The Celts spoke a variety of dialects which all sprang from a common root, believed to be the language of urnfield culture. The oldest records of a Celtic language come from the sixth century BC in northern Italy, in the region once known as Cisalpine Gaul. The language of the inscriptions is known as Lepontic dialect and is just one of of the known ancient Celtic languages, another being Gaulish. Certain Celtic regions developed their own alphabets, as seen in Celtiberian inscriptions on the Botorrita plaques dating to 200 BC. However, the Celts were also happy to borrow other people’s alphabets. In Massalia, inscriptions were discovered dating to the La Tene period, written in Gaulish — using the Greek alphabet.
The Hallstatt Celts prospered from farming and industry in their territories. However, commanding commodities like salt opened up trade routes with other lands and culture. By the sixth century BC, the Greek Dark Age that followed the fall of Mycenae was over, and Greece once again began to expand its territories and establish new trading outposts on the outskirts of the Mediterranean. One of those outposts was Massilia — modern Marseilles —which was developed by Adriatic Greeks. Massilia bordered Celtic territory, and soon a trade route was established along the Rhone between the Greek colony and Hallstatt territory in south-west Germany. The Celts used this route to barter salt and iron for Greek wine, pottery and inadvertently, ideas.
10. The Princess of Vix shows the impact of Greek culture on the Hallstatt Celts.
Sometime during the sixth century BC, a thirty-year-old, high-status woman died in Vix in modern France. The woman — the so-called princess of Vix— was buried in standard Hallstatt fashion in a bronze decorated wagon on a timber mortuary house under a mound. However, amongst her grave goods were valuable Mediterranean goods. The most impressive of these foreign status symbols was a 1.5-metre-high bronze Greek krater — a giant mixing bowl for wine. Archaeologists believe that Vix may have been a centre for controlled the wine trade across the rest of mainland Europe — hence the theme of the Princess’s grave goods. However, what the Vix burial also demonstrates is how much the Celts prized Mediterranean culture.
11. Greek Art Inspired the Development of Celtic Culture.
Greek pottery and metalwork certainly made an impression on the Celts. However, they weren’t just satisfied with trading for it; instead, they began to imitate it. Then in 540BC, the contact between the two cultures was broken when the Carthaginians blocked Greek trade in the western Mediterranean, cutting off the trade routes between the Greeks and the Celts. This separation lasted for around fifty years, but during that time, the Celts fermented the inspirational ideas they had absorbed from the Greeks to create an utterly unique art form.
12. The La Tene Phase of Celtic culture was a result of this period of isolation and innovation.
In 1858, archaeologists identified the next phase of Celtic culture amongst ancient timbers found in Lake Neuchatel near La Tene in Switzerland. The team from Zurich uncovered a haul of swords, helmets and broaches dating from sixth century BC. The objects were the result of the marriage of Greek and Celtic culture. Skillfully crafted abstract patterns and wildlife themes combined to create the unique art form that came to epitomise La Tene culture. La Tene covers the period from the sixth century BC until the Roman era. Accompanying its’ artistic revolution was the abandonment of wagons as grave goods, in favour of two-wheeled chariots. As well as maturing artistically, the Celts were coming of age as a warrior-based society.
13. The Ancient Greeks even gave us the name by which we know “The Celts” today.
Quite whether the Celts saw themselves as a single people is debatable. It is more likely they saw themselves as separate tribes united by a common culture. Some people believe that the name “Celt” derives from a Celtic term of reference. However, most others believe the Ancient Greeks named them. The Romans, who had also encountered the Celts referred to them as “Galli’ or barbarians. However, to the Greeks, they were the “Keltoi.” “The first person to name the Celts as such was a Greek geographer called Hecataeus of Miletus who in 517BC used the term to describe the local tribes living near the Greek colony of Marseilles. According to Patrizia De Bernardo Stempel, the term means “the tall ones.” Tallness, as it turns out, wasn’t the only attribute the Greeks attributed to Celtic people.
14. The Italians also encountered the Celts. However, their encounters weren’t as positive as the Greek experience.
As Celtic culture flourished, the population increased — putting pressure on tribal territories In the fourth century BC, overpopulated was such a problem that one Gaulish chief with a “burdensome excess of people” exiled two of his nephews, along with as many followers as they needed to combat “any hostile armies they might meet.”
One of the brothers crossed into Italy and founded Milan. However, this was not the first Celtic invasion of Italy. That occurred in the fifth century BC when migrating Celtic tribes attacked Etruria and Lombardy before settling down in the Po valley. This invasive quest for new territory earned the Celts a less than favourable reputation with their Italic neighbours.
15. The Romans particularly took against the Celts after they sacked Rome
In 387BC, Gaulish Celts under the leadership of Brennus, defeated Rome’s legions at the Battle of Allia. The victorious Gauls took and sacked Rome. They even entering the Senate house and pulling the senator’s beards. Unlike other Celtic invaders, Brennius wasn’t interested in keeping Rome. He just wanted to plunder her. So, he demanded his weight in gold before he and his men left the city. To rub salt into the Roman wounds, he even added his sword to the scales with the words “vae victis“— woe to the defeated. Once the Romans paid the ransom, the Celts left, leaving the eternal city to rebuild her defences and nurse a grudge.
16. Despite being Celtic trading partners, the Greeks didn’t escape invasion by the Celts either
By the third century BC, yet another Brennus was causing trouble — this time in Greece. In 280BC, Brennus and his partner Akichorius launched an invasion of Greece. A force of 85000 Celtic warriors divided into three groups to attack Thrace, Macedonia, Illyria and Greece. Although a Greek alliance eventually thwarted Brennus’s forces after dodging the assembled Greek armies, the Celts made for the sacred site of Delphi, which they sacked and plundered. As with Rome, the Celts did not keep Delphi but stripped it of treasure which they then carried back to Toulouse.
17. The Romans and Greeks saw the Celtic Character as rowdy and warlike
These encounters with the Celts formed a stereotypical Celtic character in the Mediterranean mind. The geographer Strabo, writing in the first century BC described the Celts as dramatic, high spirited and boastful, ‘extolling themselves and diminishing the status of others.’Another writer remarked how Celts were touchy and “wont to be moved by chance remarks to wordy disputes and after a challenge to fight in single combat.” Such incidents usually occurred during feasts after too much to drink — another Celtic bad habit. The whole Celtic race was also said to be “madly fond of war, high spirited and quick to battle.”
However, it wasn’t all bad. Strabo also describes the Celts as ‘frank’ and others praised their quick minds and natural ability to learn. Despite their boastfulness and fighting, Celts were also felt to be “straightforward and not of evil character.”
18. Celtic warriors terrified enemies with their appearance
One attribute Celtic warriors used to their advantage in military encounters was their appearance. According to Diodorus Siculus, the Gauls who invaded Greece and Rome towered over their Mediterranean enemies. They accentuated this height with bronze helmets adorned with “large, projecting figures.” Celtic appearance also unnerved their enemies in other ways. While some warriors went into battle in chain male, others headed into the fray naked. To be faced with an army of naked Celts, running into battle “openly and without forethought” must have been a terrifying sight. However, as long as the enemy remained unintimidated, Strabo believed the Celts were easy to defeat. His reason was that they fought without a strategy, relying on “their mighty bodies and on their numbers.”
19. Celts warriors developed such a fearsome reputation they began hiring themselves out as mercenaries.
Although Brennus’s invasion of Greece failed, Celtic warriors were soon in demand. Greek noblemen began to lure Celts into their armies with offers of wealth, and the Celts eagerly took up their offers. However, it wasn’t just the Greeks who were after Celtic mercenaries. King Nicomedes I of Bithynia in Asia Minor decided Gaulish mercenaries were the perfect addition to the armies he was unleashing on the Greeks. Unlike his Greek counterparts, Nicomedes found the ideal way to control his Gaulish troops, appeasing them with land instead of inflaming them with booty. Nicomedes settled his Celts near Ankara in Turkey. The region became known as Galatia, deriving its name from “Gaul”. Its inhabitants became known as the Galatians, who became famous through St Paul’s letters to them.
It wasn’t just on the battlefield that the Celts dressed (or undressed) to impress. They were known for their extravagant fashion sense in everyday life too. Classical writers described the Celts as very pale-skinned and generally light or red-haired. If their hair was dark, they would lighten it with lime. Celtic men were particular dandies. Like women, some would grow their hair long or arrange it in elaborate styles. Beards or clean-shaven chins were both equally fashionable. But one thing every Celtic man would sport was a long, elaborate moustache.
When not stripping off for battle, peacetime Celts had a very defined sense of style. What made them stand out was not so much their clothes but their jewellery. Strabo describes the brashness of Celtic decoration and how high ranking individuals of both sexes wore “ornaments of gold, torques on their necks and bracelets on their arms and wrists.” All of this gold went over the top of “garments besprinkled with gold.” Strabo viewed the Celtic love of bling as a moral weakness. ” It is this vanity,” he noted, “which makes them so unbearable in victory and so completely downcast in defeat.”
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.