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Who were the Celts?

who were the celts

Who were the Celts? 

Who were the Celts? If you ask Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian writing in the first century BC, they were a bunch of wine addicted, quarrelsome warriors with outlandishly coloured clothes who are prone to falling out during drunken feasts. 

Unfortunately the Celts left no written records of their own. To get an insight, we have to rely on the words of classical writers, such as Roman or Greek historians, and to some extent archaeological finds. Unfortunately the problem with these early writers is that they often had never met any Celts themselves. As a result, their accounts can be a mixture of hearsay and fantastical or mythical imaginings. The writers tended to lump all of the peoples in northern and western Europe together to some extent and as such the terms ‘Celts’ and ‘Gauls’ can be seen as somewhat interchangable. Julius Caesar himself was to write in “we call them Gauls, though in their own language they are called Celts’.

It seems more realistic that the Celts were not a unified people but a dispersed ethnic group with loyalty to their tribes on a limited geographical basis. It is clear that the Celts interacted with each other through trade and alliances, as mentioned in Roman sources and shown through the spread of artefacts and cultural styles. Whether they saw themselves as a wider collective isn’t very clear. They certainly didn’t have a unifying political apparatus. Caesar, in his conquest of Gaul, effectively takes advantage of this lack of unity to dominate the tribes in a piecemeal fashion. 

In terms of the history of the Celts, whilst it is a matter for debate, it has been proposed that the Celts effectively spread by diffusion or migration from the area Hallstatt in Austria, where archeology shows there was thriving culture between 1200 BC and 500 BC. By the third century BC the Celts were to be found from Britain and Spain in the west, across northern and central Europe to parts of Anatolia in the east. 

The Celtic tribes and groupings, some established in the Po Valley, increasingly came under pressure from the Romans and this lead to periods of conflict. Contrary to our view now, this didn’t always go the Roman’s way – the Celts sacked Rome in 390 BC. However, eventually the Romans defeated the Celts in Italy and later in Gaul, Iberia and Britain. The Romans saw the Celts as hostile barbarians intent of their destruction but it is clear that they were themselves under pressure from migrating Germanic tribes moving west. These pressures from the Romans on one hand, and the Germanic peoples on the other, lead to the subjugation of the Celts. In Roman areas, military defeat was followed later with cultural assimilation to a vary extent but over time the Celts somewhat disappeared as a distinct people. 

In modern times, people associate the Celts with Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Britany and the Isle of Man. These are areas where a Celtic identity has survived and has begun to thrive in recent years with new interest in Celtic languages. These areas, in the extremities of Europe, are a reflection of the displacement and assimilation of the Celts which occurred in the Roman period.   


[1] British Museum Blog ‘Who were the Celts?

[2] Museum of Wales ‘Who were the Celts?


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