The historical dimension

There remains the important consideration of historical records of the political expansion of Celts into Italy and the events that this precipitated. This important source of information has been deliberately left till last, since too often the archaeological evidence is seen only as a material manifestation of the truths that are enshrined in the historical texts. Properly, both sets of data should be examined rigorously by the criteria of their respective disciplines before cross-reference is made from one to the other. The archaeological evidence, as we have seen, certainly argues for a close dependence of the Developed Styles of early La Tene art upon classical inspiration, doubtless drawn from Italic sources. But it would in itself hardly sustain widespread invasions or population movements of Gauls across the Alps to settle in the Po valley and mid-Adriatic if the historical texts were lacking. The corollary of this line of argument must be to question whether the historical texts actually tell us the whole story anyway, since it is probable that in their way they are as defective as is the testimony of archaeology.

The main thrust of the historical record is well known. Polybius, writing in the second century bc, records the defeat of the Romans by the Gauls in 387 bc at Allia, and the ensuing sack of Rome, a traumatic event that evidently left an indelible mark on the Roman psyche for more than three centuries, until it was expiated by Caesar's conquest of Gaul. Both Polybius and Livy, the latter writing around the time of Augustus, broadly agree on the names of the principal tribes involved in the invasion and settlement of northern Italy (probably because they were using a common source), in geographical sequence from the Alps to the mid-Adriatic the Insubres, Cenomani, Boii, Lingones and Senones. The history of the following two centuries involved recurrent conflicts and periodic tactical alliances between the Romans and their Celtic neighbours. In 295 and again in 285, the Romans inflicted heavy defeats upon the Senones; in 225, it was the turn of the Insubres and Boii to suffer defeat at Telamon. That these setbacks were not immediately definitive was largely because of the intervention of the Second Punic War from 218 to 202, during which the Celtic tribes evidently joined forces with Hannibal against their common enemy. Following the Carthaginian defeat at Zama in North Africa, the Insubres were finally defeated in 194, and the Boii in 191, leading to the expulsion of those Celtic groups whose territory had not already been annexed.

There is no reason to doubt the authenticity of these basic historical events, though the historical record doubtless over-simplifies a much more complex set of circumstances. Most clearly it is oblique regarding the beginnings of the Gaulish colonization of northern Italy, reducing this process to the level of the anecdotal with stories of Arrunte, the Etruscan who enticed the Celts to attack Chiusi (Livy, 33, 2-4) or of Helicus, the Helvetian blacksmith who played a similar catalytic role in Rome (Pliny, Nat. Hist., XII, 5). These stories are at best metaphors for a process that doubtless has its origins several centuries earlier than the normally accepted date of the Gaulish invasions, and that was almost certainly rooted in trans-alpine trading and cultural links going back at least to the later Urnfield period. In fact, Livy refers to the migration of a cadet group of the Bituriges in the age of Tarquinius Priscus, which would place that episode in the sixth century bc. Equally, current linguistic scholarship regards as Celtic a series of Lepontic inscriptions dating from around 500, which may suggest that the Golasecca culture of north-west Italy already contained within it Celtic elements. In fact, there is very little evidence archaeologically for cataclysmic change in the cultural sequences of northern Italy, and therefore every reason to presume that the process was a progressive one over a long period of time, involving cultural assimilation rather than radical displacement. The existence of different tribal groupings in northern Italy may well account for differences in distribution north of the Alps of Italic types or influences, but it is unlikely that those tribal groupings will manifest themselves very clearly at a local scale in specific archaeological distributions, any more than they do for the most part north of the Alps.

The lesson then is not just that, without the historical sources, any archaeologist proposing a Celtic invasion of Italy in the fourth century bc would be ridiculed as an unreformed and irredeemable diffusionist, and that in consequence we should perhaps review the extent to which archaeological interpretation is severely constrained by the limitations of the data. It is also that the archaeological evidence, for all those limitations, strongly suggests that the historical record is an over-simplification of a much more complex and protracted process of interaction to the point of distorting the likely reality. Above all, we should avoid the assumption that either source of evidence, historical or archaeological, necessarily should be accorded priority over the other as the basis of received wisdom.

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