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  • Writer's pictureJeff King

The Geography of Celtic Europe

The Celts were a loose network of culturally and linguistically related tribes who originated in western Central Europe. Celtic tribes competed for resources and carved out territories for themselves along Europe’s great rivers, such as the Rhine, Danube, Rhône, and Seine. Ancient Greek authors variously referred to this area as a whole by the name Celtica, and they divided this swath of Europe into smaller parts according to the tribal affiliations of the locals.

Celtic peoples migrated far beyond this territory in Antiquity, and dominated an area which stretched from modern day Hungary to the Pyrenees Mountains dividing Spain and France. The 5th Century BC Greek historian Herodotus aptly called the Celts “the most westerly dwellers in Europe, except for the Cynetes [in Portugal]”.

Settlements in the Celtic Countryside

The Celts tended to settle in smaller settlements than those around the Mediterranean. While Mediterranean states tended to develop around cohesive city-states, Celtic states tended to be more loosely organized around wide tribal territories.

The Celtic structures of pre-Roman Europe were mostly made of wood and earth, although stone was also used. The overall architecture of Celtic houses did not differ very much from the simple yet functional structures of Neolithic Europe. There were no cities or large urbanised areas, and most people lived in farmsteads which were clustered together in small villages or hamlets. Many of these settlements were defended against raids by wooden, earth, or stone embankments and palisades.

Larger towns and settlements began developing in Western and Central Europe in the 3rd and 2nd Centuries, in connection to increasing trade with the Mediterranean. It was around this time that iron and pottery production increased and became more sophisticated, which partly due to local innovation rather than Mediterranean influence. In Gaul, the competition for resources like slaves in order to trade for Mediterranean goods probably encouraged tribes to begin building increasingly defensive settlements.

Late Iron Age Celtic settlements with fortified enclosures are known as oppida (singular oppidum), the term given to them by Roman geographers. Some Celtic hillforts or oppidum became the nucleus of larger communities which grew around them. A few of these settlements are identified as proto-cities or towns by Greco-Roman authors. Some of the more important Celtic settlements were even the predecessors of major Roman and modern cities. However, the architecture of these hilltop communities was not altogether different from the settlements of the countryside, nor were they comparable in size to modern municipalities, or indeed, to ancient Greek or Roman ones.

Celtic tribes living in different regions practiced different types of farming which were adapted to their unique environments. Farmers in Iron Age Europe raised cereals like emmer wheat, barley, oats, and millet but cattle were the primary source of wealth.

Cattle were useful as beasts of burden, in addition to providing meat and dairy. The Celts did not use coins except where they were influenced by outside cultures, and cattle was used as a standard form of wealth. In Gaul and Britain, Greco-Roman influences led to the local use of coinage by tribal chiefs. Ireland was more isolated, and coinage was not minted locally until the island was conquered by Viking rulers who struck their own coins in the 10th Century AD.

The oldest extensive literary evidence for Celtic social structures come from ancient and Early Medieval Ireland. More scattered and confused accounts from Classical Greek and Roman authors indicate that the Celts of Continental Europe had similar societies and social hierarchies.

Gallic coin from the British Museum

The principal political unit in Ireland was the tuath, a tribe or people. Each tuath was ruled by a king, who might himself answer to a high-king. The aristocracy was made up of a class of warriors who, along with Druids, bards, lawmakers, and skilled craftsmen, occupied a privileged role in Celtic society. Unskilled labourers and farmers occupied a lower social rung, but were still probably more privileged than slaves about whom little is known.

Ancient authors describe some of the Celtic tribes in Continental Europe being ruled by chieftains or princes, but others apparently had more oligarchic or republican forms of government. In all likelihood, there was a great degree of political diversity among the Celtic tribes of Iron Age Europe.

Celts on the Mediterranean Frontier

Celtic tribes in the southern stretches of Europe, through Gaul, northern Italy, and eastern Iberia, had intimate contacts with Greek, Phoenician, Etruscan traders and colonists. Gaul, roughly corresponding to modern-day France, was a major point of contact between the Celts and their Mediterranean neighbors. The Ligurians, a related Indo-European people, had settled in the region prior to the Celts, but migration and cultural exchange led to a heavy Celtic presence by the 6th Century BCE.

Celtic tribes in the Iberian Peninsula (particularly Spain and eastern Portugal) had close, though not always friendly, interactions with the Iberian tribes. The Celt-Iberians, a people well-established by the Classical period, are possibly a fusion of the two cultures, or Ibericized Celts, or Celticized Iberians. The presence of Carthaginian colonies in Iberia also brought them into contact with Phoenicians and North Africans.

Although Celtic culture was not shaped by Mediterranean influences as was previously assumed, cultural and commercial exchange with the Mediterranean did alter the trajectory of Celtic history. Luxury goods like wine, Mediterranean foods, metal treasures, and drinking vessels acted as status symbols which Celtic chieftains could use to reward their followers and demonstrate their power.

Southern regions was more urbanized than the north and larger, more complex Celtic settlements developed in the lands close to the Mediterranean. Examples of prominent Celtic settlements are Ulaca and Numantia in Iberia, or the Gallic cities of Lutetia (modern Paris), Bibracte, and Durocortorum. Many of these larger settlements have clear Mediterranean influences, and some even imitate aspects of the layout and architecture of Greek towns. Most of the more well known Celtic settlements in Gaul, Italy, and Iberia continued to prosper under the Roman Empire, and these settlements even expanded to become cities.

The earliest surviving textual source of the name "Celt" was authored by Hecataeus of Miletus in the 6th Century BC. Hecataeus described the existence of a large Celtic settlement in Gaul, just north of the Greek colony of Massalia (Marseilles) in modern day France. The existence of this settlement has been supported by archaeological evidence of an oppidum near Vix.

The Vix settlement existed from the Late Bronze Age until the Early Iron Age and was clearly prosperous. Vix benefited from being located near a fertile agricultural plain which could help support its population. Its proximity to both the Seine Valley and the Rhône Valley facilitated trade with Massalia, and the Mediterranean by extension. This ideal location made Vix an important hub in the trade between northern Europe and the Mediterranean.

The “Vix Grave” or “Grave of the Lady of Vix” has been dated to circa 500 BC, and contains a wealth of rich imports from the Mediterranean among other treasures. The young woman interred in the grave was buried with goods which included spectacular Greek ceramic and metal artefacts, and a four-wheeled chariot. From the 6th Century BC onwards, wine and other goods from Massalia and beyond made their up north from Vix in exceptional volumes.

The most important harbour in Gaul was said to be Narbo, a settlement which had a very important port and marketplace. Narbo was around the site of modern Narbonne, although the latter was formally established by the Romans in 118 BC. This region of Gaul was called Gallia Narbonensis by the Romans, in reference to the regional prominence of Narbo.

Narbo was strategically located above Lake Narbonitis and the Atax (Aude) River, and it was near enough the coast to be an important trade hub along with Massalia. It apparently quickly overshadowed other Celtic harbours as the de facto trade-centre of Celtica as a whole. Rapid voyages to other nearby settlements were apparently made possible by river travel, which helps to explain how Narbo was connected to the rest of Celtica by both land and water.

Besides Narbo, another notable harbour in Gaul was Arelate (Arles) near the Rhône River, although it never rose to the prominence of either Narbo or Massalia. Arelate was founded by the Ligurians, and Arelate had a significant Celtic presence in later periods.

Other notable Gallic settlements were founded downstream from Narbo, especially Ruscino (Castel Rousillon) and Ilibirris (possibly modern Elne). Pliny the Elder describes these two in the 1st Century AD as follows: “Illiberis, the scanty remains of what was formerly a great city, and Ruscino, a town with Latin rights” (Pliny the Elder, Nat., 3.5.4).

The Northern Frontier of the Celtic World

The northern stretches of Europe were even more sparsely populated than Western and Central Europe in the Iron Age, and larger settlements did not begin to develop until later. Fortified oppida begin to appear in Germany in the 2nd Century BCE, and many of the larger Celtic settlements in Germany had died out by the 1st Century BCE. Here, unlike Gaul, there was not a strong continuation of German settlements in the Roman period. Around 500 BC, Celtic groups began spreading east and established themselves as far as the Black Sea.

Roughly the same time, Celtic groups moved into Britain, and they spread across the British Isles over the next century. These fringe territories ended up preserving archaic Celtic traditions that died out on the Continent due to the process of Romanization and Christianization. At the same time, Britain and Ireland were home to numerous local architectural and technological innovations, and should not be viewed merely as outgrowths of Continental Celtic patterns.

An Grianan fort at sunset (Ireland) - Image Credit: Mark McGaughey (CC-BY-SA)

In Britain, fortified settlements begin to pop up around the 1st Century BCE, but these last well into the Roman period and often develop into cities in later periods. Even so, Roman Britain was always less urbanized and more sparsely settled than more southerly Roman provinces like Gaul or Italy. Ireland remained mostly isolated from Roman influences, and the rural Celtic mode of life prevailed well into the Middle Ages. The largest Irish communities were the monastic communities which sometimes included hundreds of people.

Sources & Bibliography

  • Green, Miranda J. The Celtic World. Routledge.

  • Chadwick, Nora and Cunliffe, Barry. The Celts: Second Edition. Penguin.

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

  • Haywood, John and Cunliffe, Barry. The Historical Atlas of the Celtic World. Thames & Hudson.

  • 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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