Land amongst the Gauls

From: Origin of Property in Land
by: Fustel de Coulanges

V. On community of land amongst the Gauls.

It would be indeed surprising had the supporters of this theory not applied it to the ancient Gauls. So little is known about them that it is very tempting and not very difficult to introduce community in land into their history

One single fact, however, ought to stand in the way; it is that Caesar, whose book is the only authority which has historical value, nowhere tells us that land was common amongst the Gauls. His silence on this point is not a thing which can be passed over. It is, indeed, in the eyes of every one accustomed to historical research, a very significant fact. It is true that Caesar does not expressly state that private property was the custom amongst the Gauls. For a writer who is only speaking in passing of Gallic institutions, to omit to call attention to a law of property which was in conformity with what he was accustomed to, is not the same thing as to omit to mention a communism which would be the opposite of what he was accustomed to, and which would strike him by its very strangeness. It must be noticed that Cæsar is not describing the entire social condition of the Gauls; he contents himself with mentioning those customs which have struck him as being very different from those he saw in Italy. We have only to read the ten paragraphs which he devotes to this subject, to recognise this. After describing in three paragraphs what was peculiar in their political organisation, and in three more what was peculiar in their religion, he passes on to what was peculiar in their private life, and he begins as follows—”As to the institutions of private life, the following are those wherein they differ from other nations.” By “other nations” Cæsar clearly means the nations that he knew that is, primarily, the Italians and Greeks. This opening sentence makes it plain that Cæsar intended only to tell us of characteristics which were peculiar to the Gauls. He is going to mention differences, not resemblances. If private property is the custom there as it is in Rome, it will not be necessary to say so; but if it is not the custom, he will say so. His absolute silence on this point is a proof that the Gauls did not sensibly differ from the Italians in the matter; his silence implies that they were not ignorant of private property. We must remember that the entire absence of private property would have appeared so strange to a Roman that it could not have escaped Cæsar’s notice. He observed it in Germany where he passed only eighteen days; he would certainly have discovered it in Gaul where he passed eight summers. If he does not mention community in land, it is obviously because it did not exist.

But we have evidence even more convincing. Going on to speak of the Germans, he remarks that he will explain “in what they differ from the Gauls, quo differant hae nationes inter sese” (vi., 11); and further on: “The Germans differ much from this manner of life of the Gauls, Germani multum ab hac consuetudine differunt.” He then draws the following contrast between the two nations: 1, the Germans have no Druids; 2, the Germans have not the same gods as the Gauls; 3, and lastly, the Germans have not private property. Is not this remark as to the difference between the two nations almost the same thing as if Caesar had said that the Gauls recognised private property and held their land in individual ownership?

This is not all. Caesar uses an expression in which he indirectly and almost unconsciously bears witness to the existence of property in land amongst the Gauls. In Book VI., Chapter 13, he says that the Druids act as judges in almost all suits, criminal as well as civil.[1]

He then gives a list of the disputes brought before them, and amongst criminal offences he instances murder; amongst civil suits he mentions “those concerning inheritance or boundaries” si de hereditate, si definibus controversies est. If there were in Gaul suits concerning inheritance or boundaries, it must have meant that the Gauls had a system of inheritance and made use of boundaries; i.e., that land was private and hereditary property. Cæsar says elsewhere that the Germans have no fines; he says here that the Gauls have them.

We cannot say whether the institution of private property in Gaul was exactly similar to that of private property in Rome; whether it had the same legal guarantees; whether its boundaries had the same inviolable character. We do not even know if property still belonged to the family or was already in the hands of individual owners. Cæsar only tells us one thing, and that is, that it existed; for “inheritance and boundaries” are unmistakable signs of private ownership, and as clearly disprove a system of corporate land-holding.[2]

§6; XXIII., 2, 43, §11 and 12. To translate controversial publicæ in the passage from Caesar as disputes between two peoples would run counter to the meaning of words. Publicus never means inter duos populos.

This is the conclusion to which we are brought by a simple and unbiased perusal of Cæsar’s account. But preconceptions have great force; and if a writer starts with the idea that community in land was once universal, the result will be that, in the face of all evidence, and yet in perfect good faith, he will think he finds it amongst the Gauls. One of the first scholars of the day, M. d’Arbois de Jubainville, whose works on the Middle Ages and on Irish literature have been so highly appreciated, thinks that the Gauls of the time of Cæsar were not far enough advanced in civilisation to hold private property; and setting out with this idea, the offspring of imagination, he supposes that he can see evidence of undivided tenure. The fact that Cæsar never mentions this troubles him very little. That Cæsar does mention, as a point of difference between the Germans and Gauls, that the former do not hold private property, he omits to notice. And lastly, when Cæsar refers in so many words to inheritance and boundaries amongst the Gauls, he disposes of this somewhat embarrassing statement by interpreting it in a most unexpected fashion.

In his opinion, when Caesar mentions suits concerning inheritance, de hereditate, it is impossible that the inheritances of private persons should be in question, as the custom of inheritance did not exist. Then what was the inheritance referred to by Cæsar?

According to M. de Jubainville, he was speaking of succession to the crown. Sovereignty existed; the sons of kings wished to succeed their fathers; and if a dispute arose, the Druids acted as judges. M. de Jubainville has omitted to notice that Cæsar gives at least ten instances of sons who wished to be kings like their fathers; and that in not one of these instances was the dispute carried before the Druids. It is a grave error to suppose that the Druids were accustomed to meddle in affairs of State; we have not a single example of their doing so. And yet M. de Jubainville maintains that in Cæsar de hereditate means the succession to the throne; and for this he gives the following reason,—that in another book, speaking of the Egyptians, Caesar uses the expression hereditas regni.[3] The argument is a strange one. I reply that if Cæsar elsewhere wrote hereditas regni, it was because the word hereditas could not, when used alone, bear the meaning of the inheritance of sovereignty. It is quite certain that if Cæsar had meant to say that the Gauls brought before the Druids their disputes as to succession to the crown, he would have said de hereditate regnum.

With regard to the expression, de finibus, M. de Jubainville will have it mean “frontiers between nations.” In this he is doubly wrong, both historically and philologically. To begin with the historical error, Caesar tells us of numerous quarrels amongst Gallic tribes; and these quarrels are never carried before the Druids. Are we to think that Caesar said that the Druids settled disputes about frontiers, when he knew perfectly well that Druids did not decide them? It is absolutely incorrect to say that the Druids had the right of judging between tribes.[4] Moreover, when Caesar enumerates the principal matters which had to be tried, he mentions murder as well as inheritance and boundaries; and it is impossible to doubt that he is thinking of the murder of a single person, the inheritance of a single owner, the boundaries of a single estate.

Philologically, M. de Jubainville maintains that the word fines may be used for the boundaries of a nation as well as for those of an estate. No doubt. The word is even used in a philosophical sense, and Cicero wrote a treatise, De fcnibus bonorum et malorum. In every language there are words of wide application; but the student is not misled by this. In philosophy he understands fines in a philosophical sense. If a general at the head of an army is crossing the territory of several nations, he understands fines in the sense of frontiers. If it is a question of private law, he will not doubt that fines is connected with individual rights; that it means the boundaries of an estate or a field. Now the passage in which Cassar speaks of “suits concerning inheritance and boundaries” is one which deals entirely with law and justice.

M. de Jubainville has taken the trouble to count the number of times that fines occurs in the De Bello Gallico as applied to national or tribal frontiers, and finds they are seventy-seven. This is one of those arguments based on statistics which impress most people by an appearance of matter-of-fact appropriateness. But look at it more closely. Is the De Bello Gallico a book of private law ? It is a history of military campaigns, and of negotiations between nations; and it is very natural that the author should frequently speak of the frontiers or the territory of these nations. If he had written a work on law, of which he was quite capable, he would have spoken throughout of the boundaries of private estates.

Ought one to be surprised at this? Read Thiers’ thirty volumes; make the same calculation that M. de Jubainville did for the De Bello Gallico; and, if you follow the same method of reasoning, you will come to the conclusion that the French are unacquainted with boundaries to private property

What is more important to remark is, that in the whole work, in the midst of the history of wars, there occur only seven paragraphs on the customs of the Gauls and their institutions in times of peace (VI., 11, 13, 15, 18, 19, 21, 22). Now, in these seven chapters you will find the word fines used three times in the unmistakable sense of boundaries of fields.[5] And so we see that, when Caesar ra speaking of wars, he uses fines in the sense of the frontiers of a country, and, when he is speaking of law, he uses it in the sense of the boundaries of private property. And, if we are partial to figures, we may notice that while M. de Jubainville has counted up seventy-seven fines in three hundred and forty chapters, I have counted three in seven chapters. The proportion is well kept.

But instead of making this calculation it would have been better to have noticed something which is of far more importance; in every instance where the word signifies a frontier, its meaning is unmistakably indicated by the addition of the name of the people in question. Thus Caesar says, fines Helvetiorum, fines Sequanorum, fines Santonum, fines Æduorum, fines Lingonum, fines Ambianoium, and so on without exception.[6] Take the seventy-seven examples collected by M. de Jubamville, and you will see that the word fines, when it means frontiers, is always followed by the word “people” or by the name of a people. If Cæsar had wished to speak of trials about national boundaries, he would have said controversies, de finibus populorum. If he did not so express himself, it was because he was speaking of boundaries in the most restricted sense of the word.

M. de Jubainville might have found this very same phrase, which he has twisted so strangely, si de finibus controversia est, in Cicero. We have it there word for word; si de finibus controversia est in Chapter X. of the Topics. Let us see whether in this case it can apply to the frontiers of a people. Cicero, giving an example of a definition, writes: “When you say si de finibus controversia est, the boundaries of private estates are clearly meant.”[7]

And so the passage from Cæsar cannot be explained away as M. de Jubainville would wish. He cannot get rid of the fact that Cæsar records in so many words that inheritance and boundaries were to be found amongst the Gauls; the very opposite, that is, of community in land. He gets together from other sources a variety of arguments which appear to him to show that the Gauls held their land in common. They are as follows: 1, Polybius says (II. 17) that the Gauls of Italy did not cultivate the land; 2, in Cæsar’s time the Helvetii wished to leave their country in order to settle in a more fruitful one; 3, the Ædui admitted into their country ten thousand Boii and gave them land; 4, there was in Gallic law a custom according to which a husband and wife threw into a common stock an equal portion of the possessions of each, and allowed the income arising from this property to accumulate, so that the whole, principal and interest, might belong to the survivor. These four circumstances are supposed to prove that private property in land did not exist.[8]

Not one of the four appears to me to bear with it this consequence. Examine them one by one. I. The passage from Polybius refers, not to the Gauls of his own time, but to the Gauls who invaded Italy five centuries before, and who drove out the Etruscans from the district of the Po. The historian says that these invaders, being inclined to pursue their conquests, did not at first settle down and cultivate the soil, but lived on the produce of their herds. His information bears upon the Gauls at one particular moment in their history, at the time when they were planning an attack upon central Italy. It proves nothing at all about the Gauls in general, and certainly nothing about the Gauls of the time of Cæsar.

II. That the Helvetii wished to emigrate does not imply that they lived under a system of community in land. It merely implies that they preferred the soft climate and fertile plains of the south-west of Gaul to their own rugged and mountainous country. Is it an unknown thing for peasant proprietors to emigrate for the sake of seeking a more productive soil elsewhere?

III. Because the Ædui invited ten thousand Boii to settle in their country, does that prove that private property was unknown to them? Not at all. The civitas Æduorum, which covered a considerable area and included five of our departments, might very probably have had so large an extent of public domain, or been able to find enough unoccupied land, to admit ten thousand new cultivators. Such a circumstance, following, as it does, immediately after the ravages of Ariovistus, can easily be explained, and is not the slightest evidence of communism in land.

IV. As to the custom by which a husband and wife contributed equal shares to a common stock and allowed the income arising from it to accumulate, I cannot understand in what way this proves that there was no landed property. M. de Jubainville ingeniously explains that what was contributed could not have consisted of land “because its produce cannot be hoarded” and that it must have consisted of herds of cattle, because cattle can much more easily be set aside for a particular object. In his long argument there is only one thing that he overlooks, and this is that it is possible to sell the crops and set aside the produce of the sale. Moreover he gives an incorrect rendering of Cæsar, VI. 19: hujus omnis pecunice fructus servantur. Pecunia, in legal phraseology, is used not only of money, of not only personal property, but also of property of every kind, including land;[9] and fructus does not simply mean produce in the literal sense of the word, but revenues of every description. Cæsar, then, is speaking of possessions of every sort, of which the income may be set aside. These possessions may be an estate under cultivation, or a herd of cattle, or a stock in trade, or a sum of money placed out at interest (for this was not unknown to the Gauls); the income might be the produce of the sale of the crops, or the increase of the herd, or the profits of trade, or the interest on the loan. Whichever it may have been, Cæsar did not intend to imply that the Gauls were unacquainted with landed property.

I am anxious not to pass over a single argument brought forward by this learned and able writer. He observes that the names of private domains, such as we find them in the Roman and Merovingian periods, are all derived from Roman proper names. This is quite true, and I had myself made the same observation in an earlier essay; but what I had carefully abstained from saying, and what is maintained by M. de Jubainville, is that these Latin names of the Roman period prove the non-existence of domains in the Gallic period. The most they could prove is that, after the conquest, the names of domains were latinised as well as the names of individuals. Just as Gallic landowners adopted Roman names for themselves, they bestowed the same names on their estates; and consequently domains were called Pauliacus, Floriacus, Latiniacus, Avitacus, Victoriacus, etc. To conclude from this that there were no private estates before the conquest would indeed be a rash argument.

M. de Jubainville also alleges that Cæsar does not make use of the terms villæ, and fundus in speaking of the Gauls; and he concludes from this that neither country estates, fundi, nor farms, villæ, were to be found in Gaul. “Before the conquest there were neither fundi nor villæ, and the land was in common.”[10] This is another surprising statement. M. de Jubainville should not have overlooked the fact that even if these two words do not occur in Cæsar, we find terms which are precisely synonymous. The Romans had more than one word to designate a country estate, fundus, or a farm, villa. Instead of fundus they sometimes said ager; and ager always bears this sense in Cato, Yarro, and Columella, and frequently in Cicero and Pliny. Instead of villa they said ædificium. When Yarro or Columella are speaking of the buildings standing in the midst of an estate, they use ædificium as often as villa. Turn to the Digest (Bk. L. Section xvi.) and compare the three fragments 27, 60, and 211; and you will recognise that the Romans were in the habit of calling a domain ager and the buildings on it ædificium. Now Cæsar, in speaking of the Gauls, often uses the word agri and still more often ædificia. Here are the domains and the villa which M. de Jubainville was looking for. These ædificia were farms, not huts. They contained as a rule a somewhat numerous rural population; for Cæsar notes in one instance as something exceptional “that he found in the ædificia of the Bellovaci only a small number of men, as almost all had set out for the war” (viii. 7). They also included barns for the storing of crops; for the historian mentions “that the Teneteri, having invaded the country of the Menapii supported themselves for several months on the corn that they found in the ædificia” (iv. 4). The Roman general was well aware that if he wished to find forage for his cavalry he must look for it in these farms, pabulum ex ædificia petere (vii 4, and viii. 10). What Cæsar says about the ædificium of Ambiorix shows that it was a large enough building to lodge a numerous body of followers. And so the words ager and ædificium take the place in Cæsar of the words fundus and villa, and disprove the assertion that “the Gauls had neither domains nor farms before the conquest.”

M. de Jubainville compares the whole Gallic territory with the ager publicus of Rome. I do not know whether the learned medievalist has a very clear conception of what the ager publicus really was. The subject is a very difficult one, and requires for its study a good deal of time, much minute research and great familiarity with Roman habits and customs. I do not wish to dwell on this point; and will content myself with saying that the ager publicus was not common land, but property of the State existing side by side with private property. To suppose that in Gaul the State was the master of all the soil and distributed it annually amongst the citizens, is to suppose something absolutely opposed to Roman habits and to the usages of the ager publicus. Moreover, it is impossible to find a single line in Cæsar which authorises such a supposition.[11]

To sum up: the attempt made by this ingenious scholar to discover community in land amongst the Gauls is supported by no original authorities. When we come to verify his quotations and test his arguments, we see that not one of his quotations bears the sense he attributes to it, and that not one of his facts fits in with a theory of common ownership in land. It is wisest to keep strictly to what Cæsar tells us.


Are we to conclude from all that has gone before that nowhere and at no time was land held in common? By no means. To commit ourselves to so absolute a negative would be to go beyond the purpose of this work. The only conclusion to which we are brought by this prolonged examination of authorities is that community in land has not yet been historically proved. Here are scholars who have maintained that they could prove from original authorities that nations originally cultivated the soil in common; but on examining these authorities we find that they are all either incorrect, or misinterpreted, or beside the subject. M. Viollet has not brought forward a single piece of evidence which proves that the Greek cities ever practised agrarian communism. M. de Jubainville has not brought forward one which proves communism in Gaul. Maurer and Lamprecht have not produced one which shows that the mark was common land. As to the comparative method, which has been somewhat ostentatiously called into service, we are presented under its name with a strangely assorted mass of isolated facts, gathered from every quarter, and often not understood; every fact not in harmony with the theory has been left on one side. In the prosecution of what professed to be an inquiry into the domestic life of whole nations, the one thing essential has been omitted, that is, their law. In short, an imposing structure has been erected out of a series of misunderstandings. National communism has been confused with the common ownership of the family; tenure in common has been confused with ownership in common; agrarian communism with village commons.

We do not maintain that it is inadmissible to believe in primitive communism. What we do maintain is that the attempt to base this theory on an historical foundation has been an unfortunate one; and we refuse to accept its garb of false learning.

The theory itself will always be believed in by a certain class of minds. Among the current ideas which take possession of the imaginations of men is one they have learnt from Rousseau. It is that property is contrary to nature and that communism is natural; and this idea has power even over writers who yield to it without being aware that they do so.

Minds which are under the influence of this idea will never allow that property may be a primordial fact, contemporaneous with the earliest cultivation of the soil, natural to man, produced by an instinctive recognition of his interests, and closely bound up with the primitive constitution of the family. They will always prefer to assume that there must first have been a period of communism. This will be with them an article of faith which nothing can shake; and they will always be able to find authorities which can be made to support it There will, however, always be a few, endowed with a keener critical and historical sense, who will continue to doubt what has yet to be proved.

However that may be, the question, in spite of so many attempts, still remains unanswered. If any one wishes to give a scientific proof of primitive communism, these are the conditions on which he may perhaps succeed:

  1. He must find definite and exact authorities; which he must translate, not approximately, but with absolute correctness, according to the literal signification of the words.
  2. He must abstain from adducing facts which are comparatively modern in support of an institution which he ascribes to the beginning of things, as has been done in the case of the German mark, the island of Java and the Russian mir.
  3. He must not content himself with collecting a few isolated facts which may be exceptional; but he must study phenomena which are general, normal and far-spreading; of these he will find the evidence principally in legal records, and to a small extent in early religious customs.
  4. He will be careful not to confuse agrarian communism with family ownership, which may in time become village ownership without ceasing to be a real proprietorship.
  5. He will not mistake undivided tenancies on a domain belonging to a proprietor for community in land. The fact that villani, who were not the owners of any land at all, often cultivated the soil in common for a lord, or annually divided it amongst themselves, has no connection with agrarian communism, and is m fact directly opposed to it.
  6. He will be careful not to confuse the question by introducing village commons, unless he has first of all succeeded in proving that such commons are derived from a primitive communism. This has never yet been proved, and all that has hitherto been ascertained about commons is that they are an appendage of private property.

On these conditions alone can the work be done scientifically; short of this the only result will be a confused picture of the fancy. If any one, after taking all these precautions against gross error, discovers a body of facts and evidence in support of a theory of communism, he will have settled the question historically. Till then, do not invoke history in its favour. Present your theory as an abstract idea which may be valuable, but with which history has nothing to do. Let us not have sham learning. In saying this I have at heart the interests of historical science. There is danger lest, from love of a theory, a whole series of errors should be forcibly thrust into history. What I fear is not the theory itself; it will not affect the progress of human events; but it is the method employed to secure its acceptance. I distrust this pretended application of learning, this practice of forcing documents to say the very opposite of what they really say, this superficial habit of talking about all the nations of the world without having studied a single one. Never have “original authorities” been so much lauded as to-day; never have they been used with so much levity.


[1] “Fere de omnibus controversiis publicis privatisque constituunt.” It is well known that in legal language, the judicia publica are criminal cases; as the term implies, cases which concern crimes punished by a public authority; the judicia privata are those which concern private interests alone, and in which the State is not involved. See on this distinction Paul, Sententice, I., 5, 2; Ulpian XIII., 2; Fragmenta Vaticana, 197 and 326; Digest, XLY1I., tit. 1 and 2; XLYIII., I.; I., 1,

[2] It may be added that the social condition described by Cæsar is irreconcilable with agrarian communism, vi., 13: in omni Gallia plebs pæne servorum habetur loco, etc. Notice the numerous clients of Orgetorix, i., 4; those of Yercingetorix, vii., 4; the many poor, not in the towns, but in the country, in agris ngentes, vii., 4; the burden of the tributa, vi., 13. These traits are not those of a society where the land is common. They point rather to a system of great estates, with the soil in the hands of the magnates.

[3] This appears in the Comptes rendus de l’Académie des inscriptions ct belles-lettres,] 887, pp. 65, et seq.

[4] M. de Jubainville has translated controversies publiccs, as if it were controversies inter cluos populos. I know of no example in Latin literature where the word publicus has this sense. In Suetonius, Augustus, 29, the judicia publien are certainly not suits between peoples: they are criminal suits. When Cicero, defending Roscius of Ameria, says he is conducting his first causa publica, it is clear that he is not arguing for one people against another. He is defending Roscius, who is accused of parricide: it is a criminal proceeding.


[5] Cæsar, vi. 22; Nec quisquam (apud Osrmanos ) fixes habet proprios. Ibidem: ne latos fines parare atncUant, poUmtior-f.sque humiliores possessionibus expellant.

[6] Or else the same thing is implied by the turn of the sentence, i. 5: Helvetii a finibus suis exeunt; iv 3: quum Suevi Ubios finibus expellere non possent; vi 23: extra fines cujusque civitatis; v. 16 : fines regni sui; v. 27 : Ambiorix tutum iter per fines suos pollicetur. By a natural transition, fines comes to mean sometimes, not only the boundaries, but also the territory itself, vi. 42: ut Ambiorigis fines depopularentur.

[7] Cicero, Topica, 10: Si de finibus controversia est, fines agrorum esse videntur.

[8] D’Arbois de Jubainville, in the Comptes rendus de l’Académie des inscriptions, 1887, reprint, pp. 4-22.

[9] Gaius iii. 124: Appellatione pecunice omnes res in lege signijicantur… fundum vel hominem.Digest, L. 16, 222: pecunice nomine non solum numerata pecunia, sed omnes res tarn soli quam mobiles continentur. Cf. S. Augustine, De Discipl. Christ., i.: omnia quorum domini sumus pecunia vocuntur; strvus, ager, arbor, pecus, pecunia dicitur.

[10] Comptes rendus de l’Académie des inscriptions, session of June 8, 1886, reprint, p. 6.

[11] M. de Jubainville does not translate latin texts very exactly. For example, if he sees in Cæsar that no German possesses “agrimodum certum” he immediately says that “this ager must be the ager publicus; because in Rome modus agri was the technical expression for the ager publicus.” But where has he seen that? He may read in Varro, de re rustica, i. 14, the words de modo agri, which incontestably mean “concerning the extent of a private property.” He will find the same expression in Varro, i. 18, where the writer says that the number of rural slaves ought to be proportionate to the extent of the domain. And again he will find the jurisconsult Paul, in the Digest, xviii., 1. 40, using modum agri for the area of an estate which an individual has just bought. To prove that ager by itself means ager publicus he cites the lex Thoria; without noticing that in that law the ager publicus is mentioned eleven times, and that ager does not once stand for the public land unless accompanied by publicus or populi.