The term “Celts” (from the Greek Keltoi, or ”barbarian”) refers to a people who lived in a large area of central and western Europe in the second part of the first millennium BCE. They spoke a language belonging to the Indo-European group of languages, and so were related to other European peoples such as the Italians, Greeks and Germans.
The Celts had developed a distinct culture by the 9th century BCE, in their original homeland of present-day Austria, Switzerland and southern Germany. They then expanded westwards into what is now France from the 8th century, having adopted the Iron-age technologies coming in from the south and east.
The Celts soon covered most of today’s France and Belgium. In the 5th century their culture evolved into the late-Iron Age La Tene culture, influenced by contacts with the Greeks of the Mediterranean region. This produced finely crafted jewelry, drinking vessels and armor. They never developed an indigenous literate culture (a few inscriptions show that some of them used Latin by the time the Roman power was expanding). If other warrior societies of northern Europe are anything to go by (Germanic, Scandinavian), however, they will have enjoyed a vibrant oral literature.
The Celts, like other early European peoples, were polytheists, worshipping a variety of gods and goddesses. These tended to vary from region to region, but storm gods and horse gods were prominent.
Religious experts called druids were prominent in many Celtic society, though their status seems to have varied over time, and from region from region. In Britain they seem to have been exceptionally prominent, apparently using their network of contacts to co-ordinate the British tribes’ resistance to the Roman invaders.
Beginning at around the same time, and perhaps linked to the rise of the La Tene phase of Celtic culture, the Celts experienced another period of rapid expansion. From France, they moved southwest into Spain, mingling with the Iberian tribes to form the Celtiberian people. They crossed the Channel to establish themselves as the dominant group in the British Isles. Some groups migrated southwards to settle the Po valley of northern Italy. From there they raided down into the Italian peninsula (famously sacking Rome) Britain, northern Spain, northern Italy, Austria and parts of central in the early 4th century BCE. Yet another group moved further south east into the Balkans, eventually arriving in Greece in the early 3rd century BCE. Here they caused immense destruction before crossing over into Asia Minor and, defeated by local kings there, settled down to form the kingdom of Galatia.
By this time, their original homeland had been overrun by German tribes. These had expanded from their point of origin in southern Scandinavia and northern Germany to cover the whole of central Europe east of the Rhine, north of the Danube and as far as the Black Sea coast.
Though the Celts shared a common language and culture, they were divided into numerous tribes, often at war with one another. Many of these tribes were under kings, who seem to have been elected, though probably from within royal families. Other tribes, at least by the time the Romans encountered them, were led by groups of nobles.
Celtic settlements were usually small farming villages. The larger of these were grouped around chieftains’ hill forts, many of which have been found scattered throughout the Celtic cultural area. This, together with the rich grave goods – beautifully made armor and weaponry, drinking vessels and jewelry – found in elite graves indicates that Celtic society was dominated by a warrior aristocracy. This archaeological evidence is strongly supported by the writings of the Greeks and Romans who came in contact with them.
As contact with the Greeks and Romans became more extensive, trade developed amongst the Celts. Small towns began to appear at the major chiefs’ capitals, which functioned as regional centers of trade as well as political and military headquarters. The buildings were made of wood and thatch, so did not resemble the brick- and stone-built cities of the contemporary Greeks and Romans, but some covered large areas of land and must have had populations numbering in the thousands.
Most of the Celts were eventually brought under Roman control. The Celts of northern Italy were conquered right at the beginning of the second century BCE. Celtiberians of Spain were subjugated in a series of wars in the second and first centuries BCE. The Gauls (as those Celts living in France were called by the Romans) were brought under Roman rule in two main stages: the first in the late second century BCE, when the Romans annexed southern Gaul, and the second in the mid-first century when the Roman general Julius Caesar conducted his brilliant but savage campaigns against them. The descendants of those Gauls who had migrated to Asia Minor came under the domination of Rome at around the same time. Another century would pass before the Roman emperor Claudius began to conquest of Britain, in 43 CE.
During the centuries of Roman rule most of the various Celtic societies lost their language and culture as they gradually adopted the Roman way of life and the Latin language. This was probably far less true of the inhabitants of the Roman province of Britain, where most seem to have continued their age-old way of life in their rural villages, with only the tiny minority who lived in the towns taking to Roman ways. Even here, there is evidence that in later Roman times a growing number of them were brought more closely in to the Roman trading system, and this would have helped spread the Latin language and culture.
The only Celtic peoples to escape Roman rule were the inhabitants of the western and northern fringes of the British Isles, Scotland and Ireland. Here a Celtic culture continued to thrive, and indeed took on a new vitality as Christianity came to these regions, just as Roman power was coming to an end in the British Isles (and elsewhere).
In the fifth and sixth centuries, first in Ireland and then in Scotland, the “Celtic” church arose to spread the Christian Gospel in northern England, and as far afield as Germany. Accompanying the Christian faith was literacy, and Celtic monks brought the craft of producing illuminated manuscripts to a high pitch. Here, the flowing motifs found centuries before decorating the La Tene culture drinking vessels were now used to adorn the pages of Christian sacred texts.