Who were the Celts (pronounced with a hard K sound) and what were they like? The only written evidence comes from the Greeks and the Romans, but were they telling us the truth?
In the 6th century BC or BCE, 600 years before the birth of Jesus, the Greeks wrote about people called the Keltoi, who lived on the northern shores of the Mediterranean sea. 500 years later Julius Caesar, who fought the Gauls in France said we call them Gauls, "though in their own language they are called Celts."
It's likely that the Celts were not one specific group of people, but many different groups who, through many thousands of years of trade along the Mediterranean and Atlantic seacoasts ended up sharing beliefs, technologies, ideas and lifestyles.
They would have owed their allegiance to their tribe or chieftan first, (there were 27 known tribes in Britain at the time of the first Roman conquest in the first century AD) but the tribes did communicate with one another, meet up for important decisions and club together in times of war. According to Julius Caesar, Celts from Gaul would go to study with druids in Britain. Druids were the Celtic wise men, religious leaders and teachers.
But what were the Celts like? The problem is that unlike the Greeks and the Romans, the Celts did not write things down in books. In fact all their really important knowledge was considered so valuable that, again according to Julius Caesar, the druids took up to 20 years learning it all by heart. It was a culture that believed in memorizing and storytelling not writing. But as the druids died out, or were killed, everything they knew was lost. The moral of this story is: if you want to be remembered, write it down.
So, the only information we have about the Celts, (apart from archeological evidence that we find and have to make lots of guesses about based on scientific data) comes from the Greeks or the Romans. The Greeks were those wonderful people who invented democracy in Athens, studied history, math and physics and went on to build amazing architecture like the Parthenon. The Romans conquered them, but always used Greek slaves to teach their children. The Romans were those guys in togas who had a large professional army, and moved from democracy to dictatorship and ended up a ruling a giant Empire.
The Romans and the Greeks were either trading with the Celts or fighting them. They considered the Celts as "the other side," much as sports fans look at their rivals today. So if the Romans said the Celts were super fierce, but in the end the Romans won the battle…it made the Romans sound better. If the Romans said the Celts were really savage and uncivilized, they were making themselves sound superior. It's hard to take everything the Romans and Greeks said about the Celts at face value BUT they do give us some of the only written evidence we have. So let's keep it simple.
What did the Greeks and Romans say about the Celts?
In a nutshell, the Romans and Greeks thought the Celts were: tall, war-loving, fierce, sometimes very brave, but sadly undisciplined in battle. Their wives were equally fiercesome, big and war-like. The Celts drank to excess and always got into fights when they were drunk, over things like who'd eat the best bits of meat at a feast. They were childishly boastful, flashy dressers who wore too much gold jewelry. They also grew ridiculously long mustaches which trailed in their food. And..oh...they were headhunters, too. They'd cut off an opponent's head, oil it, keep it in a box and show it to visitors.
I warned you. It's not a very flattering picture, but some of it was based on truth.
Were the Celts headhunters?
The Greek Diodorus said: "They cut off the heads of enemies slain in battle and attach them to the necks of their horses ... 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."
Was he right? Yes. It's likely that the Celts believed the "essence" of the human being was found in the head. There are religious sites where skulls have been found such as Rocquepertuse in France, where human skulls were set into niches in an archway and it seems the Celts did cut off the heads of their opponents and set them up to be seen. There are also plenty of legends, written down in medieval times but harking back to much earlier Iron Age roots, that mention severed heads. These include the Tain Bo Cuailnge, or The Cattle Raid of Cooley, in which Cuchulain cuts off the heads of his opponents.
In 2005, in Lancaster, England, this very important tombstone was discovered showing Isus Vodullus, a Celtic Briton and an officer in the Roman auxiliary cavalry holding up the head of a man from the Celtic Treveri tribe in Western Germany. Even when fighting for the Romans, it appears the Celts clung to their warlike traditions and ancient religious beliefs.
Trajan's Column, in Rome, is a monument to Emperor Trajan's triumph over the Dacians, (in present day Romania). On it Roman auxillairies, probably Celts, are seen cutting heads off their opponents, putting the heads on spikes around their Roman camp and presenting heads to the emperor.
Did the Celts wear lots of jewelry and bright clothes?
Strabo, a Greek writing in the first century AD, said, "They wear gold jewelry such as necklaces and bracelets around their arms and wrists, while the upper classes wear dyed clothing decorated with gold." Didorus said: "The way they dress is astonishing: they wear brightly coloured and embroidered shirts, with trousers called bracae and cloaks fastened at the shoulder with a brooch, heavy in winter, light in summer. The cloaks are striped or checkered in design, with the separate checks close together and in various colours…Some of them wear a gold or silver plaited belt around their long shirts.”
Were they right? Yes. Archeologists have found plenty of extremely beautiful pieces of jewelry. The Celts were very good metalsmiths and are known for the beauty and intricacy of their designs. They made many brooches, with which they pinned their cloaks, and torcs, twisted gold necklaces, for which the Celts were famous.
Many pieces of cloth have been found in Celtic tombs and they definitely wove cloth patterned just like modern tartans.
Did they spike up their hair with lime and have long mustaches?
It seems so. The Dying Gaul, above, has clumpy spiked-up hair and a mustache, but of course, that sculpture was made by the Greeks. So did the Celts produce pictures and sculptures of themselves? Yes, they did.
Were they fierce, war-like and always fighting, even the women?
Diodorus said: "Their aspect is terrifying ... They are very tall in stature, with rippling muscles under clear white skin. Their hair is blond, but not naturally so: they bleach it, to this day, artificially, washing it in lime and combing it back from their foreheads. They look like wood-demons, their hair thick and shaggy like a horse's mane. Some of these are clean-shaven, but others - especially those of high rank - shave their cheeks but leave a moustache that covers the whole mouth and, when they eat and drink, acts like a sieve, trapping particles of food... "
If we look at tombs of the rich Celtic chieftains and read tales like the Tain Bo Cuailnge, it seems that yes, the Celts did have a warrior class. They prided themselves on their prowess in battle and feasting played an important part in holding society together. Boys and sometimes girls were trained to be warriors from an early age, and wealthy men and women were buried with swords and chariots. The Romans tell us that the Celts had to stay fit and ready for war. If a man's belly hung over his belt, he was punished. The Romans were quick to employ the Celts as auxiliaries in their Roman army. We know from Roman histories and from stories like the Tain Bo Cuilange that women could be leaders, like Queen Cartimandua of the Brigantes, a Northern British tribe. They also went in to battle, like Queen Boudica of the Iceni (see my page Celt of the Month.) Boudica let a rebellion against the Romans and nearly drove them from Britain all together.
But we also know from archaeological evidence that the Celts were hardworking farmers, growing crops, tending the woodlands, raising livestock. They were highly skilled craftsmen, weavers, with a real flair for incredibly beautiful and meaningful designs. They were skilled navigators too and traded far and wide. They were also very religious and were guided by the druids, people who studied for years in astronomy, astrology, medicine and math among other things. Some druids even visited and lived in Rome. (More of that in another post.)
So the problem with seeing the Celts through the lens of the Romans was that the Romans, though accurate in some ways, were very judgmental. The Celt were always "barbarians" to the Romans.
In my page, "What did the Celts ever do for us," I will point out all of the inventions and ideas that the Romans either didn't even recognise as civilized or stole from the Celts and took the credit.
We haven't always seen past the Roman point of view to give the Celts their due.