I’ve completed reading Part One of Graham Robb’s The Discovery of Middle Earth, and it goes a ways toward rehabilitating some of the claims presented less convincingly in the preface and Chapter 1. At times, the remaining chapters of this part are fascinating, and at times they are infuriating. And out of nowhere, at the end of the section, Robb presents evidence that is actually interesting and somewhat compelling--maybe. There are a lot of caveats.
Chapter 2 opens with complaints that museum officials in France are too infatuated with the Romans, followed the claim that Greco-Roman accounts of the Celts are biased (undoubtedly true) and misunderstood baptismal and other religious rituals as disgusting manners and unrestrained sodomy (less certain). Robb says that the Romans simply destroyed most Celtic roads, but we can infer they existed because Anthony Harding calculated that the carts used on them weighed too much and would get stuck in the mud. Harding, in European Societies in the Bronze Age (2000), wrote:
Such vehicles must have been immensely heavy. If, as seems likely from the models and from surviving wheels, they contained around 1 m^3 of oak wood, they must have weighed up to 700 kg. Resting on wheel surfaces only a few centimetres across, they would all too easily become bogged down in mud, and it is unlikely that they travelled very far or very fast. (p. 167)
Harding then goes on to describe traces of Bronze Age wheel ruts and roads, but I don’t see how this has anything to do with the Iron Age Celts, who moved in a thousand years later. Robb makes a good point that Caesar found bridges and roads of some sort when invading Gaul, though he wants us to simultaneously chide the Romans for exaggerating or fabricating bad things about the Gauls while we should take them literally in describing how fast the Gauls could travel (Bibracte to Longones—120 miles—in four days) to determine how hard the road surface was.
He explains that the Gauls were so accurate in their measurements of distance that the Romans continued using Gallic leagues rather than Roman miles after the Conquest of Gaul. I checked standard texts, and most assert that the Gallic league was reintroduced after the third century crisis, with the reassertion of Gallic identity, and was primarily associated with the weakened late Western Empire. The source is Ammianus (15.11.7), writing around 350 CE, who explained that distances had begun being measured in Gallic leagues in a time he described as “now” (as in, the late Empire) and by the Gallic elite, not Romans from Italy: “This point is the beginning of Gaul, and from there they measure distances, not in miles but in leagues.” Archaeology knows of Roman milestones given in miles before 250 and in both miles and leagues afterward. This negates Robb’s claims.
He talks next about the Gallic vocal relay system, which is given by Caesar (Gallic Wars 7.3):
The report is quickly spread among all the states of Gaul; for, whenever a more important and remarkable event takes place, they transmit the intelligence through their lands and districts by a shout; the others take it up in succession, and pass it to their neighbors, as happened on this occasion; for the things which were done at Genabum at sunrise, were heard in the territories of the Arverni before the end of the first watch, which is an extent of more than a hundred and sixty miles. (trans. W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn)
Robb makes much of the phrase “per agros regionesque,” translated above as “through their lands and districts.” He wants us to consider this phrase odd (though it makes perfect sense to me) and instead read regio as a technical term for a sight line used in surveying and augury, which is the oldest sense of the word. Its meaning of “region” comes from the idea that a region was bounded by survey lines; however, I’m not sure Caesar’s passage makes sense if we alter it to “through the fields and survey-lines by a shout,” and in any case Caesar already said that the Gaul’s shout to one another, so what is gained by trying to force Caesar to confirm that they shouted in straight rather than crooked lines? I thought the point was the Caesar didn’t respect or understand the Gauls’ greatness.
Chapter 3 brings us to the first chapter on the mystery of the name “Mediolanum,” which we have already seen means “the middle of the plane” according to most standard sources. I will treat this chapter together with Chapter 4, which continues seamlessly on the same subject. Robb again fails to provide an adequate reason to accept his innovation that Mediolanum should instead be rendered “Middle Earth” except that he appeals to Celtic mythology, with its Indo-European set of stacked planes (heaven, earth, underworld) and Indo-European analogs such as the Greek omphalos, or navel of the world. He rejects the etymology “middle of the plain” through the expedient of noting that many Mediolana are located on hills or mountains. I’m not sure that’s a good enough reason. I live in Albany, New York, which takes its name from the Duke of Albany, whose title derives from Alba, the Gaelic term for Scotland, in turn from the Indo-European word for white. And yet the city is not Scottish, nor particularly white. (Things around here are usually a dull gray.) Names need not be literal, especially if the fame of one Mediolanum led to imitators. Earlier etymologists suggested the word meant “full of fertility,” (mediad, harvest + lawn, full), or a central enclosure (Meadhon, middle + iolann, enclosure). Isidore of Seville (15.1.57) fancifully said the word meant “wool” (lanea) in the middle (medio).
Robb then asserts (correctly) that the Mediolana (excepting a few large cities of that name) share one trait: None of them has any evidence of Celtic occupation, thus proving that they must be nodes on a Celtic communication/alignment survey route. That said, he may well be right that the name, at least in some cases, meant “halfway point” and was used as stopover station when traveling from one major settlement to the next, sort of like a rest stop on a highway. I can see this, but it doesn’t require any special solar alignments to make possible. I am also confused as to who exactly was living in these places that they continued to exist without leaving Celtic remains. At least some may have had Bronze Age occupations.
On a map, he outlines 137 Mediolana (later expanded to 208 places with a form of “middle” in the name), which only shows how few align to his imaginary solar Via Herclea. They are scattered across Gaul like the spots of smallpox, clustered around geographical features and farmland. Admittedly, many of these do appear to be in straight lines, though I think a chunk of this is due to the settlements following France’s unusually straight rivers. I think, personally, that there may be something to the idea of small settlements named Mediolana serving as rest stops along ancient routes, but he wants us to play connect-the-dots without any archaeological evidence that the sites were Celtic, let alone part of an accurately mapped Gallic grid. He presents some charts with what he says are triangular coordinates surveyed by the Celts from one Mediolanum to the next, showing that in Picardy, each Mediolanum is about 29 km from the next, though varying from 28 to 32 km.
It’s certainly interesting, but there are two problems: First, most of the place names are only attested from the Middle Ages, before which we cannot securely identify some of the sites as a Mediolanum or a middle place, and second, Robb does not include any other settlements in his calculations. Are there significant relationships to other cities and towns? Perhaps the distance reflects the amount of hinterland needed to support a settlement with produce and game, not a purposeful surveying of the land for map-making or religious needs? Robb addresses the latter question by noting that other types of settlements are more regular in their distance, largely due to economic needs. By contrast, he sees Mediolana as geodetic in nature. But here is my question: Did it have to be purposeful? Would simply striking out in a direction and walking 29 km (18 miles), a decent day’s walk for a merchant (and the exact length covered by Roman legions in five hours—the “regular step”), serve the purpose without a purposeful geodetic plan? In other words, might the nodes of the system have grown naturally based on a 29 km day’s walk without the need to have a master plan? I can’t claim to know, but Robb hasn’t made enough of a case at this point in the book to warrant more than the claim that this is suggestive. Is there a significance to 29 km? 29 km = 20 Roman miles = 13.4 Gallic leagues.
I get the feeling that Robb found something interesting, but that it isn’t exactly what he thinks it is. Not that I know, of course. I have trouble though with the fact that even where a settlement is old, we don’t really know what its name was before Roman times. There’s no guarantee that all the “middle” places (now subtly expanded from the earlier focus just on Mediolana) were always called middle places, or that if they were that the name originates with the Celts.
I will leave for later his assertion that the Druids organized continent-wide educational programs. He has separate chapters for that.
Next he looks at Mediolanum Biturgium, a Celtic capital now called Châteaumeillant, which he takes to be an axis point on his Via Heraclea grid. A perpendicular drawn across Robb’s Via Heraclea through Châteaumeillant, he says, forms the “longest straight line that can be drawn through the part of the European isthmus known as Gaul.” In other words, the place is located just about dead center in France. His claim is true if you assume that the Celts made a political distinction between what we call France and what we call the Low Countries—which they didn’t—since the meridian running from Amsterdam due south to the Mediterranean crosses more land than the one Robb cites, ten km west of the Paris meridian. It also presupposes that the Celts were aware of the Mediterranean before the Celts actually filtered down to the south of France.
Chapter 5 is a bicycle tour of the meridian line, with an emphasis on the continuities between Celtic religion and Christianity. Why then he chose to save for this light chapter the only convincing map he has yet presented, I can’t fathom. I admit to being impressed by a map of second century BCE Celtic capitals, which all align along three straight lines, six capitals on the meridian passing through Châteaumeillant. But this is, again, somewhat selective: there were fifty-something Celtic tribes in Gaul, and he has selected only fifteen capitals, the others presumably failing to match alignments. That said, the cities seem to fall on the line, and that is certainly a fascinating fact I am not able to immediately explain. I have redrawn most of his map below, with the meridian, the proposed Via Heraclea, and the perpendicular lines in orange, and the capital cities marked with stars, along with the tribal names Robb gives for most of them.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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