Celtic Heroines: Last Stand of Boudica


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I thank thee, Andraste, and call upon thee as woman speaking to woman. I pray thee for victory, preservation of life, and liberty against men insolent, unjust, insatiable, and impious.”– Boudica’s prayer for victory to the goddess of war

Introduction

In 60-61 AD, one of the greatest Celtic heroines, Boudica, reportedly led between 130,000 to 230,000 men and women warriors in the last major revolt against the Romans in Britain. Her ability to unite her people in this rebellion was remarkable considering the destabilizing Celtic penchant for individual glory that was evidenced in the fall of Celtic Europe to Roman expansion.

Previous posts describe Boudica’s initial victories in which the cities of Camulodunum (Colchester), Londonium (London), and Verulamium (St. Albans) were razed to the ground on her orders. Boudica’s outrages were precipitated by the Romans’ brutal treatment of native Britons and the destruction of the druidic stronghold at Mona (now Anglesey) in present-day Wales under the command of Governor Caius Seutonius Paulinus.

Celtic Sword

Celtic Sword and Scabbard

Destruction of Druidic Priesthood

The ultimate ambition of the newly appointed governor, Paulinus, was to be elevated in the eyes of Emperor Nero for subduing the mutinous Britons. He resolved to destroy the druidic priesthood who exerted their power from Mona over the tribes occupying Wales. The druids may have been the most important political factor for unifying the Britons, for they held the secrets of the gods and the power of magic.

In order to approach Mona’s shore, Governor Paulinus ordered a number of flat-bottomed boats to carry his infantry while his mounted cavalry waded over the shallows. The practice of bearing arms was common among British women and they were present in the final battle against Paulinus. These women and fanatic druids used psychological tactics such as screeching, dancing wildly, and pulling at their faces, frightening the Romans enough to hold them off for a time. Nonetheless, the Romans eventually slaughtered the Britons and leveled their religious groves and shrines to the ground.

As Paulinus arranged for the security the island, he received intelligence that Britain had revolted.

Suetonius Paulinus Statue

Suetonius Paulinus Statue

Boudica’s Last Stand

When Paulinus reached Londonium, he determined it would be hopeless to defend the inhabitants and thus abandoned the city. The Roman historian Tacitus said: “All those left behind were butchered. The Britons took no prisoners, nor did they consider the money they could get for selling slaves; it was the sword, gibbet, fire and cross (caedes, patibula, ignes, cruces).”

Boudica then sacked Verulamium, a town occupied by Catuvellauni who were loyal to Rome. A black ash layer at St. Albans which was discovered by archaeologists confirms the Roman written record.

Verulamium City Wall Remains

Verulamium Excavations Ancient Roman City Wall

According to Cassius Dio, a 2nd Century Roman historian, Boudica subjected captives “to atrocities which were done to the accompaniment of sacrifices, banquets, and wanton behavior, not only in all their other sacred places, but particularly in the grove of Andante. This was their name for Victory, and they regarded her with most exceptional reverence.”

With less than 10,000 men, Paulinus only had time to find a suitable place to fight the final battle on his terms. For this purpose, he chose a location encircled with woods, narrow at the entrance, and sheltered in the rear by a thick forest. Boudica’s massive army had to approach the Romans at the front of an open plain. The location is conjectured to be the present-day Mancetter about 100 miles northwest of London.

In the account by Tacitus, Boudica, in a chariot with her daughters, drove among the ranks to embolden her people with the following words: “This is not the first time the Britons have been led to battle by a woman. On this spot we must either conquer, or die with glory. There is no alternative. Though a woman, my resolution is fixed: the men, if they please, may survive with infamy, or live in bondage.”

Boudica Statue

Statue of Boudica

When the battle began, the Roman’s narrow line stood fast as the Britons rushed toward them, hurling their weapons. The legionnaires then moved together as one unit and hurled 6,000 – 7,000 javelins, followed by a second round. When Boudica’s front line fell, her remaining warriors had to climb over dead bodies or carry the stricken forward for the final assault. The Romans formed a wedge and pushed their shields forward, crushing Celtic warriors together so they could not use their long swords. The cavalry cut down any Briton who broke and ran.

After suffering heavy casualties in the long engagement, the remaining Britons took flight, but wagons which carried their families obstructed the escape. What followed was a horrible slaughter. No Briton was spared regardless of age or sex. Tacitus reported that 80,000 Britons were put to the sword while the Romans lost about 400 men—a number most likely exaggerated.

After her defeat, Boudica either died of illness or poisoned herself.

Dying Gladiator

Statue Dying Celt

Aftermath of Revolt

Reinforcements from northern Europe had to be sent to bolster Paulinus in Britain, which gives some indication that the Roman losses were substantial. The wrath and fury of Paulinus against the Britons were said to be sanctified by Mars Ultor, the Roman god of vengeance. Romans troops seized and destroyed storehouses and standing crops belonging to various tribes, leading to widespread famine.

Celtic Storehouse for Grains

Celtic Storehouse for Grains

Government officials in Britain became disgruntled with Paulinus for his handling of the crisis that created so much havoc. There had rarely been such a revolt of such magnitude and ferocity recorded in the Roman annals. Thus, the Roman government reversed its policy towards Britain and replaced Paulinus with another governor. Military action was replaced with tact and diplomacy to calm the Celtic rulers.

One of the greatest ironies of this revolt is the Brigantes Celtic queen, Cartimandua, flourished with more wealth and power as rewards for her loyalty to Rome. If she had joined forces with Boudica, it is unlikely Paulinus would have survived the war on two fronts.

In future posts, the Celtic druidic priesthood and the Celtic religious beliefs will be further discussed.

References:

Graham Webster, Boudica: The British Revolt Against Rome AD AD 60; Reprinted 2004 by Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, London and New York.

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

Description by Tacitus of the Rebellion of Boudica (AD 60-61) [from the Annual by Tacitus (AD110-120, Box XIV]; Athena Review Vol. 1, No. 1.

Celtic Heroines: Boudica Revolt Against Romans


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“Behold the proud display of warlike spirits, and consider the motives for which we draw the avenging sword. On this spot we must either conquer, or die with glory. There is no alternative. Though a woman, my resolution is fixed; the men, if they please, may survive with infamy, and live in bondage.”–Boudica’s speech to her army; recorded by Tacitus

Introduction

In 60-61 AD, the Romans faced their most fierce vengeance in a revolt led by Boudica, the best known Celtic warrior queen in Britain. A formidable woman of high intelligence, Boudica assembled some 120,000 men and women warriors for her rebellion. Her initial battles with the Romans almost succeeded in driving them out of Britain. The best-known accounts of this revolt were documented by the Roman historians Tacitus in 1st century and Cassius Dio in the 2nd century.

Dio Cassius described the Iceni queen as “very tall in stature, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of an eye most fierce. Around her neck was a large golden torc. She wore a tunic of diverse colors which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch. She grasped a spear to terrify all beholders.”

Boudica Statue

Statue of Boudica

Events Leading to Revolt

Boudica’s husband, Prasutugus, had during his long reign amassed considerable wealth as the king of the Iceni. Like the Brigantes who were ruled by another warrior queen, Cartimandua, the Iceni had formed an alliance with the Romans that allowed them prosperity and a good measure of independence. Before his death in 60 AD, King Prasutugus bequeathed half of his estate to Rome hoping the gesture would prove his fealty and appease Emperor Nero. The other half was willed to Boudica and their daughters.

Celtic Roundhouse of Chieftain (Interior)

Ancient Celtic Roundhouse of Chieftain (Interior)

However, Nero would not settle for just half when he could have it all—especially if such riches belonged to a mere woman. His subordinates seized the king’s estate and annexed the Iceni territory, reducing its inhabitants to slavery. When Boudica vehemently protested the injustice, Roman soldiers flogged her and raped her two daughters. These proud royal women were deprived of their positions which had been transmitted to them by their ancestors.

Enraged, Boudica took command of her Iceni warriors and joined forces with the Trinovantes, a neighboring state that refused crouching to Roman bondage. In secret councils, the Celtic leaders vowed to stand against the Roman Empire in the cause of liberty. Tacitus quoted Boudica as saying, “I am not fighting for my kingdom and wealth. I am fighting as an ordinary person for my lost freedom, bruised body, and my outraged daughters.”

Celtic Shield British Museum

Celtic Shield La Tène Style

What ignited the Trinovantes to ally with Boudica was the vile conduct of Roman veterans who had no compunction for driving the natives from their homes and treating them with cruelty and oppression. At Camulodunum (Colchester) a temple was built to honor Claudius—a symbol of eternal slavery to the Britons.

In an account by Cassius Dio, Boudica told her followers to accept some of the blame for allowing themselves to be manipulated by the Romans prior to their invasion in 43 AD. “But to speak the plain truth, it is we who have made ourselves responsible for all these evils, in that we allowed them to set foot on the island in the first place instead of expelling them an once as we did their famous Julius Caesar, – yes, and in that we did not deal with them while they were still far away under Augustus and with Gaius Caligula.”

Claudius Bronze Head

Claudius Bonze Head

Destruction of Camulodunum

Tacitus wrote of several omens that foretold the destruction of the Roman capital of Camulodunum. One omen was the statue of the goddess of Victory in the city fell off its base and landed face-down. After this event, women in ecstasy rushed among the people and screamed the Romans would soon meet their doom. Another omen was the image of the colony in ruins seen in the transparent water near the mouth of the Thames. These omens set the stage for inciting the Britons to revolt.

Further, the Roman provincial governor, Seutonius Paulinus, was preoccupied with destroying the druidic power at Mona (Anglesey).

Suetonius Paulinus Statue

Suetonius Paulinus Statue

Fearing the crisis at Camulodunum could erupt into a rebellion, Roman veterans requested reinforcements from Catus Decianus, the procurator of the province, to defend their city. The procurator only spared two hundred men to quash the uprising. The Romans had hoped to make their stand at the fortified temple of Claudius. However, Boudica’s army demolished the unguarded city, besieging the last defenders in the temple for two days before it fell. Archaeologists have shown that the city was methodically laid to waste with fire and sword.

The ninth Roman legion was sent to relieve the city. Before battling these military forces, Boudica offered a hare to the war goddess, Andastre. Then the Britons rushed into battle and annihilated the Roman army.

Counterattack by Seutonius

Suetonius marched back through Britain as far as Londonium (London), the center for trade and commerce. He had counted on Boudica attacking this settlement, but she instead moved twenty miles north to Verulamium (St. Albans) which her army sacked.

Verulamium City Wall Remains

Verulamium Excavations Ancient Roman City Wall

Meanwhile, Seutonius fortified his forces with the fourteenth legion and auxiliaries from adjacent stations, and drafted men of fighting age. He left Londonium undefended despite the inhabitants’ pleas to stay so he could confront Boudica. However, she attacked the defenseless Londonium, determined to exact her revenge on the Romanized citizens.

Tacitus wrote, “They [Boudica and her warriors] wasted no time in getting down to the bloody business of hanging, burning, and crucifying.”

To be Continued

The warrior queen then turned her attention to Seutonius, tracking him down north of London. The next post will detail the final battle between Boudica and Seutonius.

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)

Description by Tacitus of the Rebellion of Boudica (AD 60-61) [from the Annual by Tacitus (AD 110-120), Book XIV]; Athena Review Vol. 1, No. 1.

Celtic Heroines: Backdrop for Boudica’s Revolt


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“You have learned by actual experience how different freedom is from slavery…how much better is poverty with no master than wealth with slavery.”–Boudica’s Speech to Followers, as recorded by Cassius Dio


Introduction

Although the highest political authority for the Celtic Society was often vested in males, women occasionally became ruling queens and military leaders. The practice of bearing arms was relatively common among women. Tacticus, the first-century Roman historian, wrote the Britons, “are used to women commanders in war.”

Boudica was the best known warrior queen in Britain. A Briton of royal family and high intelligence, she assembled some 120,000 men and women warriors for her revolt. She was one of the most formidable opponents the Romans faced in their history. Dio Cassius, more than a century later, described the Iceni queen as “very tall in stature, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of an eye most fierce, harsh in voice…and with a mass of bright red hair falling to her hips.”

Boudica Statue

Statue of Boudica

To better understand the reasons for the ferocity of her vengeance, below is a backdrop of Roman atrocities that set the stage for Boudica’s revolt, beginning in Gaul and spilling into Britain.

Caesar’s Decimation of Gaul

In first-century BC, the heartland of the great Celtic culture was Gaul (modern day France). The Roman conquest and downfall of Gaul is detailed in accounts of Julius Caesar. By any standards, the campaign in Gaul was an appalling holocaust of the Celtic people. In 60 BC, Gaul probably had some six million inhabitants. Ten years later, 1 million had been killed and another 1 million sold into slavery, a scale of oppression comparable to Hitler in the Second World War.

Julius Caesar Statue

Statue of Julius Caesar

The primary motivation for Caesar’s attacking Gaul was to enhance his own position in the Roman Republic and to amass slaves whom he could sell to clear his heavy debts. One tactic he often used was to ally with the Celtic kings under the guise of helping them defend their homelands from invading Germanians or other Celtic tribes. Needless to say, his ultimate goal was to steal their lands so he could embellish his reputation and enrich himself in advance of taking ultimate power in Rome.

Caesar took pleasure in chronicling the ferocity of his conquest, including:

  • Hundreds of thousands of deaths among the Helvetii
  • Massacre of all elders of the Veniti
  • Virtual destruction of the Nervii
  • Sale of 53,000 Atuatuci as slaves in a single auction
Dying Gladiator

Statue Dying Gaul

Many of these Gallic people escaped to southeast Britain, but the remainder were eventually acculturated and assimilated into the Roman Empire. It is likely Latin supplanted Gaulish as the dominant language in the core areas of Gaul within a century of the conquest.

However, the Britons would not go down as easily.

Ancient Roman Ship Frieze

Roman Ship Image on Frieze


Roman Conquest of Britain

The initial Roman invasion of Britain in 43 AD under Emperor Claudius met little resistance, in part, due to alliances Rome had made with powerful Celtic rulers. The situation quickly changed in 48-54 AD when the Romans fought Caratacus, a leader who used guerrilla tactics in the western frontier.

Richborough Roman Fort Ruins in Britain

Richborough Fort, Site of Roman Landing in Invasion of Britain in 43 AD

For the Britons, the initial conquest was traumatic. Those who had initially resisted the first invasion were dead, enslaved, or silently seething in anguish. Many of those who had first welcomed Rome now faced the realities of brutal power and corrupt monetary system. The few British nobles who had initially benefited lost their wealth to avaricious traders and touts who swarmed into the country.

In essence, the Britons were not going to accept the Roman way of life.They bitterly resented the Roman bureaucrats who collected taxes in onerous ways. Lands were given to former Roman soldiers who had been brutalized by the harsh army discipline.They treated the natives with total contempt, particularly at Camulodunum (modern day Colchester). Everything in Britain was there for Roman pickings.

Ancient Roman Light House Dover Cliffs

Roman Light House Dover Cliffs

The courage of the rebellious Caratacus encouraged the downtrodden from the various tribes to unite with a new sense of purpose. The powerful druids, Celtic priests, now began to exert their powers to ferment and organize a resistance movement over the whole of Britain.

Advance into Wales

Emperor Claudius and his advisers probably had second thoughts about staying in Britain, as the ease of the initial phase of the conquest dramatically reversed by a wave of savage reaction in the western frontier, with heavy Roman loses. Claudius became woefully indecisive on whether to stay in Britain toward the end of his reign.

Celtic Shield British Museum

Celtic Shield La Tène Style

The Roman indecision about what to do with Britain changed when Nero, at the age of seventeen, became the emperor in 54 AD. In 57 AD, he and his advisers decided to conquer and hold the western frontier of Britain now known as Wales. This decision may have been due to the discovery of gold in central Wales, silver in northern Wales, and copper on the Island of Anglesey.

Ancient Celtic Roundhouse

Ancient Celtic Roundhouse for Popular Assembly in Wales

In 59 AD, Gaius Suetonius Paullinus, a hard uncompromising general, totally lacking the skills needed for a diplomat, was assigned as governor of Britain. His mission was to destroy the druidic power at Anglesey and to conquer Wales. The decision ignited a firestorm that brought ruin upon the Romans. The fact that the leader of the revolt was a woman caused the Romans the greatest shame, as they almost lost the isle of Britain.

To be Continued

The next series posts will detail major events leading up to and during the Boudica’s revolt.

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)

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.

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.