Who Were The Celts?
The Celtic empire once ranged across Western Europe, and their armies eclipsed even those of Rome. Who were these mighty people, and what became of them?
The Celts (Kel’tz) were a diverse group of people whose empire once spanned the European continent. Archeological digs from Halsted, Germany to the Orkney Isles of Scotland have uncovered evidence of Celtic settlements as far back as the late Bronze Age. But where did these brash, nomadic people come from, and what became of them?
Recent archeological digs in Eastern Europe and Asia Minor indicate the possibility that the Celts were not indigenous to Europe at all. The fact that the original Celtic stock were primarily a dark haired people with swarthy complexions only verifies this new theory. This theory is the migratory theory; when applied the Celtics sometime in the millennia of the Bronze Age entered Europe from somewhere in Asia Minor. It wasn’t long before they settled in the region of the Danube River basin and soon began raiding and conquering their neighbors. The Celtic conquest continued until their tribal lands covered most of Western Europe, from the Danube to Rome and westward as far as current-day Belgium.
Though their rise to power was quick, the Celtic domination of Europe was short, as empires go. Over the centuries following the Celtic Golden Age seen at Halsted, the Celtic people were pushed farther west by new conquerors and empires, sprouting up in Athens, Macedonia, and, eventually, Rome. To the North, the savage Goths pushed the Celts southward as well, condensing the majority of Celtic society into Gaul and Iberia, which today make up France and Spain.
If the origins of the Celts are historically dubious, the name they identified themselves with remains a mystery. While historical accounts exist, as well as a few Celtic carvings referencing tribal names, Celtic writings don’t make any reference to a racial name. The only surviving accounts to make reference to the Celtic people were written by Roman and Greek historians. In fact, it is from Greek texts that the Celts received their ethnic name, Keltoi, a Greek word for “stranger” or “outsider.” This identifier was altered by late Roman writers and eventually adopted by the Celts as a means of identification in trade and war.
Many historians and archeologists believe that the original people who entered European millennia before the birth of Christ had no name by which to identify themselves as a people. They were nomadic, in many ways, and little more than a loose conglomeration of independent tribes and family groups. If this theory is true, it adds a new dimension to the mystery of the Celts with a question that might never be truly answered: Who were the Celts?
Historical records and archeological evidence have much to say about Celtic culture and society. Predominantly in Roman histories, reference is made to the deep racial pride of the Celts, and their stubborn refusal to be dominated or ruled. According to Roman chroniclers, a Celt would choose suicide over surrender. Nor was Celtic society a fluid structure like the Hellenic or Roman empires, but rather a loosely-linked group of autonomous tribes, each headed by a separate chieftain. Within each tribe, the people were further divided into extended family units known as clans. Each clan was subdivided into lineages, called “˜fine’, represented by the paternal kinship. Roman writers, examining this pastoral mind frame from their urban vantage point, no doubt found much to disdain as barbaric and primitive in Celtic society.
However, far from the barbarians with which they were often identified, the Celts had a highly developed society. The basic structure of Celtic society divided the people into three classes: the royal clans, the warrior aristocracy, and the common people, often referred to as Freemen. And, though slaves did constitute a small percentage of the population, slavery was generally frowned upon in Celtic society. However, though Celtic social structure appeared loose and primitive to the Romans and Greeks, the Celts were by no means the “savage race” which the Roman scholars often slurred them by. Archeological evidence has shown the Celts to be an advanced race, for their era. They made use of chain mail in battle and utilized machines for reaping grain. There is also evidence that the Celts had begun extended roadways across Europe centuries prior to the Roman Empire’s much-lauded road system, and it is widely believed by historians that it was from the Celts that the Romans and Greeks first learned the use of soap.
However, regardless of their apparent advancements, the Celts were not an urbanized people, and their tastes ran to simple rather than extravagant. Certain themes appear repetitively in reference to Celtic culture, including the predominance of rural settlements, the traditions governing hospitable feasts, and the evidence of fellowship drinking. Pork tended to be a primary item of diet, and clothing often followed a plaid design. However, though rural themes predominated their society and many settlements were merely farming communities, the Celts were far from uneducated. They placed high regard on thorough education and life-long study. The Druids, who are believed to be the Celtic scholars and priests, were required to undergo a period of training which lasted around twenty years. Also contrary to popular belief, historians have concluded that the Celts had a written language as early as the third century BCE, but made little use of it except on coinage and memorials, placing a higher value on the ability to remember vast quantities of information correctly.
Celtic society declined in the face of Rome’s advancing power, however. As Roman culture stamped more of the face of world politics and trade, the Celts soon found themselves with no choice but to accept Roman rule. And, as Roman culture began dominating the Celtic tribes, the tribal culture was replaced by a racial identity. By the withdrawal of Roman troops from Britain in approximately 340 CE, Celtic culture had waned nearly into oblivion. It would enjoy a brief period of renewal with the fall of Rome, only to be quickly conquered by the Germanic culture advancing across Europe. And so, the proud people who had once dominated the European continent would be lost to myth and legend, leaving more unanswered questions than road signs to their once-golden culture.