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 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

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.