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The Celts


Celts were a people who inhabited western and central Europe during the pre-Roman Iron Age (first millennium BC). Nineteenth-century European archaeologists divided Celtic cultural material into two periods: Hallstatt (800-500 BC) and La Tene (480-15 BC). This division was named for two sites containing objects that display distinctive decorative motifs identified with Celtic artisans. It is also based on the replacement of bronze by iron as the predominant metal for weapons and other tools.

Evidence of Celtic culture has been found from the British Isles to western Romania and from the Northern European Plain, south to the Po Valley in northern Italy and into Spain. Investigations of Celtic life ways and language, as well as their origin and demise, have been undertaken by historians, geographers, archaeologists, and linguists since as early as 500 BC. Debate exists as to whether “Celtic” is even a valid referent, as there is no evidence to suggest that populations that have been identified as Celtic considered themselves members of a coherent group.

Classical sources referred to the occupants of southern France as Gauls; they, along with the Galatae (Galatians) who invaded Macedonia and Greece, are presumed to be Celts. Julius Caesar recognized similarities between Celts of the British Isles and Gauls, though other sources, including Pytheas of Massalia who sailed the Celtic Atlantic in the second half of the fourth century BC, failed to make an association between the two groups. Material culture between the insular Celts of Britain and Continental Celts shows a distinct connection, however, with insular Celtic craft producers rapidly adopting Continental styles and then adapting them to their own tastes.

There is a consensus among scholars that the origins of Celtic culture may be found within the Urnfield cultural tradition (also known as the Hallstatt Bronze Age), as early as 1300 BC. Changes observable both in material culture and settlement distribution took place during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries BC at the time of the collapse of the Hittite Empire and the end of the Mycenaean civilization. Movements of large numbers of people along established trade routes are associated with this period, and they may account for the arrival of new skills and ideas, along with archaeologically observable increases in population density, evident from artifacts found in villages that were established at that time.

While proto-Celtic Urnfield populations exhibited a variety of local traditions, subsequent Hallstatt and later La Tene material culture became increasingly homogeneous. Artifacts provide evidence for broadly defined regional traditions such as those seen in Champagne, the West Hallstatt chiefdoms of Baden-Wurttemberg, the middle Rhineland, the salt mining districts of Hallstatt and Hallein-Durrnberg, and northern Italy, to name a few.

Across western and south-central Europe, burials contained weapon sets adorned with similar patterns, and wealth objects indicate gift exchange relationships with Mediterranean civilizations. At about 500 BC a transformation of stylistic elements used to decorate metal and ceramic objects swept across south-central and western Europe. This increasingly uniform cultural material is associated with the beginning of the Late Iron Age and has been identified with “Celtic art.”


The earliest written reference to Celts is from about 500 BC, when Keltoi are introduced in the work of Hecataeus of Miletus, a geographer writing in Greek. In one of his few surviving passages, he indicated that the people living beyond the land of the Ligurians, in whose territory the port colony of Massalia (present-day Marseille) had been established, were Celts. Fifth-century sources such as Hecataeus and Herodotus did not provide ethnographic information about the Celts, though their work makes it apparent that Celts were known to inhabit the periphery of the Greek world. Sources from the fourth century BC, including Ephorus, Plato, Aristotle, Theopompus, and Ptolemy, characterize Celts in ways that accentuated their fighting and drinking prowess.

These descriptions of warrior Celts eager for combat were written during a period of displacement and social upheaval that coincided with Celtic migrations. Rome was sacked by Gauls around 390 BC, and around 279 BC. Delphi became the target of Galatian invaders who looted the sanctuary. These attacks immortalized Celts as barbarian aggressors in the psyche of Roman and Greek citizens. At various times throughout the fourth and third centuries BC Celts served as mercenaries in Carthaginian, Etruscan, Greek, and Roman armies.

Early historic depictions of Celtic culture indicate that theirs was an oral tradition, carefully managed by priests (druids), bards, and poets. Linguistic studies of Celtic languages began in the eighteenth century AD and concentrated on surviving insular Celtic (spoken Celtic languages of the British Isles and Brittany). Celtic languages on the Continent disappeared in antiquity and are only known from inscriptions. Celts were mostly preliterate and adopted Greek and Latin alphabets for writing, beginning in the Late Iron Age. Third- and second century BC inscriptions on pottery and coinage bear Celtic names using Greek and Latin letters. Exceptions to this adapted use of a foreign language for writing exist in several places, however: in Spain, in the form of Celtiberic; in southern France, where the language is Gaulish; and across northwestern Italy, where Lepontic inscriptions predate Roman influence. Modern linguists speculate that these were languages of Celtic origin that continued to be used as a means of resisting cultural assimilation.


Archaeological evidence indicates that the Celtic economy was based primarily on agriculture and maintenance of domesticated stock, though raiding and trading also figured prominently. Wheat and other cereal grains were subsistence staples and were supplemented with legumes, fruits, and berries, both wild and cultivated. Cows, pigs, sheep, and goats constitute the bulk of animal remains at Celtic settlement sites both large and small, but the predominant species vary within different regions. Horses and dogs appear to have had a special place among the Celts and are frequently found in burials with and without human occupants, although occasionally it appears that dogs were butchered for consumption.

Celtic social organization was largely defined by a division of labor between agriculturalists and warrior elite, although the general population also included specialized craft producers and professionals within the priestly tradition. Some types of specialization are difficult to identify because of the Celtic belief in the ubiquitous nature of magic, which was thought to be present in all kinds of substances, including iron and coral, but could also be invoked by spells, oaths, and incantations. Skills such as the ability to heal were shared by a number of otherwise seemingly unrelated specialists. For example, metalsmiths were presumed to have curative powers, as were druids. Similarly, druids, bards (Lat. vatis), and poets were all shamans of a sort, though their skills and abilities were assumed to have differed. Often this was expressed as a difference in degree rather than in kind.

A warrior was a type of full-time specialist in the service of a paramount chief. Burials of the warrior aristocracy provide evidence for wealth and the long distance movement of prestige goods. Not least among the remarkable aspects of princely burials (Fürstengräber) of the Hallstatt Iron Age is the scale of labor that was mobilized for the construction and furnishing of the graves. In the latter part of the La Tene Iron Age, this practice was replaced by the monumental construction of defensive fortifications surrounding proto-urban settlements called oppida.


Iron Age settlement patterns across Celtic Europe vary but reveal several prominent trends. Settlements during the earlier Hallstatt period included enclosed hillforts such as Mont Lassois, the Heuneburg, Ipf, and Hohenasperg in the west, and Zavist in Bohemia. Alternatively, ditched and palisaded farmsteads (Herrenhöfe) were the dominant Hallstatt form along the Danube in Bavaria and in other locations removed from hillforts. Individual houses on the Continent were square, whereas in Britain they were round. Following the general collapse of the so-called princely seats (Fürstensitze) by 450 BC, centralized settlement disbursed, and most of the elevated hillforts were abandoned. Throughout the beginning of the La Tene period, valley and river terraces provided the location for small villages. Several hundred years elapsed before populations once again aggregated to establish the prominently located and fortified centers that Caesar identified as oppida. Like earlier hillfort settlements, oppida were ideally situated for defense, trade, and industry.

Production of iron implements-weapons, farm tools, construction tools, and medical instruments- transformed many aspects of society, especially warfare and agricultural practices. Unlike the components of the alloy bronze, iron is plentiful across Europe. Production of iron tools intensified from the Hallstatt to the La Tene, and development of the plowshare and coulter contributed to the movement of farms and villages from the uplands, where light loess sediments had been tilled for millennia, to the heavier but more productive soils of valley bottoms. Enhanced yields provided surpluses that were bartered for items made by the increasingly specialized craft producers. Production and market centers that attracted artisans, traders, and farmers were similar to later emporia. Some even included merchant’s stalls, storage facilities, and meeting places, along with residences.

Contact with Mediterranean traders waxed and waned during the centuries of Celtic European domination. The apparent replacement of gift exchange, involving prestige items and luxury goods, by importation of bulk commodities and high quality goods that were more widely distributed among the population, attests to the strength of a trade infrastructure. Increases in minting and transfer of coinage were promoted by returning mercenaries who had been exposed to civilizations around the Mediterranean, where coins were circulated in true market economies.


Roman conquest of the Celts began in Gaul in the early second century BC with the founding of Aquilea in 181 BC, followed by the annexation of the rest of Gallia Cisalpina (Cisalpine Gaul). The establishment of the province Gallia Narbonensis (Narbonne) in southern France in 118 BC was part of the expanding acquisition of territory westward to Spain. Over the next one hundred years Roman provincial governors (proconsuls), including Gaius Marius and Julius Caesar, engaged in a series of battles and skirmishes aimed at gaining and holding territories as far north as present day Holland and east to the Rhine. Further conquest acquired Germany south of the Danube in 15 BC and southern Britain in AD 43. Continental Celts who had survived the battles for territorial dominion were largely assimilated into the Roman Empire over the next three hundred years as their culture was completely reorganized by Roman occupation. The Roman strategy that utilized preexisting social hierarchies and invested authority in cooperative local leaders served to absorb influential Celts into the new economy and system of government.

Archaeological evidence indicates that resistance to Romanization was present among Celts living on the margins of the empire, or even within it, in areas under weak Roman control. These included remote areas such as the East Anglian fenlands and wetland environments where dwellings on crannogs (artificial islands) made Roman administration nearly impossible. Such enclaves preserved traditional Celtic lifeways into the era of Christianization (in the sixth and seventh centuries AD) and beyond.

A late form of Celtic writing found mostly on funerary monuments, the so-called Ogham script, was used in the post-Roman fifth to ninth centuries AD. Stelae bearing this type of inscription have been found in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, and in Cornwall. The insular Celts who remained outside the Roman Empire retained their languages, oral histories, and artistic styles into the medieval period. This facilitated a migration of Celtic cultural attributes from Ireland and Britain back to areas under Roman and later Germanic influence, including areas where Celtic cultural practices had nearly been extinguished. The Brythonic linguistic survival on the Breton peninsula resulted from a migration in the fifth century AD of Celtic speakers from Cornwall to the Continent.

Throughout the spread of Christianity, the monastic tradition preserved Celtic linguistic and artistic expression and disseminated Celtic influenced early Christian ideology across southern Britain and, on the Continent, into northern Italy. Surviving Celtic languages, including Scottish Gaelic and Irish in the Goidelic group, and Welsh and Breton in the Brythonic group, are all descended from insular Celtic culture.


Audouze, Francoise, and Olivier Buchsenschutz. Towns, Villages, and Countryside of Celtic Europe: From the Beginning of the Second Millennium to the End of the First Century B.C. 1992.

Collis, John. The European Iron Age, 1984.

Cunliffe, Barry. The Ancient Celts, 1997.

Green, Miranda J., ed. The Celtic World, 1995.

Moscati, Sabatino, et al., eds. The Celts, 1991.


Filed under: Archaeology, Historia, Rome, , , , , , ,

Religious transformation in the Roman Empire (pt.II.)


The Isis cult is in marked contrast in many respects. Women played a major role, though perhaps not so dominant a role as has sometimes been suggested. The goddess and her rituals were widely disseminated throughout the Empire and she had many public temples, festivals and processions in her honour, often as part of the official religion of the cities. Isis herself claimed that she was the queen above all and that she incorporated all the other deities of the Roman world. The evidence of the cult is plentiful, including a whole temple and its ritual equipment preserved at Pompeii. In the case of Isis, the mysteries cannot have been such a central element of the cult as they were in Mithraism; it is hard to judge even whether they were the highest aspiration of the goddess’ most devoted worshippers.

We have many inscriptions recording individual devotion to the cult, but only one sustained text giving an account of an initiation; that text is the last section (Book xi) of Apuleius’ famous novel The Golden Ass. The hero Lucius, who has spent most of the novel bewitched into being an ass, is finally saved by the goddess and in his gratitude seeks initiation into her mysteries. Apuleius does no more than hint at the rewards on offer to the initiate: Lucius’ everyday life is certainly transformed – he moves to Rome, becomes a successful lawyer and joins an Isiac group in their devotions. The novel is discreet, witty and even teasing, but it presupposes a rich religious life based on the group of initiates and a priest who offers spiritual guidance. For Lucius at least, his gratitude to the goddess, guided by her own appearance in his dreams, demands his passionate devotion to her worship.

In many ways, the most paradoxical cult of all was that of Attis, the shepherdboy-god from Asia Minor. He was part of the circle of Cybele, the Great Mother Goddess, who loved him and mourned his loss. She was identified with the Magna Mater, to whom the Romans built a temple after the Hannibalic War (218-201 BC); we know from a cache of statuettes under the platform of the temple that Attis came to Rome at the same time as the Magna Mater. The mystery cult of Attis seems, therefore, to have developed under the protection of the Roman state itself, at the very moment when the Bacchic cult was being destroyed by the same authorities. Attis in myth was the beloved of the goddess, and died as a result of his love. He was, at one stage of the modern debate, thought to be a clear example of the god whose death and rebirth symbolically foreshadowed the death and rebirth of his mortal followers. The evidence for this seductive interpretation is all too flimsy: in one version of the myth, the goddess in grief at Attis’ death begs Jupiter to save him for her; Jupiter does what he can, but the result of his efforts is that Attis remains incorruptible but incapable of movement – except that he can wiggle his little finger. The myth is not a guarantee of afterlife, but a parable about the limitation even of the gods’ control over fate.

In all these cases, it is far from clear whether the initiate received benefits in this world or the next or both; also, whether the afterlife was an important issue for the cults’ adherents. If these cults did provide a bridge from civic religion to new forms of religion, as has often been thought, they do so not so much in their doctrines, or in the quality of religious experience, as in their structure. They consisted of people who had chosen membership of this particular group and undergone a ritual that provided a link between the members of the group. But the commitment seems less than total and there is no real sign that the initiates cut themselves off from the worship of other gods. To judge by the evidence of archaeology, the Mithraists at least allowed other gods within their sanctuaries. The people of the mysteries had some quality of experience in common, but they were far from being a people apart.

The beginning point and the end point of the slow process of religious change are both clear. The journey between them is too badly documented for there to be much confidence in any detailed account of what was happening. The easy story would be to see the arrival of Christianity as the sole cause of the change; but in fact there are many other factors to be assessed. First, in many cities of the diaspora there was a Jewish community before the time of Christianity, which would already have offered an alternative religion; it is true that there is no evidence that these Jewish groups sought to make full converts, but all the same Gentiles sometimes attached themselves voluntarily to Jewish synagogues. Secondly, amongst pagans as well there were developments towards at least an elective element in their religious lives. Again long before the emergence of Christianity, the Bacchic cult in Italy was condemned by the senate and persecuted: the surviving decree shows that it was the articulated structure of the Bacchic cells that the senate was set to destroy. The Bacchic cult did not apparently involve such a complete rupture from pagan practice as did Christianity two or three centuries later. But it is sobering to reflect that the treatment of the Bacchists had in fact been more not less violent and methodical than the later persecution of Christians.

Christianity emerged into the awareness of pagans as a variant version of Judaism, not as a new religion at all, and it is probable that in its very early days there was much confusion as a result. What is more, the earliest followers of Christ did not form a single coherent group; it took many decades, even centuries, to create a unified orthodoxy, with a single church organization and doctrine, and orthodoxy at all dates had variant views to contend with. Already in the Acts of the Apostles, a central theme is the potential split between those (apparently based in Jerusalem) who wished to keep the new movement within Judaism and those who wished it to expand to include Gentile converts. There were, of course, fundamental differences between Christians and traditional Jews, but it is hardly surprising if pagans took time to understand these.

One fundamental difference was that, unlike the Christians, the Jews living in the cities of the Roman Empire maintained their own traditions very much as did other ethnic groups, Egyptians, Syrians in the west or Italians in the east. Their religious activities may have attracted others to join with their practices, but the Jews seem not to have sought converts, while joining Egyptians or Syrians did not involve abandoning the traditions of your own city or community. Another difference that developed quite quickly was that those who joined the Christians acquired a special name: Jews were Jews because their ancestors were Jews; most Christians were Christians because they had decided to be. It is important to see that this was a critical moment of change. However, there were similarities as well: both Jews and Christians rejected the gods – all the gods. For this reason, Christians in the east were for a time called simply ‘atheists’. For different reasons, neither group would participate in pagan sacrifices. On the other hand, Gentile Christians did not maintain the dietary rules or the practice of ritual circumcision that made Jewish customs such a talking-point among hostile pagans.

From a pagan point of view these developments have quite dramatic implications. For the first time pagans as such found themselves under serious challenge. Traditionally, the pagans have been seen as very ill-equipped to face such a challenge, because they were supposedly facing a crisis caused by their religion’s long slow decline into inanition. Modern views have on the contrary detected major areas of vigorous pagan activity: partly, these are in the area of the mystery cults and the development of Mithraism; partly, it is in the life of the great oracles in the east, where records of them survive long into the imperial centuries, implying a commitment nobody would have expected; partly, it is the reformation of pagan thoughts and pagan philosophy in the third and fourth centuries. What we can see clearly is that the opposition between pagans and new forms of religion slowly forced the pagans to redefine their own position. They became by force of circumstances a single religion and an alternative to Christianity; this must be the process by which ‘pagan-ism’ was finally invented.

Part of that process of redefinition was the persecution of the Christians, the parading of those who chose to deviate from the pagan version of civic life. Our information about this comes mostly from later Christian sources, especially martyr-acts, which had a specific role in the memorializing of its saintly heroes and heroines by the later church. These are not the best sources for establishing what really happened. But we have enough information to see that there were persecutions and that an apparatus of suppression did exist; but it is also clear that this was employed only very erratically and that it was no part either of the imperial authorities’ purpose or of the real activity of governors to conduct a methodical suppression by searching out the Christian groups and eliminating their activities. The Emperor Trajan declared precisely that they should not be sought out, but should be brought to trial only if denounced by persons who declared their names and hence took responsibility for the denunciation. This policy will have meant that persecution took place only when Christians came into conflict with the civic authorities. Only in the third century AD did persecutions begin to take on a more imperial aspect and even then it is not clear how far this was a considered decision.

The key to understanding the progress of Christianity may well lie in events in the cities large and small throughout the Empire. It is clear that cities had come to contain groups both of Jews and of Christians who were at odds with the sacrificial cult that lay at the centre of pagan civic religion. We get glimpses of this plurality, but we have all too little information of how it worked in practice. Did the Jews and Christians attend the regular pagan festivals and thus reconcile themselves formally with pagan opinion? Or did they simply absent themselves and live their own separate lives? Both groups seem to have contained members who were socially and economically successful; at least, it is certain that not all their members were drawn from the excluded groups of society and some scholars have argued that from the beginning they included members of high status. It is very hard to maintain that they were secret and separate.

In the case of Jewish communities in particular, there is some evidence of visible separateness. In some cities, synagogues were built in central, even prominent, sites. Those who attended them must have been known to the community as a whole. These seem to have included pagans, who had not converted but were informally attached to the communities and sometimes even Christians – to judge by the attacks on their backsliding by their bishops. An inscription from Aphrodisias, a notable city in Asia Minor near the west coast of Turkey, shows us a situation of a Jewish community which seems to be far more integrated into civic life than we would have predicted. It is evidently maintaining at least some parts of a Jewish tradition; but it has as patrons and supporters a number of local people, some of whom declare that they occupy prominent positions in the city itself, serving on the city’s council. The implication seems to be that this community at least was thoroughly accepted and even supported at an almost official level.

It may be argued that the crucial change should be looked for not simply at the level of religion in the cities, but more generally in the life of the cities themselves and their relationship to the whole Empire. Pagan religion was a matter of large numbers of local traditions – rituals, festivals, myths, gods and goddesses – which overlapped with those of their neighbours but thrived on local enthusiasm and commitment. Like everything else in the Empire, this activity depended heavily on the commitment of the local wealthy classes; innumerable inscriptions from the early imperial period show how they were responsible for funding and organizing the religious life of their co-citizens.

In the later period, particularly during and after the third-century troubles (235-84 AD), the flow of information about such benefactions comes to an end. There are no more inscriptions from the cities of the Empire detailing the devotion of the civic elites to the cities in which they lived. At the same time, legal sources contain much material on the controversial issue of excuses for avoiding local duties. What this suggests is that local elites, whose members had once been committed to their own communities, were now avoiding these local obligations and devoting themselves instead to the service of the central government and its bureaucracy. This change of attitude was not at all the result of events in the religious sphere, but it would have had dramatic effects on the religious sphere. If the local backers of pagan activity were abandoning it and transferring their enthusiasms elsewhere, then it would not be surprising if the effect was to encourage Christian groups to become more active and to find it easier to make converts. This is no more than one possible theory, but it does have suggestive power and needs to be tested in terms of the surviving record in individual cities and communities.

The term ‘pagan’ (paganus) originally meant country-dweller, rustic, and was apparently used by the early Christians as an unfriendly term for those who had persisted in the old pre-Christian religious ways. We do not know where or why this usage began, but it was adopted by modern writers and is today the established usage in the writing of ancient history. Some contemporary writers have preferred to use ‘polytheism’ and ‘polytheist’; but, at least when writing about earlier periods, this is definitely misleading, since it implies that the Romans thought that having many gods was what defined their religion. They did not. They believed that there were many different gods and goddesses and that all sensible people from all over the world recognized that simple fact. Only when in competition with Jews and Christians in late antiquity, were they forced to acknowledge that the number of gods had become a major issue of contention. In many other contexts today, the word ‘pagan’ either has become a pejorative term for religions of which the speaker disapproves, or else refers to religious movements of the current age which are distinct from, even if in some way similar to, the religions of the Graeco-Roman world. Perhaps a replacement of the term would be desirable for these reasons, but none is available at the moment that would not be more misleading still.


Books of interest can be found at the bottom of the page here

Filed under: Archaeology, Historia, Rome, , , , , ,

Points of interest