History of the Celts

The history of the Celtic people goes back many centuries. The Celts transmitted their culture orally, never writing down history or facts. This accounts for the extreme lack of knowledge about them prior to their contact with the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome. Having left no written records themselves, is not always easy to sort out. The bulk of what is written about them comes from observations made by their enemies or by those who would somehow rule them. To ascribe complete factuality to these accounts is, at best, fool hardy. Our best information comes from archeological research but even this is open to wide interpretation.

Some of the earliest written references about Celts were made by ancient Greek writers and merchants. Roman writers have dealt extensively with Celtic tribes during their military conquests throughout the known world. 

(Note: They were generally well educated, particularly on topics such as religion, philosophy, geography and astronomy. The Romans often employed Celtic tutors for their sons.)

By the year 300 BC the Celts had lost their political cohesion and the Empire began breaking apart. Tribes began wandering in search of new lands. In the 4th century BC the Celts invaded the Greco-Roman world. They plundered Rome in 390 BC, sacked Delphi in 279 BC, and penetrated Asia Minor.

Rome conquered the Celts of northern Italy, France, and the Rhineland in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC. Britain came under Roman rule in the 1st century AD. During the same time period, Germanic tribes dominated the Celts of central Europe. The Celtic tradition and languages survived in parts of France, Britain, and Ireland.

The first historical recorded encounter of a people displaying the cultural traits associated with the Celts comes from northern Italy around 400 BC, when a previously unknown group of barbarians came down from the Alps and displaced the Etruscans from the fertile Po valley, a displacement that helped to push the Etruscans from history's limelight. The next encounter with the Celts came with the still young Roman Empire, directly to the south of the Po. The Romans in fact had sent three envoys to the besieged Etruscans to study this new force. We know from Livy's The Early History of Rome that this first encounter with Rome was quite civilized:

[The Celts told the Roman envoys that] this was indeed the first time they had heard of them, but they assumed the Romans must be a courageous people because it was to them that the [Etruscans] had turned to in their hour of need. And since the Romans had tried to help with an embassy and not with arms, they themselves would not reject the offer of peace, provided the [Etruscans] ceded part of their superfluous agricultural land; that was what they, the Celts, wanted.... If it were not given, they would launch an attack before the Romans' eyes, so that the Romans could report back how superior the Gauls were in battle to all others....The Romans then asked whether it was right to demand land from its owners on pain of war, indeed what were the Celts going in Etruria in the first place? The latter defiantly retorted that their right lay in their arms: To the brave belong all things

The Roman envoys then preceded to break their good faith and helped the Etruscans in their fight; in fact, one of the envoys, Quintas Fabius killed one of the Celtic tribal leaders. The Celts then sent their own envoys to Rome in protest and demand the Romans hand over all members of the Fabian family, to which all three of the original Roman envoys belonged, be given over to the Celts, a move completely in line with current Roman protocol. This of course presented problems for the Roman senate, since the Fabian family was quite powerful in Rome. Indeed, Livy says that:

The party structure would allow no resolution to be made against such nobleman as justice would have required. The Senate...therefore passed examination of the Celts' request to the popular assembly, in which power and influence naturally counted for more. So it happened that those who ought to have been punished were instead appointed for the coming year military tribunes with consular powers (the highest that could be granted).

The Celts saw this as a mortal insult and a host marched south to Rome. The Celts tore through the countryside and several battalions of Roman soldiers to lay siege to the Capitol of the Roman Empire. Seven months of siege led to negotiations whereby the Celts promised to leave their siege for a tribute of one thousand pounds of gold, which the historian Pliny tells was very difficult for the entire city to muster. When the gold was being weighed, the Romans claimed the Celts were cheating with faulty weights.

It was then that the Celts' leader, Brennus, threw his sword into the balance and and uttered the words vae victis "woe to the Defeated". Rome never withstood another more humiliating defeat and the Celts made an initial step of magnificent proportions into history.

"At any time or place, you will find them ready to face danger, even if they have nothing on their side but their own strength and courage." -- Strabo

The bravery of the Celts in battle is legendary. They often spurned body armour, going naked into battle. Celtic society was typically more equal in terms of gender roles. Women were on more or less equal footing as men, being accomplished warriors, merchants and rulers. Other Roman historians tell us more of the Celts. Diodorus notes that:

Their aspect is terrifying...They are very tall in stature, with rippling muscles under clear white skin. Their hair is blond, but not naturally so: they bleach it, to this day, artificially, washing it in lime and combing it back from their foreheads. They look like wood-demons, their hair thick and shaggy like a horse's mane. Some of them are clean-shaven, but others - especially those of high rank, shave their cheeks but leave a moustache that covers the whole mouth and, when they eat and drink, acts like a sieve, trapping particles of food...The way they dress is astonishing: they wear brightly coloured and embroidered shirts, with trousers called bracae and cloaks fastened at the shoulder with a brooch, heavy in winter, light in summer. These cloaks are striped or checkered in design, with the separate checks close together and in various colours.

[The Celts] wear bronze helmets with figures picked out on them, even horns, which made them look even taller than they already are...while others cover themselves with breast-armour made out of chains. But most content themselves with the weapons nature gave them: they go naked into battle...Weird, discordant horns were sounded, [they shouted in chorus with their] deep and harsh voices, they beat their swords rhythmically against their shields.

Ordinary Celtic soldiers, often naked except for golden neck torcs, worked themselves into a fury before entering into battle and then fought wildly like beasts. After battle a victorious Celt would ride off with the heads of slain enemies dangling from the neck of his horse. Later, the heads would be nailed to the doors of their homes or embalmed with cedar oil in order to be publicly displayed. Typically, this preservation treatment of heads was reserved for distinguished, high-ranking enemies. Diodorus also describes how the Celts cut off their enemies' heads and nailed them over the doors of their huts, as Diodorus states:

In exactly the same way as hunters do with their skulls of the animals they have slain...they preserved the heads of their most high-ranking victims in cedar oil, 
keeping them carefully in wooden boxes.

Diodorus Siculus, History.

During their height, the various Celtic tribes lived an agricultural and herding life, bound together by speech, customs, and religion. Without a well-defined central government, each tribe was headed by a king and divided by class into priests, warrior nobles, and commoners. Celtic mythology exhibited a rich array of elfin demons and tutelaries, beings that still pervade the lore of peoples of Celtic ancestry.

The Celts dominated Mid and Western Europe for a thousand years. But it is only recently that the importance of Celtic influence on the cultural, linguistic and artistic development of Europehas truly been assessed. The Celts as an identifiable race or ethnic group have long since disappeared, except in places such as Ireland and the Scottish Highlands.

There is often the great question surrounding the ancient peoples and the distinction between them. Who's who? And who lived where? And how are these people related to those? etc... The answers are near.