The Lands of the Celts

Albu

Albu was the Celtic name for Britain; as Romans and then Saxons conquered the part which is now England, the name Albu came to apply to Scot­land. The southern and eastern parts of Britain are fertile lowland and easily conquered; the northern and western parts are higher and more rugged.

The southern and eastern tribes of Britain had trading contacts with the coastal tribes of Gaul and were the wealthiest in terms of cattle and gold. The northern and western tribes had a reputation for be­ ing tougher and resisted the Roman and Saxon con­querors for longer. In the century or so before the Roman invasion of A.O. 43, the strongest tribe in Brit­ain was the Catuvellauni, who controlled most of southern England, either directly or through client tribes. In the time of Julius Caesar (around 50 B.C.), their capital was at Wheathampstead, but this later moved to Colchester, which would become the first capital of Roman Britain. Hilltop forts were common throughout Britain, and there was a major seaport at Hengistbury Head, trading mainly with the Mediter­ranean world.

The mineral springs at Bath and Buxton are known to have been sacred to the Celts, and there may have been shrines at other springs and wells. The major rivers were regarded as divine, especial­ly the Thames and the Severn, the two largest river systems in Britain.

Celtics in Brittany: The Britons

When the Saxons were conquering Britain in the 5th century A.O., not all of the Celtic population was pushed back into the north and west. Some refugees sailed from southwest England and settled in the rugged coastal area of Armorica. There had always been links between southern Britain and the Atlantic seaboard of Gaul, and the area settled by the British refugees became known as Brittany. Shortly after this time, Brittany, like the rest of Gaul, came under the rule of the Frankish kings, so Brittany cannot truly be said to have had a free Celtic existence.

Cymru

The Romans pinned Wales down with a chain of forts and legionary bases but never truly con­quered this wild and mountainous country. When the Saxons invaded Britain, they were halted at the Welsh borders, and it was not until the 13th centu­ry that England was able to conquer Wales.

Most of Wales consists of mountain and moor­ land fit only for sheep and goats, but the sheltered valleys support some agriculture, and the fertile isle of Mon (modern Anglesey) has good farming. Mon was a sacred island, and when the Romans attacked Wales, they encountered the stiffest re­sistance of the campaign. Some scholars believe that Boudicca’s rebellion was timed to delay the Roman campaigns by creating a disturbance in the rear of the Roman forces.

Wales is best known today for its mineral wealth; coal was a novelty to Roman visitors, who wrote with awe of a black stone which burned and gave heat but was not consumed by the fire. Cop­per was found in several parts of Wales; gold was mined at Dolau Cothi in pre-Roman times, and the conquerors took over the operation.

Wales is the setting for most of The Mabinogion, which is one of the major surviving bodies of Celt­ic literature. It is clear from these stories that the Welsh raided and traded with the Irish frequently-the Irish Sea was more of a roadway than a barrier.

In Roman times, the two major tribes of Wales were the Silures in the south and the Ordovices in the north; by the time of The Mabinogion (which may reflect events in the Dark Ages and was first written down in the 13th century), Wales consisted of six Celtic kingdoms plus the island of Mon: Gwynedd in the north, Powys and Keredigyawn in the middle, and Dyved, Ystrad Tywi, and Morgannwg in the south.

Erlu

Ireland was one of the few parts of the Celtic world never to be attacked by the Romans. There were four kingdoms: Ulster in the north, Connacht in the west, Leinster in the southeast, and Munster in the southwest.

Ireland’s fertile central lowlands are dotted with peat bogs, and in some areas dried peat is a tradi­ tional fuel. The lowlands are surrounded by sev­eral low mountain ranges, but fully two-thirds of the land can be used for agriculture or pasture. The climate of Europe was milder in the early part of the Celtic period than it is at present, and more land may have been usable for farming at that time.

Ireland’s main river systems are: the Shannon, running southwest through Connacht and Mun­ ster; the Erne, running northwest through Ulster; and the Boyne, running east to the Irish Sea. The Boyne, especially the area of Brugna Boinne (“the bend of the Boyne,” near modern Drogheda) had been an area of religious significance since pre­ Celtic times, and the hill of Tara in County Meath was a major political and religious center up until the 6th century A.O. Emain Macha, the site of the court of Ulster, and Cruachan, the court of Con­nacht, were also important centers.

The conversion of Ireland to Christianity began in the mid-5th century A.O., and the bulk of the surviving Irish stories were written down in the 6th and 7th centuries by Christian monks. In the 9th century, Ireland was invaded by Norwegian Vi­ kings, and after two centuries of fighting the Irish were subdued.

Galatia

The Celts spread eastward as well as westward in the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C. Celts raided Greece, sacking the shrine of Delphi in 279 B.C. and crossing the Bosphorus in the following year. In 270, they were settled by the King of Bythinia into an area of Asia Minor that became known as Gala­tia. These people were the Galatians of the New Testament and survived as a recognizable ethnic and linguistic group into the 4th century A.D. Atta­lus I repelled the Galatians from Pergamum in 230 B.C.

Gaul

The area which the Romans called Gaul occu­pied much of modern France and Belgium, extend­ ing into parts of Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. There were dozens of tribes in this vast area, and although Vercingetorix of the Ar­verni managed to hold together a fragile alliance of tribes to fight the Romans, there was very little true unity. Consequently, Caesar found it easy to conquer Gaul piecemeal. The Belgae were an alli­ance of northern tribes which had links with Brit­ain and, according to Caesar, included some of the most powerful tribes in Gaul.

As might be expected, such a large area included many sacred sites and other points of interest. Cer­tain peaks of the Lower Pyrenees were sacred, as was the Puy de Dome in the Massif Central. Temples have been discovered throughout the area. The river Seine (Sequana) was sacred and proba­bly had a temple at its source. The Roman general Caepio plundered a series of sacred groves and sa­cred lakes in the neighbourhood of Toulouse in 106 B.C., and there seems to have been at least one sa­cred place in the territory of each tribe where such sacrifices were made. According to Caesar, the Druids of Gaul held an annual assembly in a sacred grove in the territory of the Camutes; some histo­rians doubt this statement, but, if it existed, this would be the most sacred place in Gaul.

The Greeks had been in contact with the Celts be­ fore the Romans, and the city of Marseilles was founded as the Greek trading colony of Massalia around 600 B.C. Massalia was part of an extensive network of Greek trading posts throughout the Med­iterranean. Lugdunum, modem Lyons, was the ma­jor centre for southern Gaul in pre-Roman times as today, and other major settlements included Avari­cum (modem Bourges) and Lutetia (Paris).

Celtics in Iberia – Celtiberians: The Galatians

The Iberian peninsula consists of modern Spain and Portugal, and was first settled by the Celts in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. Roman historians tell us that the Iberians were very similar to the Celts of Aquitaine.

The province of Hispania was added to the growing Roman empire in the second century B.C., after a series of vicious and indecisive campaigns matching Roman legions against Celtiberian gue­rilla tactics. It took Scipio Africanus, the brilliant Roman general who had finally defeated Hannibal, to break the deadlock in Spain. Hannibal had used large numbers of Spanish mercenaries in his attack on Italy, and had relied upon the coopera­tion of the Spanish as he made his way from North Africa to the Alps. In the aftermath of the Punic Wars, the conquest of Spain was as much a puni­tive war as an effort to secure Rome’s borders.

The Celtiberians of Spain, like the Galatians in Asia Minor, were probably assimilated into the native population over the course of several centu­ries. The Romans encountered hill-forts and a tribal structure in Spain which were very similar to those they found in the rest of Celtic Europe, but the centuries of Roman rule, followed by Islamic domination in the Middle Ages, effectively wiped out any traces of Celtic culture.

Little is known about Spain and the Celtiberians before the Punic Wars. There are a few scattered passages in the writings of Greek geographers mentioning that the land was rich in grain, wine, and olive oil, but their detailed knowledge only ex­ tended as far as the Mediterranean coastline, which was far from the Celtic-settled areas. The Milesians are said to have travelled from Spain to settle in Ireland as the last of the legendary in­vaders; it could be that they were Celtiberians.

The Picts

The area of modem Scotland was occupied by the Picts until the 5th century A.O.; the Scots of the time were Irish raiders who settled on Scotland’s west coast and pushed the Picts steadily eastward. The Picts were a wild people, and according to Ro­man writers, they were even more primitive and barbaric than the Celts.

Unfortunately, almost no information survives about their- culture, but they seem to have lived in partially-subterranean houses with turf roofs and walls of unmortared stone. They probably survived by a mixture of hunting, trapping, and small-scale farming, and Pictish warriors are said to have tat­tooed or painted themselves to look more terrifying in battle. The name “Picts” comes from a Latin word meaning “painted”; the name by which these people called themselves does not survive.

Neighbouring Lands

Germania

The Germans were the eastern neighbours of the Celts, and it was the expansion of Germanic tribes into Celtic lands in the second and first centuries B.C. that led to the Celtic migrations which, in their tum, led to the conquest of Gaul by Rome.

Roman writers make a sharp distinction be­ tween the Gauls and the Germans; if the Gauls are barbarians, then the Germans are outright sav­ages. From archaeological and other evidence, though, it seems that the Germans were not too dissimilar culturally from the Celts, although they were a separate ethnic and linguistic group. Ger­manic peoples occupied much of the area east of the Rhine, from the Danube to Scandinavia. The most northern peoples were the ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings.

Greece

Greek culture permeated the whole of the area south of the Danube in the last few centuries before Christ. The golden age of the Greek city-state was over by the time the Celts expanded into Greece, but the spread of Greek culture through the con­ quests of Alexander the Great still remained. Greeks had been trading with the Celts for more than two centuries, and Greece was seen as a land of plenty, with powerful and sophisticated cities and luxury for all. This view may have been part of the reason for Celtic expansion into Greece.

The most famous incident was the raiding of the shrine at Delphi in 279 B.C., but the Celts had pil­laged across the Danube into Thrace and Macedo­nia before. It was Alexander the Great who had asked Celtic envoys what they feared most. Ex­pecting to hear that they feared his military power, he received instead the famous reply, “We fear on­ly that the sky may fall and crush us, or that the earth may open and swallow us, or that the sea may rise and overwhelm us:’

By the time Rome invaded Gaul and Britain, Greece was already under Rome’s sway politically. Greek merchants traded throughout the Roman empire and beyond its borders to the Celts of Gaul and the Danube lands.

Italia

There had been contact between Italy and the Celtic world since Etruscan times, with trade run­ning from the Etruria across the Tyrrhenian Sea and up the Rhone valley into Gaul and Germany. The importance of the Rhone valley to this trade is shown by the fact that Greek merchants later founded their trading colony of Massalia (modern Marseilles) near the mouth of the Rhone.

The Celts spread across the Alps in the 4th century B.C., occupying much of northern Italy. Around 390 B.C., a Celtic force sacked Rome and forced the Ro­mans to pay them tribute, and it was not until the city of Rome gained effective control of Italy in the 3rd century B.C. that the Celts were prevented from raiding at will throughout the Italian peninsula. Even so, they continued to occupy the northernmost part of Italy, which became known as Gallia Cisalpina (“Gaul on this side of the Alps”).

After the end of the 2nd century B.C., the Celts began to face the advance of Roman legions, and from that time on, almost all dealings between Ital­ ians and Celts took place on the battlefield.

To the unconquered Celts, Rome became a good market for slaves, and a source of luxury goods such as wine and objects of silver and gold. How­ ever, trade nearly always gave way to conquest. To the Irish and Scots, who stayed out of Rome’s reach, Rome was imagined as an immense fortress with a king who ruled in the Celtic manner.

Scythia

Scythia was the land to the north of the Black Sea, on the edge of the Steppes. The Scythians were horse-nomads, and some scholars believe that the Celts learned the use of horses and chariots from them. The Scythians likely came to southern Russia around 700 B.C., and spread into modern Hungary, where they first encountered the Celts.

Like the Celts, the Scythians were fond of jewellery and lavishly decorated items; although some groups had become more or less settled by the 5th century B.C., the Scythians were still a nomadic culture and wealth had to be portable. Their saddles and horse­ trappings were particularly splendid.

Celtic dealings with the Scythians seems to have been restricted to occasional raiding and the spread of ideas. The Greeks and Romans regarded both peoples as equally barbaric.