While the Hellenistic world was flourishing in Greece and the Middle East, and Rome was beginning its long climb from obscurity to power, most of Western Europe was dominated by the Celts. The Celts provide background context to the rise of Rome, since Roman expansion would eventually spell the end of Celtic independence in most of Europe.
Much less is known about the Celts than about the contemporaneous cultures of the Mediterranean because the Celts did not leave a written record. The Celts were not a unified empire of any kind; they were a tribal people who shared a common culture and a set of beliefs, along with certain technologies having to do with metal-working and agriculture.
The Celts were a warrior society which seemed to have practiced a variation of what would later be known as feudal law, in which every offense demanded retribution in the former of either violence or “man gold”: the payment needed to atone for a crime and thereby prevent the escalation of violence. They were in contact with the people of the Mediterranean world from as early as 800 BCE, mostly through trade. They lived in fortified towns and were as quick to raid as to trade with their neighbors.
Most descriptions of Celtic societies portray them as being divided into three groups: a warrior aristocracy; an intellectual class including professions such as druid, poet, and jurist; and everyone else.
Druids fulfilled a variety of roles in Celtic religion, serving as priests and religious officiants, but also as judges, sacrificers, teachers, and lore-keepers. Druids organized and ran religious ceremonies, and they memorized and taught the calendar. Other classes of druids performed ceremonial sacrifices of crops and animals for the perceived benefit of the community.
Celtic religion was polytheistic, believing in many deities, both gods and goddesses, some of which were venerated only in a small, local area, but others whose worship had a wider geographical distribution. Shrines were situated in remote areas such as hilltops, groves, and lakes. They also believed that trees had spirits and revered certain trees. A common factor in later mythologies from Christianized Celtic nations was the otherworld. This was the realm of the fairy folk and other supernatural beings, who would entice humans into their realm.
The behavior of certain animals and birds were observed for omens, and certain spirits were closely associated with particular animals. The names of Artio, the ursine goddess, and Epona, the equine goddess, are based on Celtic words for bear and horse, respectively. (If you’ve ever played Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda games then you know where the name for Link’s horse comes from!)
According to Roman sources, Celtic Druids engaged extensively in human sacrifice. Julius Caesar wrote that the slaves and dependents of Gauls of rank would be burnt along with the body of their master as part of his funerary rites. He also describes how they built wicker figures that were filled with living humans and then burned. The Christian practice of burning heretics and accused witches “at the stake” on top of a mounded pile of fuel is a direct descendant of this ancient Celtic practice. Source for quote
The Celtic queen Boudica’s forces impaled Roman captives during her rebellion against the Roman occupation, to the accompaniment of revelry and sacrifices in sacred groves. Different gods reportedly required different kinds of sacrifices. Victims meant for the god Esus were hanged, Tollund Man (see the video below) being an example, those meant for Taranis, the god of thunder, killed by burning, and those for the god Teutates drowned.
Both men and women bleached their hair with limewater, which is a solution of calcium carbonate in water. Lime is made from burning limestone (a “stone” made mostly of calcite), chalk, dolomite, bones, or shells.
According to a Greek historian Diodorus Siculus:
The Gauls are tall of body with rippling muscles and white of skin and their hair is blond, and not only naturally so for they also make it their practice by artificial means to increase the distinguishing color which nature has given it. For they are always washing their hair in limewater, and they pull it back from the forehead to the nape of the neck, with the result that their appearance is like that of Satyrs and Pans since the treatment of their hair makes it so heavy and coarse that it differs in no respect from the mane of horses. Some of them shave the beard, but others let it grow a little; and the nobles shave their cheeks, but they let the mustache grow until it covers the mouth.
By about 450 BCE the Celts expanded dramatically across Europe. They seem to have become more warlike and expansionist, and they adopted a number of technologies already in use further south, including chariot warfare and currency.
By 400 BCE groups of Celts began to raid further into “civilized” lands, sacking Rome itself in 387 BCE and pushing into the Hellenistic lands of Macedonia, Greece, and Anatolia. Subsequently, Celtic raiders tended to settle by about 200 BCE, often forming distinct smaller kingdoms within larger lands, such as the region called Galatia in Anatolia, and serving as mercenary warriors for the Hellenistic kingdoms.
The Celts were described by classical writers as fighting like “wild beasts”, and as hordes. One historian who lived during the reign of Augustus Caesar said that:
“Their manner of fighting, being in large measure that of wild beasts and frenzied, was an erratic procedure, quite lacking in military science. Thus, at one moment they would raise their swords aloft and smite after the manner of wild boars, throwing the whole weight of their bodies into the blow like hewers of wood or men digging with mattocks, and again they would deliver crosswise blows aimed at no target, as if they intended to cut to pieces the entire bodies of their adversaries, protective armor and all”.
They cut off the heads of enemies slain in battle and attach them to the necks of their horses. The blood-stained spoils they hand over to their attendants and striking up a paean and singing a song of victory; 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. They say that some of them boast that they refused the weight of the head in gold.
Polybius also asserts that certain of the Celts fought naked, “The appearance of these naked warriors was a terrifying spectacle, for they were all men of splendid physique and in the prime of life.”
Some of the better known Celts are the Picts who lived in what is today eastern and northern Scotland and the Britons who lived in Great Britain.
On the map to the right, the blue area was settled by the Picts and the red area was settled by the Britons.
Eventually, when the Romans began to expand beyond Italy itself, it was the Celts who were first conquered and then assimilated into the Republic. The Romans regarded Celts as barbarians and knew the Celts then living in present-day France as Gauls. They were thought to be barbarians who were at least capable of assimilating and adopting “true” civilization from the Romans. Julius Caesar in his Gallic Wars described the 1st-century BC descendants of those Gauls.
Centuries later, the descendants of conquered Celts considered themselves fully Roman: speaking Latin as their native language, wearing togas, drinking wine, and serving in the Roman armies.
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