Long before the rise of the modern European nations, even before the Roman Empire came into power, Europe was the home of people known as the Celts. While the name of this people is well-known enough, knowledge about them is not as widespread as knowledge of other civilizations. They are seldom the topics of history papers, unlike other historic events and eras such as the Renaissance Period of the 15th century, the age of Napoleon Bonaparte, or even World War I. Though not as studied in school as other history topics, the Celts are by no means any less interesting. So who were the Celts? What were their beliefs and practices? What happened to the Celts over time? A look into the lives and culture of the Celts reveals that they were intelligent, creative, and freedom-loving people. However, their social and political organization coupled with their fierce independence made them vulnerable and led to their decline.
Who Were the Celts?
The Celts were various groups of people who lived on the continent of Europe north of the Alps. Researchers believe that these groups emerged in the Late Bronze Age, which was around 1200 BCE. The exact region where the Celts started to appear is uncertain, although researchers theorize that they originally developed in the upper Danube in Central Europe. The first Celts were known as the Urnfield culture. Their use of bronze tools indicates that they flourished squarely within the Bronze Age. The use of iron eventually replaced the use of bronze around 700-800 BCE, and these groups were eventually called the Hallstatt culture. The Hallstatt culture declined around 500 BCE and was eventually replaced by what is called the La Tene culture, which thrived until the expansion of the Roman Empire (Cartwright).
Though the Celts are believed to have developed as early as the 13th century BCE, records referring to them by that name did not appear until the 6th century BCE. Greek writers such as Hecataeus refer to them as the “Keltoi” (Milisauskas 363; Rankin 2). The Celts migrated throughout the centuries for a variety of reasons, thus eventually spreading out to regions far beyond their place of origin. At the height of their expansion, Celtic tribes occupied an area that spread from the Iberian Peninsula, or what is now known as Portugal and Spain, to Anatolia and Asia Minor, or what is now the modern-day state of Turkey. There were also Celtic tribes living in the islands that are now modern-day Great Britain and Ireland (Cartwright).
The Culture of the Celts
Unlike many other civilizations that belong to a single nation, such as in the case of the ancient Romans who comprised one empire, the Celts were not a single group. Rather, Celt was a collective name for numerous tribes that shared many cultural beliefs and practices. Among the elements that were common among the Celts was language. The Celtic language is considered to be a family of Indo-European languages. These languages are categorized into two: Continental Celtic and Insular Celtic. Continental Celtic was the language largely spoken before and during the time of the Romans. These languages, however, did not survive and there are few examples that survive to this day. Most of these examples are just those that were recorded by Greek and Roman authors as well as inscriptions on artifacts such as pottery and funerary steles. On the other hand, Insular Celtic refers to languages that were used in the British Isles and Ireland. These languages evolved to become the languages used in various regions in these islands. These include Brittonic, which was the language used by the Celts during the Roman times; Cornish; Cumbrian; Welsh, and Goidelic Irish. The only languages that remain in use today are Welsh and Modern Irish, which traces its roots to Goidelic Irish (Cartwright).
Another important element that the Celts were known to possess was their warlike nature. Writers at the time commented on the Celts’ skill and ferocity in battle. They were considered accomplished warriors and capable horsemen. Indeed, some records claim that the Celts fought naked as they saw no need for armor. The Celts reputation was well-earned, as their conquests were recorded by chroniclers at the time. They attacked Rome in the early 4th century BCE; they also pillaged the city-state of Delphi in the early 3rd century BCE. The Celts’ prowess in warfare was of such fame that many tribes were often commissioned as mercenaries by other nations, such as when the Carthaginian Empire hired them to fight Rome during the Punic Wars (Cartwright).
The Celts’ social and political organization was characterized by tribal units. Unlike other nations, the Celts were not a unified people with a central government. They existed as tribes ruled by local chiefs or kings. However, important members of society were the druids. The Celts adhered to a polytheistic faith; that is, they believed in many gods rather than just one. The druids served a variety of vital and prominent roles including as priests who officiated religious rituals, judges, teachers, healers, and keepers of knowledge. The druids wielded considerable power and were highly respected (Sjoestedt 24).
The Celts are also renowned for their art. They were accomplished artisans who produced a wide variety of artistic works and artifacts. Of particular interest were metalcraft, as shown by the beautiful chalices and jewelry that were unearthed by archaeologists over the centuries. A hallmark of their design is the interlacing patterns and motifs. The Celts’ artistic conditions continued even after they converted to Christianity. Examples of these were the carved stone crosses they erected, the intricate metalwork that went into the creation of crosses, and the many illuminated manuscripts that were produced during the Middle Ages.
Decline of the Celts
While the Celts were fearsome warriors, they were nevertheless unable to fend off threats to their freedom and way of life. The Celts entered a period of decline despite being numerous and widely spread out. Conquest by foreign forces was among the reasons for the Celts’ decline. As Rome expanded its territories, the Celts were forced to contend with invasion. However, the fact that the Celts were composed of many tribes that lacked unity rendered them vulnerable to attacks. For instance, Julius Caesar invaded Gaul (modern-day France) in the 1st century BCE. In the process of conquering new lands, the Roman general slaughtered over a million Celts while many more were enslaved (Rattini). Some leaders such as Vercingetorix and Boudica were able to unite tribes in order to resist Roman invasion, but such efforts proved to be too late to turn the tide.
The rise of Germanic tribes, the formation of early kingdoms following the collapse of Rome, and the dominance of Christianity also resulted in the decline of the Celts’ culture. The eventually changed their beliefs, practices, and languages as they were made subjects of different powers and as Christianity became the state religion across Europe. The last of the ancient Celts remained in Great Britain and Ireland. But as these regions also became new kingdoms and converted to Christianity, those who retained their Celtic lifestyle eventually changed as well. The Celts, however, did not completely disappear. As noted earlier, Celtic elements survive to this day, such as in the case of languages in Great Britain and Ireland that evolved from ancient Celtic.
Though much of the Celts’ history and way of life is unknown, they are nevertheless highly interesting subjects of study. The story of European history, and indeed of Western history itself, is not complete without taking into account the role and contributions of the Celts. As a people who thrived across Europe for hundreds of years, the Celts were crucial to the development of ancient European society. There is still much to be learned about the Celts, especially in the way of researching their origins, beliefs, and practices. But discussing what is known about them now is a step in the right direction.
Cartwright, Mark. “Celts.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. https://www.ancient.eu/celt/. Accessed 14 October 2020.
Milisauskas, Sarunas. European Prehistory: A Survey. Springer, 2002.
Rankind, H. D. Celts and the Classical World. Routledge, 2010.
Rattini, Kristin Baird. “Who was Julius Caesar?” National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/people/reference/julius-caesar/. Accessed 14 October 2020.
Sjoestedt, Marie-Louise. Gods and Heroes of the Celts. Berkeley, Turtle Island Foundation, 1982.