What have the Celts ever done for us?

This famous Monty Python clip tells us everything we need to know about the way the Roman Empire and Roman civilization has been viewed down the present day. But recent archaelogical evidence, and new theories, are making us rethink our attitudes to the Romans. Were they always more civilized? Their attitudes to slaves, gladiator shows and their treatment of the people they conquered would suggest not.

And were the Romans great innovators, intellectuals and inventors or were they just very good at stealing other people's ideas? Should we be asking, "What did the Celts ever do for us?" Because it turns out they were ahead of the Romans in many ways, a few of which I'll investigate here. I'm thinking feminism, roads, wine barrels, chariot suspension, chain mail, stabbing swords, telegraph systems, astronomy and accurate calendars to mention but a few.

Graham Robb has written a great article on re-evaluating the Celts, which you can read here. And keep visiting for new posts.


Two cities were sacked, eighty thousand of the Romans and of their allies perished, and the island was lost to Rome. Moreover, all this ruin was brought upon the Romans by a woman, a fact which in itself caused them the greatest shame.

Dio, a Roman consul and historian, said this in his history of Rome. he was talking about the rebellion of the Iceni Queen Boudica against the Romans in Britain. It was bad enough that the Romans nearly had to abandon their new province, but the fact that it was a women leading the rebellion made it doubly bad. (For more about Boudica and her rebellion see Celt of the Month.)

In Rome a woman had few rights. No matter how wealthy she was, she was still considered the property of her father's family, even after marriage. She didn't have her own name. She was always given the feminine version of her father's name. So if her father was Julius, she'd automatically become Julia. If her Dad was Agrippus, she'd be Agrippina. She was not allowed to vote, hold office or serve in the military. If she divorced her husband, the father automatically kept the children. She could inherit property, keep her own money, ask for a divorce and write her own will.

The position of women in Celtic society was quite different. Celtic women were definitely allowed to hold office in their own right. Queen Cartimandua ruled the Brigantes. Queen Boudica ruled the Iceni after her husband Prasutagus died. He had actually left his kingdom to his two daughters. Women like Boudica led men into battle. In the Tain Bo Cuailnge, Cuchulain is taught to fight by the warrior maiden Skatha. He fights against the forces of Queen Maeve, who leads her army into battle. There are examples of Celtic women being diplomats, ambassadors and druids as well. 

So the Celts were far more forward thinking regarding women's rights than some societies existing even today. 

A Celtic woman

A Celtic woman

Vibia Sabina, wife of Emperor Hadrian, By Flickr: Vibia. Author: Iessi, 10 October 2006., CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3538633

Vibia Sabina, wife of Emperor Hadrian, By Flickr: Vibia. Author: Iessi, 10 October 2006., CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3538633

The first "Telephone" System

Ok, so that is a bit of an exaggeration. The Celts didn't invent the telephone, but according to Julius Caesar the Gauls did have an amazing system of shouting to each other across the fields, so that news could travel across the country in a matter of hours.  Here's what Caesar said:

For whenever anything especially important or remarkable occurs they transmit the news by shouting across the fields and regions; others then take it up and pass the news on to the next in line...
— The Discovery of Middle Earth by Graham Robb

Sounds a bit crazy? Maybe, but it's no more crazy than the whistling language of the Pyrenees or the Canaries. Have a look at this video about the whistling languages used to talk over long distances. 

Caesar tells this system of shouting and listening posts, called Equoranda, were how the Averni found out about a massacre of Romans in Cenabum, 160 miles away, in a matter of hours, and started a revolt of their own.  

There are still many towns in France with names that are modern versions of the word equoranda.