Celtic History

 

General Celtic Info

The Celts dominated Mid and Western Europe for a thousand years. But it is only recently that the importance of Celtic influence on the cultural, linguistic and artistic development of Europe. The Celts as an identifiable race or ethnic group have long since disappeared, except in places such as Ireland and the Scottish Highlands.

The Celts transmitted their culture orally, never writing down history or facts. This accounts for the extreme lack of knowledge about them prior to their contact with the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome. They were generally well educated, particularly on topics such as religion, philosophy, geography and astronomy. The Romans often employed Celtic tutors for their sons.

The bravery of the Celts in battle is legendary. They often spurned body armor, going naked into battle. Celtic society was typically more equal in terms of gender roles. Women were on more or less equal footing as men, being accomplished warriors, merchants and rulers.

This page is quite lengthy so here are some jump points:

Early Europe

The first human settlers in Europe were paleolithic hunter/gatherer tribes. At the end of the last ice age (some 10000 years ago) they began adopting an agrarian lifestyle. This occurred over 2500 years during the mesolithic era. These agricultural societies began making clay pots around the year 5000 BC, the beginning of the neolithic period. The neolithic lasts until about 2500 BC. During this time we have no knowledge of the race or language of these early Europeans. It is not known if they spoke an indoeuropean language or still the pre-indoeuropean tongues. Little is known of the bronze age (2500 - 800 BC) either, the race character of the people is unknown, but since the first Greek migration occured in 1800 BC at least some of the people now spoke an indoeuropean language. It is not known if this was motivated by indoeuropean migrations out of Russia, or if Europe as a whole under went cultural evolution at the same time to become indoeuropean. Whatever the make up of the bronze age population, they formed the basis of the early iron age cultures. The first of these was the Hallstatt Culture.

 

The Hallstatt Culture

This was the first of the iron age cultures. The western regions of this culture, between France and west Germany, already spoke a Celtic language. Around the year 600 BC the Greek geographer Herodotus writes of the Celts dwelling beyond "the pillars of Hercules" (ie Spain) and the Upper Danube. The name "Celt" probably came from the dominant tribe of the Halstatt, and became a unifying concept for the whole culture. "Celt" is what the people called themselves, they referred to themselves when talking to the Greeks as the "Keltoi".

 

The La Tene Culture

The classic Celtic culture, the La Tene is named after Lake Neuchatel, Switzerland where a large amount of weaponry from this culture was found last century. This culture began around 450 BC

 

The Celtic Homelands

The original Celtic homeland was an area of Austria, near southern Germany. From here they expanded over much of continental Europe and Britain. The map below shows the extent of the Celtic settlements.

At their peak, the Celts ranged from Ireland and Spain to Turkey. A brief rundown on some of the regions is given now:

 

  • England, Scotland and Ireland

    The name Britain derives from Celtic. The Greek author Pytheas called them the "Pretanic Isles" which derived from the inhabitants name for themselves, Pritani. This was mistranslated into Latin as "Brittania" or "Brittani". The Celts migrated to Ireland from Europe, conquering the original inhabitants. In clashes with the Romans around the River Clyde a tribe called the "Scotti" came to prominence. Later the Scotti moved from Northern Island to establish the Kingdom of Dalriada in Argyll, on the West coast of Scotland. From here the Scots expanded and supplanted the Picts, an Celtic people who arrived in Scotland earlier. Ireland was never invaded by the Romans and retains what is probably the language closest to the original Celtic, Irish Gaelic.

     

  • France

    Modern France is a composite of many earlier peoples. The Celts settled there and the largest tribe, called the "Galli" by the Romans, gave their name to the region and people, the Gauls. The Gauls were heavily involved in the invasions of Northern Italy. When the Roman Empire expanded many of the Gaullish tribes fled, but some stayed and became Romanized, losing the Celtic language. Later a Germanic tribe, the Franks, invaded the area and settled. The Franks gave their name to the region but adopted the language and customs of the people. Thus France is a Celtic people, speaking a Romance language in a country with a Germanic name.

     

  • Belgium

    Belgium is similar in situation to France. The dominant tribe, the Belgae, gave their name to the region. They were later conquered by the Romans.

     

  • Galatia

    The Galatians of the New Testament of the Bible were a Celtic tribe that migrated through the Balkans. They pillaged as they moved and attacked, but were defeated by, the Greeks and eventually moved into Turkey, founding Galatia. They were destroyed and assimilated by the Turks early in the first millenium AD.

     

The Golden Age of the Celts

The Celts were at their height during the 4th and 5th centuries BC. During this time they waged three great wars, which had great influence on the history of southern Europe.

About 500 BC the Celts conquered Spain, wresting it from Carthage.

Around 400 BC they took Northern Italy from the Etruscans. Here they settled in great numbers.

At the end of the 4th century the overran Pannonia, conquering the Illyrians.

All these wars were fought in alliance with the Greeks. At this time the Celts and Greeks were on very friendly terms. The defeat of Carthage broke the monopoly on British tin and Spanish silver and freed the overland trade routes to Britain. At this time the Greeks and Celts were allied against the Phoenicians and Persians. Celtic hostility to Carthage helped save Greece from destruction from the East, no Celts enlisted in Carthage's mercenary army. Alexander the Great made alliance with the Celts in 334 BC, when he was about to embark on his conquest of Asia. The Celts kept the Greek dominions safe from attack during his absence.

 

The Celts and Rome

Around the year 400 BC the Celts were ruled by a king named Livy Ambicatus. At this time, the height of their power, they were unified as a military confederacy of tribes. They were attracted by the rich land of Northern Italy and invaded, battling and defeating the Etruscans. At this time the Romans were pushing at the Etruscans from the South, and the Celts and Romans acted in alliance. But the Romans despised the Northern barbarians, and at the seige of Clusium (391 BC) (which the Romans regarded as a bulwark of Rome against the barbaric North) the Romans betrayed the Celts. The Celts recognized former Roman envoys fighting with the enemy. The Celts applied to Rome for the family of Fabius Ambustus (whose sons were the envoys), the chief pontiff of Rome, in reparation. Rome refused and elected the Fabii as miltary tribunes the next year. Abandoning the seige of Clusium, the Celts marched on Rome. They passed cities and fortresses without stopping, there was no plundering. Their cry to guards on provinicial town walls was "We are bound for Rome". They reached Rome and defeated the mustered city forces in a single charge. Three days later they were in Rome, and stayed for a year. They extracted a great fine from Rome in reparation for the treachery at Clusium and left with a peace treaty. For nearly a century there was peace between Rome and the Celts. It was broken only when various Celtic tribes allied with the Etruscans in the third Samnite war, this was near the time of the breakup of the old Celtic Empire.

The Celts and the Germans

The Greek traveler Pytheas mentions the Germans about 300 BC, but they do not enter history until the Teutons descend on Italy to be defeated by Marius at the end of the second century. The ancient Greeks before Pytheas assigned all lands now known as Germanic to the Celts. It is probable that at this time the Germans were a subject people of the Celts and had no separate political existence. The German language borrowed many words from Celtic. But two things the Germans would not take from the Celts were language and religion. This race-pride gave rise to the German uprising and fall of the Celtic Empire hundreds of years later. The German and Celtic deities have different names, and the burial rites were markedly different. The Germans burned their illustrious dead on pyres, the Celts (who buried their dead) regarded such as a humiliation to be used on criminals or slaves.

Celtic Religion

Religion was a pre-eminent force in the Celtic culture. There's was a religion codified in dogma and administered by a priestly caste, the Druids. Druids were a major power within the Celtic empire, with all public and private affairs subject to their authority. The Celts were extremely superstitious, and regarded it as the worst punishment to be excommunicated. Caesar wrote an account of the Druids:

They who are thus interdicted are reckoned in the number of the vile and wicked; all persons avoid and fly their company and discourse, lest they should receive any infection by contagion; they are not permitted to commence a suit; neither is any post entrusted to them... The Druids are generally freed from military service, nor do they pay taxes with the rest... Encouraged by such rewards, many of their own accord come to their schools, and are sent by their friends and relations. They are said to get by heart a great number of verses; some continue twenty years in their education; neither is it held lawful to commit these things [Druidic doctrines] to writing, though in almost all public transactions and private accounts they use the Greek characters.

The immense power of the Druids was the weakness of the Celtic polity. No nation that is ruled by priests drawing their authority from supernatural sanctions is capable of true progress. The Celts fanatic adherence to their religion inevitably helped bring down their empire.

It is likely that Druids were originally the priests of the megalithic pre-Celtic peoples of Western Europe. During the Celtic expansion the Druids were adopted by the highly religious Celts and the numerous Celtic deities and beliefs were adopted by the Druids.

 

The Fall of the Celtic Empire

By the year 300 BC the Celts had lost their political cohesion and the Empire began breaking apart. Tribes began wandering in search of new lands. Some went to Greece, where they outraged their former allies at the sack of Delphi (273 BC). Others renewed the war with Rome, in alliance with the Etruscans, and were defeated at Sentinum (295 BC) and Lake Vadimo (283 BC). One group went into Asia Minor, and founded Galatia where a Celtic dialect was still spoken until 400 BC. These were eventually assimilated into Turkey. Others enlisted as mercenaries with Carthage. Wars between Celts and Germans or Celts who had settled earlier were fought all over Mid-Europe, Gaul and Britain. By the end of this the only Celtic strongholds were Britain and Gaul. The beginning of the Christian era saw Britain under Roman rule.

 

Modern Celts

Most people of European descent today can count on some Celtic ancestry. A typical impression of a Celt today is the short, dark haired Irishman. But by all ancient accounts the Celts were tall and fair of skin and hair. "True" Celts today do not really exist, the closest examples are the Highlanders of Perthshire and Northwest Scotland the families of the old ruling race in Ireland and Wales. Over the centuries the racial characteristics of the pre-Celt inhabitants of Europe has surfaced, the Celts typically settled in areas as a ruling class and held themselves apart from those there before them. The Celts, forming a strong warrior class, typically were at the forefront of battles and perished more numerously than the "subject" people. They never set themselves up to leave a lasting legacy in the racial traits of modern people. The main contribution of the Celts has been largely a cultural one, influencing the development of most of Europe and leaving the Celtic heritage of Scotland, Ireland and Wales.

 

Celtic Art

Celtic art developed separately from other "classical" cultures, such as Rome and Greece. The importation of objects from the Mediterranean gave the Celts contact with their art but the Celtic style was unaffected. Constant contact with eastern and northern neighbors of similar societal structure induced and "Orientalising" of Celtic art, eg the use of the Scythian/Thraco-Cimmerian animal style. Elements of Etruscan art were also absorbed, but where ever the Celts took styles from they immediately altered them in such a way as to make them purely Celtic. There was no period in which the foreign style was used and developed, the style was Celticized immediately. The pottery of the Celts is never decorated with figurative scenes (as in Greece for example) but always with textural designs and multi-colors. Their metalwork is highly sculptural, rejecting the Greek methods of integrating of form and surface. The Celts never looked to the classical societies as the center of art work, considering their own developed style and tradition to be equal.

 

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