Greeks and Celts in Pre-Roman Italy

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Magna Graecia (Greek colonies in Italy)

The Greeks established colonies at Sicily and Tarentum, and on the western coast as far as Naples (Neapolis) in Campania. So completely did these coasts become dotted with Greek cities, enlivened with Greek commerce, and influenced by Greek culture, that this part of the peninsula received the name of Magna Graecia. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), ]

The Greek city states set up a number of colonies in Italy, known then as Magan Graecia (Great Greece), often on the sites of established towns. The first known Greek settlement was established on Pithekoussai, an island off of present-day Naples, in 770 B.C. A few years later colonies were established in Sicily and southern Italy. Many of the early settlers were poor farmers looking for a better life the same way immigrants from Europe came to America in the 19th century to seek their fortune.

Two important concepts in the development of mankind — democracy and the construction of cities in a grid pattern — are believed to have evolved in the Greek colonies in Italy. Archimedes and Pythagoras came from Italy and many of the great Greek philosophers that preceded Socrates, were also from the west. The Sicilian city state of Syracuse crushed an invasion from Athens in 413 B.C.

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Contacts Between Ancient Greeks and Italians

David Silverman of Reed College wrote: “The western Greeks are important for us as students of Roman History because they are the vehicle for the transmission of Greek culture and technology to Italy. Among the debts of the Italians to the Greek traders and colonists of the second half of the 8th and the 7th centuries are letters (literacy), viticulture, olives, stone fortification walls, and the hoplite phalanx. ^*^

“Contact between Greeks and Italians had ceased during the Greek Dark Ages (c. 1050-800 B.C.). The colonies of the 8th century B.C., therefore, are not continuations but something new. In the course of the 8th century, the "Age of Colonization" in Greece, Greeks virtually took over western Sicily and much of the south of Italy. Among the most vigorous of the colonizing states were Chalkis and Eretria, whose foundations included Pithekoussai (on Ischia), Cymae (an offshoot of Pithekoussai), Zankle, Mylae, Rhegion, Naxos, Leontinoi, and Katane. The earliest of these, Pithekoussai (founded around 750 B.C.) was also the furthest north. It was strategically positioned to export the mineral resources of Etruria (copper, iron, tin), and to sell Greek imports (bronzes and fine ware pottery).

“The purpose of some of the other colonies can also be deduced from their locations. Zankle (Messana) and Rhegion were to guard the passage through the straights of Messina. Massilia (Marseilles), a later foundation (c. 600 B.C.) by the Phokaians (whose home is on the coast of Asia Minor north of Smyrna), was positioned to trade with Gaul, especially for tin. Its existence accounts for such discoveries as this bronze crater, of Laconian manufacture and dating to the sixth century B.C., found at Vix.” ^*^

Inter-Cultural ‘Party’ with Minoans and Mycenaeans in Southern Italy?


The Bronze Age site of Roca in Southern Italy has produced archaeological evidence of “one of the earliest inter-cultural feasting parties’ in Mediterranean Europe, dating to c.a. 1200 B.C. . Dr. Francesco Iacono wrote in “This small (about 3 hectares nowadays, although it was larger in the past) but monumental fortified settlement (its stone walls measured up to 25m in width), located on the Adriatic coast of Apulia, southern Italy, has been investigated for many years by a team from the University of Salento. Such a research has demonstrated the existence of a long-lasting and intense relationship with Minoan and Mycenaean Greece at least from c.a. 1400 B.C. and of more sporadic connections since the earliest Bronze Age occupation at the site. One of the areas of the settlement (investigated a few years ago) has produced the largest set of ceramics of Mycenaean type ever found in the same context west of Greece (more than 380 vessels). This pottery was associated with abundant local ceramics, remains of meals and of numerous animal sacrifices. A recent study suggests this was the result of a large-scale feast in which it is possible to recognise the participation of groups of people with two distinct cultural backgrounds. [Source: Francesco Iacono,, December 2015, Iacono is a specialist in Mediterranean prehistory and is a postdoctoral fellow at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge.

“One is the southern Italian component, hinted by the local ceramic material as well as by the very modality of the sacrifices. Analyses of bones have shown that after the killings, extensive portions (e.g. one entire leg, or the head) were separated from the carcasses and deposited in the ground and covered up with leaves and branches that left impressions on the back of the thick crushed limestone pavement that sealed all this. Such a ritual procedure seems not to be attested in the Mycenaean world, where animal sacrifices normally involve the use of fire, but finds some parallels in other Bronze Age sites in Southern Italy.

“The second cultural component was the Aegean one, broadly intended, and this is suggested by the copious presence of Aegean style pottery (both imported and locally made) as well as by the very nature of the feast. Evidence for large feasting events involving the presence of a considerable number of people at the same time (the count of participants estimated on the basis of the consumption of the meat of the sacrificed animals alone was between 530 and 176 people) is lacking in Italian Bronze Age, but these events were relatively common in the Aegean world. Also, the probable use of alcoholic drinks (suggested by the recovery of both Aegean style wine cups and large transport stirrup jars, the ancestors of classical amphorae) is an element that is not present in southern Italy but widespread in the Minoan/Mycenaean world, where this was an important part of Palatial societies.

“The broad context in which this event took place provides clues on some of the possible reasons behind it. In the Late Bronze Age, after the fall of Mycenaean palaces, the links between Italy (including the north of the peninsula, rich in metal resources) and the societies that continued to inhabit the Aegean, had increased considerably. East-west connections did not affect only the central Mediterranean region as indeed at the same time many ‘western looking’ artefacts (both ceramics and metal types) started to appear in main sites in Greece.

“Being located at the junction between the Adriatic and the Ionian Sea, Roca acquired a considerable importance in these connections, acting as a mediating node. The feasting practices demonstrated at Roca give us a first concrete snapshot of the details of what these encounters between people possibly coming from distant locales might have looked like."

Greek Traders

6th century BC Greek Trireme

The Greeks traded all over the Mediterranean with metal coinage (introduced by the Lydians in Asia Minor before 700 B.C.); colonies were founded around the Mediterranean and Black Sea shores (Cumae in Italy 760 B.C., Massalia in France 600 B.C.) Metropleis (mother cities) founded colonies abroad to provide food and resources for their rising populations. In this way Greek culture was spread to a fairly wide area. ↕

Greece was resource poor and overpopulated. They needed to colonize the Mediterranean to get resources. Beginning in the 8th century B.C., the Greeks set up colonies in Sicily and southern Italy that endured for 500 years, and, many historians argue, provided the spark that ignited Greek golden age. The most intensive colonization took place in Italy although outposts were set up as far west as France and Spain and as far east as the Black Sea, where the established cities as Socrates noted like "frogs around a pond." On the European mainland, Greek warriors encountered the Gauls who the Greeks said "knew how to die, barbarians though they were." [Source: Rick Gore, National Geographic, November 1994]

During this period in history the Mediterranean Sea was frontier as challenging to the Greeks as the Atlantic was to 15th century European explorers like Columbus. Why did the Greeks head west? "They were driven in part by curiosity. Real curiosity," a British historian told National Geographic. "They wanted to know what lay on the other side of the sea." They also expanded abroad to get rich and ease tensions at home where rival city-states fought with one another over land and resources. Some Greeks became quite wealthy trading things like Etruscan metals and Black Sea grain.

Ancient Greek Colonies

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Ancient Greek colonization began at an early date, during the so-called Geometric period of about 900 to 700 B.C., when many seminal elements of ancient Greek society were also established, such as city-states, major sanctuaries, and the Panhellenic festivals. The Greek alphabet, inspired by the writing of the Phoenician sea traders, was developed and spread at this time. [Source: Collete Hemingway, Independent Scholar, Seán Hemingway, Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, July 2007 \^/]

“Greece is a country surrounded by water and the sea has always played an important role in its history. The ancient Greeks were active seafarers seeking opportunities for trade and founding new independent cities at coastal sites across the Mediterranean Sea. By the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., Greek colonies and settlements stretched all the way from western Asia Minor to southern Italy, Sicily, North Africa, and even to the coasts of southern France and Spain. Regional schools of artists exhibited a rich variety of styles and preferences at this time. The major Ionian cities along the coast of Asia Minor prospered. They cultivated relationships with other affluent centers like Sardis in Lydia, which was ruled by the legendary King Croesus in the sixth century B.C. Indeed, by this time, the eastern Greeks controlled much of the Aegean Sea and had established independent cities to the north along the Black Sea. This region, in particular, opened up further trade connections to the north that gave access to valuable raw materials, such as gold.” \^/

John Porter of the University of Saskatchewan wrote: “In order to head off revolution and the rise of a tyrannos, various poleis began to adopt measures designed to ease the social and economic hardships exploited by the tyrannoi in their bid for power. One measure that became increasingly popular, beginning c. 750-725, was the use of colonization. A polis (or a group of poleis) would send out colonists to found a new polis. The colony thus founded would have strong religious and emotional ties to its mother city, but was an independent political entity. This practice served a variety of purposes. First, it eased the pressure of overpopulation. Second, it provided a means of removing the politically or financially disaffected, who could hope for a better lot in their new home. It also provided useful trading outposts, securing important sources of raw materials and various economic opportunities. Finally, colonization opened up the world to the Greeks, introducing them to other peoples and cultures and giving them a new sense of those traditions that bound them to one another, for all of their apparent differences. [Source: John Porter, “Archaic Age and the Rise of the Polis”, University of Saskatchewan. Last modified November 2009 *]

Greek colonies were founded around the Mediterranean and Black Sea shores (Cumae in Italy 760 B.C., Massalia in France 600 B.C.) Metropleis (mother cities) founded colonies abroad to provide food and resources for their rising populations. In this way Greek culture was spread to a fairly wide area. Porter wrote: “The principal areas of colonization were: (1) southern Italy and Sicily; (2) the Black Sea region. Many of the poleis involved in these early efforts at colonization were cities that, in the classical period, were relatively obscure — an indication of just how drastically the economic and political changes entailed in the transition from Dark Age to Archaic Greece affected the fortunes of the various poleis. [Source: John Porter, “Archaic Age and the Rise of the Polis”, University of Saskatchewan. Last modified November 2009 *]

Greek Colonies in Italy

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “The Greek colonies in Sicily and southern Italy, a region known as Magna Graecia, comprised politically independent entities that maintained religious ties and trade links with their mother cities. Up until the mid-sixth century B.C., Corinth dominated trade in the West. For the most part, it exported Corinthian vases, which were often filled with olive oil, in return for grain. Some city-states, such as Syracuse and Selinus in Sicily, erected major temples that rivaled those in the eastern part of Greece. Unlike the Aegean islands and mainland Greece, where marble was plentiful, Sicily and southern Italy had few local sources of high-quality marble. Thus, the artists in Magna Graecia established a strong tradition of working with terracotta and limestone. Many of the colonies in the West minted their own silver coins with distinctive designs and emblems.” [Source: Collete Hemingway, Independent Scholar, Seán Hemingway, Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, July 2007]

John Porter of the University of Saskatchewan wrote: The fertile resources of Southern Italy and Sicily “attracted intensive colonization, beginning c. the third quarter of the 8th century with the foundation of Cyme (near Naples), a colony of Chalcis, Eretria, and Cyme — neighboring poleis on the island of Euboea. [Originally the colonists settled on the island of Pithecusae, just off the coast of Cyme. They later established the settlements that were to become Puteoli and Naples (originally: "Neapolis" — the "New City").] Colonization in the following years led to the area of southern Italy and eastern Sicily becoming, in effect, an extension of Greece itself, which it was to remain until the rise of Rome in the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C. [Source: John Porter, “Archaic Age and the Rise of the Polis”, University of Saskatchewan. Last modified November 2009 ]

“Thus this region came to be known (in Latin) as Magna Graecia or "Great Greece," rather as we today speak of the "greater metropolitan" area of a major city. Settlement was limited by the other two great powers in the region: Carthage (which controlled western Sicily, Sardinia, and the coastal regions of Spain and Africa) and the Etruscans (who dominated northern Italy: today we still refer to the body of water off the west coast of Italy as the Tyrrhenian Sea, "Tyrrhenian" being the Greek for "Etruscan"). The other important Greek settlements in the region were: a) Syracuse (founded by Corinth and for many years one of the most powerful cities in the region), b) Corcyra (another colony of Corinth, off the northwest coast of Greece — a strategic settlement given the nature of Greek shipping [which tended to hug the coast rather than risk the open sea] since Corcyra provided the perfect jumping off point for sailors heading to Italy), c) Sybaris (on the west coast of Italy at the narrowest point of the Italian peninsula, where it controlled the most direct east-west land route through Italy; Sybaris was noted for its wild ways [rather like some towns of the Old West in the United States], to the degree that the adjective "sybaritic" today still denotes a wildly luxuriant and profligate lifestyle), and d) Massilia (modern Marseilles, a colony of Phocis). *\

“The colonies in Magna Graecia played a crucial role in the development of western culture. Through the close contacts between these colonies, on the one hand, and the local Italian populations, the Etruscans and, later, the Romans, on the other, Greek culture (its myths, religious views, alphabet, literary and philosophical traditions, art) came to pervade Italy, leaving a profound imprint on Roman culture and, through the Romans, on the West. (Thus, to pick just one example, Roman mythology is largely Greek mythology in another guise.) In fact, our word "Greek" itself derives from the Romans. The Greeks of the classical period (like Greeks today) referred to themselves as Hellenes (after their name for their homeland, *Hellas). However, a contingent of the colonists at Cyme came from an obscure place known as Graia (an area near Tanagra, just opposite Chalcis and Eretria on the Greek mainland). Somehow the local Italian populations came to refer to the settlers at Cyme as Graii, later transformed into the Latin form Graeci, whence modern English "Greek."” *\

Greek colonies in Italy

Important Greek Colonies in Italy

The two greatest Greek colonies in Italy were probably Syracuse and Sybaris. "Magna Graecia and Sicily became the Texas of the Greek world," one historian wrote. "Everything was bigger, bolder. It was a grand experiment." Sicily was known as "Sicily the rich" and "the pride of the blossoming earth." In 443 B.C., Pericles — the great leader of Athens — founded the colony of Thurii on the instep of Italy's boot following advise from the oracle of Delphi. For political reasons he asked other city states to join him and called it a Panhellenic colony.

Paestum — south of Salerno in southern Italy — is one of the most impressive set of Greek ruins in the world. The "Temple of Poseidon" looks like a smaller version of the Parthenon (built around the same time) in Athens on steroids. Built about 100 years before is the equally impressive "Basilica." It lacks a roof but it has massive columns that bulge at the bottom. It is long and looks more "elastic." Other ruins include the Temple of Cerese (a 2500-year-old temple later turned into a church), the Roman forum, the gymnasium, the Roman amphitheater, the 2,600-year-old basilica, a museum with paintings and pottery taken from Paestum tombs. Make sure to check out the famous Tomb of the Diver. There is a private beach about a mile and a half from the Paestum.

On Sicily the Greeks established numerous colonies and left behind monumental temples and theaters which draw large numbers of tourists today. Eastern Sicily is said to have been the inspiration for the myth of Persephone and the seasons. Morgantina (near Armerina) is a Greek city on Sicily that was colonized in the 6th century B.C. and sacked by the Romans in the 3rd century B.C. has produced some of the most spectacular archaeological and looted discoveries made in recant years. Before the Roman invaded, the Greeks buried their wealth. Other Ancient Sites include the Greek ruins of Gela, Agrigento and Selinunte.

Syracuse (in the southeastern corner of Sicily) was almost as powerful as Athens during the golden age of Greece. During Hellenistic times, Syracuse along with Athens and Alexandria were the greatest centers of Greek culture. The city is closely associated with Archimedes. Syracuse's harbor was one of the best in the Mediterranean. An attack by the Sicilian city state against Athens led to the fall of the ancient Greece's most famous city. Although the Syracuse invasion was unsuccessful it crushed Athens' sea defenses, allowing the Spartan's to sack Athens a few years later.

Syracuse and the Rocky Necropolis of Pantalica are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to UNESCO: “The site consists of two separate elements, containing outstanding vestiges dating back to Greek and Roman times: The Necropolis of Pantalica contains over 5,000 tombs cut into the rock near open stone quarries, most of them dating from the 13th to 7th centuries B.C. Vestiges of the Byzantine era also remain in the area, notably the foundations of the Anaktoron (Prince’s Palace). The other part of the property, Ancient Syracuse, includes the nucleus of the city’s foundation as Ortygia by Greeks from Corinth in the 8th century B.C. The site of the city, which Cicero described as ‘the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of all’, retains vestiges such as the Temple of Athena (5th century B.C., later transformed to serve as a cathedral), a Greek theatre, a Roman amphitheatre, a fort and more. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website =]

“The site of Syracuse and the Rocky Necropolis of Pantalica on the Mediterranean coast of south-eastern Sicily consists of two separate elements, the historic town of ancient Syracuse and the Necropolis of Pantalica. Together these two components form a unique cultural record that bears a remarkable testimony to Mediterranean cultures from the time of the ancient Greek. =

“The historic town of ancient Syracuse consists of Ortygia, the historic centre of the city, and today an island that has been inhabited for around 3000 years, and the archaeological area of the Neapolis. Syracuse, the second Greek colony in Sicily was founded by the Corinthians in 743 A.D and described by Cicero as ‘the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of all’. Syracuse or ‘Pentapolis’ was constructed in five parts, still visible today of which Ortygia is the base of all urbanistic and architectonic developments of successive eras. This area of the property contains traces of the temple of Apollo made in Doric style and the most ancient in Western Greece(6th century B.C.E.), and the temple of Athena, erected for the victory of Gelone over the Carthaginians in 480 A.D., re-used as a church from 6th century A.D. and rebuilt as a Baroque cathedral, in the late 17th century. The Neapolis contains the archaeological remains of sanctuaries and impressive complexes, a theatre, the Latomies, the so-called Tomb of Archimedes and the amphitheatre. Many structures attest to the continuing development of the city through Roman times, from the Byzantines to the Bourbons, interspersed with the Arabo-Muslims, the Normans, Frederick II of the Hohenstaufen dynasty (1197–1250), the Aragons and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. =

“The Necropolis of Pantalica is a rocky outcrop located 40 km. away from Syracuse that contains over 5,000 tombs cut into the rock near open stone quarries. The tombs are spread along a spur over 1200m northeast to southwest and 500m northwest to southeast and most date from the 13th to 7th centuries B.C. Associated with the tombs are the remains of dwellings dating from the period of Greek colonisation and other vestiges of the Byzantine notably the foundations of the Anaktoron (Prince’s Palace). =

Greek Temples of Poseidon and Hera in Paestum, Italy

Greek Colony of Agrigento in Sicily

According to UNESCO: “The archaeological area of Agrigento, the Valley of the Temples, is on the southern coast of Sicily and covers the vast territory of the ancient polis, from the Rupe Atenea to the acropolis of the original ancient city, as well as to the sacred hill on which stand the main Doric temples and up to the extramural necropolis. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website =]

“Founded as a Greek colony in the 6th century B.C., Agrigento became one of the leading cities in the Mediterranean region. Its supremacy and pride are demonstrated by the remains of the magnificent Doric temples that dominate the ancient town, much of which still lies intact under today's fields and orchards. Selected excavated areas reveal the late Hellenistic and Roman town and the burial practices of its early Christian inhabitants. =

“Agrigento has a special place among classical sites in the history of the ancient world because of the way in which its original site, typical of Greek colonial settlements, has been preserved, as well as the substantial remains of a group of buildings from an early period that were not overlain by later structures or converted to suit later tastes and cults. =

Why the site is important: “1) The great row of Doric temples is one of the most outstanding monuments of Greek art and culture. 1) The archaeological area of Agrigento exhibits an important interchange of human values, being undoubtedly one of the leading cities in the Mediterranean region with its outstanding evidence of Greek influence. 3) As one of the greatest cities of the ancient Mediterranean region, Agrigento is an extraordinary testament of Greek civilization in its exceptionally preserved condition. 4) The temples in the area exemplify Greek architecture and are considered to be among the most extraordinary representations of Doric architecture in the world.” =

The site boundary includes the entire territory of the ancient polis, including the extramural area of the necropolis, the substantial excavated areas of the residential area of Hellenistic and Roman Agrigento, the complex network of underground aqueducts and a wide portion of land where there are still unexcavated archaeological structures. The archaeological structures have been preserved in good condition, thus ensuring an authentic representation. However, land instability remains an issue. =

Gauls and Celts in Italy


The Gauls lived in extreme northern Italy and the areas now occupied by France and Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Crossing the Alps from western Europe, they had pushed back the Etruscans and occupied the plains of the Po; hence this region received the name which it long held, Cisalpine Gaul. They held this territory against the Ligurians on the west and the Veneti on the east; and for a long time were the terror of the Italian people. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), ]

The Gauls were the native tribe of Gaul (France). They are regarded as a Celtic-Druidic people. They crossed the Alps and expanded into the Balkans, north Italy and France around the third century B.C. and later they reached the British isles. They occupied most of western Europe by 300 B.C.

Most of the great Barbarian tribes of the post-Roman period, many of who were involved in the fall of Rome, were either Germanic (Teutonic) or Celts. Druids and Gauls were Celts. Goths, Visigoths and Vandals were Germanic Tribes. The Iberians occupied Spain and intermingled with Celts. The Huns came from Central Asia.

Romans and Gauls

The name"Gauls" is basically the name the Romans gave the Celts. Julius Caesar is the main source of information on the Gauls. The distinction between Gauls (Celts) and Germanic tribes can be traced back to Julius Caesar who decided that Gaul region was worth conquering and the Germanic region to north wasn't.

The Romans described the Celts as bloodthirsty barbarians with incredible strength, appetites and aggressiveness. Roman art showed them fighting naked with mud-stiffened hairdos and oval shields and double-twisted neck torques. According to the Romans, the Celts practiced human sacrifices at the their religious festivals. They established places of worship at wells and fountains and made offerings at these places of the severed heads of their enemies. Severed heads are a common theme in Celtic art.

Celtic areas in Europe

Laura Geggel of LiveScience wrote: “Before the Romans invaded the south of France, in 125 B.C., a culture speaking the Celtic language lived there and practiced its own customs. These Celtic people lived in densely settled, fortified sites during the Iron Age (750 B.C. to 125 B.C.), trading with cultures near and far, the researchers said. But after the Roman invasion, the Celtic culture at this location changed socially and economically, Luley said. For instance, the new findings suggest that some people under the Romans stopped preparing their own meals and began eating at communal places, such as taverns. Rome had a big impact on southern France,” Benjamin Luley, a visiting assistant professor of anthropology and classics at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, told Live Science. “We don’t see taverns before the Romans arrive.” [Source: Laura Geggel, LiveScience, March 10, 2016]

Crupellarii, heavily armored Gauls, fought against the Roman legionaries. Tacitus wrote: “Completely encased in iron in the national fashion, these crupellarii, as they were called, were too clumsy for offensive purposes but impregnable in defence……the infantry made a frontal attack. The Gallic flanks were driven in. The iron-clad contingent caused some delay as their casing resisted javelins and swords. However the Romans used axes and mattocks and struck at their plating and its wearers like men demolishing a wall. Others knocked down the immobile gladiators with poles or pitchforks, and, lacking the power to rise, they were left for dead. [Source: Tacitus Annales III. 43]


The Celts were a group of related tribes, linked by language, religion and culture, that gave rise to the first civilization north of the Alps. They emerged as a distinct people around the 8th century B.C. and were known for their fearlessness in battle. Pronouncing Celts with a hard "C" or soft "C" are both okay. American archeologist Brad Bartel called the Celts "the most important and wide-ranging of all European Iron Age people." English speakers tend to say KELTS. The French say SELTS. The Italian say CHELTS. [Source: Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1977]

Celtic statue

The origin of the Celts remains a mystery. Some scholars believe they originated in the steppes beyond the Caspian Sea. They first appeared in central Europe east of the Rhine in the seventh century B.C. and inhabited much of northeast France, southwest Germany by 500 B.C. They crossed the Alps and expanded into the Balkans, north Italy and France around the third century B.C. and later they reached the British isles. They occupied most of western Europe by 300 B.C.

The Celts were a mysterious, warlike and artistic people with a highly developed society. They used iron weapon and horses. Celts in Bulgaria were producing bronze from copper and imported iron 3,500 years ago, about same time that the Hittites in Asia Minor, one of the first producers or iron, began producing the metal. Individual Celtic tribes were fiercely independent. They never coalesced into a great empire like Rome or Greece. Celts in different regions shared a similar culture and spoke similar languages.

On Celtic customs, Strabo wrote in “Geographia” (A.D., c. 20): “In Gaul, the heads of enemies of high repute they used to embalm in cedar oil and exhibit to strangers, and they would not deign to give them back ever for a ransom of an equal weight of gold. But the Romans put a stop to these customs, as well as to all those connected with the sacrifices and divinations that are opposed to our usages. They used to strike a human being, whom they had devoted to death, in the back with a sword, and then divine from his death-struggle. But they would not sacrifice without the Druids. We are told of still other kinds of human sacrifices; for example, they would shoot victims to death with arrows, or impale them in the temples, or having devised a colossus of straw and wood, throw into the colossus cattle and wild animals of all sorts and human beings, and make a burnt-offering of the whole thing.” [Source: Strabo, The Geography of Strabo: Literally Translated, with Notes, translated by H. C. Hamilton & W. Falconer, (London: H. G. Bohn, 1854-1857)]

Books: “The Druids” by Peter Berresord Ellis; “The World of Druids” by Miranda Green; “The Celts” by Gerhard Herml: “Ancient Celts” by Barry Cunliffe.

Historical and Archeological Evidence of Celts

wealthy woman from the Hallstatt culture

The Celts had a written language but they left behind very few written records. Most of what we know about the ancient Celts has been ascertained from descriptions of them by Roman and Greek writers and historians and artifacts unearthed at burial sites and archeological excavations. Most of what was written about the Celts by the Greeks and Romans had a negative spin because the Celts were traditional enemies of the Greeks and Romans. The Roman referred to the Celts as "barbarians" and a "scourge." Irish monks are no more reliable. They didn’t want to portray their ancestors as heathens.

The richest Celtic archeological site is a huge cemetery found near Hallstat in Salkammergut, Austria. It contained 2,000 Iron Age graves, filled with sophisticated heavy swords, daggers, axes, caldrons, pottery and jewelry with geometric and animal designs. The discovery became known as the Hallstat culture and was dated ro the eight to fifth centuries B.C.

In 1734 an ancient Celt was found in a salt mine by miners. It was believed the man died in an avalanche. The body was so well preserved it was thought to a devil and was disposed of. Nobody knows what happened to the body. The backpack he may have used for carrying salt and his pick, shovel, firebrand and leather cap can all be seen in the museum in Hallstatt Austria.

Le Téne on Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland, was one of the most important Celtic settlements. Archeologists found iron weapons and jewelry there. Scholars referred to the people that lived there as the Le Téne culture. Le Téne objects have turned up in Italy, Spain, France, Hungary, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, the Ukraine, giving archeologist their first indication of how widespread the Celts were.

Germanic Tribes and Celts

Some scholars believe that the Celts and Germanic tribes were two district groups that have separate histories and originated in different places. Others believe that the Germanic tribes were a subsidiary branch of a dominant Celtic society.

Germanic tribes are usually identified as a completely independent people from the Celts but in fact they are closely related.The distinction between Gauls (Celts) and Germanic tribes can be traced back to Julius Caesar who decided that Gaul region was worth conquering and the Germanic region to north wasn't.

The Romans invaded Britain but didn't invade Ireland or Scotland, which remained Celtic. The Celtic tribes in Gaul mixed with Romans and they in turn mixed with Teutonic tribes invaders that arrived in the A.D. 5th century after the Romans. The Franks and Burgundians which emerged after this period, who give their name to France and Burgundy, were a mixture of Roman, Celtic and Teutonic blood, but they were different enough to remain an ethnic group a apart form the Germanic ethnic groups to the north and east. The Saxons and Angles (Anglo-Saxons) were Germanic tribes that arrived in Britain in the A.D. 5th century and mixed with the Roman and Celtic groups there.

Celts, Europe and Greeks

Hallstatt graves

The Celts are regarded by some scholars as the "first true Europeans". They created the first civilization north of the Alps and are believed to have evolved from tribes that originally lived in Bohemia, Switzerland, Austria, southern Germany and northern France. They were contemporaries of the Mycenaeans in Greece who lived around the time of Trojan War (1200 B.C.) and may have evolved from the Corded Ware Battle Ax People of 2300 B.C. The Celts founded a kingdom of Galatia in Asia Minor that received an Epistle from St. Paul in the New Testament.

At their height in the 3rd century B.C. Celts confronted enemies as far east as Asia Minor and as far west as the British Isles. They ventured to the Iberian Peninsula, to the Baltic, to Poland and Hungary, Scholars believe that Celtic tribes migrated over such a large area for economic and social reasons. They suggest that many of the migrants were men who hoped to claim some land so they could claim a bride.

King Attalus I defeated the Celts in 230 B.C. in what is now western Turkey. To honor the victory, Attalus commissioned a series of sculptures including a sculpture that was copied by the Romans and later called The Dying Gaul.

The Celts were known as the "Caltha" or "Gelatins" to the Greeks and attacked the sacred shrine of Delphi in the 3rd century B.C. (Some sources give date of 279 B.C.). Greek warriors who encountered the Gauls said they "knew how to die, barbarians though they were." Alexander the Great once asked what the Celts feared more than anything else. They said "the sky falling down on their head." Alexander sacked a Celtic city on the Danube before heading off on his march of conquest across Asia.

The Celts (Senones) attacked and captured Rome in 390 B.C. after the Battle of the Allia, fought at the confluence of the Tiber and Allia rivers 16 kilometers north of Rome. The Romans were routed and Rome was sacked but the Celts were unable to take the center of the city, at Campidoglio, the legend goes, because, a group of honking geese alerted the Roman of the nighttime Celtic attack.

Romans murdering Celtic Druids

The Celts lost a crucial battle to the Romans at Telamon, Italy in 225 B.C. Even though the Celts captured a Roman consul and waved his head on stake, their courageous but unruly hand-to-hand tactics were no match against the spears and disciplined ranks of the Romans.

To protect his army of 40,000 men from the Gauls in the 1st century B.C., Julius Caesar erected a fortress with a circumference of 20 kilometers. The fort was protected by hidden pits with upward-pointing sticks, logs spiked with iron hooks, walls fashioned from forked timbers and double ditches. The Celts hurled themselves bravely and foolishly at the fortress and were routed after the Roman cavalry charged down from a hill at a strategic time.

The confrontation between Caesar and the Gauls pitted 55,000 Romans against 250,000 Celts. In his eight-year campaign against the Celts in Gaul Caesar wrote he took 800 towns and killed 1,192,00 men, women and children in 30 battles. In one battle alone he reported his army slaughtered over 250,000 Helveteii, a tribe from present-day Switzerland.

Vercingetorix, the leader of the Celtic forces, surrendered himself at the feet the feet of Caesar who sent him to Rome where the Gaulic leader was imprisoned for six years and ultimately paraded through the streets and strangled in the Forum.

Celts Versus Romans in Britain

Tacitus vividly described a battle in A.D. 61 at Mona, now Anglesey, an island off the coast of northwest Wales, where Celts had gathered in a Druid sanctuary for one last stand against the Romans. Tacitus wrote: "All around, the Druids, lifting up their hands to heaven and pouring forth dreadful imprecations, scared our soldiers, by the unfamiliar sight, so that, as if their limbs were paralyzed, they stood motionless, and exposed to wounds."

The Romans, led by Suetonius Paulinus, arrived on Mona in flat bottom boats and were welcomed by shouting Celtic soldiers and Druid men with long black beards and Druid women in black cloaks, who waved flaming torches and caste out curses. The Roman soldiers hesitated at first, never having been greeted by such as bizarre spectacle before, but were urged on by Paulinus. The Romans ended up slaughtering every Celt they could lay their hands on and chopped sacred trees in the Druid sanctuary.

Tacitus wrote in “The Annals” Book XIV (A.D. 110-120): “During the consulship of Lucius Caesennius Paetus and Publius Petronius Turpilianus [AD 60-61], a dreadful calamity befell the army in Britain. Aulus Didius, as has been mentioned, aimed at no extension of territory, content with maintaining the conquests already made. Veranius, who succeeded him, did little more: he made a few incursions into the country of the Silures, and was hindered by death from prosecuting the war with vigour. He had been respected, during his life, for the severity of his manners; in his end, the mark fell off, and his last will discovered the low ambition of a servile flatterer, who, in those moments, could offer incense to Nero, and add, with vain ostentation, that if he lived two years, it was his design to make the whole island obedient to the authority of the prince. [Source: Chapter 29: Military campaign in Wales, Tacitus: (b.56/57-after 117 A.D.): Boudicca, “The Annals 14: 29-37, translation from Latin is adapted from Arthur Murphy (“Works of Tacitus”, 1794)]

“Paulinus Suetonius succeeded to the command; an officer of distinguished merit. To be compared with Corbulo was his ambition. His military talents gave him pretensions, and the voice of the people, who never leave exalted merit without a rival, raised him to the highest eminence. By subduing the mutinous spirit of the Britons he hoped to equal the brilliant success of Corbulo in Armenia. With this view, he resolved to subdue the isle of Mona; a place in habited by a warlike people, and a common refuge for all the discontented Britons. In order to facilitate his approach to a difficult and deceitful shore, he ordered a number of flat-bottomed boats to be constructed. In these he wafted over the infantry, while the cavalry, partly by fording over the shallows, and partly by swimming their horses, advanced to gain a footing on the island.

“On the opposite shore stood the Britons, close embodied, and prepared for action. Women were seen running through the ranks in wild disorder; their apparel funeral; their hair loose to the wind, in their hands flaming torches, and their whole appearance resembling the frantic rage of the Furies. The Druids were ranged in order, with hands uplifted, invoking the gods, and pouring forth horrible imprecations. The novelty of the fight struck the Romans with awe and terror. They stood in stupid amazement, as if their limbs were benumbed, riveted to one spot, a mark for the enemy. The exhortations of the general diffused new vigour through the ranks, and the men, by mutual reproaches, inflamed each other to deeds of valour. They felt the disgrace of yielding to a troop of women, and a band of fanatic priests; they advanced their standards, and rushed on to the attack with impetuous fury. [Source: Chapter 30: The Druids at Mona Island, Tacitus: (b.56/57-after 117 A.D.): Boudicca, “The Annals 14: 29-37, translation from Latin is adapted from Arthur Murphy (“Works of Tacitus”, 1794)]

“The Britons perished in the flames, which they themselves had kindled. The island fell, and a garrison was established to retain it in subjection. The religious groves, dedicated to superstition and barbarous rites, were levelled to the ground. In those recesses, the natives [stained] their altars with the blood of their prisoners, and in the entrails of men explored the will of the gods. While Suetonius was employed in making his arrangements to secure the island, he received intelligence that Britain had revolted, and that the whole province was up in arms.”

See Romans in Britain

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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