This book draws on the firsthand observations and early accounts of classical writers to piece together a detailed portrait of the ancient Celtic peoples of Europe and the British Isles.
"The ancient Celts capture the modern imagination as do few other people of classical times. Naked barbarians charging the Roman legions, Druids performing sacrifices of unspeakable horror, women fighting beside their men and even leading armies—these, along with stunning works of art, are the images most of us call to mind when we think of the Celts," observes Philip Freeman. "And for the most part, these images are firmly based in the descriptions handed down to us by the Greek and Roman writers."
This book draws on the firsthand observations and early accounts of classical writers to piece together a detailed portrait of the ancient Celtic peoples of Europe and the British Isles. Philip Freeman groups the selections (ranging from short statements to longer treatises) by themes—war, feasting, poetry, religion, women, and the Western Isles. He also presents inscriptions written by the ancient Celts themselves. This wealth of material, introduced and translated by Freeman to be especially accessible to students and general readers, makes this book essential reading for everyone fascinated by the ancient Celts.
- Map of Celtic Lands
- The Western Isles
- The Ancient Celts Speak
- Further Reading and References
The ancient Celts capture the modern imagination as do few other people of classical times. Naked barbarians charging the Roman legions, Druids performing sacrifices of unspeakable horror, women fighting beside their men and even leading armies—these, along with stunning works of art, are the images most of us call to mind when we think of the Celts. And for the most part, these images are firmly based in the descriptions handed down to us by the Greek and Roman writers.
As with historical sources from any age, we cannot accept at face value everything the classical authors say about the Celts and we must always approach their words with caution. Every ancient (and modern) writer has particular motives and prejudices, even when they are attempting to portray an honest picture of Celtic life. Some authors, such as Julius Caesar, are anxious to present a brave and noble—if somewhat peculiar—enemy in order to enhance their own achievements in conquering them. Other writers seek to show the Celts as noble savages embodying the high moral philosophy lost in Roman culture. On the other hand, some delight in portraying the Celts as disgusting barbarians desperately in need of a good dose of civilization. But most ancient authors are simply trying to record as accurately as possible for their own various purposes what they have seen, heard, or read of Celtic life.
Even with these shortcomings, the writings of the Greeks and Romans are our primary source of information on the ancient Celts. Archaeology has unearthed beautiful works of art and revealed much about Celtic culture, but nothing can replace the testimony of contemporary witnesses. In this book I try to present that testimony clearly to all interested readers. I have kept the introductory comments to the passages at a minimum in order to let the Greeks and Romans speak for themselves about the Celts. In my translations of the original sources, whether Greek or Latin, I have always tried to be faithful to the texts, but sometimes a loose translation or even paraphrase of the original author best conveys the meaning to modern readers.
The final chapter contains translations of inscriptions written by the ancient Celts themselves rather than the Greeks or Romans. These sources are limited and often are poorly understood even by specialists, but they provide a unique glimpse of ancient Celtic life through the words of those who lived it.
I have avoided the scholarly temptation to add tedious footnotes to every section, though a list of secondary sources is included at the end of the book for readers seeking to learn more about the fascinating world of the ancient Celts.
The fourth-century B.C. philosopher Aristotle mentions the martial qualities of the Celts several times. He first uses the Celts as an example of excess in his famous defense of moderation. He says that an excessive amount of any quality, even bravery, is not desirable (Nichomachean Ethics 3.7):
For the sake of honor, a virtuous man will stand his ground and perform brave deeds. But as we have noted before, there is no name for those who carry this sort of quality to the extreme, being absolutely without fear, not even being afraid of earthquakes or waves, as they say of the Celts.
He also mentions a supposedly widespread custom among non-Greeks of hardening children to adverse weather as training for war (Politics 15.2):
It is a commendable practice to accustom children to the cold from an early age. It is beneficial not only for reasons of health but also in view to future military service. This is why so many barbarian nations, such as the Celts, will dip their babies into cold rivers or give their children little clothing to wear.
Aristotle is also the first classical author to mention homosexual relations among Celtic warriors (Politics 2.6):
The result of ignoring women in law codes is that wealth will be overly desired in such a state, especially if women run things behind the scenes as in most military societies. An exception to this would be those nations which openly approve of sexual relations between men, such as the Celts and certain others.
Aristotle's contemporary Ephorus includes in his History, now lost except for references in later authors, an amusing but practical note on physical fitness among Celtic warriors (Strabo Geography 4.4.6):
Ephorus says that the Celts are very careful not to become fat or potbellied. If any young man's belly sticks over his belt he is punished.
Another fourth-century B.C. Greek writer shows a more cunning side of Celtic warfare. In his now lost History of Philip, parts of which are preserved in Athenaeus, Theopompus records a deadly trick played on the Illyrians by their Celtic foes (Athenaeus Deipnosophistae 10.443):
The Celts, knowing that the Illyrians loved to indulge themselves at feasts, invited them all to a great banquet in their tents. But they put a certain herb in the food which immediately attacked their bowels and produced mass diarrhea. The Celts then captured and slew some of them while others threw themselves into rivers, unable to stand the pain.
The encyclopedic Natural History of the Roman author Pliny was published just two years before he perished in the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79. In it we have several detailed accounts of druidic rituals and a general description of Celtic religion in the century after the Roman conquest of Gaul (16.249, 24.103-104, 29.52, 30.13):
I can't forget to mention the admiration the Gauls have for mistletoe. The Druids (which is the name of their holy men) hold nothing more sacred than this plant and the tree on which it grows—as if it grew only on oaks. They worship only in oak groves and will perform no sacred rites unless a branch of that tree is present. It seems the Druids even get their name from drus (the Greek word for oak). And indeed they think that anything which grows on an oak tree is sent from above and is a sign that the tree was selected by the god himself. The problem is that in fact mistletoe rarely grows on oak trees. Still they search it out with great diligence and then will cut it only on the sixth day of the moon's cycle, because the moon is then growing in power but is not yet halfway through its course (they use the moon to measure not only months but years and their grand cycle of thirty years). In their language they call mistletoe a name meaning "all-healing." They hold sacrifices and sacred meals under oak trees, first leading forward two white bulls with horns bound for the first time. A priest dressed in white then climbs the tree and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, with the plant dropping onto a white cloak. They then sacrifice the bulls while praying that the god will favorably grant his own gift to those to whom he has given it. They believe a drink made with mistletoe will restore fertility to barren livestock and act as a remedy to all poisons. Such is the devotion to frivolous affairs shown by many peoples.
Similar to the Sabine herb savin is a plant called selago. It must be picked without an iron instrument by passing the right hand through the opening of the left sleeve, as if you were stealing it. The harvester, having first offered bread and wine, must wear white and have clean, bare feet. It is carried in a new piece of cloth. The Druids of Gaul say that it is should be used to ward off every danger and that the smoke of burning selago is good for eye diseases. The Druids also gather a plant from marshes called samolus, which must be picked with the left hand during a time of fasting. It is good for the diseases of cows, but the one who gathers it must not look back nor place it anywhere except in the watering trough of the animals.
There is a kind of egg which is very famous in Gaul but ignored by Greek writers. In the summer months, a vast number of snakes will gather themselves together in a ball which is held together by their saliva and a secretion from their bodies. The Druids say they produce this egg-like object called an anguinum which the hissing snakes throw up into the air. It must be caught, so they say, in a cloak before it hits the ground. But you'd better have a horse handy, because the snakes will chase you until they are cut off by some stream. A genuine anguinum will float upstream, even if covered in gold. But as is common with the world's holy men, the Druids say it can only be gathered during a particular phase of the moon, as if people could make the moon and serpents work together. I saw one of these eggs myself—it was a small round thing like an apple with a hard surface full of indentations as on the arms of an octopus. The Druids value them highly. They say it is a great help in lawsuits and will help you gain the good will of a ruler. That this is plainly false is shown by a man of the Gaulish Vocontii tribe, a Roman knight, who kept one hidden in his cloak during a trial before the emperor Claudius and was executed, as far as I can tell, for this reason alone.
Barbarous rites were found in Gaul even within my own memory. For it was then that the emperor Tiberius passed a decree through the senate outlawing their Druids and these types of diviners and physicians. But why do I mention this about a practice which has crossed the sea and reached the ends of the earth? For even today Britain performs rites with such ceremony that you would think they were the source for the extravagant Persians. It is amazing how distant people are so similar in such practices. But at least we can be glad that the Romans have wiped out the murderous cult of the Druids, who thought human sacrifice and ritual cannibalism were the greatest kind of piety.
“I know of no other work that pulls this sort of material together and groups it by such helpful categories (war, feasting, poetry, religion, women, etc.). I will certainly value it in my library and... as recommended reading for several of my courses. It will be a nice companion to Freeman's Ireland and the Classical World.”
Patrick K. Ford, Professor and Chair of Celtic Languages and Literatures, Harvard University