Celts

Definition

by
published on 22 July 2016
Celtic Parade Helmet (Xuan Che)

The ancient Celts were various population groups living in several parts of Europe north of the Mediterranean region from the Late Bronze Age onwards. Given the name Celt by ancient writers, these tribes often migrated and so eventually occupied territories from Portugal to Turkey. Although diverse tribes the ancient Celts spoke the same language and maintained the same artistic tradition which is characterised by the use of idiosyncratic flowing lines and forms. Celtic languages are still spoken today in parts of the British Isles and northern France.

Geographical Spread

Ancient writers gave the name Celts to various population groups living across central Europe inland from the Mediterranean coastal areas. Most scholars agree that the Celtic culture first appeared in the Late Bronze Age in the area of the upper Danube sometime around the 13th century BCE. These early Celts were known as the ‘Urnfield people’ and they probably spoke a proto-Celtic language. By the 8th century BCE, iron had replaced bronze-working and the cultural group is then referred to by scholars as the ‘Hallstatt culture’. Spain saw a similar development with tribes using iron weapons. The Hallstatt culture declined by the 5th century BCE, perhaps due to internal political tensions and economic difficulties. The next phase of Celtic development was carried out by a group known as the La Tène culture.

The migration of various Celtic tribes in order to flee wars meant that eventually they occupied Territory from the Iberian peninsula to Turkey.

The prosperity of the La Tène culture in ancient France, Spain and wider central Europe meant that they were able to challenge the contemporary Mediterranean cultures and so they appear for the first time in Classical history. From then on these peoples were widely referred to as Celts. In antiquity writers did not describe tribes in ancient Britain and Ireland as Celts, although they have acquired that label in modern times and some Celtic languages or their derivatives are still spoken there, as a form of Celtic still is in the Brittany region of northern France. The religion of the Celts, led by a priesthood known as the Druids, is described by ancient writers with some disdain as crude and violent.

The migration of various Celtic tribes in order to flee wars – they were famously attacked in Gaul by Julius Caesar in the 1st century BCE and by the Germanic tribes - and find new prospects meant that eventually the territory occupied by them ranged from Galicia (the Iberian peninsula) to Romania. Many Celtic tribes spread eastwards, for example, traversing Macedonia in 280 BCE and crossing the Hellespont in 278 BCE into Asia Minor. The Galatians, as they were now called, colonised areas of central Asia Minor which brought them into direct conflict with both the Hellenistic kingdoms and Rome.

Hallstatt & La Tène Cultures

Celtic Warfare

Celtic armies first came to the attention of historians when the Gauls, led by their king Bran (Brennus), sacked Rome in 390 BCE, and again in 279 BCE when they looted Delphi as they passed through Greece on their way to Asia. The Celts attacked the Romans again in 225 BCE and were frequent mercenary allies of Carthage during the Punic Wars. The Celts thus gained a reputation with Latin and Greek writers for being fierce warriors and skilled horsemen who also fielded chariots in battle. Julius Caesar faced them when he invaded Gaul. They were light, pulled by two horses, and had an open front and back with double hoops at the sides. Containing two men they were used to attack enemy cavalry first by throwing javelins and then one man dismounted to fight on foot while the rider drove the chariot to a safe distance to await a retreat if necessary. Caesar describes them as driven with great skill and so were a highly manoeuvrable weapon of disruption and attack.

Celtic warriors were known for their long hair and imposing physique. They are depicted in Greek art with their distinctive long shields (wooden panels covered in decorated hide) and long swords. Such was the respect for Celtic warriors that Hellenistic kings who defeated Galatian armies were given the title of soter, meaning ‘saviour’. Although Galatian armies were almost always defeated by their more disciplined and better-equipped enemies in single battles, once conquered, they did fight successfully as mercenaries in many Hellenistic and Roman armies.

Celtic Wagon

Celtic Languages

The Celtic language is a branch of the Indo-European language family. Scholars have divided Celtic languages into two groups: Insular Celtic and Continental Celtic. The latter group was no longer widely spoken after the Roman imperial period, and the only surviving examples of it are mentions in the works of Greek and Roman writers and some epigraphic remains such as pottery graffiti and votive and funerary stelae. The best documented of this group is Gaulish.  

The Insular Celtic group of languages are two: British or Brittonic (Breton, Cornish, and Welsh) and Goidelic (Irish and its medieval derivatives, Scots Gaelic and Manx). Brittonic was spoken in all of Britain in the Roman period. From it evolved Cumbrian (extinct since medieval times), Cornish (no longer spoken after the 18th century CE but recently revived), Breton (likely introduced by 5th-century CE British settlers and not connected directly to Gaulish), and Welsh, which is still spoken today. The earliest evidence of Goidelic-Irish dates to the 5th century CE, and it later evolved into Middle Irish (c. 950 – 1200 CE) and, thereafter, morphed again into Modern Irish, which is still spoken today.    


About the Author

Mark Cartwright
Mark holds an M.A. in Greek philosophy and his special interests include ceramics, the ancient Americas, and world mythology. He loves visiting and reading about historic sites and transforming that experience into free articles accessible to all.

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Timeline

Visual Timeline
  • c. 1400 BCE
    The beginning of Celtic culture in the upper Danube region of central Europe.
  • c. 900 BCE
    Celtic Migration begins in Europe with many Celts landing in Scotland.
  • c. 800 BCE - c. 600 BCE
    Early Iron Age Hallstatt culture flourishes across Europe.
  • c. 700 BCE
    Iron Age begins in Scotland.
  • 600 BCE
    Celts settle Iberia.
  • c. 500 BCE - 450 BCE
    Hallstatt kingdoms and chiefdoms suddenly collapse for reasons unclear.
  • c. 475 BCE
    Celts defeat the Etruscans at the Ticino River.
  • c. 450 BCE
    Rise of the Celtic La Tene culture.
  • 400 BCE
    Celts enter Italy and settle in the Po Valley. Etruscan power declines.
  • 396 BCE
    Celts defeat the Etruscan army at the battle of Melpum. Afterwards the Celts heavily settle all over the Po Valley.
  • 391 BCE
    Senones besiege Clusium, an Etruscan city.
  • 387 BCE
    "Gallic Catastrophe:" Duke Brennus of the Celts defeats the Romans at Allia, and subsequently sacks Rome. Celts move off after ransom is paid.
  • 380 BCE
    Celtic groups, possibly from northern Italy and the eastern Alps, begin to raid Illyrian territories.
  • 367 BCE
    Celtic mercenaries fight with the Spartans against Thebes.
  • 367 BCE
    Livy mentions Celtic armies in Ancona and one such group moves against Rome once more.
  • 335 BCE
    Alexander the Great receives Celtic ambassadors in the Balkans.
  • 334 BCE
    Rome signs a peace treaty with the Senones tribe.
  • 323 BCE
    Alexander the Great receives Celtic delegations in Babylon.
  • 297 BCE
    Celts and Samnites join forces and defeat the Romans at Camertium.
  • c. 295 BCE
    In a battle lasting all day, Romans narrowly defeat a force of Celts and Samnites at Sentinum.
  • 285 BCE
    Roman forces heavily defeat the Senones at Lake Vadimo.
  • 285 BCE - 282 BCE
    Rome defeats the Celts in Italy. Rome's dominance in central Italy is secured.
  • 284 BCE
    Gauls of the Insubres and Boii tribes defeat the Romans at Arretium.
  • 283 BCE
    Rome decisively defeats the Senones at Picenum.
  • 283 BCE
    Romans defeat the Etruscans and Celts at lake Vadimonis.
  • 282 BCE
    A Celtic army with many youth among their ranks is again defeated by Romans.
  • 280 BCE
    Celts join with Pyrrhus, aiding in his victory over the Romans at Heraclea.
  • 279 BCE
    Celts invade Thrace and Anatolia.
  • 279 BCE
    Celts stay with Pyrrhus and fight in the Epirote army at Asculum, a victory over the Romans.
  • 277 BCE - 276 BCE
    4,000 Celts are employed in Egypt under Ptolemy II.
  • 275 BCE
    Seleucids successfully defeat the Galatian Celts in the 'Elephant Battle'.
  • c. 263 BCE
    Antaros and 3000 Celts fight with Carthage in the First Punic War.
  • 261 BCE
    Antiochus, king of the Seleucid empire, is killed in battle against the Galatians at Ephesus in Asia Minor.
  • c. 260 BCE
    Timaeos is the first to use the term 'Celtiberian' when refering to Celts living in Iberia.
  • 259 BCE
    Celts in Egypt fail to overthrow Ptolemy II and are starved to death on an island.
  • c. 237 BCE - 241 BCE
    Attalos I of Pergamon defeats the Galatians at the headwaters of the Caioc River.
  • 232 BCE
    Attalos I defeats the Galatians a second time.
  • 225 BCE
    Two Roman armies surround and defeat a Celtic army at Telamon.
  • 225 BCE
    Celts defeat 6000 Romans at Faesulae and proceed to overrun Etruria.
  • 223 BCE
    Romans successfully campaign against Celtic tribes of Cisalpine Gaul.
  • 222 BCE
    The Celts are defeated at Clastidium by Roman forces.
  • 218 BCE
    The Aegosages Celts enter Anatolia under Attalos of Pergamon.
  • c. 217 BCE - 218 BCE
    30,000 Celtic infantry and 4,000 Celtic cavalry join Hannibal. Celts constitute just over 50% of his army in Italy.
  • 217 BCE
    14,000 Celts serve under Ptolemy IV in his victory at Raphia over the Seleucid King Antiochos III.
  • 217 BCE
    Prusias of Bithynia in Asia Minor massacres the Aegosages including the women and children.
  • c. 215 BCE - c. 216 BCE
    The Boii crush a Roman army 25,000 strong at Litana. Victory was, in part, achieved by pushing precariously cut trees down atop the horrified Romans as they marched.
  • 212 BCE
    The Celtic kingdom of Tylis in Thrace is overthrown by native Thracians. Cavaros is the last ruler of the small kingdom.
  • c. 200 BCE
    Iron in the Celtic world experiences a significant boom. Iron manufacturing increase in all facets of life such as weapon construction and agriculture items.
  • 200 BCE - 100 BCE
    Oppida (Celtic fortified tribal centers) spread.
  • 193 BCE
    The Boii are defeated by the Romans, suffering, according to Livy, 14,000 dead.
  • 137 BCE
    4,000 Celtiberians trap a force of 20,000 Romans at Numantia forcing their surrender.
  • 133 BCE
    Numantia falls to the Romans who besiege the oppidum. Mass suicide ensues among many of the survivors. Land reforms by Tiberius Gracchus.
  • 125 BCE
    Rome intervenes on behalf of Massalia against the Saluvii Celts.
  • 106 BCE
    The governor of the Roman province of Macedonia, M. Minucius Rufus, celebrates his victory over a raid of the Dacians allied with the Celtic tribe of the Scordiscii in the Balkans.
  • 64 BCE
    Galatia becomes a client state of Rome.
  • c. 60 BCE
    Boii in eastern Europe crushed by the Dacians.
  • 58 BCE
    Caesar attacks the Helvetii while on migration and defeats them.
  • 57 BCE
    A Roman army under Caesar narrowly defeats an army of Nervii, Atrebates, and Viromandui.
  • 56 BCE
    The navies of Rome and the Veneti Gauls clash resulting in a Roman victory. This is the first recorded naval battle in the Atlantic Ocean.
  • 54 BCE - 53 BCE
    Ambiorix of the Eburones tribe destroys around 9,000 Roman soldiers at Atuatuca.
  • 52 BCE
    Caesar defeated at Gergovia by Vercingetorix.
  • 52 BCE
    After becoming trapped and besieged at Alesia, Vercingetorix surrenders to Caesar.
  • 51 BCE
    Caesar's siege and capture of Uxellodunum ends the Gallic War.
  • c. 51 BCE - c. 30 BCE
    300 Celts serve as elite bodyguards for Cleopatra VII during her reign.
  • 46 BCE
    The Bellovaci unsuccessfully rise against Roman rule in Belgica.
  • 44 BCE
    The Allobroges unsuccessfully rise against Roman rule in southern Gaul.
  • 33 BCE
    The Belgic Morini and the Celts of Aquitania unsuccessfully rise against Roman rule.
  • 4 BCE
    At the funeral of Herod II, his Celtic bodyguards are in attendance.
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