive points to Freeman's book; he gives ancient Celtic literacy full credit, and abstains from deriding oral literature as a hopelessly doomed method of transmitting information. He writes a good deal on "obscure" Celtic regions like Italy, Galatia and Spain. It is perhaps the first modern general-audience book in English to contain a Gaulish word-list.

But overall, what I found most disturbing about the book is not its factual errors but its overall tone. It is thoroughly sensationalistic, and there is an almost endless series of clichés - Greek olive farmers, raging Gaulish warrior-egos, etc. These can easily be gleaned from the internet and do not need a joint-PhD professor to spread them.

Freeman's earlier works were of a much higher quality, although sensationalist trends can already be discerned in "War, Women and Druids" as I believe was pointed out in a review of the book by Raimund Karl I read online a while ago. Currently Freeman appears to be moving away from academic publications and setting himself up as a populist historian - he even has a self-promotional website, There is nothing wrong with this in theory, but in practice one must give the public what it deserves and expects - knowledge of the past.

Copyright © 2007 WP All rights reserved.