Ch 01 Tribes and Legions

Celts Part 2

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CELTS Part 2

Addition to Ch. I Tribes & Legions


To the extent that sources are available, they depict a pre-Christian Celtic social structure based formally on class and kingship. Patron-client relationships similar to those of Roman society are also described by Caesar and others in the Gaul of the 1st century BC.

In the main, the evidence is of tribes being led by kings, although some argue that there is also evidence of oligarchical republican forms of government eventually emerging in areas which had close contact with Rome. Most descriptions of Celtic societies portray them as being divided into three groups: a warrior aristocracy; an intellectual class including professions such as druid, poet, and jurist; and everyone else. In historical times, the offices of high and low kings in Ireland and Scotland were filled by election under the system of tanistry, which eventually came into conflict with the feudal principle of primogeniture in which succession goes to the first born son.

Little is known of family structure among the Celts. Patterns of settlement varied from decentralised to urban. The popular stereotype of non-urbanised societies settled in hillforts and duns,[61] drawn from Britain and Ireland (there are about 3,000 hill forts known in Britain)[62] contrasts with the urban settlements present in the core Hallstatt and La Tene areas, with the many significant oppida of Gaul late in the first millennium BC, and with the towns of Gallia Cisalpina.

Slavery as practiced by the Celts was very likely similar to the better documented practice in ancient Greece and Rome.[63] Slaves were acquired from war, raids, and penal and debt servitude.[63] Slavery was hereditary[citation needed], though manumission was possible. The Old Irish word for slave, cacht, and the Welsh term caeth are likely derived from the Latin captus, captive, suggesting that slave trade was an early venue of contact between Latin and Celtic societies.[63] In the Middle Ages, slavery was especially prevalent in the Celtic countries.[64] Manumissions were discouraged by law and the word for "female slave", cumal, was used as a general unit of value in Ireland.[65]

Archaeological evidence suggests that the pre-Roman Celtic societies were linked to the network of overland trade routes that spanned Eurasia. Archaeologists have discovered large prehistoric trackways crossing bogs in Ireland and Germany. Due to their substantial nature, these are believed to have been created for wheeled transport as part of an extensive roadway system that facilitated trade.[66] The territory held by the Celts contained tin, lead, iron, silver and gold.[67] Celtic smiths and metalworkers created weapons and jewelry for international trade, particularly with the Romans.

The myth that the Celtic monetary system consisted of wholly barter is a common one, but is in part false. The monetary system was complex and is still not understood (much like the late Roman coinages), and due to the absence of large numbers of coin items, it is assumed that "proto-money" was used. This is the collective term used to describe bronze items made from the early La Tene period onwards, which were often in the shape of axeheads, rings, or bells. Due to the large number of these present in some burials, it is thought they had a relatively high monetary value, and could be used for "day to day" purchases. Low-value coinages of potin, a bronze alloy with high tin content, were minted in most Celtic areas of the continent and in South-East Britain prior to the Roman conquest of these lands. Higher-value coinages, suitable for use in trade, were minted in gold, silver, and high-quality bronze. Gold coinage was much more common than silver coinage, despite being worth substantially more, as while there were around 100 mines in Southern Britain and Central France, silver was more rarely mined. This was due partly to the relative sparcity of mines and the amount of effort needed for extraction compared to the profit gained. As the Roman civilisation grew in importance and expanded its trade with the Celtic world, silver and bronze coinage became more common. This coincided with a major increase in gold production in Celtic areas to meet the Roman demand, due to the high value Romans put on the metal. The large number of gold mines in France is thought to be a major reason why Caesar invaded.

There are only very limited records from pre-Christian times written in Celtic languages. These are mostly inscriptions in the Roman and sometimes Greek alphabets. The Ogham script, an Early Medieval alphabet, was mostly used in early Christian times in Ireland and Scotland (but also in Wales and England), and was only used for ceremonial purposes such as inscriptions on gravestones. The available evidence is of a strong oral tradition, such as that preserved by bards in Ireland, and eventually recorded by monasteries. The oldest recorded rhyming poetry in the world is of Irish origin[68] and is a transcription of a much older epic poem, leading some scholars to claim that the Celts invented rhyme. Celtic art also produced a great deal of intricate and beautiful metalwork, examples of which have been preserved by their distinctive burial rites.

In some regards the Atlantic Celts were conservative: for example, they still used chariots in combat long after they had been reduced to ceremonial roles by the Greeks and Romans. However, despite being outdated, Celtic chariot tactics were able to repel the invasion of Britain attempted by Julius Caesar.

According to Diodorus Siculus:

The Gauls are tall of body with rippling muscles and white of skin and their hair is blond, and not only naturally so for they also make it their practice by artificial means to increase the distinguishing colour which nature has given it. For they are always washing their hair in limewater and they pull it back from the forehead to the nape of the neck, with the result that their appearance is like that of Satyrs and Pans since the treatment of their hair makes it so heavy and coarse that it differs in no respect from the mane of horses. Some of them shave the beard but others let it grow a little; and the nobles shave their cheeks but they let the moustache grow until it covers the mouth.


During the later Iron Age the Gauls generally wore long-sleeved shirts or tunics and long trousers (called braccae by the Romans).[69] Clothes were made of wool or linen, with some silk being used by the rich. Cloaks were worn in the winter. Brooches and armlets were used, but the most famous item of jewellery was the torc, a neck collar of metal, sometimes gold. The horned Waterloo Helmet in the British Museum, which long set the standard for modern images of Celtic warriors, is in fact a unique survival, and may have been a piece for ceremonial rather than military wear.

Gender and sexual norms

According to Aristotle, most "belligerent nations" were strongly influenced by their women, but the Celts were unusual because of openly preferred male lovers (Politics II 1269b).[70] H. D. Rankin in Celts and the Classical World notes that "Athenaeus echoes this comment (603a) and so does Ammianus (30.9). It seems to be the general opinion of antiquity."[71] In book VIII of his Deipnosophists, the Roman Greek rhetorician and grammarian Athenaeus, repeating assertions made by Diodorus Siculus in the 1st century BC, wrote that Celtic women were beautiful but that the men preferred to sleep together and "the young men will offer themselves to strangers and are insulted if the offer is refused" (Diod 5:32). Rankin argues that the ultimate source of these assertions is likely to be Poseidonius and speculates that these authors may be recording male "bonding rituals".[72][73][74][75]

Under Brehon Law, which was written down in early Medieval Ireland after conversion to Christianity, a woman had the right to divorce her husband and gain his property if he was unable to perform his marital duties due to impotence, obesity, homosexual inclination or preference for other women.[76]

The sexual freedom of women in Britain was noted by Cassius Dio:[77]

...a very witty remark is reported to have been made by the wife of Argentocoxus, a Caledonian, to Julia Augusta. When the empress was jesting with her, after the treaty, about the free intercourse of her sex with men in Britain, she replied: "We fulfill the demands of nature in a much better way than do you Roman women; for we consort openly with the best men, whereas you let yourselves be debauched in secret by the vilest." Such was the retort of the British woman.

Cassius Dio

Very few reliable sources exist regarding Celtic views towards gender divisions, though some archaeological evidence does suggest that their views towards gender roles may have been different from those of their contemporary classical counterparts.[78] There are instances recorded where women participated both in warfare and in kingship, although they were in the minority in these areas. Plutarch reports that Celtic women acted as ambassadors to avoid a war among Celts chiefdoms in the Po valley during the 4th century BC.[79]

There are some general indications from Iron Age burial sites in the Champagne and Bourgogne regions of Northeastern France which suggest that women may have had roles in combat during the earlier portions of the La Tène period. However, the evidence is far from conclusive.[80] Examples of individuals buried with both torcs (generally associated as being female grave goods)[citation needed] as well as weaponry have been identified, and there are questions about the sexing of some skeletons that were buried with warrior assemblages.[81]

However, among the insular Celts, there is a greater amount of historic documentation to suggest warrior roles for women. In addition to commentary by Tacitus about Boudica, there are indications from later period histories that also suggest a more substantial role for "women as warriors" in symbolic if not actual roles.

Posidonius and Strabo described an island of women where men could not venture for fear of death, and where the women ripped each other apart.[82] Other writers, such as Ammianus Marcellinus and Tacitus, mentioned Celtic women inciting, participating in, and leading battles.[83] Poseidonius' anthropological comments on the Celts had common themes, primarily primitivism, extreme ferocity, cruel sacrificial practices, and the strength and courage of their women.[84]

Celtic art

Celtic art is generally used by art historians to refer to art of the La Tène period across Europe, while the Early Medieval art of Britain and Ireland, that is what "Celtic art" evokes for much of the general public, is called Insular art in art history. Both styles absorbed considerable influences from non-Celtic sources, but retained a preference for geometrical decoration over figurative subjects, which are often extremely stylised when they do appear; narrative scenes only appear under outside influence. Energetic circular forms, triskeles and spirals are characteristic. Much of the surviving material is in precious metal, which no doubt gives a very unrepresentative picture, but apart from Pictish stones and the Insular high crosses, large monumental sculpture, even with decorative carving, is very rare; possibly it was originally common in wood.

The interlace patterns that are often regarded as typical of "Celtic art" were in fact introduced to Insular art from the animal Style II of Germanic Migration Period art, though taken up with great skill and enthusiasm by Celtic artists in metalwork and illuminated manuscripts. Equally, the forms used for the finest Insular art were all adopted from the Roman world: Gospel books like the Book of Kells and Book of Lindisfarne, chalices like the Ardagh Chalice and Derrynaflan Chalice, and penannular brooches like the Tara Brooch. These works are from the period of peak achievement of Insular art, which lasted from the 7th to the 9th centuries, before the Viking attacks sharply set back cultural life.

In contrast the less well known but often spectacular art of the richest earlier Continental Celts, before they were conquered by the Romans, often adopted elements of Roman, Greek and other "foreign" styles (and possibly used imported craftsmen) to decorate objects that were distinctively Celtic. After the Roman conquests, some Celtic elements remained in popular art, especially Ancient Roman pottery, of which Gaul was actually the largest producer, mostly in Italian styles, but also producing work in local taste, including figurines of deities and wares painted with animals and other subjects in highly formalized styles. Roman Britain also took more interest in enamel than most of the Empire, and its development of champlevé technique was probably important to the later Medieval art of the whole of Europe, of which the energy and freedom of Insular decoration was an important element.

Warfare and weapons


Main articles: Celtic warfare and Celtic sword

Principal sites in Roman Britain, with indication of the Celtic tribes. Tribal warfare appears to have been a regular feature of Celtic societies. While epic literature depicts this as more of a sport focused on raids and hunting rather than organised territorial conquest, the historical record is more of tribes using warfare to exert political control and harass rivals, for economic advantage, and in some instances to conquer territory.[citation needed]

The Celts were described by classical writers such as Strabo, Livy, Pausanias, and Florus as fighting like "wild beasts", and as hordes. Dionysius said that their "manner of fighting, being in large measure that of wild beasts and frenzied, was an erratic procedure, quite lacking in military science. Thus, at one moment they would raise their swords aloft and smite after the manner of wild boars, throwing the whole weight of their bodies into the blow like hewers of wood or men digging with mattocks, and again they would deliver crosswise blows aimed at no target, as if they intended to cut to pieces the entire bodies of their adversaries, protective armour and all".[85] Such descriptions have been challenged by contemporary historians.[86]

Polybius (2.33) indicates that the principal Celtic weapon was a long bladed sword which was used for hacking edgewise rather than stabbing. Celtic warriors are described by Polybius and Plutarch as frequently having to cease fighting in order to straighten their sword blades. This claim has been questioned by some archaeologists, who note that Noric steel, steel produced in Celtic Noricum, was famous in the Roman Empire period and was used to equip the Roman military.[87][88] However, Radomir Pleiner, in The Celtic Sword (1993) argues that "the metallographic evidence shows that Polybius was right up to a point", as around one third of surviving swords from the period might well have behaved as he describes.[89]

Polybius also asserts that certain of the Celts fought naked, "The appearance of these naked warriors was a terrifying spectacle, for they were all men of splendid physique and in the prime of life."[90] According to Livy this was also true of the Celts of Asia Minor.[91]

Head hunting

Celts had a reputation as head hunters. According to Paul Jacobsthal, "Amongst the Celts the human head was venerated above all else, since the head was to the Celt the soul, centre of the emotions as well as of life itself, a symbol of divinity and of the powers of the other-world."[92] Arguments for a Celtic cult of the severed head include the many sculptured representations of severed heads in La Tène carvings, and the surviving Celtic mythology, which is full of stories of the severed heads of heroes and the saints who carry their decapitated heads, right down to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where the Green Knight picks up his own severed head after Gawain has struck it off, just as St. Denis carried his head to the top of Montmartre.

A further example of this regeneration after beheading lies in the tales of Connemara's St. Feichin, who after being beheaded by Viking pirates carried his head to the Holy Well on Omey Island and on dipping the head into the well placed it back upon his neck and was restored to full health.

Diodorus Siculus, in his 1st century History had this to say about Celtic head-hunting:

They cut off the heads of enemies slain in battle and attach them to the necks of their horses. The blood-stained spoils they hand over to their attendants and striking up a paean and singing a song of victory; and they nail up these first fruits upon their houses, just as do those who lay low wild animals in certain kinds of hunting. They embalm in cedar oil the heads of the most distinguished enemies, and preserve them carefully in a chest, and display them with pride to strangers, saying that for this head one of their ancestors, or his father, or the man himself, refused the offer of a large sum of money. They say that some of them boast that they refused the weight of the head in gold

In Gods and Fighting Men, Lady Gregory's Celtic Revival translation of Irish mythology, heads of men killed in battle are described in the beginning of the story The Fight With The Fir Bolgs as pleasing to Macha, one aspect of the war goddess Morrigu.



A statuette in the Museum of Brittany, Rennes, probably depicting Brigantia/Brigid: ca. 1st century CE, with iconography derived from Roman statues of Minerva.

The Celts had an indigenous polytheistic religion and culture.[93]

Many Celtic gods, such as Aquae Sulis, are known from texts and inscriptions from the Roman period, while others have been inferred from place names such as Lugdunum (stronghold of Lug). Rites and sacrifices were carried out by priests known as druids. The Celts did not see their gods as having human shapes until late in the Iron Age. Celtic shrines were situated in remote areas such as hilltops, groves, and lakes.

Celtic religious patterns were regionally variable; however, some patterns of deity forms, and ways of worshiping these deities, appeared over a wide geographical and temporal range. The Celts worshipped both gods and goddesses. In general, Celtic gods were deities of particular skills, such as the many-skilled Lugh and Dagda, while goddesses were associated with natural features, particularly rivers (such as Boann, goddess of the River Boyne). This was not universal, however, as goddesses such as Brighid and The Morrígan were associated with both natural features (holy wells and the River Unius) and skills such as blacksmithing and healing.[94]

Triplicity is a common theme in Celtic cosmology, and a number of deities were seen as threefold.[95] This trait is exhibited by The Three Mothers, a group of goddesses worshiped by many Celtic tribes (with regional variations).[96]

The Celts had literally hundreds of deities, some of which were unknown outside a single family or tribe, while others were popular enough to have a following that crossed lingual and cultural barriers. For instance, the Irish god Lugh, associated with storms, lightning, and culture, is seen in similar forms as Lugos in Gaul and Lleu in Wales. Similar patterns are also seen with the continental Celtic horse goddess Epona and what may well be her Irish and Welsh counterparts, Macha and Rhiannon, respectively.[97]

Roman reports of the druids mention ceremonies being held in sacred groves. La Tène Celts built temples of varying size and shape, though they also maintained shrines at sacred trees and votive pools.[93]

Druids fulfilled a variety of roles in Celtic religion, serving as priests and religious officiants, but also as judges, sacrificers, teachers, and lore-keepers. Druids organized and ran religious ceremonies, and they memorized and taught the calendar. Other classes of druids performed ceremonial sacrifices of crops and animals for the perceived benefit of the community.[98]

Gallic Calendar

Main article: Coligny calendar

The Coligny calendar, which was found in 1897 in Coligny, Ain, was engraved on a bronze tablet, preserved in 73 fragments, that originally was 1.48 m wide and 0.9 m high (Lambert p. 111). Based on the style of lettering and the accompanying objects, it probably dates to the end of the 2nd century.[99] It is written in Latin inscriptional capitals, and is in the Gallic language. The restored tablet contains 16 vertical columns, with 62 months distributed over 5 years.

The French archaeologist J. Monard speculated that it was recorded by druids wishing to preserve their tradition of timekeeping in a time when the Julian calendar was imposed throughout the Roman Empire. However, the general form of the calendar suggests the public peg calendars (or parapegmata) found throughout the Greek and Roman world.[100]

There were four major festivals in the Gallic Calendar: "Imbolc" on 1 February, possibly linked to the lactation of the ewes and sacred to the Irish Goddess Brigid. "Beltaine" on 1 May, connected to fertility and warmth, possibly linked to the Sun God Belenos. "Lúnasa" on 1 August, connected with the harvest and associated with the God Lugh. And finally "Samhain" on 1 November, possibly the start of the year.[101] Two of these festivals, Beltaine and Lúnasa are shown on the Coligny Calendar by sigils, and it is easy to imagine that the first month on the Calendar (Samonios) matches Samhain. However, Imbolc does not seem to be shown at all.[102]

Roman Influence

The Roman invasion of Gaul brought a great deal of Celtic peoples into the Roman Empire. Roman culture had a profound effect on the Celtic tribes which came under the empire's control. Roman influence led to many changes in Celtic religion, the most noticeable of which was the weakening of the druid class, especially religiously; the druids were to eventually disappear altogether. Romano-Celtic deities also began to appear: these deities often had both Roman and Celtic attributes and combined the names of Roman and Celtic deities. Other changes included the adaptation of the Jupiter Pole, a sacred pole which was used throughout Celtic regions of the empire, primarily in the north. Another major change in religious practice was the use of stone monuments to represent gods and goddesses. The Celts had only created wooden idols (including monuments carved into trees, which were known as sacred poles) previously to Roman conquest.[96]

 Celtic Christianity

While the regions under Roman rule adopted Christianity along with the rest of the Roman empire, unconquered areas of Ireland and Scotland moved from Celtic polytheism to Celtic Christianity in the 5th century AD. Ireland was converted under missionaries from Britain, such as Patrick. Later missionaries from Ireland were a major source of missionary work in Scotland, Saxon parts of Britain, and central Europe (see Hiberno-Scottish mission). The development of Christianity in Ireland and Britain brought an early medieval renaissance of Celtic art between 390 and 1200 AD,[103][104] developing many of the styles now thought of as typically Celtic, and found throughout much of Ireland and Britain, including the northeast and far north of Scotland, Orkney and Shetland. Notable works produced during this period include the Book of Kells and the Ardagh Chalice. Antiquarian interest from the 17th century led to the term Celt being extended, and rising nationalism brought Celtic revivals from the 19th century.

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