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Need to Know

These pan-European tribes were seen by the classical world as the ‘enemy at the gates’


The Greeks called them ‘Keltoi’ or ‘Galatians’, while the Romans knew them as ‘Celtae’ or ‘Gauls’. They were frequently depicted as savage, warlike and dangerous; a very real threat to the survival of Mediterranean culture. Archaeology, however, has shown them to be one of the most important and influential of all ancient civilisations,with their artistic and cultural influence ‚which spread from Spain to Turkeyand Italy to Scotland, still affecting us today.

The ‘Celts’ were not, in fact, a single race, but a series of distinct tribes, albeit bound by common ties of art, custom and religion. Celtic groups existed throughout central Europe, on the fringes of the classical world, from the 4th century BC. For Greece and Rome, they represented the archetypal ‘enemy at the gates’; the ultimate barbarian whose way of life was incomprehensible and completely at oddswith their own.

Given that both the Romans and the Greeks used the word ‘Celt’ in an inconsistent – and frequently quite derogatory – way to cover those who lived beyond ‘civilisation’, it can be difficult to see how the term was originally applied and what precisely it meant. Matters are not helped by the way in which the word ‘Celtic’ has taken on a more political dimension in recent years, being linked with concepts of Welsh, Scottish, Cornish and Irish independence and self-determination. This, of course, causes further confusion, given that both Britain and Ireland were not considered, by contemporary Roman historians and geographers, to be part of the Celtic world.

If, however, we use the words ‘Celt’ and ‘Celtic’ to cover the distinctive cultural, religious, linguistic and artistic styles common across large swathes of pre-Roman Europe, then it is apparent that not only was Britain part of this greater Celtic Celtic inheritance, but also that the Celtic style that developed here represented the final flourish of a rich, varied and dynamic culture. Unfortunately the Celts themselves did not write anything down, so their history and identity can only be pieced together from archaeological excavation, combined with the written testimony of their sworn enemy: the Roman Empire.


The remains of the Celtic roundhouses on Holyhead Mountain are also known as Cytiau’r Gwyddelod – aka The Irishmen’s Huts.

CIRCLE OF LIFE This Iron Age dry-stone roundhouse is one of around 20 such examples on the lower slpes of Holyhead Mountain on Anglesey

41 The number of recorded Celtic tribes in Britain resident in Britain during the Iron Age



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The June 2016 issue of History Revealed