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  • Writer's pictureJeff King

Celtic History Explained: Part 2 - Who Were the Ancient Celts?

Updated: May 30, 2019

The second part instalment in this ten-part series on Celtic history, from ancient times to the modern era.

“[One] of the most feared and admired peoples of ancient Europe, inhabiting in Roman times the coastal lands from Spain, Britain, and Ireland across the continent to northern Italy and into eastern Europe and Asia Minor. They served as mercenary soldiers in the armies of Egyptian kings and fought for centuries against the expanding empire of Rome.” (Philip Freeman, Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes)

The Celts are considered to be the first Northern European culture that can be properly considered a civilization, although they have also often been considered Europe’s barbarians. The peoples identified as “Celts” did not come from a single ancestral stock, nor did they share a uniform culture. Because of this, it is impossible to generalize overly about “Celtic” people or even Celtic societies.

They did however speak common languages, and they kept certain shared traditions. Moreover, they were commonly identified under collective terms like Celts (Keltoi), Gauls (Galli), and Galatians (Galatae). These commonalities make it possible to speak about Celtic cultures or at least cultural spheres.

Searching for the origins of the Celts: A look at pre-history

The ancient Celts left behind no written histories or myths from which to reconstruct their early history. The origins of Celtic culture are somewhat unclear, but archaeological evidence has helped scholars to reconstruct patterns of population movements and cultural exchange in pre-historic Europe.

Agriculture and animal husbandry had been introduced to the region by the 4th Millennium BC, having originally spread from the Middle East to southeastern Europe, before eventually being spread north along major rivers which connected Europe. Besides with material goods and technologies, shared belief systems are known to have spread along these maritime routes.

Celtic, like nearly all European languages, is descended from Proto-Indo-European (PIE). PIE is a reconstructed language which is thought to have been brought to Europe by a migratory equestrian culture which originated in the Pontic-Caspian Steppe, before spreading outwards as far as Northern Europe in the west and India in the east.

The prevailing theory is that proto-Celtic language developed with the Urnfield culture in Central Europe. In particular, the Late Bronze Age Halstatt Culture of Germany and Austria has been associated with the origins of proto-Celtic. The late Halstatt Culture is known for hillforts and for the presence of elite burials with burial goods like swords and wagons. These developments are particularly comparable to later Celtic patterns of settlement.

Around the 8th or 7th Century BC, these Central European tribal groups had developed what can be considered a proto-Celtic language and culture. This cultural revolution was centred around modern-day Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic.

By the 6th Century, the Halstatt peoples were trading with Etruscans from Italy and Greeks from Asia Minor. Greek colonists from Phocaea (Foça), in modern-day Turkey, established a colony called Massilia (Marseilles) in modern France around 600 BC. Massilia was at the time the most important connection between Central Europe and the Mediterranean, and Greek goods like wine and drinking-vessels were traded north in exchange for goods like metals, salt, and slaves.

The La Tène culture, known for its distinctive style of Celtic art, chariots, and warrior-burials, developed seamlessly from the Halstatt Culture. This situation makes it possible to consider the La Tène culture to be the earliest Celts, and the Halstatt Culture its predecessor. Halstatt and La Tène artefacts have been found everywhere from Britain and the Pyrenees Mountains, to northern Italy and Turkey.

Archaeological evidence indicates that Europe experienced a population boom in the 6th and 5th Centuries BC, which may have instigated Celtic migrations to the south and east. This lends some credence to Pausanias’ claim the Celts were the most numerous nation of all, with the Thracians (a tribal people from Southeastern Europe) coming in second. (Paus. 1.9.5).

On the other hand, John T. Koch and Barry Cunliffe theorized that proto-Celtic emerged in Atlantic Europe. This area was at the crossroads of maritime river routes connecting the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Radiocarbon dating has revealed that there were important cultural hubs along the Atlantic coast, in western Portugal, Brittany, southern Ireland, and the Orkney Islands. These centres produced goods and ideas which quickly caught on in the rest of Atlantic Europe, pointing to a fairly high degree of interconnectedness.

Linguistic arguments are also made to support this theory. Celtic languages are often divided into two subgroups, Continental Celtic languages spoken on the mainland and Insular Celtic languages from the Atlantic, which had differing pronunciations. The fact that Insular Celtic languages such as Lepontic Celtic (spoken in Iberia) and Goidelic Celtic (spoken in Britain and Ireland) are thought to have been more archaic than Continental Celtic languages spoken in the European mainland is used as further proof of an Atlantic origin.

In light of this evidence, Koch and Cunliffe hypothesized that the primary influences on the development of “Celtic culture” were the cultures of Bronze Age Atlantic Europe, rather than Central Europe.

The First Celts

Wherever the first proto-Celtic language appeared, Celtic speakers quickly began migrating throughout Europe, and assimilating neighbouring tribes to create a kind of cultural pastiche that became Celtic. The multi-ethnic culture which emerged had a shared set of religious beliefs and deities, and was ruled by a warrior-aristocracy. The area was relatively stable in the early Iron Age, and a unified identity may have begun to emerge among the neighbouring settlements and tribes.

Celts eventually resided along Europe’s great rivers: The Rhine, Danube, Rhône, Saône, Seine, and Loire. Because of the geography of the region, lakes and rivers were central to Celtic cultures. These bodies of water connected Europe and allowed tribes to trade and communicate across long distances. Lakes, bogs, and springs were also of religious significance, as they were thought to be the dwelling places of various deities, particularly those associated with the underworld. Offerings of weapons, jewellery, animals, and even humans have been found in bogs and lakes in areas historically occupied by Celts.

Map of the Celtic Peoples of Europe and their movements in the Post-Classical Period (BY-NC-ND)

The earliest documented instance of the word Celt (Keltoi) was applied to them by the Greeks, although some Celtic tribes did use it to describe themselves. Although Romans were familiar with the terms Celtae and Celti, they preferred to call these people Gauls (Galli) or Galatians (Galatae). It is possible that the term Celt only originally referred to the tribes living in southeastern France, while Gaul was a more general term.

The Greek historian Strabo, writing in the 1st Century BCE, suggested that:

“the people who inhabit the dominion of Narbonitis, whom the men of former times named "Celtae"; and it was from the Celtae, I think, that the Galatae as a whole were by Greeks called "Celti" — on account of the fame of the Celtae, or it may also be that the Massiliotes, as well as other Greek neighbours, contributed to this result, on account of their proximity.” (Geog. 4.1.14)

The ancient Greeks knew of the Celts’ proximity to the Atlantic, and Pausanias described it as “the farthest part of the sea navigated by man, near which dwell the Iberians and the Celts” and stated that it surrounds the island of Britain (Paus. 1.33.4). Interestingly, the tribes of Britain and Ireland were never considered Celts by the Greeks or Romans, and it was only in the early modern period that this name was extended to them.

Celtic Society at a Glance

The bustling cities of the Mediterranean had no parallel in Celtic Europe prior to Roman colonization, and the countryside was rather sparsely populated. Most people lived in farmsteads, relatively close to their neighbours. Hillforts and fortified villages are characteristic of Celtic civilization, and have been found throughout Europe. The largest settlements were fortified towns known as oppida (singular oppidum) which could sustain up to 10,000 people.

Each tribe or settlement was ruled by its own chieftains or local princes. Coalitions of these tribes and towns came together to elect a king who ruled over all of them, and these kings in turn elected high-kings who could unite multiple coalitions of Celts. The aristocracy of Celtic societies was made up of a warrior-elite, who owed loyalty to their chieftain. These warrior-aristocrats were buried with various symbolic goods which signalled their status, including weapons, horses, chariots or wagons, and treasures.

It is likely that the demand for wealth and luxury items in order to maintain social status was a driving factor behind raiding. Raiding was an important source of slaves, plunder, and prestige, which meant that it could both inspire and sustain a culture of warfare. Celtic Europe had nothing to compare to the more developed infrastructure and industries of the Mediterranean, although Celtic craftsmen were exceptionally skilled in their own right.

Although most people were self-sufficient, there was a small degree of specialization in certain trades. Blacksmithing and crafting in particular was a specialized pursuit, and Celtic smiths produced some especially fine examples of jewellery, tools, and weapons. The distinctive torc necklace worn by Celtic men is especially well-represented in the archaeological record, and was deemed worthy of comment by Graeco-Roman authors.

Sources & Bibliography

  • Rankin, David. Celts and the Classical World. Routledge.

  • Angus Konstam. The Historical Atlas of the Celtic World. Penguin Books.

  • Cunliffe, Barry. The Ancient Celts. Oxford University Press.

  • Cunliffe, Barry. The Celts: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press.

  • Freeman, Philip. Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes. Oxford University Press.

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