The Celts were a people of mysticism, tenacity, and rich culture. Though they lacked a written language for some time, making it hard to document their lives and civilizations for future generations, we have managed to learn a fair amount about these fascinating people. How they rose to power, how they existed, and even, where they are now… Many people associate the Celts purely with Ireland, or at most, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales – but that’s quite heavily misleading.
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The Celtic people actually have inhabited a remarkable map of Europe over time, including the existence of Celtic tribes in Germany, France, Italy, Poland, Austria, Switzerland, Iberia, and even down to Thrace. With time, the Celtic culture had mostly become restricted to Ireland, western and northern Britain, and Brittany. These tribes were made up of a compilation of Indo-European peoples who shared similar cultures and languages. Unlike other widespread peoples,
the Celts really didn’t really mingle with other Celtic tribes. They were far from an empire or even a single civilization. Yet, somehow, these tribes actually managed to become a serious challenge for both the Greeks and Romans. While the Greeks and Romans alike used similar terms to describe the Celts, both used such words vaguely, and generally just to describe any peoples that they viewed to be outside of major civilizations. Nonetheless,
Celtic tribes seemed to become a significant thorn in Rome’s side throughout multiple territories and eras… Though the Romans had been forced to face off with Celtic tribes in iberian that had sided with Carthage during that back-and-forth power struggle, the first significant clash between the cultures of Rome and the Celtics came in the form of the Gallic Wars. These conflicts began in the year 58 BC and ended in 50 BC. At this time only a proconsul of Rome,
Julius Caesar decided to wage war on the Celts of Gaul with the aim of furthering his own political reputation. This was a brave move by Caesar, as the Celts were no weaker militarily than his own troops, and the former was distinguished for being exceptionally fearless. Many Celts of different tribes were known to even fight naked, showing no concern for a need for armor or other protective gear. It was, of course, Celts who are said to have told Alexander the Great that they feared nothing – not even him. So, when it came to the Gallic Wars,
it seemed that the Celtic Gauls would have had a good chance at victory – if not for one deadly mistake… As mentioned before, the Celtic tribes all throughout Europe generally failed to collaborate with each other by any stretch of the word. In fact, oftentimes they battled each other just as fiercely as they collided with their foreign foes. This left it as no surprise that when Caesar and the Romans invaded Gaul, the Celts initially tried to fight off their enemies individually.
It wasn’t until a man by the name of Vercingetorix, chieftain of the Arverni tribe, made a last-ditch attempt to unite the Celtic forces under one command that the situation changed. He was successful in bringing the tribes together, but it was too little, too late… The Romans were eventually triumphant at the Battle of Alesia and conquered the whole of Gaul, leaving the Celts with excessive casualties, according to Julius Caesar himself. This, though, would surely not be the last time that Rome and the Celts would face off.
Another significant series of altercations between the vastly differing cultures came after the Celts had made their way to the British Isles. Historians aren’t exactly sure when this migration began to occur, but by the time the Romans arrived, multiple Celtic tribes had already been established throughout the region. The local peoples had begun to mingle with these tribes, and as the Romans began their attempts to conquer the isles in 43 AD under Emperor Claudius, they faced intense pushback from the Celtic Britons.
The latter was successful for some time, and one tribe leader, in particular, gave the Romans quite a scare… Her name was Boudicca, and she was the queen of the Iceni Celtic tribe of the British Isles. During the reign of her husband, Prasutagus, the Iceni tribe had actually formed a loose alliance with the invading Romans and were able to avoid direct conflict. It wasn’t until after his death that the Romans showed their true colors, and suddenly attacked Prasutagus’s kingdom. Boudicca was outraged by this betrayal and decided to exact revenge. Around 60 to 61 AD, Boudicca gathered an army of Celtic warriors,
including some from other neighboring tribes, and attacked the city of Camulodunum while the Roman governor, Gaius Paulinus, was over on the island of Mona. Upon receiving word of the destruction, the Celts caused to the currently Roman-occupied town, Gaius and his troops raced to the nearby town of Londinium, today’s London, hoping to reach it before Boudicca and her warriors. Though the Romans did arrive in time, they failed to defend the city due to a lack of proper resistance. Gaius was short on troops and Boudicca’s army was notably larger and stronger.
The Romans eventually decided to fall back and abandon the area, as the Celts burned Londinium to the ground… Gaius was unwilling to give up completely though. While the Celts continued their raids, the Romans rushed to regroup and rebuild their army in order to avenge their prior defeat. Once Gaius’s troops amounted to roughly 10,000 men, the Romans were ready to take down Boudicca and her army once and for all…
When the two sides met once again, it’s said that the Romans were still severely outnumbered, even with the meticulous preparation. Boudicca’s forces were estimated to number at least 200,000 – making the odds against Gaius seem to point to an easy victory in favor of the Celts. Yet, somehow, the Romans came out victorious, finally putting an end to Boudicca’s rebellion and continuing their own expansion throughout the British Isles. Nonetheless, some of the Celtic tribes in the region were able to remain independent within small pockets of territory,
which kept their culture alive even through the Roman dominion and attempts to erase it. Moreover, Ireland remained out of Rome’s grasp, allowing for the Celtic tribes who had migrated there to continue to thrive. Once the Roman influence left the isles in the 5th century AD, the local British and Celtic cultures began to grow and evolve once more. This, though, is where things begin to look a bit foggy. The Celts were never really one organized society or culture,
and they didn’t adapt or assimilate to the same surroundings nor at the same times. Varying waves of innovation, invasion, and other changes meant that the Celts largely disappeared from Continental Europe, with the Roman Empire being particularly responsible for their decline. However, the British Isles, particularly in Ireland and Scotland, saw a continuation of the Celts and their culture. The Celts mingled with the existing peoples as well as subsequent visitors to the territory.
Celtic art, traditions, and other pieces of their culture either still exist, or fused with other cultures sharing the same land. Today, Celtic culture, art, and languages still play an important role in some regions, especially throughout the British Isles. Places like Scotland, Ireland, Cornwall, Brittany, Isle of Man, and Wales are all considered to be modern Celtic nations, and the post-World War Two era brought about a rise in popularity for Celtic music and art once again.
Multiple languages that are still spoken today also can be traced back to Celtic origins. Globally, roughly 276,000 people speak Irish Gaelic as their first language. In Scotland, as of 2011, about 58,000 people could speak Scottish Gaelic. Around 883,600 people in Wales can speak Welsh and of the other three surviving Celtic languages, Manx, Breton, and Cornish, there are somewhere around a few thousand speakers – respectively. Modern Celtic identity faces some skepticism, in part due to what some view as an English nationalism, but also because of the fact that some question whether the term should even be used at all.
Given the reality that the Celtic tribes were a vast collection of slightly different societies and cultures, it’s a fair argument to consider that maybe it would be irresponsible to group them all as one – in the past or today. But, either way, the existence of the still-used Celtic languages, all from the same historic family, even without the consideration of art and other traditions, seems to demonstrate that a general Celtic identity has and does still exist, at least to some extent. The Celtic League also stands as a pan-Celtic organization promoting modern Celtic identity through the surviving six Celtic nations,
alongside other groups such as the International Celtic Congress. So, it seems that, regardless of modern criticisms, Celtic identity and culture never went anywhere, which would imply that nothing really happened to the Celts either – aside from mixing with other ethnic groups and surrounding cultures. Genealogical research has shown that the endurance of Celtic ancestry is far from dwindling, and it even appears to be a common trend amongst those of Celtic roots to show a particular interest in those historic ties.
While the lack of unity amongst the Celts may have been a leading cause of their inability to ever become a full-blown political power such as the Roman Republic or Empire, it may have actually saved them in the long run. Because of the Celtic tribes’ ability to migrate away from and remain unsuppressed by conquering nations, as they did by settling in their own independent bubbles during the Roman occupation of the British Isles,
we still have a Celtic people today. Much as they once did, these people differ in many ways from each other and hail from a few different nations as well. But, just as the Celts of old, they still share a language family, similar traditions, art, and general identity.
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