History of the Celts

Celtic hero, celtic culture
A stone sculpture of a Celtic hero is displayed in the National Museum in Prague, Czech Republic. (Image credit: Kozuch / Creative Commons.)

The “Celts” refer to a people that thrived in both ancient and modern times. Today, the term often refers to the cultures, languages and people that are based in Scotland, Ireland, other parts of the British Isles and Brittany in France.

“Today six Celtic languages survive — the Gaelic group comprising Irish, Scots Gaelic and Manx and the Britonic group comprising Welsh, Breton and Cornish,” wrote the late professor Dáithí Ó hÓgáin in his book “The Celts: A History (opens in new tab)” (The Collins Press, 2002). He notes that Manx and Cornish originally died out but have now been revived.

The relationship between modern-day Celts and their ancient forbearers is a contentious issue that scholars have different opinions about. Languages change over time, and people move, and how much modern-day Celtic peoples, language and cultures are related to the ancient Celts is an open question.

Nevertheless the Celts, both ancient and modern, have provided humanity with some fantastic art, culture and stories of martial prowess.

Ancient Celts

The Celts were first referenced in texts about 2,500 years ago. Many of the ancient sources, however, were written by Greeks, Romans and other non-Celts.

Evidence indicates that the Celts were spread out across a vast area of continental Europe. They lived as far east as modern-day Turkey and even served as mercenaries for the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. They were never politically united as a single people but consisted of different groups, including Gauls (from areas including France) and Celtiberians (based in Iberia).

They spoke different languages and, in fact, “given the size of the language area it is rather unlikely that all the people identified by the Greeks and Romans as Celts would have been able to communicate with each other in the same language,” writes Felix Muller, of the Historisches Museum in Berne, in his book “Art of the Celts: 700 B.C. to A.D. 700 (opens in new tab)” (Historisches Museum Berne, 2009).

He notes that identifying particular works of art as “Celtic” can also be challenging. But if we look at art from areas where the Celts were said to flourish, we can see some of the wonders they produced. For instance, more than 2,500 years ago, at a burial mound at Ins in western Switzerland, they left behind a golden globe-shaped object, less than an inch in diameter, that was “decorated with approximately 3600 granules,” an example of the incredibly intricate gold work the Celts could produce.

Ancient writers tended not to discuss Celtic artistic achievements but rather their reputation for fierceness in war. Gauls had succeeded in sacking Rome in 390 B.C. Later that century, when Alexander the Great was campaigning, he received a party of Celts.

“The king received them kindly and asked them when drinking what it was that they most feared, thinking they would say himself, but that they replied they feared no one, unless it were that Heaven might fall on them,” wrote the Greek writer Strabo who lived ca. 64 B.C. – A.D. 24 (translation through Perseus Digital Library).

Fighting in the buff?

It was said that some Celts would strip completely naked before going into battle; something meant to impact their enemies psychologically.

“Very terrifying too were the appearance and the gestures of the naked warriors in front, all in the prime of life, and finely built men, and all in the leading companies richly adorned with gold torques and armlets,” wrote Polybius (200-118 BC), in an account of a battle they fought against the Romans. (Translation through University of Chicago Penelope website)

Perhaps not coincidentally, ancient sources also say that the Celts detested being overweight and had penalties against this. Strabo, quoting another writer named Ephorus, wrote “that they endeavour not to grow fat or pot-bellied, and any young man who exceeds the standard measure of the girdle is punished.”

View of the Castro de Viladonga archaeological site in Castro de Rei, near Lugo, Spain. (Image credit: Ministry of Culture, Spain)

Celtic religion

While the Celts would eventually be Christianized along with much of the Roman Empire (in time the Romans would conquer many of their lands) ancient sources provide hints at the religious beliefs of the Celts.

A poem by Lucan (A.D. 39-65) describes a grove that was sacred to the Celts. It, along with other sources, suggests that human sacrifice was practiced.   

“There stood a grove Which from the earliest time no hand of man Had dared to violate; hidden from the sun…”

“No sylvan nymphs Here found a home, nor Pan, but savage rites And barbarous worship, altars horrible On massive stones upreared; sacred with blood Of men was every tree…”

The Celts were interested in Druidism. Robert Wisniewski of the University of Warsaw notes in an article published in the journal Palemedes that in A.D. 43 Pomponius Mela wrote about the Gauls as follows:

“And yet, they have both their own eloquence and their own teachers of wisdom, the Druids. These men claim to know the size and shape of the earth and of the universe, the movements of the sky and of the stars, and what the gods intend…” he wrote. “One of the precepts they teach — obviously to make them better for war — has [become] common knowledge, namely that their souls are eternal and there is a second life for the dead.” (Translation by E.F Romer)

No Celts in ancient Britain!?

Remarkably a number of scholars now believe that the ancient Celts did not live in Britain but were confined to the European continent, with settlements located as far east as Turkey.

John Collis, an archaeology professor at the University of Sheffield, points out in his book “The Celts: Origins, Myths and Inventions (opens in new tab)” (Tempus, 2004) that ancient writers refer to Celtic people living in continental Europe but not the British Isles. He notes that Strabo actually “distinguished Britons from Celts.”

He writes that terms like Celt and Gaul “was never used for the inhabitants of the British Isles except in the most general way for all the inhabitants of western Europe including non Indo-European speakers such as Basques.”

His analysis is backed up by University of Leicester professor Simon James who says that “many people are startled to discover that although they 'know' Britain in pre-Roman times was populated by Ancient Celts, most British Iron Age specialists abandoned the idea decades ago,” he writes in a 2004 review of Collis’s book published in British Archaeology magazine.

The “question is not why have so many British (and Irish) archaeologists abandoned the notion of ancient island Celts, but how and why did we come to think there had ever been any in the first place? The idea is a modern one; the ancient islanders never described themselves as Celts, a name reserved for some continental neighbours.”

Celts in Turkey?

Yet while scholars are dismissing the idea of Celts in ancient Britain, they are finding evidence for Celts flourishing in Turkey.

“In 278 B.C., King Nicomedes I of Bithynia welcomed as allies 20,000 European Celts, veterans who had successfully invaded Macedonia two years earlier. These warriors, who called themselves the Galatai, marched into northwestern Anatolia with 2,000 baggage wagons and 10,000 noncombatants: provisioners and merchants as well as wives and children,” write researchers Jeremiah Dandoy, Page Selinsky, and Mary Voigt in a 2002 Archaeology magazine article.

In excavations at Gordion, Turkey, they’ve found evidence of cultural practices that they interpret as Celtic. They found “chilling evidence of strangulation, decapitation, and bizarre arrangements of human and animal bones. Such practices are well known from Celtic sites in Europe and are now documented for Anatolian Celts as well.”

Owen Jarus

Owen Jarus
Live Science Contributor

Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.