Celtic People’s Definitions


CELTIC PEOPLES, The Celts were a group of peoples, bound by a common IndoEuropean cultural and linguistic heritage, who spread over much of Europe from the 2d millennium b. c. to about the 1st century b. c. They included the Gauls, the Galatians, and the Belgae, as well as the ancestors of the presentday Irish, Scottish, and Welsh. Ali these peoples spoke related languages, and this linguistic association, as well as other distinctive ethnological characteristics, have helped identify the Celtic peoples.

The Celts were recognized by Greek geographers from the late 6th century b. c. as a major barbarian nation living in the area north of Massilia (Marseille). Herodotus wrote of them in the mid5th century b. c. as one of the most westerly European peoples, inhabiting the Upper Danube region. The name “Celt” is thus known earliest in the Greek form, Keltoi, and this term was used up to the time of Julius Caesar. From the 3d century b. c., however, the names Galatae (Galatians) and Galli (Gauls) were increasingly used by Classical writers.

Areas of Celtic Settlement. Three major cultures, Urnfield, Hallstatt, and La Tene, are associated with Celtic settlements in Europe, and it is through archaeological evidences of these cultures that the extent of Celtic expansion can in part be inferred.

Evidence of Celtic names in the Iberian Peninsula is found in the Massilot Periplus, a work of the late 7th or early 6th century b. c., which describes a voyage along the coasts of Spain. The presence of Celtic names in this area is best explained by the spread of the Urnfield culture, denoting a migration from the Upper Rhone region into Catalonia and beyond, beginning about 700 b. e.

The introduction of an ironusing economy in the 8th century b. c. gave rise to the Hallstatt culture, widespread in the Upper Danubian region and extending to the Rhine and into eastern France. By the mid6th century b. c., the Greek colony of Massilia was maintaining trade contacts with barbarian Celtic rulers in the area of modern Wurttemberg, Baden, and Burgundy. The wealth found in princely tombs in this region, including native goldwork and imported Greek and Etruscan bronzes, indicates the existence of a stable and prosperous Celtic nation.

During the 5th century b. c., certain shifts in the centers of economic activity, particularly to the ironproducing region of the Middle Rhine, combined with continued Mediterranean influences on native culture to encourage the formation of the La Tene culture, noted for its remarkable decorative art style. It was as the bearers of this culture that the Celts came more fully into historical view. About the beginning of the 4th century b. c., they descended on the rich lands of northem Italy, reaching Rome about 390 b. c. This move into Italy was the most spectacular step in a general expansion of Celtic tribes throughout the 4th and 3d centuries that reached to Bohemia, the Carpathians, and the Ukraine. Celtic inroads through the Balkans followed. Delphi was sacked in 279 b. c., and some of these migrant Galatians moved into Asia Minor, where they were finally subdued, although they retained something of their national characteristics and language until the 4th century a. d.

In Italy the Cisalpine Gauls were finally checked by the Romans at the battle of Telamon in 225 b. c. By 192 b. c., Roman supremacy had been established as far as the Alps. A further move into Celtic territory, the Transalpine province of Provence, was undertaken by the Romans in 124 b. c. Meanwhile, the reduction of the Celtiberian stronghold of Numantia had occurred in 133 b. c. Subsequent Latin inscriptions show many Celtic names in the north and west of the Iberian Peninsula. The Gallic War, undertaken in 58 b. c. by Julius Caesar, saw the end of Celtic independence on the European mainland.

The date and nature of the initial Celtic settlement of the British Isles is disputed. In one view, the Celtic languages may have been lodged in these islands since the early or mid2d millennium b. c. If this view is correct, there well may be a correlation between Celtic settlements in the British Isles and antecedents of early Continental Bronze Age cultures. There is, however, an alternate theory that Celticspeaking peoples of mixed Urnfield and Hallstatt cultures, coming mainly from the region of the Lower Rhine and the Seine, intermittently settled Britain between the 8th and 5th century b. c. Ireland probably first received Gaulish settlers, of the La Tene Cultuıe, in the 3d century b. c. Others came later as refugees. It is uncertain if any further significant immigration into Britain took place until the arrival of the Belgae, Celtic tribes from northwestern Gaul, about the beginning of the İst century b. c.

Celtic strongholds in Britain eventually fell to Roman domination. Caesar’s two expeditions to that island in 55 and 54 b. c. paved the way for the invasion by Emperor Claudius in 43 a. d. With the eventual stabilization of frontiers along Hadrian’s Wall in northern England about 128 A.D., only the poor, warlike tribes north of this line and the inhabitants of Ireland remained to preserve a Celtic way of life.

Celtic Society. Celtic society and economy were remarkably homogeneous, as evidenced from archaeological findings, Classical texts, and the literature of the Celtic peoples themselves. Celtic life was essentially rural, dependent on stock raising and agriculture in varying degrees from region to region. Ironsmelting and crafts were generally conducted on a local basis, Longdistance trade and the development of fine metal workmanship and decorative arts required special circumstances and substantial local patronage. No real towns existed, although in the 1st century B.C., larger groups of people than before were drawn together for purposes of trade and communal safety. These settlements are the subject of wide modern archaeological study.

The social unit among the Celts revolved around kinship, reckoned to various degrees but essentially to the descendants of a common greatgrandfather traced through the male line. The tribe, or “people,” was made up of freemen ruled by a king and subdivided into a warrior nobility and a farming class. The druids, practitioners of Celtic ritual, were recruited from noble families and ranked above them. Caesar’s distinction of druides (men of cult and learning), equites (warriors), and plebs (commoners) in Gaulish society is thus classic. Freemen were normally vassals of wealthier men, and this system continued through the vassalage of weaker kings to stronger. In this way the large confederation of Caesar’s opponents in Gaul and the kingdoms of early medieval Ireland were built up.

Celtic warfare. The warrior class played a significant role in Celtic society, and their methods of warfare are a subject of great interest. From the 4th to the İst century b. c., the Celts fought mainly on foot with iron swords, spears, and long shields. Light chariots with paired horses were used for display, intimidation, and transportation rather than for actual combat. The same was true of the ridden horse, and although in Caesar’s time Gaulish equites were numerous, there was no true cavalry in the sense of drilled formations. Warriors fought naked as a matter of ritual. Battles often began with champions issuing personal challenges and boasting of their prowess and lineage. The ideal Celtic warrior is represented as having great stature and muscular strength, blond coloring, golden hair, and ruddy cheeks. Recklessness in battle and excess in feasting and drinking were highly esteemed. Greek sculpture has memorialized the type in the noted statue The Dying Gaul.

Celtic Art. Surviving artifacts are evidence of notable artistic achievements by Celtic society. The unique art style of the La Tene Culture drew on transAlpine, Mediterranean, and Oriental sources for its abstract geometric designs and stylized bird and animal forms. But the distinctive feature of Celtic art is the use of curvilinear designs of spirals and scrolls. It was particularly in fine metalwork that this art style received ite greatest expression. Human representation was largely confined to formalized heads and faces in otherwise abstract designs. After the La Tene culture declined in Continental Europe, the Celts developed a new medium for their art in native eoinage. This coinage was based on Greek prototypes, but coin design soon gave expression to Celtic elaborations of the head.

The Celtic Heritage. The Celtic heritage that was maintained beyond the northwestern frontiers of the Roman Empire laid the foundations for two national traditions surviving today in Ireland and Wales. In Ireland, Celtic institutions continued with some modifications to the 16th century, and a great body of prose and verse literature both oral and written was eherished. Gaelic, the Irish branch of the Celtic language, with some influence from Church Latin, developed into the modern tongue stili spoken, though decreasingly.

In Britain, a complex situation arose with the withdrawal of Roman arms early in the 5th century. An important factor in the survival of the Celtic heritage in this area was the transference of partly Romanized Britishspeaking tribes from southern Scotland to what is now Wales. This was a defense against Irish raiding and settlement, but it also provided a stronghold in the west when ali the northem territories were lost either to Gaelicspeaking Scots (who were Irish settlers in western Scotland) or to AngloSaxons who had pushed north from Northumbria. The surviving British population in the west was called “Welsh,” from an AngloSaxon word meaning “foreigner.” The Welsh, already Christianized, developed their own culture in opposition, and a distinguished literature flourished over many subsequent centuries, continuing along with the Welsh language to modern times.

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