In the Gaul of those days kingdoms and thrones were as often as not the prize of any more prominent chief who could afford to gather around him a large mercenary force; and this practice, it was felt, under Roman rule, would be considerably curtailed
La Tène Period Celtic Golden Age
The historical written accounts are almost nonexistent in the Halstatt period (750 – 450 BC). The earliest known written record that mentioned the Celts as an identifiable people was by the Greek Herodotus in 450 BC, the beginning of the La Tène period that can be further divided by ages as follows:
- Age of Migration (450-301 BC)
- Age of Warriors (3rd Century BC)
- Age of Fragmentation (2nd Century AD to 1st Century BC)
Age of Migration
The Celtic migrations into Italy and southeastern Europe in 4th Century BC are well documented. A large number of Celtic people also migrated into Britanny (northwest France) and Switzerland. Possibly due to overpopulation, the Celts sought rich lands of the Po valley that became known as Gallia Cisalpina (Gaul on this side of the Alps).
They raided along the whole length of the peninsula and broke the power of the Etruscan city-states and lay siege to Rome in 387 BC. The sack and burning of Rome by the Celtic Gauls entailed consequences that endured for centuries. Out of the humiliating defeat the Romans developed a fear and loathing of the Celtic barbarians, which they dubbed the terror Gallicus.
In northwestern Europe, and in particular the British Isles, it is generally accepted that Celtic-speaking peoples of the Atlantic seaboard gradually adopted the La Tène customs and language through acculturation.
Age of Warriors
The 3rd Century BC has been classified as the Age of Warriors based upon written accounts of the Continental Celtic warriors’ exploits. Other Celtic groups moved southeast along the Danube basin, the first steps on a journey that would take some of them through the Balkans, into Greece and across to Asia Minor. During this age, many foreign armies used Celtic mercenaries in their ranks, including Greece, Macedonia, Sicily, and Egypt. It is known that Alexander the Great established friendly relations with Celts in the Balkans before embarking upon his campaigns in Asia and that he received a Celtic delegation in Babylon after defeating the Persians.
Celtic warriors were favored as mercenaries because of their fierceness in battle, their devotion to tribal leaders, and their own supply of weapons. The Greek writer, Flavius Arrianus, described a meeting between Alexander the Great and a group of Celtic warriors in a region near the Danube in 335 BC. He asked them what they feared most and was insulted when they replied that the only thing they feared was that someday the sky would fall on them. The sarcastic humor demonstrated the Celts total lack of fear of Alexander and their understanding that an event of the sky falling down would never happen.
An unwanted side-effect of employing Celtic mercenaries was they brought their wives and children from country to country and battle to battle. Once the fighting was over, they tended to remain. They quarreled with each other frequently, forcing their previous employers to keep the peace among them. An Eutruscan quote from the period call them, “Outlandish warriors with strange weapons.”
What encouraged the Celts to continue their mass migration into Macedonia in the early 3rd Century BC is uncertain, but the country was in turmoil after the break-up of Alexander’s empire. The Greek author Pausanias said, “It was then that the Celtic leader, Brennus, strongly urged a campaign against Greece, enlarging on the weakness of Greece at the time, on the wealth of the Greek states and on the even greater wealth of its sanctuaries.” Under the leadership of Brennus, the Celts plundered the city of Delphi known for the oracle at the sanctuary dedicated to Apollo. Shortly afterwards three Celtic tribes crossed the Hellspont into Asia Minor where they settled in the area around what is now Ankara in Turkey.
The Celtic world reached its greatest extent at the beginning of the 3rd Century BC, but by the end of that century its power waned under pressure from Rome to the south and the gradual influx of Germanic peoples from the north.
Age of Fragmentation
The next two centuries were a time of fragmentation, when the previously large and powerful Celtic tribes began to break-up and their power diminished. The Celts became a more settled people who stopped making war on others, but who, nevertheless, still constantly fought each other, a characteristic the Romans would use to conquer Cisalpine Gaul following the disastrous battle of Telemon in 225 BC and finally culminate in Caesar’s conquest that devastated the Celtic heartland of Gaul in 52 BC.
The Romans then turned their final attention to invading Celtic Britain in 43 BC, but the attempts to subdue the whole island failed. Hadrian built his wall to keep “the barbarian from the North,” at bay, leaving Scotland and Ireland all that remained of a world that had lasted for more than five hundred years.
To be continued
The next series of posts will delve deeper into Celtic history, warrior culture, and religious beliefs.
Steve Blamires, Magic of the Celtic Otherworld: Printed 2009, Llewellyn Publications, Woodbury, MN.
Stephen Allen, Celtic Warrior—300 BC – AD 100: 2001 Osprey Publishing, New York.
Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.