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PAGE 1 Helmets surmounted with horns were mentioned by Diodorus Siculus and appear on the Gundestrup Cauldron. Perhaps the finest example found is that recovered from the river Thames near Waterloo Bridge. Made of bronze but too fragile to be used in battle, it was probably a ceremonial item to be worn for show and later deposited in the river as a votive offering to the gods. (Copyright: The British Museum)


Celtic Warriors Images

The Gundestrup Cauldron was discovered in a peat bog in Denmark and was probably a votive offering. It has many Celtic features, but it is probably not Celtic in origin. The exotic animal motifs suggest oriental influence. It is now believed to have been made in the lower Danube region, in Dacia or Thrace (modern Romania and Bulgaria). (The National Museum of Denmark)


To his Greek and Roman adversaries the Celtic warrior was the archetypal barbarian: huge in stature, immensely strong and bloodthirsty beyond description. Charging naked into battle, impervious to wounds and wielding a terrible sword with which to take the heads of his enemies, he was the antithesis of the drilled and disciplined soldiers of the hoplite phalanx and Roman cohort. This book is about the life of such a Celtic warrior, his place in Celtic society and how he lived, fought and died.

Who were the Celts?

In the 5th century BC the Greek writer Ephoros described the Celts as one of the four great barbarian peoples, together with the Scythians, the Persians and the Libyans, who lived beyond the confines of the Classical Mediterranean world. They were called Keltoi or Galatae by the Greeks and either Celtae or (Willi by the Romans. Their homeland was known to lie north of the Alps. Documentary and archaeological evidence suggests that by 500 BC the Celts occupied lands stretching from the Iberian Peninsula to the upper Danube. We do not know whether the peoples whom we now refer to as the Celts knew themselves by this

Extent Celts Europe

name, nor do we know whether they had any concept of a common Map: The Celts in Europe.

identity beyond that of the tribe. They certainly had much in common in terms of material culture, social structure and religious belief, but at the same time they exhibited great variety. Although still the subject of academic debate, the most satisfactory definition of the Celts for our purposes here is:

'Those peoples living in central and western Europe during the latter half of the first millennium BC and speaking dialects of the

Indo-European language family now known as Celtic.'

Sources of evidence

Our knowledge of the Celts and their world comes from a variety of sources. All the evidence is indirect since Celtic society was almost entirely non-literate. With the exception of a number of funerary inscriptions and other items from southern France and Spain, the Celts have left no written records. There are three main categories of evidence: the accounts of Greek and Roman writers such as Polybius, Diodorus Siculus, Caesar and Livy; the later vernacular literature of surviving Celtic societies in the post-Roman period; and material remains revealed by modern archaeological excavation. Each of these sources has its shortcomings. The works of classical authors have the advantage of being contemporary with their subject, but they suffer from inherent problems of bias, distortion and misunderstanding. They tended to stress the barbarian stereotype and to reflect what their audience expected to hear, that is that the Celts were a wild and savage people. Vernacular sources must also be treated with caution. Most were written down for the first time in the early Middle Ages in a Christian environment, and are all solely concerned with the myths and legends of Wales and Ireland, countries that lay at the very edge of the Celtic world in the pre-Roman period. Although 011 its own archaeology can

500bc Blacksmithing Pictures

Blacksmiths were held in high regard in Celtic society. Their technology was not sufficient to melt iron for casting, but their technique in forging (heating and hammering the metal) was enough to enable them to produce not only effective tools and weapons but also beautiful works of art that revealed a remarkable sensitivity. (Copyright: The British Museum)

provide, at best, only a partial picture, its great strength lies in the fact that it is free from the prejudice of classical commentators and medieval copyists (though not always from archaeologists). Nevertheless, when considered together, these three sources of evidence enable us to compile a plausible view of the Celts and their world.

Historical outline

The earliest signs of a distinctive Celtic culture appear in the 6th century BC, towards the end of the Halstatt period of the European Iron Age. So-called after the site in Austria where excavations revealed a large number of rich burials, this period is characterised by the hill-fort settlements or 'princedoms' scattered across an area near the headwaters of several major rivers such as the Danube, the Rhine and the Saône. At the beginning of the 5th century BC the Halstatt princedoms were largely replaced by wealthy warrior societies further north, which extended from north-eastern France to Bohemia. Their

Great Roundhouse, Butser Ancient Farm: A modern reconstruction of the roundhouse typical of Celtic Britain before the Roman conquest. (Author's photograph)

Great Roundhouse, Butser Ancient Farm: A modern reconstruction of the roundhouse typical of Celtic Britain before the Roman conquest. (Author's photograph)

Celtic Roundhouse

material culture and artistic style, called La Téne after the site in Switzerland where it was first identified, has become synonymous with the Celts.

By about 400 BC, large numbers of Celts had begun to migrate from their homes north of the Alps. Possibly prompted by overpopulation, many thousands moved south into northern Italy to settle in the rich lands of the Po valley. They took over this region so completely that it became known as Gallia Cisalpina (Gaul on this side of the Alps). From there they continued to raid along the whole length of the peninsula, breaking the power of the Etruscan city-states and laying siege to Rome. The sack and burning of the city by the Celtic Gauls entailed consequences that endured for centuries. Out of their humiliation the Romans developed a fear and loathing of the Celts, the permanent barbarian threat from the north, which they dubbed the terror GaUicus. Other Celtic groups moved south-east along the Danube basin, the first steps on a journey that would take some of them through the Balkans, into Greece and across into Asia Minor. It is known that Alexander the Great established friendly relations with Celts in the Balkans before embarking upon his campaigns in Asia, and that he received a Celtic delegation in Babylon after the defeat of the Persians. What encouraged the Celts to continue their mass migration into Macedonia in the early 3rd century BC is uncertain. Possibly it was the turmoil that followed the break-up of Alexander's empire. The Greek author Pausanias hints at this:

'It was then that Brennus strongly urged a campaign against Greece, enlarging on the weakness of Greece at the time, on the wealth of the Greek states and on the even greater wealth in the sanctuaries.'

Brennus won the argument and led his army to plunder Delphi, the greatest of all Greek sanctuaries. Shortly afterwards three Celtic tribes

Celtic society was predominantly rural. The vast majority of the population lived in small communities; large settlements were rare. (Copyright: P.J. Reynolds)

Celtic CivilizationCeltic Dwellings Balkans
Round houses were characteristic of British Iron Age dwellings but were in contrast to their rectangular continental equivalents. This cut-away drawing is based on the reconstructed Great Roundhouse at Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire. (Copyright: The British Museum)

crossed the Hellespont into Asia Minor where they settled in the area around what is now Ankara in Turkey.

The Celtic migrations to Italy and south-eastern Europe are well documented. In north-western Europe, and in particular the British Isles, the spread of La Téne culture in the 5th and 4th centuries BC was previously thought to be also the result of large-scale population movements. However, there is no archaeological evidence to support this, and it is now generally believed that Celtic-speaking peoples of the Atlantic seaboard gradually adopted the La Téne style to a greater or lesser extent through a process of cultural osmosis. By contrast, in the Iberian peninsula where the term 'Celt' is clearly recorded in the pre-Roman period, there was very little adoption of La Téne culture, a further indication that the Celtic world did not come about as the result of mass migration from a supposed homeland in central Europe. Hispanic Celtic speakers developed a close relationship with their Iberian neighbours producing the distinctive Celtiberian style.

The Celtic world reached its greatest extent at the beginning of the 3rd century BC. By the end of that century its power had begun to wane under pressure from Rome to the south and the gradual influx of Germanic peoples from the north. Cisalpine Gaul was the first to fall to Rome following the disastrous battle of Telamón. Victory over Carthage enabled the Romans to complete the subjugation of the Iberian peninsula. The creation of the 'Province' of Gallia Transalpina (Gaul on the far side of the Alps), at the end of the 2nd century BC made further intervention in Gaul inevitable. Caesar's campaigns devastated what had become the Celtic heartland. With Iberia almost entirely conquered, the Galatians in Asia Minor broken and the Danube now dominated by the Germans, the Romans turned to Britain. If invasion was a relatively easy matter, conquest was most certainly not. Finally, almost a century after they had landed, the Romans gave up their attempts to subdue the whole island. Hadrian built his wall to keep at bay 'the barbarian from the north', leaving Scotland and Ireland all that remained of a world that had lasted for more than five hundred years.

BELOW Magnificent ceremonial helmet from Romania. The raven crest symbolises the Otherworldly power of the goddess of battle and death.


8th to 6th centuries: Early Iron Age Halstatt culture flourishes in west-central Europe.

c. 500: Decline of Halstatt princedoms and expansion of La Tene Iron Age cultures. 'Keltoi' first mentioned by the Greek author Ephoros.

c. 400: Beginning of 'Celtic Migrations'. The Boii, Cenomani, Lingones and Senones settle in the Po valley and on the Adriatic coast. Other Celtic-speaking tribes move south-east along the Danube valley. Decline of Etruscan power in northern Italy.

390 or 387: Celts sack Rome.

335 and 323: Alexander the Great receives Celtic delegations in the Balkans and in Babylon.

279: Celts invade Macedonia. Victory over the Greeks at Thermopylae. The Celts go on to sack the sanctuary at Delphi but are defeated in battle.

278: The Celtic Tectosages, Trocmii and Tolistobogii cross into Asia Minor.

277: Celts defeated at Lysimachia, ending the threat to Greece.

275: Celtic Galatians defeated by Antiochus of Seleucia.

240: Galatians defeated by Attalus of Pergamon.

225: Celts defeated by Rome at Telamon. Decline of Celtic power in northern Italy, leading to the creation of the Roman province of Gallia Cisalpina.

218-202: Second Punic War. Celtiberian and Gallic mercenaries play a major role in Carthaginian victories over Rome.

197-179 and 154-133: Rome attempts to subdue the Celtiberian tribes in Iberia.

133: Celtiberian resistance broken at the siege of Numantia.

125: Rome intervenes on behalf of Massalla (Marseille) against the Gallic Saluvii. Beginning of Roman military intervention in Gaul.

124-121: Defeat of the Saluvii, Allobroges and Arverni by Rome. Foundation of the Roman military base at Aquae Sextiae (Aix-en-Provence).

118: Creation of the Roman Province of Gallia Transalpina.

112-101: Migration through Gaul of the Cimbri and Teutones, a mix of Celtic and

Germanic peoples from northern Europe. After several victories over the Romans they are finally defeated by Marius at Aquae Sextiae in 102 and Vercellae in 101.

88-66: Galatians fight as allies of Rome in Its war against Mithridates IV of Pontus.

64: Galatia becomes a client state of Rome. Deiotarus of the Tolistobogii becomes pre-eminent leader of the Galatae under the patronage of Pompey.

60: Celtic Boii in Bohemia defeated by Dacian tribes from the lower Danube.

58-51: Caesar's campaigns in Gaul ending in the complete subjugation of the Gauls to Rome.

55 and 54: Reconnaissance in force by Caesar into south-eastern Britain.

52: Siege of Alesla. Surrender of Vercingetorix.

21: Sacrovlr's rebellion in Gaul.

British Rebellion Roman Britain

43: Roman invasion of southern Britain. British resistance led by Caratacus until betrayed in 52 by Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes.

RIGHT The richly decorated Deskborough Mirror, with its chased and engraved abstract patterns, is a fine example of Celtic art and metalwork. The plain bronze face would have been highly polished. (Copyright: The British Museum)

60: Boudicca's rebellion.

70s: Subjugation of northern Britain.

84: Agricola defeats the Caledones at the battle of Mons Graupius. 86-87: Roman withdrawal from southern Caledonia. 122: Hadrian visits Britain.

122-138: Construction of Hadrian's Wall and its associated forts.

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  • Carmen
    How were celtic houses built?
    8 years ago

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