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 The epic historical fantasy entitled, APOLLO’S RAVEN, is the first unpublished novel in a series that is set in Ancient Celtic Britain in 24 AD—a time when powerful Celtic tribes in continental Europe had been conquered by Julius Caesar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 55 BC;Part 2

The Call to Adventure: The first stage of the mythological journey—designated as the ‘call to adventure’—signifies destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown—Joseph Campbell

Introduction

The unpublished historical fantasy, APOLLO’S RAVEN, is envisioned to be the first novel of a trilogy set in Celtic Britain, Gaul (modern day France), and Ancient Rome prior to the invasion of Claudius. In 24 AD, the heroine Catrina Celtic spiritual warrioris called to adventure when she is enslaved by the Romans at the age of thirteen.

Based on historical and archaeological evidence, there is evidence that Julius Caesar’s invasion in 55-54 BC helped to establish dynasties in the two most powerful tribes of southeast Britain who owed their loyalty to Rome. The political unrest of competing tribal rulers provides the backdrop for the story of Catrin who is destined to meet the great-grandson of Marc Antony and become warrior queen in her tribal kingdom.

Below is a continuation of Caesar’s first expedition to Celtic Britain in 55 BC (Part 2).

Julius Caesar Statue

Statue of Julius Caesar

 

Caesar’s Invasion Celtic Britain: First Expedition

Tidal Phenomenon 

After Caesar defeated the Britons near the Kent coastline, the tribal leaders surrendered, promising to serve his every need and to let him use the natives at his disposal.

On the fourth day of the Roman expedition, eighteen ships carrying the cavalry were driven back by a sudden storm. On the same night, the full moon brought a tidal phenomenon that Caesar was ignorant. Waves surged up the beach and destroyed or damaged most of his ships.  Caesar ordered some of his soldiers to repair the damaged ships using the timber and copper from the worst wrecks while he directed others to forage for corn in the surrounding fields.

Ancient Roman Ship Replica

Model of Ancient Roman Ship

There was a marked change in the attitude of the Celtic chieftains who secretly met and pledged to take up arms again and starve out their invaders. They covertly called upon their followers to fight. Caesar was unaware of their treacherous designs as there were no suspicious hostile movements by local inhabitants who continued to farm and visit the Roman encampment.

That all changed when outposts outside the main camp reported to Caesar there was a cloud of dust in an area that had been taken by the Romans. Now suspecting a new plot had broken among the natives, Caesar ordered a battalion to march a considerable distance to where Celtic warriors in chariots had ambushed some of his soldiers foraging for food.

Pathway Dover Cliffs

Dover Cliffs Near Caesar’s Landing

Chariot Fighting

Caesar had not previously encountered chariot-fighting which threw his infantrymen into dire confusion. The Celtic charioteers, galloping wildly down the whole field of battle, terrified the Roman soldiers by charging their horses into the melee of fighting. A Celtic warrior would leap out of the chariot and fight on foot. Meanwhile, the driver would take position a short distance from battle to retreat with the fighting men if they became overpowered. Thus, the Celts combined the skill of an infantryman with the mobility of the cavalry.  Even on the most treacherous terrain, the charioteers had perfect control over their horses.

Pebble Beach Deal UK

Caesar’s Probable Landing at Deal, Britain

Final Roman Victory

Though these chariot-fighting tactics tried the military discipline of the Romans, Caesar returned back to camp with his remaining troops. In the meantime, news of Rome’s weakness and an appeal to expel the invaders from their entrenchments spread throughout the countryside. Caesar resolved to crush the advancing enemy forces on foot and horse by charging them with two legions. The Celtic warriors could not withstand the Roman attack and many of them were killed. Several of the farms were burned to ashes.

Celtic Village of Roundhouses

Ancient Celtic Village of Roundhouses

Tribal leaders agreed to surrender under the terms that the number of hostages previously imposed would double. With the equinox close on hand, Caesar feared his repaired ships might not withstand the ocean’s storms and thus he sailed back to the Continent with a few of the hostages. When he ordered the remaining hostages from Britain, most of the tribes refused to send them.

During the following winter months, Caesar ordered his generals to build a fleet of newly designed ships that could better handle the seas in the British Channel for his next invasion.

Ancient Roman Ship Frieze

Roman Ship Image on Frieze

(To be continued)

References:

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

John Manley, 2002. AD 43—The Roman Invasion of Britain. Charlston, SC: Tempus Publishing 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.

 

Caesar’s Invasion Celtic Britain; Part 1— Apollo’s Raven

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Celtic Tradition of Raven: I have fled in the shape of a raven of prophetic speech (Taliesin). The raven offers initiationthe destruction of one thing to give birth to another. For deeper understanding, the heroine must journey through darkness  to emerge into morning’s new light. 

Celtic Britain Setting

The unpublished historical fantasy, APOLLO’S RAVEN, is envisioned to be the first novel in a trilogy that spans from 24  to 40 AD in Celtic Britain, Gaul (modern day France), and Rome prior to the invasion of Claudius in 43 AD. Though Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain occurred 80 years earlier in 55 and 54 BC, there is archaeological evidence that Caesar’s invasion was not a momentary diversion from his conquest of Gaul, but was instead an effort to establish dynasties of the most powerful tribes of southeast Britain who would owe their loyalty to Rome.

Julius Caesar Statue

Statue of Julius Caesar

The next series of posts will summarize historical and archaeological evidence of possible events that precipitated the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 AD, commencing 80 years earlier with the invasion by Julius Caesar. The political unrest of competing tribal rulers provided the backdrop for the trilogy about the heroine Catrin, destined to become warrior queen of her Celtic kingdom and the lover of the great-grandson of Marc Antony.


Caesar’s Invasion Celtic Britain

Planning

In 55 AD, Caesar was anxious to invade Britain because powerful chieftains had dispatched auxiliaries to secretly abet the Gauls in their war against Rome. Most of Caesar’s limited information was derived from traders. Thus, he wanted to learn more about the island’s size, the names of tribal leaders, their military state and organization, and the harbors suitable for landing larger vessels. He dispatched Commius, a king of the Atrebates tribe from Gaul, to impress upon the Briton leaders the need to cooperate with the Romans, whose general would soon visit them in person.

Collapse White Cliffs Wall Britain

Coastal White Cliffs Near Dover

As Caesar prepared his fleet for invasion from a port near modern day Boulogne France, news of his intentions were conveyed by traders to Briton leaders. In response, some Celtic tribes from southeast Britain sent envoys promising to give Caesar hostages and to acknowledge the suzerainty of Rome. Encouraged by their willingness to negotiate, Caesar sent the agents back home.

Roman Landing

In late summer at midnight, Caesar disembarked 80 ships, sufficient to transport two legions (about 10,000 soldiers). He left instructions for 18 ships to transport the cavalry further north on the coastline. When his first vessels reached the British shores early the next morning, the whole line of hills (modern day Dover Cliffs) was crowned with Briton warriors. There was little space between the sea and rising white cliffs from which spears could easily be hurled down. As landing was impossible, Caesar directed his fleet seven miles north to an open, flat expanse of shingle beach. Celtic horsemen and charioteers followed Caesar’s ships on the hilltops as they sailed up the coastline.

 

Ancient Roman Ship Replica

Model of Ancient Roman Ship

Battle with Celtic Horsemen

Caesar’s forces had difficulty getting ashore as a result of Celtic warriors battling them on land while his men fought in shallow waters.  Laden with heavy accoutrements, Roman troops were forced to jump overboard into the channel without knowledge of the bottom. While trying to maintain their footing in the surf, the Romans had to fight the Briton warriors who outmaneuvered them on land using trained horses and fighting from chariots.

Replica Celtic Helmet Britain

British Celtic Helmet

At first, the Romans panicked in battle, but Caesar then relied on warships to hurl hot fire of sling-stones, arrows, and artillery at the Celtic troops, driving them from their point of vantage. Caesar recounts that an eagle-bearer from the Tenth Legion emboldened his comrades by leaping into the water and shouting, “I, at any rate, shall not be found wanting in my duty to my country and general.”

 

Pebble Beach Deal UK

Shingle Beach near Dover Cliffs

The battle was fiercely contested between the Romans and Britons. The Romans found it impossible to keep in formation, while the Celtic warriors seized very opportunity to dash in with their horses at isolated groups of soldiers struggling with the difficulties of landing. Once the Romans were firmly on land, their troops charged and routed the Britons.

Vanquished in battle, Celtic tribal leaders sent envoys to Caesar with promises of hostages and submission to his orders. Accompanying these envoys was Commius, who, it will be remembered, had been sent into Britain to herald Caesar’s coming.

(To be continued)

 References:

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

John Manley, 2002. AD 43—The Roman Invasion of Britain. Charlston, SC: Tempus Publishing Inc.