These were a diverse group of Iron Age peoples that emerged from the Alpine region centred on Burgundy, Switzerland and Austria. From as early as 1200 BCE they spread through modern-day France and parts of Spain. They arrived in real numbers from 800 BCE onwards.
They soon established effective control of modern-day France from the Pyrenees to the Alps, plus today’s Belgium, Luxembourg and much of Switzerland. They initially traded with, but then subjugated many pre-existing people like the Ligures in the Alps and Provence area, the Belgae in the north-east, the Iberians in the Pyrenees, the Aquitanic people (including the Basques).
The Greeks encountered them when they established trading posts in the south of France and their historian Herodotus characterised these locals as Keltoi. Herodotus is variously called the ‘Father of History’ or ‘The Father of Lies’ depending upon your belief in his somewhat arbitrary collected histories of the ancient peoples.
These Celts had a reputation as fearsome warriors and had soon seized many of the major trading routes. In France this included control of the Seine and Rhône valleys. This annexation is perhaps what led to the Greeks portraying them as barbarians.
The Greeks originated this term, in their language it was barbaros meaning merely one who was not Greek. It was the Romans who modified the term to suggest rather more, implying that they were savage, tribal and uncivilised people.
They were certainly tribal and this meant they did not evolve any centralized government or unite to fight common foes. They did not leave a written legacy that described them from their own viewpoint, so have no defence to the claims of barbarism.
Certainly they were not without threat taking ever larger territories. They had fearsome war cries, beat their weapons against their shield and blew trumbets to further terrify their opponents. They rode horses and chariots into battle. They prized taking the head of a defeated foe, but specialised in capturing slaves that they could then trade for coveted items like wine.
Brennus, the chieftain of the Senones, led his people across the Apennines to look for new lands and camped in Ciusium (in the Siena province of Italy) as they sought to negotiate to acquire land locally.
The tale goes that the Ciusians called upon Rome to assist but when the negotiations failed they attacked the Senones. One of their ambassadors killed a Senone chieftain and this clearly breached the accepted diplomatic ‘laws’ of the time. Travelling to Rome for the Senate to enforce action against this crime the Senone Celts were dismissed out of hand. Some authorities suggest that these Ciusium incident was actually something of a fiction that it was used as a justification to do what they planned – attack Rome.
War was declared and the Celts marched on Rome. The two forces met at the Allia river in 390 BCE, with six Roman legions containing 24,000 men. This was twice the number of combatants fielded by the Senones, but the Romans of that time fielded what was more of a militia that was soon outflanked and slaughtered.
They moved on and took the city but not the Capitoline Hill which was defended against them. They held Rome for several months. A wrangle ensued about the amount of gold the Romans would give for them to leave. In the meantime an army was mustered and recaptured the city, catching the remaining Celts outside the city they wiped them out.
Another Celt, also named Brennus, was involved a century later in expanding their influence through the Balkans. In 279 BCE they met and eventually defeated the Greek army assembled at Thermopylae. This was the location where King Leonidas of Sparta and an alliance of Greeks city-states famously held off an overwhelming force of Xerxes’ Persians two centuries earlier.
The victorious Celts moved on to Delphi where they were routed as much by internal dissent as the action of the Greeks. Brennus committed suicide and the Celt survivors moved off to the countryside around Byzantium (today’s Istanbul) where they established a kingdom for themselves, called Gallatia.
Fifty years later and another Senone leader, Viridomarus, was again facing a Roman army, this time at Clastidium (in today’s Lombardy). He was routed and the Roman leader, Marcus Claudius Marcellus, sought him out for one-on-one combat. In killing Viridomarus the Roman claimed spolia opima, or rich spoils, so that he took the armour, weapons and any other possessions from the Celt.
By 300 BCE they had established themselves from Portugal and Ireland to Hungary and Turkey. But their expansion brought them increasingly cheek-by-jowl with the Romans.
Today the Celts recognise six nations where the language and culture have been maintained down the years. These are Brittany (Breizh), Cornwall (Kernow), Ireland (Éire), the Isle of Man (Mannin), Scotland (Alba), and Wales (Cymru). Not quite meeting all their criteria but still with a strong Celtic history is Galicia in Spain and to some extent Asturias, Cantabria and northern Portugal. The Aosta valley in Italy lays claim to Celtic roots too.
It is interesting to note that today’s Brittany Celtic nation is not the result of a local surviving tribe, but was based on an immigration of a British tribe in the 5th century to the region.
Paris – one Celtic tribe settled on two islands in the Seine at around 250 BCE; though the area had been settled since before 4,200 BCE. The islands were the Ile de la Cite and Ile St Louis the tribe was called the Parisii. Their settlement was named Luteca when the Romans controlled it from 52 BCE, but when the western Empire fell in the 5th century it became Paris.
But the Celts were not at all uncivilised. They were adept farmers growing crops like beans, lentils, peas and wheat. They farmed chickens, cows, pigs and sheep; they kept cats and dogs. They were miners and creative metal workers using bronze, copper, silver and gold to fabricate jewellery and other adornments. Their agriculture, weaponry and jewellery made them ‘wealthy’ for their times.
They built settlements, hill-top fortifications, tombs and shrines. They had druid priests to worship gods and goddesses and poetic and musical bards to laud their lives and conquests. Celtic men and women and their gods and goddesses had full equality. They wore colourful clothes, had ornate hairstyles and their women wore cosmetics. Julius Caesar called them ‘trousered long-haireds’.
The Druids were If anything rather more organised than the tribes themselves. They maintained contacts between each other and met annually at Carnutes (between the Seine and Loire rivers) to elect a Chief Druid. The Druid was not just a religious leader they also administered the law and were deeply involved in the politics within the tribes.
Their religion included a belief in reincarnation, there were certainly animal sacrifices and possibly human too. To be trained as a Druid took up to twenty years learning the oral traditions and laws, verses and magic. They established shrines in places of natural significance springs, pools, lakes, grottoes…
Source of the Seine – this is located in north-east Burgundy at the Celt’s sacred pool of Sequana, who was a healing goddess. It was like a prototype spa where pilgrims would come to seek a cure. Of course given the numbers who visited the spot soon boasted all sorts of tourist buildings and services.
All sorts of statuary and sculptures have been found here, the Musée Archéologique de Dijon has a good collection of these on display.
Diviciacus of the Aedui tribe is perhaps the best documented Druid of the time; he was clearly a remarkable individual. Julius Caesar described him as a ‘senator’ in the sense that he was a decision-maker for the Aedui people.
His tribe were defeated in 63 BCE by an alliance of Celts and Germans and assimilated in to another. In his 30s and displaced by this turn of events he travelled to Rome where he was a guest of Cicero and addressed the Roman Senate. Cicero recorded that he was a druid and was an adept in astronomy, divination and philosophy.
We will meet up with Diviciacus again later.
The Ligures or Ligurians, were an ancient people (Indo-European) who gave their name to a region of north-western Italy. Some palaeontologists consider them as direct descendants of the Cro-Magnon men that lived throughout Gaul from the Mesolithic period (13,000 – 3,000 BCE). Strabo suggests they were a different race from the Celts who inhabited the rest of the Alps, though they pursued similar lifestyles and cultures. Aeschylus describes Hercules battling with the Ligures near the mouths of the Rhone, and Herodotus describes the Ligures as inhabiting the country above Massilia (today’s Marseilles).
Traces of the Ligurians have been found further afield, in the Rhône valley, Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily. They had their own language, though this is suggested as being close to the Celtic and Italic tongues. Ligurians have been identified as having 40+ tribes in Metropolitan France and sixteen on Corsica.
A Latin poet, Avienus, from the 4th century CE, used a 6th century BCE source for his work, this was the Phoenician Periplum. A periplum is a journey, for example the ‘great periplum’ means the daily journey of the Sun across the sky. Phoenicians and Carthaginians like Hanno the Navigator produced accounts of their voyages and these inspired Avienus. He suggested that the term Ligurians was applied as a general term for peoples of Western Europe including the Celts, but thought real Ligurians were Pre-Indo-Europeans.
Hanno and the savages – I have always particularly enjoyed the story of Hanno from his 5th or 6th century BCE periplus. Recounting that they reached the furthest point down the north-west coast of Africa, at the end of their supplies they landed on an island. Here his fleet of sixty ships encountered ‘a rude description of people’, they were very hairy and savage. They tried to capture some of the males, the account described, ‘We pursued but could take none of the males; they all escaped to the top of precipices, which they mounted with ease, and threw down stones’. The account continued ‘they made such violent struggles, biting and tearing their captors, that we killed them, and stripped off the skins, which we carried to Carthage.’ Once there the skins were stored in a temple, and, according to Pliny the Elder, remained there until the city was sacked by the Romans in 146 BCE. It was not until the 19th century CE that an expedition studied these apes thoroughly and they adopted the name that Hanno’s interpreters had used more than two millennia earlier, gorillai.
Ligurians regularly acted as mercenary troops for others. Greek leaders on Sicily used Ligurian mercenaries until the time of Agathocles (362-290 BCE). Ligurians are also referenced as assisting the Carthaginian general Hamilcar in 480 BC. Ligurians routinely fought against the Romans, many became displaced from their homeland and often became assimilated into Roman culture during the 2nd century BCE.
Facing an alliance of Etruscans, Carthaginians and Celts, Massilia looked to the Roman Republic for protection. This also meant that Massilia was subsumed into the growing Roman market. The city became the link between inland Gaul, hungry for Roman goods and wine and Rome’s desire for new products and slaves. The city maintained independence until 49 BCE when it joined Pompey’s losing side in the civil war (versus Julius Caesar). and lost its independence.
The Romans defeated the Ligurians and began to start their own colonies along the coast. A Roman settlement was founded at today’s Toulon, with the name Telo Martius. Telo, either for the goddess of springs or from the Latin tol, the base of the hill, and Martius, for the god of war.
Telo Martius – became one of two principal locations for Roman dye manufacturing centres, producing the purple colour used in imperial robes, made from the local sea snail called murex, and from the acorns of the oak trees. Toulon harbour became a shelter for trading ships, and the name of the town gradually changed from Telo to Tholon, Tolon, and Toulon.