To modern ears, the word “Celtic” brings to mind the traditional art, literature and music of Ireland and Scotland. But the ancient Celts were a widespread group of people from central Europe. Find out what historians have learned about this rich and complex collection of tribes.
1. The Celts were the largest group in ancient Europe.
The ancient culture known as the Celts once extended far beyond the British Isles. With a territory stretching from Spain to the Black Sea, the Celts were geographically the largest group of people to inhabit ancient Europe.
The difficulty in tracing Celtic history is that none of these ancient peoples living in Western or Central Europe would have called themselves Celts. This name comes from the Greeks, who established their first contact with a “barbarian” people whom they called the Keltoi in 540 BC on the southern coast of France. The ancient Celts were never a single kingdom or empire, but a collection of hundreds of tribal chiefdoms sharing a common culture and distinct language.
2. The Celts were described as barbarian warriors.
Since the Celts themselves left no written history, we must rely on the admittedly biased accounts of their enemies in battle, the Greeks and later the Romans. Historians do not know why the Greeks called them Keltoi, but the name stuck and the Celts acquired a reputation in Greece as hard-drinking and fierce savages. Celtic warriors often fought naked and were prized as mercenaries throughout the Mediterranean.
The Romans called the Celts Galli Or Gallie and frequently clashed with Celtic tribes who invaded Roman outposts in northern Italy. In 387 BC, a fearless Celtic warlord named Brennus sealed the Celts’ barbaric reputation by violently sacking and pillaging Rome and putting most of the Roman Senate to the sword.
Centuries later, after the Roman Empire had conquered several Celtic tribes on the Iberian Peninsula (Portugal and Spain), which the Romans called the Gallaeques, Julius Caesar embarked on the nine-year Gallic War to defeat the Celts and various other tribal kingdoms in Gaul (modern France). Caesar wrote of the conquest of Gaul with a mixture of disgust and respect for his Celtic enemies.
“Ultimately, Caesar makes a clear distinction between the ‘civilized’ Mediterranean world of Rome and the great unwashed Celts of Gaul, so the Romans were right to colonize them,” says Bettina Arnold, professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. and the founding editor of e-Keltoi: Journal of Interdisciplinary Celtic Studies.
3. Ancient Celtic burial mounds reveal a complex society.
The Celts were far from savages, as evidenced by the intricate metals and jewelry discovered in ancient Celtic hill forts and burial mounds across Europe. One such mound near Hochdorf, Germany, housed the remains of a Celtic chieftain and a wealth of artifacts testifying to a complex and stratified Celtic society.
Chief Hochdorf’s mound dates from 530 BC, what archaeologists call the end of the Hallstatt period, when Celtic culture was concentrated in central Europe. The leader was reclining on a long bronze couch on casters and dressed in golden finery, including a traditional Celtic choker called a couple. He was surrounded by ornate drinking horns and a large bronze cauldron, which still contained the remains of high-proof mead.
Arnold says the wheeled couch was replaced in later Celtic barrows by two-wheeled chariots that carried the honored dead to the afterlife. The drinking equipment highlights the essential role of feasting as a socio-political tool for the Celts. What the Greeks and Romans described as “excessive drinking” was actually a way for Celtic elites to strengthen their ties with their allies. And this continued into the afterlife.
“The Celts believed in a sort of BYOB afterlife,” says Arnold. “You had to bring alcohol with you and have a big party once you got to the other side. The sign of a good leader was generosity.
4. The Celts may have been the first Europeans to wear pants.
The ancient Celts were famous for their colorful woolen textiles, precursors to the famous Scottish tartan. And although only a few tantalizing fragments of these textiles have survived through the centuries, historians believe that the Celts were among the first Europeans to wear pants. But they didn’t have buttons, so they closed their clothes with clasps called fibulae.
5. Druids passed down stories and laws through oral tradition.
The ancient Celts were “literate,” Arnold explains, meaning they actively chose not to write down their history, sacred stories, and laws, in order to save the information. The Celtic religion, for example, required animal and human sacrifices to a pantheon of gods, but this esoteric knowledge was reserved for Celtic priests called Druids and passed down orally from generation to generation.
Druids were figures of great respect and honor in Celtic society and were among the few who could travel safely among warring tribes, says John Koch, a historical linguist specializing in early Celtic languages at the University of Wales. Other “learned classes” of Celts included genealogists who memorized centuries of tribal relationships, those tasked with memorizing the application of law, and “bards” who were both storytellers and popular historians.
Although Celtic tribes never unified politically under a single kingdom, their oral traditions helped create and maintain cultural unity across great geographic distances. This explains why the Celts were more easily identified by their common language. Celtic languages are still spoken in parts of the United Kingdom and France, including Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Cornish and Breton.
“As all Celtic doctrines were transmitted orally, this helped preserve linguistic uniformity,” says Koch. “Druids and bards spoke the most prestigious version of the language and transmitted it across tribal boundaries, so that it did not fragment into a large number of different dialects.”
6. Celtic queen Boudicca led a bloody revolt against the Romans.
The Romans conquered Britain in AD 43 under Claudius, and the Celts were slowly subjugated and Romanized. But they didn’t go down without a fight. The legendary Celtic queen Boudicca led a bloody revolt against the Romans in AD 61, during which her forces destroyed the Roman fortress of Londinium and massacred the inhabitants, according to Roman sources.
In Celtic culture, women could occupy the highest position in the social hierarchy. Others were druidesses who specialized in political prophecy and played important roles in Celtic military campaigns.
“Clearly, Celtic women were sometimes allowed to assume the position of supreme authority, which was very different from the Mediterranean world,” says Arnold. “The Greeks and Romans found this extremely strange.”
7. The Celts were eventually defeated by the Romans, Slavs and Huns.
After the Roman conquest of most Celtic lands, Celtic culture was further trampled by Germanic tribes, Slavs and Huns during the migration period from around 300 to 600 AD. As a result, few if any people living in Europe and the British Isles identified themselves as Celts until the 1700s, when Welsh linguist and scholar Edward Lhuyd recognized the similarities between languages like Welsh, Irish, Cornish and Gaulish, now extinct, and called them “Celtic”.
8. The adoption of a Celtic identity is relatively recent and linked to opposition to British rule.
The 19th and 20th centuries witnessed a genuine Celtic revival in the British Isles, driven by political anger at British rule in countries such as Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Musicians, artists and authors like William Butler Yeats proudly embraced a pre-Christian Celtic identity. But because the Celts were much more than an Irish or Scottish phenomenon, historians remain divided over the accuracy of modern claims about Celtic heritage.
“‘Celtic’ is a descriptive term – a “heuristic device” in academic jargon – shorthand for something that we can see archaeologically, and that we can see in place-name records, and that we can see in linguistic evidence,” says Arnold. “Even though it doesn’t have any real meaning in terms of identity, it’s still useful as a descriptor.”