The CeLts of the Bmtish IsLes

By the time of the Roman invasion of Britain. Celtic society had enjoyed hundreds of years of sophisticated tool-making. Intricate implements were cast from iron using stone molds like this one.

any of the cultural and technological movements that spread through the Celtic world of the Iron Age were slow to reach the British Isles, isolated from the rest of Europe by the Channel. So too were the Romans, who brought Celtic civilization to its knees. Following the Roman invasion of Britain in the mid-first century AD, independent Celtic-states continued to flourish in the furthest corners of the island, territories the invaders deemed not worth conquering. The Britons of what would become England and Wales

Celtic Civilization
Roman soldiers newly arrived in Britain may have been surprised to find Belgic and Gallic coinage In use. but the flourishing cross-Channel trade meant the regular exchange of goods and money. This coin, minted in northern Gaul, displays a Greek theme, with Its ornate head of the god Apollo.

submitted to Roman rule and even prospered as part of a Romano-British society. But traces of their vibrant Celtic past remained—in Cornwall, Scotland, and Ireland, the Romans never seriously attempted conquest, and life continued as before.

Although the British Isles were inhabited by Celts, there seems to have been no clearly defined common language. Instead, while the tribes in southern Britain spoke a language related to the Gallic tongue of the continent, further north a different dialect prevailed. Similarly, in what are now Scotland and Ireland, a further linguistic division hindered any attempt at unifying these Celtic islands on the fringes of Europe. Otherwise, both Ireland and the mainland of Britain consisted of a patchwork of small tribal political units, with little or no higher level of unity. High-kings had been present in Ireland, but in most cases, larger alliances were purely temporary arrangements, designed to help the confederation of tribes counter an external threat.

Following the subjugation of southern Britain to Roman rule, the Celts within the borders of the Roman province of Britannia became subjects of the emperor. As trade flourished, these Romano-British people benefited from the economic and cultural advantages of being part of the Roman world. In Wales and Cornwall, although subject to Roman influence, the Celtic nature of the local society remained relatively intact due to their location on the periphery of the province. Even further afield, in Ireland and northern Scotland, the Celts who remained free from Roman domination continued to develop and, as the Roman grip on Britannia waned, these peoples became pernicious raiders of Roman Britain. Celtic culture did not end when the Romans conquered southern Britain. In some places, it was simply covered by a thin veneer of Roman civilization.


The Southern Bmtons

Before the Romans arrived, Britain consisted of a patchwork of tribal areas, each with its own king. There was no political unity, although some of the more powerful leaders could call on the assistance of neighboring tribes in times of crisis. The Romans exploited this fragmentation and it was hard for the Celts to counter the Roman invasion.

my AD 43, the Britons and the Romans knew a lot about each other. Caesar made two armed reconaissances of southeastern Britain in 55 and 54 BC. Military and political distractions in the Roman world prevented any further invasion for a century, but the Romans and Romano-Gauls on the mainland of Europe traded with the Celts of southern Britain. In addition, the Romans sought informants and spies in Britain, and strove to destabilize the v.

region by forming

Below: The Pimperne House (named after the location of an important find) at Buster, Hampshire. England is a reconstruction of a British Celtic roundhouse.

alliances with British chieftains. The fragmented tribal nature of Celtic Britain encouraged the Roman policy of divide and rule that had served Caesar so well during the conquest of Gaul.

In the southeastern corner of Britain a succession of Belgic tribes had established themselves, at the expense of other Celtic trilles who were displaced further north. These people were Gauls, driven across the Channel by a combination of a population increase in northern Gaul, and by pressure from the Germans to the east. By the mid-first century BC the territory of the Belgic tribes in Britain stretched from the coast in Kent as far west as the headwaters of the River Thames in the Cotswolds.

Apart from the tribe labeled the Belgae, other Belgic trilies have been identified as the Atrbates to the south of the Thames and the dominant Catuvellauni tribe located to the south of the Wash. Some British tribes already maintained links with the Romans in

Celtic TribeSilure Isle

Gaul, such as the Iceni, the Cantii, and the Trinovantes, all located within sailing distance of the Romano-Gallic Channel ports. Following the defeat of the unified British resistance at Colchester, their tribal chiefs lined up to become client states of Rome.

Limited links

Further afield, the British tribes were far less willing to submit. The I^arisi, the Silures, and the Brigantes located in the center of Britain had little or no contact with the Roman world before the Roman invasion, and they strove to maintain their independence at any cost. Further to the west, in what is now Wales, the tribes in the region endeavored to ally with any other Celtic tribe that was opposed to Roman rule. This resistance continued undiminished until the destruction of Celtic (and druidic) power in Anglesey in AD 61.

Of the 20 main tribal groupings that existed south of the Solway Firth in the first century AI), no clearly defined patterns of allegiance can be determined, save the cultural links of the Belgic tribes and the economic links of those on the eastern coast. Military leaders such as Oueen Boudicca united tribes during times of crisis, but these unions were temporary. This endemic lack of unity ultimately brought about the end of Celtic civilization.

Trade flourished during the pre-Roman Celtic period in Britain. Native coinage was first introduced by the Belgae, and by the mid-first century AD it was produced in several locations in southern Britain. Objects from throughout Europe have been discovered in Celtic sites in the region during this period. There is even evidence of a small but vibrant wine trade between southern Britain and the Mediterranean. The name of the modern port of Dover is derived from the Celtic word for dovr or dwfr meaning "water," and there is ample evidence that the harbor was used for trade between the Belgic territories on both sides of the Channel. Southern Britain was an energetic, bustling society immediately before the arrival of the Romans in Kent. It was nevertheless unable to channel this energy to protect itself.

Above: This coin bearing the name of Tincomarus, a British king of about the late 1st century bc. carries this depiction of a sacred horse on its reverse side.

The Celtic and Belgic tribes of southern Britain before the campaign of Julius Caesar.


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Colchester trade

London • Rochester



Belgic cross-Channel migration

The Imsh

While the British Isles—the far north excepted—fell to Rome, Ireland was never conquered. Roman historian Tacitus recounts in his biography of Agrícola that the Roman general stood on the western coast of Scotland and stared across the Irish Sea at the Emerald Isle. Although he considered conquering it, he never tried, probably because Ireland was seen to lack anything that Rome needed. Together with northern Scotland it would remain an unconquered Celtic bastion at the extremities of the Roman world.

Below: Model of a ship, from Brouighter, County Kerry. Ireland. This is a contemporary representation of the craft used by Irish raiders to attack the coast of Roman Britain.

luring the Bronze Age, Ireland was I occupied by the Erainn people (or the Iverni as Ptolemy labeled them). Later Irish chroniclers claim these people were divided into four tribes, corresponding to the prov inces (or "fifths") of Ulster, Leinster, Munster, and Connaught. These early Irish were probably the proto-Celtic cultures who inhabited the rest of western Europe. Irish Celtic mythology describes the period as one where a high king ruled Ireland, with the entire country being governed as a unified whole.

It is mere speculation whether this was the case, or whether the Irish political geography reflected the disunity that came later. By the first century AD Munster had become the dominant province in the island, and the chieftain or king there exerted an influence over much of the southern portion of Ireland. His court was located at Tara, in County Meath, a location that housed a hill fort settlement (oppidum) and a meeting area (later called the Rath of the Synods).

Apart from the occasional scrap of archaeological evidence or the mythological tales of later Irish chroniclers, little is known of Irish society and culture of the La Tene period or earlier. The first hard evidence emerges at around the same time as the Roman withdrawal from Britain, around the start of the fifth century AD. By this time, the Irish possessed a similar tribal structure and social organization to that which had existed in Gaul almost 500 years earlier.

Ireland was a patchwork of small tribal kingdoms, each independent of the rest.

There was no trace of a high king, or a unified state. The only unifying factors in the island were language, religious practices, and social structure.

Nurturing Christianity

At the time the Romans left Britain, the king of Munster was reputedly Niall Noigiallach, whose residence was at Tara. .Alter conquering the central province of Meath, and the region of Ulster in northern Ireland, Irish annals suggest that he divided his territory in Ireland between his sons. His eldest son, l.eary Ui Neill (O'Neall), ruled the south from Tara, while his brothers occupied the northern portion, basing themselves in Derry and Donegal.

During the reign of Leary, St. Patrick came to Ireland and began the process of converting the Irish to Christianity. From Tara, St. Patrick continued north to Armagh, where he established his great religious sanctuary. By his actions, Patrick was proclaimed the primary saint of Ireland, protected by the Ui Neills. This protection would have been important at a time when the lack of political unity outside their territories would have made traveling hazardous.

During the last years of the Roman occupation of Britain, Irish raiders began encroaching on the western shores of Britain. They had also established footholds on the mainland of Britain, along the shores of the Severn estuary and the southern coast of Wales, where the kingdom became an Irish colony. A series of devastating raids by the Norsemen, based in Norway, brought any tenuous stability to an end. Coastal raids were followed by attacks on towns and religious centers, and by AI) 870 the Norse began to establish permanent settlements in Ireland.

The area around Dublin became a Scandinavian province for over two centuries. While the Norse in Ireland developed trading links, they provided little else for the Irish. This era of Norse rule came to an end in 1018, when an Irish army defeated the Norsemen at the Battle of Clontarf, near Dublin. Although the Norse were evicted from the island, they were only the first in a series of peoples who tried to colonize Ireland, the most persistent of whom were the English. Ireland remained a Celtic country, but it had become inextricably involved in the political dynamics of the rest of the British Isles.


> Armagh



Dublin Clonta"



English Colonize Ireland

Left: St Cuil6in's bell, from Glankeen, County Tipperary, dates from about 650-750, but the ornate extra work dates from the early 12th century.


The CaLedoniaras and Picts

In remote, unconqucrcd northern Britain, Roman conquest was resisted hy the Caledonians. They proved a sufficient thorn in the side of the Romans that Hadrian's Wall was built to keep them at bay. Two centuries later the same people were referred to as the Picts, or "painted people." This mysterious group has left behind little traee, but their legacy survives in hundreds of enigmatic stone monoliths and carvings.

Right: Meigle Stone II. one of a series of striking Pictish carved reliefs from the early 8th century, depicting a hunting scene.

umans have lived in Scotland since at least 7500 BC, and by 4000 BC people had become Neolithic farmers, and also the builders of substantial burial mounds (see pages 12-13). Circles of standing stones such as the King of Brodgar in Orkney stand as mute testimony to the achievements of these early Scots. There is evidence that the continental cultural exchanges that characterized the Bronze Age had become far less commonplace by Celtic times. Instead,

The divisions of Pictland from the time of the Roman invasion to the middle of the first millennium ad.

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Restenneth • SOUTHERN p o^.Aberlemno




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The Celts Culture

Scotland at the start of the Iron Age was more insular, reflecting similar fragmenting traits in Ireland and southern Britain. The Celts in Scotland were not migratory tribes from other regions. Instead, they were the direct descendants of the Bronze Age people who preceded them.

During the first century AD, Scotland was a Celtic tribal region, its land divided into 16 tribal divisions. Four of these peoples lay south of the Forth-Clyde line, in what is now southern Scotland. Of the remaining northern tribes, the Caledones inhabited the Great Glen, a glacial rift incorporating Loch Ness. To their north lay the territories of the Creones, Decantae, Carnonacae, Lugi, Smertae, and Cornavii (see map page 68). In northeast Scotland were the Vacomagi, Taexali and Venicones, while the Fpidii inhabited modern Argyll.

The Greek geographer Ptolemy, writing in the second century AD, recorded these tribal names, and if other smaller groups existed, their details went unrecorded. By the time of the first Roman contact with the Scottish Celts in the late first century AD, the northern tribes were collectively known as the Caledones (or Caledonians). The Roman historian Tacitus reported that these northern peoples had "red hair and massive limbs," drawing a distinction between them and their southern neighbors. There is also evidence that these tribes had united into a larger Caledonian confederation.

Agrícola advanced into Scotland in AD 79, and in AD 84 he defeated the Caledonians at the Battle of Mons Graupius. Despite his victor); Agricola withdrew his forces into southern Scotland. Although later Roman punitive expeditions were conducted into Caledonian territory, there was never any further attempt to occupy it. By the third century AD, references to Caledonians had been replaced by ones to the more mysterious Picts (painted people).

Shrouded in myth

The Picts arc some of the most misunderstood peoples of the Celtic world. As late as the 12th century, an Icelandic historian wrote that they were a race of pygmies. A reference from AD 313 speaks of the Picts and Caledonians as separate people, but it probably meant the "Caledonians and other Picts." It appears that the Hcts were the same Celtic people who inhabited northern Scotland, only they were given a new collective name.

During the fourth century AD the I*icts reputedly allied themselves with the Dal Riadan Scots to attack settlements in southern Scotland and beyond Hadrian's Wall. Repeated Pictish and Scottish raids continued until the final withdrawal of the Romans in the early fifth century AD. From that point on until the union of the IScts and Scots four centuries later, evidence comes from archaeology and from other non-Pictish sources, such as the Irish annals.

Picdand consisted of all of what is now Scotland north of the Forth and Clyde, apart from the southwestern portion which formed Dal Riada. This region was divided into northern and southern portions, which in turn may have been further subdivided into smaller provinces: Cait, Fidach, and Druimalban in the north and Fortriu, Fib, Athflota, and Circinn to the south. The first historically identifiable Pictish king was Bridei mac Maelcon, who was converted to Christianity by St. Columba about AD 570. From then on, Celtic missionaries recorded the details of the Pictish monarchs and their almost incessant warfare against their neighbors or rebellious subjects. For a century the Picts raided to the south and west, and in AD 685 they defeated the Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria at the Battle of Nechtansmere, which ensured that the Saxon military and cultural assimilation of the Britons was limited to the territories to the south of Picdand.

Below: Built by the proto-Pictish Broch People. Mousa Broch in Shetland served as a fortification throughout the Pictish period. It remained in use until the early middle ages.

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  • elanor
    When romans first arrived in britain they conquered the celts?
    8 years ago

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