22. To outsiders from the Mediterranean, Celtic life could seem barbarous…
The Greeks and Romans looked down on the Celts because their cultural standards were so different from the Meditteranean ideal. Diodorus Siculus, writing in the first century BC described how the Celts dined not on chairs or couches but seated on the floor on the skins of “Wolves or dogs.” Siculus also described how dining occurred around the same hearths where food cooked, stewing in a cauldron or roasted on a spit. Such accounts damned the Celts as rough and barbarous. In reality, their society was anything but.
23. …However, the Celts were known for their hospitality
But Siculus also noted the Celts observed various niceties that were recognisably civilised. It was their custom to serve the choicest portions of meat to the bravest warriors — as it was in ancient Greece. Siculus likens this tradition to the treatment of the Greek hero Ajax after he returned from his victory over Hector in the Illiad. Celtic hospitality was faultless — no matter how rough and ready their mealtimes. Siculus describes how it was customary to open up hearth and home to strangers — and no Celt would dream of enquiring after a guest’s identity and business until they were comfortable and fed.
24. Celtic society was, in fact, sophisticated and well-organised.
The Celts may have been unruly in war. But the structure of their society was stable, settled and structured. The basis of the Celtic social structure was the tribe, ruled by a chief or king. Each tribe had control of an extended territory which subdivided amongst various extended family units. The leadership of these “subtribes’ — like the Kingship— was not automatically passed down from parent to child. Instead, it went to anyone deemed worthy.
Within this social framework, the people of the tribe divided into three main subgroups. First, there were the warriors, then the druids. Finally, came the ordinary people, who farmed and manufactured and kept Celtic society going.
The druids were the priests of the Celts. However, they were also so much more and accorded a special place in Celtic society. Caesar describes how druids were also teachers and judges and so revered they were exempt from military service and taxes. It was a great honour to be chosen to train as a druid — although students had to dedicate twenty years to their studies. Unlike much of Celtic culture, which developed on mainland Europe, Caesar noted that Druidism originated in Britain before being imported to Gaul.
Below the ordinary Celtic people was another class- the cacht (Irish) or caeth (Welsh) —slaves. Both words appear to derive from the Latin captus — suggesting the Celts may have acquired the term by trading slaves with the Romans. Celtic slaves were captives taken during wars or raids. Slavery was also a penalty meted out for certain crimes or to debtors. Tangible evidence of Celtic slavery comes from Llyn Cerrig Bach on Anglesey. Amongst the assorted weapons, horse fittings and cauldrons that formed a pre-Roman hoard of metal objects deposited in a lake was a set of neck shackles used to chain slaves. Celtic slavery was a hereditary condition. But it was also possible for a Celtic slave to win their freedom.
27. …But Celtic women enjoyed an enviable amount of equality with men.
The Romans may have lent the Celts their name for a slave. However, one thing Celtic society didn’t take to was the Roman attitude toward women. Roman and Greek women had strictly limited and controlled roles within their community. Celtic women, on the other hand, enjoyed freedom and equality with their male counterparts. The Iceni Queen Boudica serves as the perfect example of what a Celtic woman could do, and she was no isolated example. A Celtic woman could have a voice and rule — or even fight. Furthermore, Celtic society encouraged women who were raped or abused to take vengeance rather than have a man do it for them.
28. Celtic Women were also quite sexually uninhibited — according to classical sources.
According to Cassius Dio, Celtic women also enjoyed a great deal more freedom over their sex lives than their classical counterparts. Dio reports how the wife of Argentocoxus, a Caledonian chief advised Julia Augusta, the wife of the Emperor Septimius Severus that Celtic women “fulfil the demands of nature in a much better way than do you, Roman women; for we consort openly with the best men, whereas you let yourselves be debauched in secret by the vilest.”
29. Homosexuality was an accepted part of Celtic life.
Somewhat contradictorily, many Classical writers noted that Celtic men preferred to have sex with each other. Diodorus Siculus stated that, although Celtic women were beautiful, their men preferred to sleep with each other. Siculus also noted that it was an insult if a guest refused an offer of sex from a Celtic man. The Greek philosopher Posidonius also stated that in Gaul “men prefer to have sex with each other.” These sweeping statements may be a misinterpretation of Celtic male bonding rituals and certainly don’t suggest that Celtic men only slept with women under sufferance. However, what they do show is that homosexual relationships were not prohibited or taboo amongst the Celts and that they had a flexible approach to sexuality.
30. In the Third Century BC, The Romans began to turn the tables against the Celts.
Less than 100 years after Brennus’s sack of Rome, the Romans began to turn the tables on the Celts. They started by pushing the Celts who had settled in Italy out of the peninsula. At the Battle of Telamon in 225BC, the Roman’s, led by the consuls Gaius Atilius Regulus and Lucius Aemilius Papus, killed 40,000 Celtic tribesmen. The Romans also took large tracts of Celtic territory in northern Italy. By the time of Sulla, Rome had established Cisalpine Gaul as a province. It was only the beginning Rome was on the ascendant — and the celts were on the run.
31. The Romans then moved into the Celtic heartlands, and their motivation was gold
However, Romans were not content with annexing Cisalpine Gaul. By the first century BC, they were intent upon conquering and acquiring the rest of the Celtic territories. In 58BC, Julius Caesar used the migration of the Helvetii as a pretext to move into wider Gaul. By the time of Emperor Augustus, the process was complete, and the region was under Roman control. However, the Roman motivation for these campaigns against the Celts was not just vengeance or expansion but gold. Writers such as Strabo noted Gaul was famous for its gold mines. Mines such as Limousin in southwestern France had been mined for centuries and had an abundance of gold. The opportunity to control that wealth was not to be missed.
32. The Gauls, led by Vercingetorix, however, did not give up without a fight.
Despite being picked off one by one by the Romans, the Celtic tribes in Gaul did not give up. Putting aside their differences, they united under the leadership of Vercingetorix, the chieftain of the Arverni to mount a campaign of resistance in the hope of driving their common enemy out. Vercingetorix mounted a successful guerrilla campaign and even defeated Caesar at the Battle of Gergovia. However, eventually, Vercingetorix’s — and the Gauls— luck ran out. After being driven into a corner by Caesar’s troops, the Gauls surrendered Vercingetorix to Caesar. The Celtic chieftain was taken to Rome and paraded in Ceasar’s triumph. He lived for a further six years before being strangled in a Roman prison.
33. Meanwhile, the island of Britain remained as one of the last independent Celtic outposts.
However, Caesar had less luck with invading Britain in 54 BC. He eventually gave up his efforts, leaving the island as a place of refuge for continental celts fleeing Rome. Archaeology shows that in the first century BC, a significant migration of continental Celts, the Belgae poured into Britain and settled on the south coast. The Belgae had a considerable influence on existing British Celtic culture. Crucially, they established trade routes with the continent and somewhat ironically Rome. Belgae-led trade exposed British Celts to Roman luxury goods. It was also the start of Celtic Britain’s downfall.
34. Celtic Britain might have been safe- if King Cogidubnus of the Atrebates had not sold out to the Romans
In 43BC, Emperor Claudius succeeded where Julius Caesar had failed by successfully invading Celtic Britain. The emperor’s troops landed on the south coast and after beating back resistance, established their capital at Camulodunum. Claudius’s invasion succeeded because the Roman’s had already gained a foothold in Britain by winning over some southern tribes. Key to their campaign was King Cogidubnus of the Atrebates. Cogidubnus loved all things Roman, and so he sold out to the Romans, allowing them to build military bases in Atrebate territory where they could mass troops and cavalry. His reward was riches not seen again in Britain until the middle ages.
35. The Romans may have conquered the Celts. But the Celtic legacy is preserved today
The ancient Celts may be gone, but they are not forgotten, and their legacy survives to this day in many European languages and place names. Two-thirds of England’s rivers have Celtic names, such as the rivers Avon, Severn, Derwent and Trent. So too do many of their continental counterparts such as Germany’s River Neckar which derives from the Celtic for wild water. Celtic languages also still survive such as Welsh, Breton, Cornish, Gaelic and Irish.