Celtic Heroines: Golden Age of Warriors and Queens

“We have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us. The labyrinth is thoroughly know. We have only to follow the thread of the hero path…And where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all of the world.”—Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

Introduction

The epic historical fantasy, APOLLO’S RAVEN, is the first novel in the Spirit Warrior Chronicles set in 1st Century Britain and Rome. The primary character is Catrin, a Canatiaci warrior princess in southeast Britain. Not only is she trained as a warrior, but she uses raven mystical powers to help her parents defend their kingdom against a rival tribal king and her half-brother. She meets the great-grandson of Marc Antony, Marcellus, when he accompanies his father, a Roman senator, to arbitrate a settlement between the rival tribal kingdoms. Catrin and Marcellus bridge their cultural differences and form an unlikely friendship that develops into a deeper relationship which could threaten the political powers in Britain and Rome.

Celtic Spiritual Warrior

Catrin, Celtic Spirit Warrior

This unpublished novel is inspired by historical accounts and mythology of Celtic heroines who had significant roles as warriors, rulers, and spiritual advisers in the Celtic society. Celtic women were distinctly different from their Greek and Roman counterparts, as they had more liberty, legal rights, and status. This may be due, in part, because females often fended for themselves at home while their menfolk plundered, invaded, or served as mercenaries in foreign lands. Ancient classical historians also provided accounts that women incited, participated, and led battles.

Celtic Heroine Warriors 

Classical writers described Celtic females as not only strong and courageous warriors, but they were beautiful with comely bodies. Classical writer Diodorus wrote Celtic women were “nearly as tall as the men, whom they rivaled in courage.”

Roman historian Marcus Borealis further elaborated: “The women of the Celtic tribes are bigger and stronger than our Roman women. This is most likely due to their natures as well as their peculiar fondness for all things martial and robust. The flaxen haired maidens of the north are trained in sports and war while our gentle ladies are content to do their womanly duties and thus are less powerful than most young girls from Gaul and the hinterlands.”

Celtic Woman Warrior Prepares for Battle

Celtic Woman Warrior Prepares for Battle

Ammianus Marcellinus wrote a lively description of Celtic woman in battle as follows: “…a whole band of foreigners will be unable to cope with one [Celt] in a fight if he calls on his wife, stronger than he by far and with flashing eyes; least of all when she swells her neck and gnashes her teeth, and poising her huge white arms, begins to rain blows mingled with kicks like shots discharged by the twisted cords of a catapult.”

Celtic Spiritual Warrior

Celtic woman warrior in sword fight

Though men usually held the highest political authority, it was not uncommon for women to rule as queens and military commanders. The 1st-century Roman historian Tacitus wrote the Britons “are used to women commanders in war,” and offered detailed reports on the exploits of two warrior queens—Cartimandua and Boudicca.

Celtic Heroine Queens

The Sleek Pony

Cartimandua, known as the sleek pony, was queen of the Brigantes, a vast tribal confederation in north-central Britain. Although Cartimandua ruled with her husband, Venutius, she held the real power to the kingdom. When the Romans invaded in 43 AD, both Cartimandua and Venutius realized the political advantages of siding with the aggressors and thus their kingdom because a thriving Roman client state around 50 AD.

However, Cartimandua lost popularity among her subjects when she betrayed the famous rebel leader Caratacus, turning him over to the Romans after he had sought asylum in her court. Her power eroded when she divorced Venutius and then married his armor bearer who she made the new king. Her actions prompted a civil war with her former husband, the Romans entering the fray and helping her to defeat Venutius in 71 AD. Though she may not have been viewed favorably in history, she still nonetheless was a powerful leader.

Celtic Woman Warrior with Sword

Celtic Woman Warrior with Sword

Boudica

Boudica was a charismatic warrior queen who united several British tribes to drive the Romans out of Britain in 61 AD. A bronze statue of Boudica driving her chariot is prominently displayed on the bank of the Thames (London) in honor of her valiant attempt to overcome her oppressors. Roman historian Dio Cassius described her as “very tall in stature, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, harsh in voice…and with a great mass of bright red hair falling to her hips.”

Boudica Statue

Statue of Boudica

Like the Brigantes, the Iceni had formed an alliance with the Romans that at first gave them prosperity and independence. That changed when her husband, King Prasutagus, died in 60 AD and she became the leader of the Iceni. He willed half of his personal estate to Rome in the hope the gesture would demonstrate his fealty and appease the Roman Nero. The other half was bequeathed to Boudica.

But Nero would not settle for half the fortune—particularly to a mere woman. He ordered his subordinates to seize Boudica’s estate and annex the Iceni territory. When Boudica protested, the Roman soldiers flogged the queen and raped her two teenage daughters.

But the Romans would soon face her fury. The details of this rebellion will be provided in the next post.

References

Jeannine Davis-Kimball, Ph.D., Warrior Women: An Archaeologist’s Search for History Hidden Heroines; 2002; Warner Books, Inc., New York.

Cassius Dio: The Neronian Revolt of the Iceni under Suetonius Paullinus; Book LXII, Chapters 1-12 (AD 61)

Ammianus Marcellinus: The Roman History of Ammianus Marcellinus, published in Vol. I of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1935; Book XV, 12 The Manners and Customs of the Gauls.

Golden Age of Celts: Status Built by Battle or Feast


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The whole race [Celts] is made for war. High-spirited and quick to battle.
— Strabo, Greek Historian

GOLDEN AGE OF CELTS

Status-Building in Battle

During the Golden Age of the Celts (Le Tène Period), cattle thievery, slave raiding, and vendettas between clans and tribes formed the basis of low-intensity warfare that permeated the Celtic society. Such conflicts were a starting point for a young warrior to demonstrate his bravery and skills at weapon-handling. But in a society that took personal courage for granted, something more was required to establish a reputation.

One way was to serve as a mercenary in many of the armies during the classical period. Renowned Celtic mercenaries served Hannibal during his invasion of Italy during the Second Punic War that helped establish Rome’s image of Celts as fierce warriors. They also fought in the armies of Syracuse and the successor kingdoms that followed the break-up of Alexander’s empire in Egypt.

Dying Gladiator

Statue Dying Gaul

A distinct group of Celtic mercenaries called the Gaesatae joined the Cisalpine Gauls in the battle of Telemon against the Romans. These mercenaries were outside the normal social structure of the clan and tribes. The Celtic word geissi—bonds, taboos, or sacred rule of conduct—suggests these warriors had a strong spiritual aspect to their life, which will be further examined in later posts. It was the custom of Gaesatae to fight naked in battle which could be interpreted as a ritual action.

Talamone

Location of Battle of Telemon (Wikipedia)

Clearly, many Celts looked for fame and future in the lucrative Mediterranean world with the hope of returning home with their reputations established. Mercenary service also removed young warriors from the tribe at a time when their drive to achieve high status was at their most intense. Control of imported goods, especially gold coins and Italian wine, also guaranteed a large following.

Replica Celtic Helmet Britain

British Celtic Helmet

Potlach

Previous posts highlighted that trade with the Mediterranean had significant impact on the Celtic society. Nobles rewarded warriors and other clients with foreign luxuries, the value of which was measured by the influence it could command by giving it away. This method of redistributing prestigious items to increase status is called potlatch.

The 1st Century BC Greek historian, Poseidonius, gave an account of Lovernius, a Celtic noble who attempted to win popular support by driving his chariot across his territory and distributing gold and silver to those who followed him. Moreover, he set-up separate enclosures one and one-half miles on each side within which he filled vats with expensive liquor and prepared food for all who wished to feast—an important social gathering not unlike today’s celebrations. The feasts were usually wild and drunken, sometimes even deadly. Nonetheless, strict ritual rules were adhered.

Celtic Roundhouse of Chieftain (Interior)

Ancient Celtic Roundhouse of Chieftain (Interior)

Wild Celtic Feasts

Strict ceremonial rules were observed for seating participants according to rank and prowess. Poseidonius describes the arrangement as follows:

“…they sit in a circle with the most influential man in the center, whether he is the greatest in warlike skill, nobility of family or wealth. Beside him sat the host and on either side of them were others in order of distinction. Their shield bearers stood behind them while the spearmen were seated on the opposite end. All feasted in common with their lords.”

Celtic Hearth in Roundhouse Used for Popular Assembly

Hearth in Celtic Roundhouse Used for Popular Assembly

Also in attendance were bards who sang praises of their patrons’ lineage, bravery, and wealth. Their songs could praise and satirize their patron, thus encouraging nobles and warriors to be even more generous during the feast. Strangers could also share the meal before they were asked their name and business.

Celtic Sword

Celtic Sword and Scabbard

Everyone had a piece of meat according to the status. Traditionally, the greatest warrior had the choicest cut, consisting of the thigh. When the hindquarters were served, another warrior could claim it and fight in a single combat to the death against the champion to elevate his status. Others sought to reinforce their status through mock battle engagement that might escalate into more serious violence, possibly death. Poseidonius writes:

“The Celts engage in single combat at dinner. Assembling in arms, they engage in mock battle drill and mutual thrust and parry. Sometimes wounds were inflicted, and the irritation caused by this may even lead to the killing of the opponent, unless they were held back by their friends.”

Celtic Shield British Museum

Celtic Shield La Tène Style

Conclusions

According to Caesar, the bravery of the Celts sprang from their lack of fear of death, the result of their belief that the soul does not die. The classical authors, Caesar, Lucan, and Diodorus Siculus, in particular, emphasized the Celtic belief in metempsychosis—that after death the soul passes from one body to another, or reincarnation after death. This may, in part, explain the Celts’ belief in the importance of establishing their status in preparation for the journey to the Otherworld.

Not only did Celtic men fight bravely in battle, but historical accounts and mythology provide evidence that women held equal standing to men and often fought in battles and served as military and spiritual leaders. This will be discussed in the next post.

References:

John Davies, The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day;  2005. United States: Sterling Publishing Co., New York.
Stephen Allen, Celtic Warrior: 300 BC — AD 100; 2001. Osprey Publishing LTD., Westminster, MD, USA.
Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.

Celtic Warrior Nobility—Hierarchical Society


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We have only to follow the thread of the hero path, and where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god. Where we had thought to travel outward, we will come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all the world—Joseph Campbell

CELTIC WARRIOR NOBILITY

The previous post in APOLLO’S RAVEN discussed how Romans viewed Celts as fierce warriors, due to their long conflict between 390-285 BC. This image had a long-lasting impact, evidenced by stereotypical comments made by Julius Caesar and Cicero in mid-1st Century BC:

  • Many Celts fought naked in battle
  • Celts had a ritual concept of warfare
  • Issues could be resolved through single combat
  • Triumphant noise and bragger were as important as the fight itself
  • For a warrior to maintain honor after a defeat in battle, he had to commit suicide
  • Attacks involved initial ferocious onslaughts, but quickly gave way to wild despair if initial charge was left unchecked
  • Celts were barbarians lacking methodological discipline, hallmark of their civilization.

However, Celts were also described as heroic, their society dominated by a warrior nobility whose lives were spent in perpetual conflict. Rich grave goods, including weapons and armor, together with later myths and legends, reinforced this image. Julius Caesar indicated that there were only two privileged classes in Celtic society: the druids [spiritual adviser] and warrior nobles. The common people were treated almost as slaves.

Dying Gladiator

Statue Dying Gaul

Warfare and conflict played an essential part of the maintenance of the very fabric of the Celtic society, itself.  Their hierarchical society perpetuated conflict with young warriors seeking their fortunes and prestige through plundering and reputations in warfare.

Hierarchical Society

Celtic society was made up of extended families and clans grouped together to form territorial-based tribes, which were ruled by a king or high chieftain, often in pairs. By mid-1st Century BC, some tribes elected magistrates to rule in Gaul (modern day France), in many ways similar to Roman consuls. Nonetheless, magistrates had limited power. Most decisions were made or endorsed by a popular assembly of all free men in the tribe. Real power was held by a smaller council of leading nobles, among whom kings and chieftains were chosen.

Celtic Roundhouse Used for Assembly

Ancient Celtic Roundhouse Used for Public Assembly

Although we know very little about the common people, they were not slaves in the classical sense. Yet slave raiding was a principal motive for Celtic warfare. Captives were traded for luxury goods from Greece and Rome.

Greek Amphorae

Greek Wine Amphorae

The role of the Celtic warrior nobility was to wage war and in doing so, increase their personal reputation in the eyes of his peers. Caesar wrote: “Whenever war broke out and the services of a king’s subjects were required…they all took field, surrounded by their retainers and dependents of whom each noble has a greater or smaller number according to his birth or fortune. The only possession of such a following was the only criterion of influence and power they recognize.”

Celtic Roundhouse of Chieftain (Interior)

Ancient Celtic Roundhouse of Chieftain (Interior)

Having a large number of attendants was a reflection of a Celtic noble’s standing in society.  The Greek historian, Polybius, wrote that comradeship was treated with the greatest importance. Those among them who were most feared and most powerful had the largest number of attendants and associates.

Clientage was an agreement of mutual obligation where the lower ranking would pledge their fealty to the king or chieftain in return for security, patronage, and employment. Hence, common people labored for free men of the tribe who were entitled to attend the popular assembly and make decisions. Free men would in turn support the king in peace and above all war. It was an agreement that was closely bound to personal honor. For those who did not meet their obligations, dire consequences could befall them. Clients also extended to other tribes and even between tribes themselves. However, the continual competition for wealth, power, and influence gave rise to a hierarchy that was inherently unstable, as freemen could aspire to a noble status.

Celtic Village of Roundhouses

Ancient Celtic Village of Roundhouses

Hostage-Taking

Clientage was often reinforced by the exchange of hostages or the foster of children in the household of a patron. A previous post in APOLLO’S RAVEN also discussed how Rome used this strategy to acculturate the people they conquered or politically influenced.

The legend of King Arthur tells how the young prince was raised secretly in the household of Sir Ector with his foster brother Cai—a relationship that oftentimes had stronger ties than blood in Celtic society. Given the significance of the number seven in Celtic myth, childhood was probably the first seven years of life. Boys reached manhood at the age of fourteen. According to their social rank, they were allowed the right to bear arms. Girls were considered eligible for marriage at the same age.

Celtic Wooden Shield

Ancient Celtic Shield

For young nobles and sons of freemen who had been fostered, reaching fourteen meant it was time to become the client of a famous lord or attempt to attract a following of their own. In Wales, such warrior retinues were called cantrefs. Junior warriors would follow experienced warriors whose success would bring them a greater chance for wealth and glory.

The next series of posts will continue to explore the Celtic warrior culture and the importance of a chieftain to display his status and power through feasting and sharing his wealth.

References:

John Davies, The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day;  2005. United States: Sterling Publishing Co., New York.
Stephen Allen, Celtic Warrior: 300 BC — AD 100; 2001. Osprey Publishing LTD., Westminster, MD, USA.
Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.
Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth; 1988; Anchor Books Doubleday, New York.

 

 

Celtic Warrior: Greek and Roman Accounts

 

 

Their [Celtic warriors] songs as they go into battle, their yells and leaping, and the dreadful noise of arms as they beat their shields in some ancestral custom, all this is done with one purpose: to terrify their enemies

— Livy, Roman Historian

Age of the Warriors

As discussed in a previous post on APOLLO’S RAVEN, the 3rd Century was classified as the Age of the Warriors for the Continental Celts, based upon Greek and Roman written accounts of their exploits. Burial sites also provide evidence that the warrior nobility was the dominant social group in the Celtic society, as evidenced by the stockpile of swords, lances, armor and shields in the burial sites. The emphasis on weaponry suggests a society geared for war.

Many Celts searched for fame and fortune in the rich, exotic Mediterranean world, in the hope of returning home with their reputations made. Many young warriors sought mercenary service that removed them from the tribe at a time when their drive to achieve high status was most intense. The Greek historian Strabo wrote: “The whole race is war mad, high-spirited and quick to battle.”

Coastline Near Marseille

Provence Coastline Near Marseille

The stereotypical image of the Celtic warrior was engraved onto the consciousness of Greeks and Romans after their fierce encounters with these pillagers.

Greek Accounts

Celtic groups moved southeast that took some of them through the Balkans, into Greece and across into Asia Minor. During this age, many foreign armies used Celtic mercenaries in their ranks, including Greece, Macedonia, Sicily, and Egypt. It is known that Alexander the Great had established friendly relations with Celts in the Balkans before embarking upon his campaigns in Asia.

Dagda Gundestrup cauldron

Dagda Gundestrup cauldron

What encouraged the Celts to continue their mass invasion into Macedonia in the early 3rd Century BC is uncertain, but the area was in turmoil after the break-up of Alexander’s empire. In 280 B.C., Celtic hoards led by Brennus pillaged Macedonia and, then in the middle of winter, some thirty thousand warriors attacked Greece itself. The Greek author Pausanias wrote that Brennus campaigned against Greece to take advantage of the nation’s weakness at the time and to gain even greater wealth from its great sanctuaries. The richest of these was Delphi located high on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, where a temple had been dedicated for the worship of Apollo.

Apollo-WaltersArs

Apollo, God of Sun

Brennus had initial success, but his army was ultimately defeated by forces of nature: lightning, hail, and landslides. Terrified, the Celtic leader interpreted these natural forces as punishment from the gods, and he withdrew his army. The retreating Celtic forces suffered retribution at the hands of the Greeks and subsequently,  Brennus committed suicide.

The Greek historian Polybius wrote of one encounter of how the Celtic enemies were terrified by the dreadful din of innumerable horn blowers and trumpeters, the whole army shouting their war cries. After these events, the Celtic fury was deeply etched in the Greek minds.

Celtic Shield British Museum

Celtic Shield La Tène Style

Roman Accounts

In 391 B.C., Celtic warriors marched on Rome and captured the entire city, except for the capital which was saved by the Roman garrison. After receiving a bribe of one thousand pounds of gold, the Celtic attackers moved northward to what would be known as Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy). From this time forward, the Celtic attacks were so numerous upon the Roman territory that it can be argued that the city was obliged to become a major military power—the first step towards becoming a world power—because of their need to crush the Celtic barbarians. During the long conflict between 390-285 B.C., the Celts were a close-range threat. The best known Celtic mercenaries were those who joined Hannibal during his invasion of Italy during the Second Punic War and helped contribute to his victories. Hence, Rome’s image of the fierce Celtic warriors was created.

Replica Celtic Helmet Britain

Celtic Helmet

In 225 B.C., another group of Celtic mercenaries came south over the Alps to fight with the Cispalpine Gauls against the Romans in the Battle of Telamon. These Celtic mercenaries were called the Gaesataetranslated as ‘spearmen’. These mercenary warriors were a distinct group outside the normal social structure of the clan and tribe. The custom of the Gaesatae was to appear naked on the field of battle, a ritual action to demonstrate their ferocity and lack of fear. The Romans threw volleys of javelins at the naked Gaesatae who fought only with small shields. Some of them rushed wildly at the Romans and were slaughtered. Others withdrew, their retreat causing disorder among their allies.

Dying Gladiator

Statue of Dying Gaul

According to Caesar, the bravery of Celts sprang from their lack of fear of death. They believed the soul did not die. The classical authors, Lucan and Diodorus Siculus, emphasized the Celt’s belief in metempsychosis—that after death the soul passes from one body to another. Welsh and Irish mythologies talk about the easy passage to and fro from the physical world to the Otherworld, the world of the dead.

In his accounts, Julius Caesar regarded only two classes of any status in the Celtic society—the druids (priests) and the knights (noble warriors)—which were evidenced in Irish and Welsh culture. Druids were recruited from the sons and daughters of free-born warriors. They officiated the worship of the gods and interpreted divine purpose and will. The druids had a strong political role in this warrior society.

Julius Caesar Statue

Statue of Julius Caesar

The next posts will further describe the Celtic warrior culture and their religious beliefs.

References:

John Davies, The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day;  2005; United States: Sterling Publishing Co., New York.
Stephen Allen, Celtic Warrior: 300 BC — AD 100; 2001 Osprey Publishing LTD., Westminster, MD, USA.
Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.

 

Celtic Cultural Identity: Art, Language, Hierarchy–Apollo’s Raven


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The animal envoys of the Unseen Power no longer serve, as in primeval times, to teach and to guide mankind. Bears, lions, elephants, ibexes, and gazelles are in cages in our zoos—Joseph Campbell

Introduction

Celtic symbolic lore conjures images of magic, warriors, hill fort castles, and animal spirits. Each Celtic locality throughout Europe had differences, but there were common cultural characteristics that spurred the 5th Century BC Greek writer Ephoros to describe them as one of the four great barbarian peoples, together with the Scythians, the Persians, and the Libyans, who lived beyond the confines of the ‘Classical Mediterranean world’. Common threads of art, language, and hierarchical structure weaved these tribal communities into a distinct Celtic cultural identity.

Celtic Cultural Identity

Craftsmanship

During the La Tène period beginning in 450 BC, the Celts were on the move and seeking riches and glory by plundering. Also the Celtic warrior society was developing a unique craftsmanship that was distinctive from the classical art of peoples they invaded along the Mediterranean. The Celtic craftsmanship was more abstract—elusive, dream-like, shape-shifting, fantastical, and zoomorphic. The Irish novelist and broadcaster, Frank Delaney, described the art as ‘a tendril of a plant teased into itself, then spun outwards until it becomes a pattern, a whorl, a whole inner world, leaping, coiling, dancing.”

Celtic Gold Clasp

Two-headed Celtic Gold Clasp

This eloquent craftsmanship reflects the rich mythology of a Celtic-speaking people who at one time spread from Britain across continental Europe to Russia and Turkey. These patterns symbolized their belief that worlds of the living and the dead connect with each other; souls reincarnate into other living beings. Why should a warrior fear dying in battle when life and death hold hands in a continuum? Brass cauldrons were crafted with images of zoomorphic gods featuring both human and animal forms. The antlered god, Cernunnos, was possibly the patron of the chase and lord of the forest. Warriors called upon animal spirits for their strength, swiftness, and cunning. Another favorite was the goddess Epona, who the Romans adopted as their own for protecting their horses.

There are different theories as to whether the widespread discovery of La Tène artifacts was the result of Celtic acculturation or invasion. Surely, the southward and south-eastward expansion was the result of raiding on rich cities and sanctuaries replete with prestige objects. And of course, the lands of wine they craved. Although these tribal communities displayed a degree of unity in their craftsmanship, there were distinct differences in the local communities. For example, the La Tène art was rare in Spain and Ireland.

Celtic Round House Blacksmith

Celtic Round House MetalsWorker

Most mainland Celts built square houses, while those of the islands and parts of Iberia built round ones. Wheel-made pottery appeared in the mainland La Tène core but was not used in Britain until first century BC.

Celtic Hill Fort

Celtic Village Round Houses

Celtic Language

Although a common Celtic language was spoken over very extensive regions, its characteristics were complicated by the likelihood that its speakers were in close contact with speakers of a variety of other languages. It has been difficult to reconstruct the ancestral language as most written accounts were derived from Greek and Roman historians. We can’t assume that there was monolingual uniformity in any inhabited area in ancient times.

The classical authors disrespected the Celts because of their reluctance to commit to writing. Rather, Celtic priests memorized their rituals. Minstrel bards sung of a ruler’s bravery—or ridiculed them—depending on the noble’s generosity. Nonetheless, Celtic words and inscriptions have been found on ceramics, weapons, coins, and metal and stone monuments at various locations throughout Europe. The scripts employed were mostly borrowed from neighboring people: Etruscan, Phoenicians, Iberians, Greeks, and Romans. Though the linguistic evidence is fractured and incomplete, it provides evidence that Celtic was indeed spoken from Spain to Turkey, from Ireland to Pannonia, and from Belgium to Italy.

Other Common Markers of Celtic Identity

Other markers for Celtic identity were religion, warfare, and hierarchical structure. But even these attributes varied from region to region. For example, the war chariot was an integral part of warfare in 1st century BC Britain, but had been abandoned in Gaul (modern day France) at least a century earlier. Previous posts on Apollo’s Raven described how Briton charioteers reeked havoc on Roman legionnaires in Caesar’s invasion in 55 BC.

Replica Celtic Helmet Britain

British Celtic Helmet

In general, the La Tène society appeared to be highly hierarchical in their communities, though inlet Britain probably had a simpler, more egalitarian structure. Celtic rulers were originally considered semi-divine figures, but by the 1st century power was in the hands of an aristocracy with one or more chief magistrates in Gaul. In his accounts, Julius Caesar regarded only two classes of any status in the Celtic society—the druids (spiritual leaders) and the knights (noble warriors)—which were evidenced in Irish and Welsh culture.

Celtic Chieftain's Round House

Celtic Round House of Chieftain

 Conclusions

The Celts had profound local and strong diversities, but they also had common craftsmanship, language, and hierarchical structure that gave them a distinct Celtic cultural identity. The next series of posts will delve into the warrior and spiritual culture (spirit warriors) that inspired the rich Celtic mythology.

References:

John Davies, The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day;  2005; United States: Sterling Publishing Co., New York.
Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.
Delaney, Frank, The Celts (London, 1986)
Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers; An Anchor Book published by Doubleday, New York, 1988

Ancient Celtic Chieftains, Traders and Raiders


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 The greatest contribution of the Celts was, and still is, myth. It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those constant human fantasies that tend to tie it back–Joseph Campbell

Introduction

The word “Celtic” conjures different images—magic, warriors, castles, animal spirits—based on the rich mythology of a people who at one time spread from the British isles across continental Europe to Russia and Turkey.  The history of the Celts has been derived, in part, from their symbolic lore and are based on Roman and Greek writers, archaeological finds, and written folklore. All of this provides the backdrop for my epic historical fantasy, SPIRIT WARRIOR CHRONICLES. The first two unpublished novels, APOLLO’S RAVEN and RAVEN’S FIRE, are undergoing revisions to bring in more of the rich Celtic culture of 1st Century Britain.

Apollo

Statue of Apollo in Marseille France

Ancient Celtic Chieftans

Mediterranean Trading Routes

During the early Hallstatt period (750 – 600 BC), Celtic sites extended from eastern Hungary to southern German. In the years after 600 BC, the Celtic centers shifted westward, which is partly explained by active trading with other Mediterranean ancient peoples. The establishment of the Greek colony of Massilia (modern day Marseilles, France) was a major influence in trading.

Marseille, France Coastline

Marseille Coastline

Founded by the colonists from Phocaea (modern Turnkeyon the Aegean cost of Asia Minor), Massilia became a major trading center between peoples of the Mediterranean and those of the European Hinterland. Main arteries of trade were located in the valleys of the Rhóne and the Saóne and onwards to the Rhine, Seine, and Danube.

Celts not only traded with Greek colonies of the Western Mediterranean but also with the Etruscans of the region between the rivers Po and Tiber. The product most often sought by these ancient civilization was tin, primarily mined in Cornwall (southwest Britain) and Britanny (northwest France). Archaeologists postulate Atlantic trading routes existed along the western European continent and Britain.

Marseille Sunset

Sunset in Marseille, France

Celts primarily exchanged slaves in exchange for luxury goods, including glass and coral for making jewelry, rich fabrics, and ornaments.

But above all, wine.

“The Celts crave it,” wrote Plato. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus added, “The Celts are exceedingly fond of wine and sate themselves with unmixed wine imported by merchants. Their desire makes them drink it greedily and when they become drunk, they fall into a stupor or maniacal disposition. And therefore many Italian merchants in their usual love of lucre look on the Gallic love of wine as their treasure trove. They transport the wine by boat on the navigable rivers and receive in turn an incredibly high price. For one jar of wine they received a slave—a servant in exchange for a drink.”

Keep in mind these Greek historians probably exaggerated these claims as they stereotyped Celts as barbarians.

 

Amphorae for Wine

Greek Wine Amphorae

Opulent Burial Sites

Male and female chieftains along the trade route controlled and manipulated the transfer of goods. The Celtic rulers displayed their wealth and power through opulent burial. Archaeological digs have uncovered luxury goods of pottery and bronze vessels which held food and drink. In several excavated graves, corpses were buried in 4-wheeled vehicles. In one grave near Stuttgart, a corpse was found in a bronze coach decorated with depictions of chariots and stick-like male figures of men dancing.  Also found was a Greek-made bronze cauldron adorned with lions which could hold 500 liters of liquid.

Dying Gladiator

Statue Dying Celtic Gaul

In another tomb located on the upper Seine in Burgundy was the corpse of a woman who had suffered a disease causing a twisted face. Archaeologists surmise she was a priestess with divine attributes. Other excavated elaborate tombs of women provide evidence of the important role women played in these societies. Later, historical counts of the warrior queens, Boudica and Cartimandua, in 1st Century Britain reinforced women could hold leadership roles in powerful tribal kingdoms. The status of women as defined in Irish and Welsh law codes also provided further evidence that Celtic societies held women in comparatively high regard.

War Mad Raiders

Burial sites also provide evidence that the dominant social group in the Celtic society were warriors, as evidenced by the stockpile of swords, lances, armor and shields in the burial sites. The emphasis on weaponry suggests a society geared for war.

Strabo wrote, “The whole race is war mad, high-spirited and quick to battle.” Polybius wrote of one encounter of how the Celtic enemies were terrified by the fine order of the Celtic host, and the dreadful din, for there were innumerable horn blowers and trumpeters and the whole army was shouting their war cries.”

Replica Celtic Helmet Britain

British Celtic Helmet

Diodorus Siculus added, “They blow into their trumpets and produced a harsh sound which suits the tumult of war…they loudly recite the deeds of valour of their ancestors and proclaim their own valorous quality, at the same time abusing and making little of their opponent and attempting to rob him beforehand of his fighting spirit.”

In the Celtic tradition, the elite upheld their positions through success as raiders, which allowed them to reward their followers with feasts and prestigious treasures. Once the raid had become an established part of the status system, there was an inbuilt impetus to expand their wealth and power. The more successful a raid leader, the more followers and greater expeditions of ever-larger marauding warriors into other territories.

To be continued….

The next series of posts will focus on the culture of the Celtic warrior society.

References:

John Davies, The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day;  2005; United States: Sterling Publishing Co., New York.
Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces; 3rd Edition Reprinted by New World Library, Novato, CA.

 

 

La Tène Period Celtic Golden Age (Part 2)


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In the Gaul of those days kingdoms and thrones were as often as not the prize of any more prominent chief who could afford to gather around him a large mercenary force; and this practice, it was felt, under Roman rule, would be considerably curtailed
—Julius Caesar

La Tène Period Celtic Golden Age

Historical Chronology

The historical written accounts are almost nonexistent in the Halstatt period (750 – 450 BC). The earliest known written record that mentioned the Celts as an identifiable people was by the Greek Herodotus in 450 BC, the beginning of the La Tène period that can be further divided by ages as follows:

  • Age of Migration (450-301 BC)
  • Age of Warriors (3rd Century BC)
  • Age of Fragmentation (2nd Century AD to 1st Century BC)

Age of Migration

The Celtic migrations into Italy and southeastern Europe in 4th Century BC are well documented. A large number of Celtic people also migrated into Britanny (northwest France) and Switzerland. Possibly due to overpopulation, the Celts sought rich lands of the Po valley that became known as Gallia Cisalpina (Gaul on this side of the Alps).

They raided along the whole length of the peninsula and broke the power of the Etruscan city-states and lay siege to Rome in 387 BC. The sack and burning of Rome by the Celtic Gauls entailed consequences that endured for centuries. Out of the humiliating defeat the Romans developed a fear and loathing of the Celtic barbarians, which they dubbed the terror Gallicus.

In northwestern Europe, and in particular the British Isles, it is generally accepted that Celtic-speaking peoples of the Atlantic seaboard gradually adopted the La Tène customs and language through acculturation.

Celtic Village of Roundhouses

Ancient Celtic Village of Roundhouses

Age of Warriors

The 3rd Century BC has been classified as the Age of Warriors based upon written accounts of the Continental Celtic warriors’ exploits. Other Celtic groups moved southeast along the Danube basin, the first steps on a journey that would take some of them through the Balkans, into Greece and across to Asia Minor. During this age, many foreign armies used Celtic mercenaries in their ranks, including Greece, Macedonia, Sicily, and Egypt. It is known that Alexander the Great established friendly relations with Celts in the Balkans before embarking upon his campaigns in Asia  and that he received a Celtic delegation in Babylon after defeating the Persians.

Celtic Shield British Museum

Celtic Shield La Tène Style

Celtic warriors were favored as mercenaries because of their fierceness in battle, their devotion to tribal leaders, and their own supply of weapons. The Greek writer, Flavius Arrianus, described a meeting between Alexander the Great and a group of Celtic warriors in a region near the Danube in 335 BC. He asked them what they feared most and was insulted when they replied that the only thing they feared was that someday the sky would fall on them. The sarcastic humor demonstrated the Celts total lack of fear of Alexander and their understanding that an event of the sky falling down would never happen.

An unwanted side-effect of employing Celtic mercenaries was they brought their wives and children from country to country and battle to battle. Once the fighting was over, they tended to remain. They quarreled with each other frequently, forcing their previous employers to keep the peace among them.  An Eutruscan quote from the period call them, “Outlandish warriors with strange weapons.”

Replica Celtic Helmet Britain

Celtic Helmet

What encouraged the Celts to continue their mass migration into Macedonia in the early 3rd Century BC is uncertain, but the country was in turmoil after the break-up of Alexander’s empire. The Greek author Pausanias said, “It was then that the Celtic leader, Brennus, strongly urged a campaign against Greece, enlarging on the weakness of Greece at the time, on the wealth of the Greek states and on the even greater wealth of its sanctuaries.” Under the leadership of Brennus the Celts plundered the city of Delphi known for the oracle at the sanctuary dedicated to Apollo. Shortly afterwards three Celtic tribes crossed the Hellspont into Asia Minor where they settled in the area around what is now Ankara in Turkey.

The Celtic world reached its greatest extent at the beginning of the 3rd Century BC, but by the end of that century its power waned under pressure from Rome to the south and the gradual influx of Germanic peoples from the north.

Dying Gladiator

Statue Dying Celt

Age of Fragmentation

The next two centuries were a time of fragmentation, when the previously large and powerful Celtic tribes began to break-up and their power diminished. The Celts became a more settled people who stopped making war on others, but who, nevertheless, still constantly fought each other, a characteristic the Romans would use to conquer Cisalpine Gaul following the disastrous battle of Telemon in 225 BC and finally culminate in Caesar’s conquest that devastated the Celtic heartland of Gaul in 52 BC.

The Romans then turned their final attention to invading Celtic Britain in 43 BC, but the attempts to subdue the whole island failed. Hadrian built his wall to keep “the barbarian from the North,” at bay, leaving Scotland and Ireland all that remained of a world that had lasted for more than five hundred years.

Collapse White Cliffs Wall Britain

Coastal White Cliffs Near Dover

To be continued

The next series of posts will delve deeper into Celtic history, warrior culture, and religious beliefs.

References

Steve Blamires, Magic of the Celtic Otherworld:  Printed 2009, Llewellyn Publications, Woodbury, MN.
Stephen Allen, Celtic Warrior—300 BC – AD 100: 2001 Osprey Publishing, New York.
Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.

 

Ancient Celtic History: Who were the Celts?

There are no final truths. The scientific mind does not so much provide the right answers as ask the right question.
—Claude Lèvi-Strauss.

 

Ancient Celtic History

Information on Ancient Celtic Celtic History is primarily derived by Roman and Greek accounts, archaeological finds, and mythology. The epic historical fantasy entitled, APOLLO’S RAVEN, is the first unpublished novel in a series that is set in Ancient Celtic Britain in 24 AD—a time when powerful Celtic tribes in continental Europe had been conquered by Julius Caesar and dynasties loyal to Rome had been established in Ancient Britain. The political unrest between British tribal rulers provides the backdrop for the odyssey of the heroine, Catrin—a spirit warrior destined to meet the great-grandson of Marc Antony and to become queen of her kingdom.

To understand the Celtic Mystique, one must understand the history of  a powerful Celtic people who dominated Europe for almost 500 years. The following series of posts will delve into Celtic history, culture, warrior society, and religious beliefs.

Hillside Coastal White Cliffs Britain

Coastal White Cliffs Britain

 

The Celtic Mystique

The Celtic Mystique conjures images of magic, warriors, castles, and animal spirits based on the rich mythology of a people who at one time spread from the British Isles across continental Europe to Russia and Turkey.  The history of the Celts has been derived, in part, from their symbolic lore. An example is the ‘Arthurian’ myth of a king with a predestined envoy. Unfortunately, the Celts have also been saddled with the image of being barbarians who were civilized by Rome on which the Western civilization was based.

Yet the Celts dominated Europe for over 500 years, and there is no doubt their presence had a profound impact on European culture.

Celtic Brooch

Celtic Brooch


Who were the Celts?

In 5th Century BC, the Greek writer Ephoros described the Celts as one of the four great barbarian peoples, together with the Scythians, the Persians, and the Libyans, who lived beyond the confines of the Classical  Mediterranean world. They were called Keltoi or Galatae by the Greeks and either Celtae or Galli by the Romans. Their homeland was known to lie north of the Alps.

Written and archaeological evidence suggests by 500 BC the Celts occupied lands stretching from the Iberian Peninsula to the upper Danube.  It is unclear how the Celts viewed themselves outside their tribal communities, but they were a distinct racial group who had similar material culture, social structure, art, religious beliefs, and language. Beginning in 450 BC, these people moved across Europe and became the Celtic tribes in Britain. Both archaeological finds and later legends strongly suggest Ireland and Britain actively traded with Greece. Many European personal names are similarly derive from ancient Celtic worlds.

Celtic Shield British Museum

Celtic Shield La Tène Style

Limited Sources of Evidence

The Celts left few written records about their world except for funerary inscriptions. Knowledge of their world comes from a variety of indirect sources: accounts of Greek and Roman writers; the later vernacular literature of surviving Celtic societies in the post-Roman period; and artifacts from archaeological digs. One of the primary shortcomings of historical accounts was the bias Greeks and Romans held of Celts as wild and savage people. Vernacular sources were mostly written in the Middle Ages in the Christian environment and were solely concerned with myths and legends of Wales and Ireland.

Dying Gladiator

Statue of Dying Celtic Gaul

Historical Chonology

The historical chronology of Celtic history can be roughly divided into two periods:

  • Halstatt period (750 – 450 BC), also known as the Age of the Princes
  • La Tène period (450 BC – AD 100)

Halstatt Period

The earliest distinctive Celtic culture appeared in 6th Century BC toward the end of the European Iron Age. The Halstatt Period, named after an excavation site in Austria, was noted for the large number of rich burials and hill-fort settlements of ‘princedoms’ scattered across an area near the headwaters of several major rivers such as the Danube, the Rhine, and the Saône. The period became known as the Age of Princes because of the elaborate and rich burial sites of local chieftains or local aristocracy which have been excavated.

Celtic Battersea Shield

Celtic Battersea Shield

La Tène Period

At the beginning of the 5th Century BC, the Halstatt princedoms were replaced by wealthy warrior societies further north, which extended from northeastern France to Bohemia. The material culture and artistic style called La Tène—named after the excavation site in Switzerland where it was first identified—became synonymous with the Celts. The artifacts during the La Tène period (450 BC – 100 BC) indicated that not only was Central Europe populated with Celts, but the people in these regions were wealthy, had an aristocracy, and high standard of living. With these cultural conditions in place, the people evolved into an appreciation of art and developed a spiritual side to their nature.

Replica Celtic Helmet Britain

British Celtic Helmet

 

To be Continued

The next series of posts will delve deeper into the Celtic history, warrior culture, and spiritual beliefs.

References:

Steve Blamires, Magic of the Celtic Otherworld:  Printed 2009, Llewellyn Publications, Woodbury, MN.

Stephen Allen, Celtic Warrior—300 BC – AD 100: 2001 Osprey Publishing, New York.

Claude Lèvi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked: Mythologiques (1990), 7.

Caesar’s Invasion Celtic Britain; Part 3

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THE STANDARD PATH of the mythological adventure of the hero is represented in the rites of passage: separation—initiation—return.  A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder where fabulous forces are encountered and a decisive victory is won, then the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow advantage on his fellow man—Joseph Campbell

Introduction

The unpublished epic historical fantasy [First Novel: APOLLO’S RAVEN; Second Novel: RAVEN’S BLACK FIRE] is envisioned to be a trilogy set in Celtic Britain, Gaul (modern day France) and Ancient Rome prior to the invasion of Claudius in 43 AD. The trilogy begins in 24 AD when the heroine Catrin—a Celtic spiritual warrior—begins a perilous odyssey that begins in Celtic Britain (modern day Kent), then ventures into Gaul (modern day France) and finally ends in Rome where she must overcome slavery before she returns to her homeland.

This is Part 3 of historical and archaeological evidence supporting the theory that Julius Caesar’s invasion in 55-54 BC helped to establish Celtic dynasties in southeast Britain loyal to Rome. Political unrest of rival tribal rulers in 24 AD provides the backdrop for the trilogy where Catrin meets the great-grandson of Marc Antony and becomes warrior queen of her tribal kingdom.

Caesar’s Invasion Celtic Britain

Prelaunch Preparations for 2nd Invasion

Due to the frequent tidal changes that Caesar encountered in his first expedition to Britain in 55 BC, he ordered his generals to construct smaller transports with shallower drafts for easier loading and beaching. The vessels’ beams were built wider to carry heavy cargoes, including large numbers of horses and mules. As a result of the redesign, the clumsy ships were difficult to maneuver and thus were equally fitted for rowing and for sailing.

It was not clear from Caesar’s accounts whether the purpose of this second exhibition was to conquer Britain, punish hostile tribes, or open Celtic Britain to Roman trade. The unfolding events in his accounts suggest the primary objective was to establish pro-Roman dynasties that were subsequently rewarded with lucrative trade.

Description of Inhabitants

In his accounts Caesar describes the population of the south along the coast to be densely populated by Belgic immigrants, who had crossed the channel to plunder and eventually to settle. There were houses everywhere, very similar to those in Gaul, while flocks and herds abound. The inhabitants of Cantium (modern day Kent), an entirely maritime district, were far more advanced than the inland tribes consisting of the original pastoral inhabitants who had their own traditions.

In common, all Britons dyed their body with woad that yielded a bluish pigment and in battle increased the wildness of their look. The men’s hair was extremely long and with the exception of the head and upper lip, the entire body was shaved.

Landing

At sunset on July 6th, Caesar embarked from Portis Itius (modern day Wissant France) to Britain with a fleet of 800 ships that transported five legions (30,000 soldiers) and 2,000 cavalry. With the tide turning the next morning, taking the ships with it, the soldiers had to row the ungainly vessels without stop to reach the coast by mid-day (modern day Deal UK ). Unlike the first expedition, there were no signs of enemy to oppose the landing. Caesar learned later the Briton forces had been dismayed to see the vast flotilla in the English Channel and thus decided to seek a stronger position inland to fight.

Without any opposition, Caesar’s ships anchored and a site was chosen for camp.

Pebble Beach Deal UK

Shingle Beach Deal UK

Initial Conflict

A little after midnight on the day of landing, Caesar marched his legions 12 miles inland in the dark of morning, to a river, which may have been the River Stour near Canterbury. The Britons fell back to a formidable position in the woods which was described by Caesar as being fortified by immense natural and artificial strength. The hill-fort was strongly guarded by felled trees packed together, probably initially built for tribal wars. The Roman soldiers locked their shields above their heads to form a testudo (tortoise) to protect themselves from missiles while they hacked their way into the fortress, driving the Britons into the woods. Further pursuit was forbidden by Caesar as the countryside was unfamiliar and he needed sufficient time to entrench his camp.

Storm’s Wrath

The following morning the Roman pursuit of the Celtic fugitives began in earnest, but again Caesar had underestimated the powerful forces of the English Channel. A terrible storm along the coast had torn the ships from their moorings and drove them ashore. Upon receiving the bad tidings, he abandoned his speedy advance which would have found the Britons in a state of disarray and returned his army to repair the damages to his vessels.

Overview White Cliffs Britain

White Cliffs Britain

 

(To be continued)

References:

Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes  & Noble, Inc.

Graham Webster, The Roman Invasion of Britain; Reprinted 1999 by Routledge, New York.

Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces; 3rd Edition Reprinted by New World Library, Novato, CA.

Historical Fantasy–Balancing History and Spiritual Beliefs

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One thing that comes out in myths is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.

Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth


Balancing History and Fantasy

I envision my project as a historical fantasy trilogy set in Celtic Britain and Ancient Rome in the 1st Century. The first unpublished novel of the series, APOLLO’S RAVEN, has been completed; the second manuscript, RAVEN’S BLACK FIRE, is nearly finished. One of the challenges I have faced in writing historical fantasy is balancing historical accounts with fantastical elements of Celtic spiritual beliefs.

The story is about the heroine, Catrin—a spiritual warrior destined to become a queen in her Celtic kingdom. Enslaved by the Romans, she begins a perilous odyssey where she meets her Roman ally and lover, Marcellus—the great-grandson of Marc Antony. The trilogy will provide both the Roman and Celtic perspectives of the political unrest in Rome and Britain, where powerful Celtic kings competed for power before the Roman invasion of Claudius in 43 AD.

Fantastical Elements

Based on Celtic ritual and spiritual beliefs, Catrin believes everything in the physical world is alive and has a spirit, including: humans, animals, plants, and watercourses. Certain animals are revered by the warrior for specific qualities, such as valor, speed, ferocity and fidelity. By adopting the raven’s emblem on her clothing, armor and face, Catrin believes she will be granted the same qualities as her animal protector. The everyday physical world exists side by side with the Otherworld of the gods and the dead. Catrin can enter the mind of her raven protector to obtain guidance and prophesy. The most important ceremonies takes place within sacred groves of trees.

The evolution of introducing the raven spirit into the story gives fantastical elements to the historical setting of the trilogy. Further, both Celts and Romans believed omens foretold their destiny, and they could base decisions on these prophetic visions. Catrin and Marcellus believe divine powers have predestined them to be together despite their cultural differences.

Celtic Spiritual Warrior

Catrin, Celtic Spiritual Warrior

Roman Influence in Celtic Britain

Another challenge in writing this story is the limited written accounts of major events in Celtic Britain during the time span between the Roman invasions of Julius Caesar in 55 – 54 BC and of Claudius in 43 AD. Although Romans did not occupy Britain for almost a century after Caesar’s invasion, they still had cultural contacts and political alliances with some of the powerful tribal rulers. Archaeological findings of minted coins, wine amphorae, pottery, and other Roman goods strongly suggest active trading between southeastern Briton tribes and Roman merchants.

Not unlike today where countries protect their global interests, Rome influenced political maneuverings between the Celtic tribes. Emperor Augustus maintained close ties with Britain through agents. In 9 AD, he may have used his power to negotiate a peaceful compromise between two powerful Celtic kings, Cunobeline and Dubnovellous, both who had legitimate claims to the Trinovantes kingdom. A civil war could have empowered anti-Roman factions. It was in Rome’s interest for an amicable agreement to avoid strife resulting in disruption of its lucrative trade in Britain.

Overview White Cliffs Britain

White Cliffs Britain

The next series of posts will provide more detailed background as to what is known about Celtic Britain prior to the Roman invasion by Claudius.

References:

Stephen Allen, 2001. Celtic Warrior. New York: Osprey Publishing Ltd.

Graham Webster, 1993. Roman Invasion of Britain.  New York: Reprinted 1999 by Routledge, an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group