Vol. 9
May Issue
Year 2008

Off the Beaten Track

in Vol. 9 - May Issue - Year 2008
The Celts

Mving with incredible speed and determination, the invaders quickly overran the outer lines of defense and sacked the city. The citizens and the surviving groups of soldiers made a hasty retreat and took refuge behind the thick walls and fortified gates at the top of the Capitoline, one of the city’s seven hills, where they remained under siege for several months. Exhaustion gradually overcame both attackers and defenders and a deal was negotiated whereby the siege was lifted in exchange for a tribute of a thousand pounds of gold. It was the year 390 B.C. and Rome, at that time still a young empire, never again suffered such a humiliating defeat. The event was commemorated by the Romans for many years afterwards with solemn ceremonies, but it would take another two hundred years before their armies pushed back the invading tribes and finally conquered the last remaining Celtic kingdoms on the Italian peninsula.


But who were these Celts and where did they come from? Although the location of their homeland is still debated, it seems they originated in an area which roughly corresponds to present-day eastern France, Switzerland, Luxemburg and parts of Germany. They never really identified themselves as a nation, but were rather a loosely-federated group of tribes sharing most religious beliefs and social customs. Their Indo-European language was most closely related to the Italic branch, the ancestor of Latin. Archaeological finds show that by the tenth and ninth centuries B.C., the Celts had developed a fairly sophisticated and hierarchical type of society, which was divided into three classes: a warrior aristocracy, an intellectual class which included poets and druids (the latter were to be highly idealized during the Celtic revival in the late 1700’s) and the lower class which included everyone else. They were excellent iron-workers, raised cattle and sheep, did some farming and relied on barter trade to obtain whatever they did not produce themselves. Above all, they were fierce fighters and took much pride in their battle skills and in their excellent horse riding capabilities. These skills were to serve them well when they started to migrate across Europe in the following centuries.
For, indeed, by the seventh century B.C., the Celts were a people on the move, probably pushed by the need to find more land to feed their growing population. As they did not keep written records, the first documentary accounts about the Celts (pronounced with a hard C, as in “can”) came to us from ancient Roman and Greek sources. The Roman historian Diodorus thus describes the Celts: “Their aspect is terrifying. They are very tall in stature, with rippling muscles under clear white skin. Their hair is blond, but not naturally so, for they are always washing it in limewater and pulling it back tightly from the forehead. They look like demons of the woods, their hair thick and shaggy like a horse’s mane.” This physical appearance, together with their particular form of warfare, which consisted of beating their spears and swords on their shields and screaming at the top of their lungs as they rushed at their opponents, soon created fearsome legends among other European peoples.

By the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., the Celts had crossed the Alps and had occupied the fertile valleys of northern Italy, where the Romans identified them by the name of Galli or Gauls. They also pushed westwards to the British Isles and to the northern part of the Iberian peninsula, where the name of the present-day region of Galicia remembers their presence. Eastwards, they moved as far as Anatolia, in what is now eastern Turkey and where they became known as Galatians. Celtic society had reached the peak of its power and sophistication; it was wealthy, self-assured and respected across the continent. Its artisans were producing the most exquisite jewellery and the most lavishly-decorated swords and helmets.

The glory was not to last much longer, however, for pressure by Germanic tribes to the north and by the expanding Roman Empire to the south reduced the size of the territories occupied by the Celts. They were gradually pushed further and further westwards and were forced to continuously fight off the Roman legions seeking to create a land link with the provinces in Iberia. The Celts’ last great battles took place in the years from 58 to 51 B.C., when the Romans conquered the remaining Gaul territory in present-day France. These episodes are described by Julius Caesar in his book entitled On the Gallic War.

By Giovanni Gregorat, Contributing Editor MFN & Sales Manager, Pometon Abrasives

Author: Giovanni Gregorat