- Reading Critically
- Borrowed Texts
- Depicting the “Primitive”
- The Cyclops
- Celt as “Other”
- Authorial Agendas
- Historical Evidence
Although there are important texts surviving from antiquity which mention Celtic peoples and contain important details (like place names or personal names), most were written by non-Celts (mostly Greeks or Romans) and we must be cautious about the biases of the authors and the tendency to use “barbarians” (non-Greeks and non-Romans) like puppets, placing messages and criticisms (which they might not have actually said at all) into the mouths of Celts. We must also be aware that Greek and Roman authors were liable to reuse some common images and stereotypes when discussing “barbarians,” and that descriptions of Celts are often coloured by expectations about what barbarians were supposed to be like, rather than what they actually were or did.
In order to use texts about the Celts written by or for others (e.g., Greeks, Romans, …) critically and skeptically, you should ask the following critical questions about them:
- Who was the author? What was his background and who is his audience?
- Did he borrow from an earlier author?
- What is his agenda? Does this text project certain ideas or ascribe certain traits to Celts as a way to justify some action?
- Does the text merely echo clichés or stereotypes, or is it based on direct knowledge and intimate contact with Celts?
- Are Greeks or Romans interpreting Celts through their own “cultural lenses”?
- Can the text be read as a parable?
Although we cannot assume that ancient texts are realistic and objective, it does not mean that we should discredit them all entirely; it simply means that we must treat them cautiously and in their proper context, sorting out the different kinds of information in them and evaluating them according.
Consider the current year in which you live and all of the events that are happening around the world. Which of these are covered by “news outlets” (i.e., radio and television news programmes)? On what basis are some events, places and people covered but others are not? How does coverage vary depending on the geographical situation and political leanings of those who cover the news? Imagine that in a hundred years, some historian writes a history of the current year but only has access to one of the most extreme news outlets. How would that historical account be incomplete, inaccurate or inadequate?
Many ancient writers had access to the texts of previous scholars and travellers, and copied them into their own work. Sometimes they credit the author from whom they have copied, other times they draw from previous authorities silently. Text was not always copied verbatim: sometimes the author wanted to elaborate on some aspect of the source for his own purposes, or to weaken another. We must be mindful of the texts used by authors and the ways in which they rework them to suit their own purposes. The diagram below illustrates some of the interdependencies between the main texts about the Celts in antiquity. The arrows point back to the earlier source(s) which we believe later authors used in their own work.
Compare the following texts for borrowings, elaborations, and authorial manipulation:
- Julius Caesar, Commentaries on the Gallic War §1.1 and Ammianus Marcellinus, Rerum Gestarum §15.11
- Arrian, Discourses of Epictetus §3-4 and Strabo, Geography §7.3.8
Depicting the “Primitive”
The sources written by the Greeks are our earliest sources about the Celts and had a lasting influence on later writers. Before we can make effective use of these texts and assess their accuracy, we need to consider Greek beliefs about the condition of (so-called) primitive peoples and the ways in which they were depicted in Greek literature. As it turns out, literary texts, not least the poetry attributed to Homer, had a significant influence on the way in which “real-life” people and situations were portrayed and thus we cannot assume that the sources are accurate and objective snapshots of Celtic life.
Some Greek philosophers believed that although Greek society had progressed from primitive to civilized conditions, elements of their earlier social stages could still be witnessed amongst uncultivated peoples, even in isolated parts of Greece. The philosopher Thucydides (c.460-c.395 BCE), observing that the behaviour and values of Greek warriors portrayed in the old poetry contrasted with the society of his own day, concluded that “the Greeks in the times of old lived after the same fashion as that of the contemporary barbarians” (Thuc. 1.5-6). Thus, they saw an echo, as it were, of their own ancestors in the societies of other peoples, and, likewise, could use descriptions from ancient literature as blueprints for describing these peoples.
How does the description of the Celts reflect an awareness of the ancestral past of the Greeks and Romans in the following passages:
It was not just the human characters of the old literature which provided a model for the Greeks to depict the barbarians around them: mythical semi-human and monstrous beings also provided blueprints for the depiction of peoples whom they wished to portray in a savage and primitive light.
Consider the depiction of the Cyclops in the Odyssey: “knowing none but savage ways, a brute so huge, he seemed no man at all […] he dismembered [the men] and made his meal, gaping and crunching like a mountain lion.” Like other presumably primitive peoples, he lives in a cave (not having the skills to build a house) and milks livestock for his sustenance (rather than farming). The Cyclops, lacking great intelligence, is easily out-witted by Odysseus, after he offers him copious amounts of undiluted wine.
Compare the description of the Cyclopes in the Odyssey with the description of the Celts in:
- Polybius, Histories §2.17
- Julius Caesar, Commentaries on the Gallic War § 5.14
- Athenaeus, The Deipnosophists §4.36
Due to the resemblance between names and the monstrous associations, a tradition became established no later than Timaeus (c.350-250 BCE) that the ancestor of the Gauls was Galates, the son of the Cyclops Polyphemus and the nymph Galateia. Although these last two were pre-existing characters in Greek mythology, the connection between them and the Celts was suggested by the resemblance between the ethnonym Galatai and the name of the nymph, on the one hand, and the supposedly monstrous nature of the Celts. Even better attested are the narratives about the Celts being descended from the divine hero Heracles who was known for his enormous strength, machismo, courage, and sexual appetite. Although his lion skin and club would seem to make him an archetype of the primitive, he seems to play an intermediary role between humanity and the primal forces of nature: he was the son of a god (Zeus) and human (Alcmene), mastered wild animals, and founded many dynasties.
Many contemporaries must have understood these affiliations between Celts, on the one hand, and giants and monstrous beings, on the other. When the Celts are reputed to have made their incursions into the Balkans in the early third century BCE, Callimachus called them “modern-day Titans” (see Historical Texts section). In Greek myth, the Titans were giants of an ancient epoch who, despite their vast strength and size, were overthrown by a new generation of gods, the Olympians.
A series of stone monuments was erected at the acropolis of Athens following the final rout of the Gauls 168-8 BCE, depicting a number of real and mythical victories over monstrous hordes: the Pergamene defeat of the Gauls in Asia Minor, the Greek defeat of the Persians at Marathon (490 BCE), the Greek defeat of the Amazons (mythical), and the ancient Pergamenes against the Giants. This series of parallel struggles of the “clash of civilizations” is also reflected in carvings around the altar at Pergamum, which depict both the defeat of the Giants by Zeus and Athena and the defeat of the Gauls by Attalids.
Prepare to discuss the legendary ancestry of the Celts in these texts:
- Diodorus Siculus, Library of History §4.19.1-3, §5.24
- Parthenius, Love Romances
- Ammianus Marcellinus, Rerum Gestarum §15.9
- Appian, Illyrian Wars §1.2
Celt as “Other”
The consciousness of our own identity as distinctive is only possible by contrasting ourselves with someone else: it is often only after “We” have encountered “Them” that we believe that “We” have much in common and that those commonalities make us different from (and probably better than) “Them.” People often depict and exaggerate the most unusual practices and characteristics of foreigners to emphasize their strangeness. Eating habits, hair styles, clothing, and sexual habits are frequent topics of commentary and speculation.
As Celtic mercenaries were often the first groups encountered by many Greek and Roman writers, they present one rather extreme end of the spectrum of Celtic society which was not representative of the whole (as some people had to be engaged in agriculture, craft production, and other tasks, rather than warfare). Despite all that they actually had in common, Greek and Roman writers often depict the Celts as holding to very different norms and mores from themselves.
What kinds of habits and values are alluded to in the following passages in order to convey the foreignness and barbarity of the Celts? How might we interpret these depictions and encounters critically using the guidelines above?
- Strabo, Geography §4.4.3, §4.4.5-6, §4.5.4
- Julius Caesar, Commentaries on the Gallic War § 5.14
- Dio Cassiuss, Roman History §9
Texts which feature the Celts were used to justify a number of personal ambitions and political criticisms. Caesar was able to control the textual representation of his actions in Gaul (not to mention the riches he looted there) to enhance his own image and prestige, making it appear that his conquest of the Gauls was not only for the good of Rome but for the good of Gaul itself.
On the other hand, authors such as Tacitus were critical of the growing monopoly of power controlled by the Roman Emperor and the corruption of Roman society. For him, the Celts provided a contrast which could be used to remind Romans of how important their freedom was to them before they were subdued and sullied by the excesses of the empire.
How are authorial agendas reflected in:
- Julius Caesar, Commentaries on the Gallic War §1.7, §1.30?
- Tacitus, Agricola §2, §17, §29, §30, §32?
Basic Historical Evidence
The earliest historical texts do offer us some clues about where ancient scholars believed Celts to reside in ancient times, although these clues are not straightforward facts: some of the names of peoples and places are ambiguous, some have become lost to history, and the authors had limited or flawed knowledge of geography beyond their own territories. Here are our three earliest testimonies, their evidence, and some analysis.
Hecataeus of Miletus (in Asia Minor) recorded the following information c.500 BCE:
- “Narbon is a Celtic city.” Narbon can be located accurately.
- “Massalia is a city of Ligurians located near Celtica.” Massalia can be located accurately.
- “Nyrax was a Celtic city.” It is possible that Nyrax corresponds to the later place name Noreia, the name of the capital of the ancient kingdom of Noricum, in the eastern Alps, although this inference is extremely speculative.
A text by Herodotus, written c.450 x 425 BCE, is a little more challenging to use with confidence:
- “The source of the Danube river is in the land of the Celts, who are at Pyrēnē.” The source of the Danube is near Donaueschingen, in the Black Forest of Germany. Unfortunately, we don’t know what “Pyrēnē” refers to. Although the name resembles “Pyrenees” (the mountains between France and Spain), it is more likely that this name refers to the Celtic settlement of Heuneburg near the upper Danube. Not only is there evidence that trade goods were imported from the mediterranean to this site, but a mediterranean-style mudbrick wall was built at the settlement c.600 BCE.
- “The Celts live beyond the Pillars of Hercules, next to the Kunētes.” The Greek writer Herodotus mentions a people called the Kunētes living in the Algarve, in the south-west corner of Iberia. We know that there were Celtic peoples around them from other linguistic evidence and John Koch has argued for the Celticity of the Kunētes themselves given the resemblance of their ethnonym to the place name Cunētio of Britain and the Old Welsh personal name Cinuit.
The Ora Maritima was written by Rufus Festus Avienus in the fourth century CE but includes text which is known to date back to the sixth century BCE. This text contains two vital clues about Insular Celts: it names the people of Ireland as gens Hiernorum and the island of Britain as insula Albionum. Native place names can be reconstructed from these forms: Iuerio (Ireland) and Albion (Britain). We can confirm that these are ancient names because later writers tell us that the name Albionum had been replaced by the place name Britanniæ (or similar forms), based in turn on a new Celtic ethnonym (see Pliny the Elder, The Natural History §4.30).
John Koch has argued that both of these place names have Celtic origins: Iueriu can be interpreted as “the fat, fertile country,” while Albion/Albu has the connotation of “inhabitable world.” Not all scholars are convinced that the name of Ireland is Celtic, but if the name Albion (at the least) is Celtic and was preserved and used in the Goidelic languages (after becoming obsolete in the Gallo-Britannic languages), and recorded in pre-La Tène texts, this suggests that Celtic languages had already been well established for some time in both Ireland and Britain.
It is hard not to come to the conclusion that ancient Greek scholars had very little information about the interior of western Europe and were highly reliant upon sailors and traders working along the coasts. In this regard, it is worth examining a statement made by Strabo, writing in the first century BCE, about the claims of the Greek scholar Ephorus, whose texts date to the fourth century BCE but are now lost. Strabo (§4.4.6) believed that Ephorus exaggerated the size of Celtica (territories occupied by Celtic-speaking people) by including within it most of the Iberian Peninsula; clearly some early geographers were aware that Celts occupied a vast swathe of Europe.
These ancient texts gives us just a bare sketch of a few data points about the Celts in the pre-La Tène period: the map below indicates places where ancient mediterranean writers believed people they understood to be Celts lived (in regular typeface) and places whose names seem to be coined in Celtic languages (underlined).
Crumley, Celtic Social Structure.
Cunliffe, The Ancient Celts.
—, “Mapping Celticity.”
Maier, “Of Celts and Cyclopes.”
Meid, The Celts.