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Authors: Peter Berresford Ellis

A Brief History of the Celts

BOOK: A Brief History of the Celts
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is one of the foremost living authorities on the Celts and the author of many books
in the field including
The Celtic Empire
Celt and Saxon
Celt and Greek
Celt and Roman
(1998) and
The Ancient World of the Celts
(1998). Under the pseudonym Peter Tremayne he is the author of the bestselling Sister Fidelma murder mysteries set in Ireland in the 7th Century.




Praise for the first edition,
The Ancient World of the Celts

‘An authoritative account.’

Irish Times

‘A truly sumptuous publication . . . clearly-written.’

Elizabeth Sutherland,
The Scots Magazine

‘[A] well-articulated insight into the world of the Celts. . . If there ever was a truly thorough investigation into the Celts, then this is it.’

Adam Phillips,
Aberdeen Press & Journal

‘A timely antidote to the pre-conceptions which have for so long hampered a proper understanding and appreciation of Celtic society.’

George Children,
3rd Stone

‘A splendid new book for fans of all things Celtic, or anyone who wants to know more about how they lived and why they were so successful across Europe. . . . An
excellent book for both reference and enjoyment.’

Gail Cooper,
Evening Leader

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Constable & Robinson Ltd
3 The Lanchesters
162 Fulham Palace Road
London W6 9ER

First published in hardback in the UK as
The Ancient World of the Celts
by Constable, an imprint of Constable & Robinson Ltd 1998

This revised paperback edition published by Robinson,
an imprint of Constable & Robinson Ltd 2003

Copyright © Peter Berresford Ellis 1998, 2003

The right of Peter Berresford Ellis to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988

All rights reserved. This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated in any
form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

A copy of the British Library Cataloguing in
Publication Data is available from the British Library

ISBN 1-84119-790-4
ISBN 978-1-84119-790-6
eISBN 978-1-47210-794-7

Printed and bound in the EU

10 9 8


1 The Origins of the Celts

2 An Illiterate Society?

3 Celtic Kings and Chieftains

4 The Druids

5 Celtic Warriors

6 Celtic Women

7 Celtic Farmers

8 Celtic Physicians

9 Celtic Cosmology

10 Celtic Road Builders

11 Celtic Artists and Craftsmen

12 Celtic Architecture

13 Celtic Religion

14 Celtic Myth and Legend

15 Early Celtic History


Between pp. 76 and 77

2nd century
silver horse harness found at the Villa Vecchia Manerbio

Cernunnos, the horned god, panel from the Gundestrup cauldron in the National Museum, Copenhagen (Werner Forman Archive, London)

Celtic inscription from Gaul, 2nd/1st century
(G. Dagli Orti, Paris)

Stylized head from the Hallstatt period, in the Keltenmuseum Hallein (AKG/London, photo Erich Lessing)

Realistic head from the Le Tène period from the 3rd century
, in the Musée Granet Art (G. Dagli Orti, Paris)

A visualization of Caesar’s ‘wicker man’ from Aylett Sammes’
Britannia Antiqua Illustrata
, 1676 (E.T. Archive, London)

Celtic afterlife depicted on the Gundestrup cauldron in the National Museum, Copenhagen (AKG/London, photo Erich Lessing)

Illustraion of a Druid from
Costumes of the British Isles
(1821), Meyrick and Smith (E.T. Archive, London)

Bronze shield dating from the 1st century
, British Museum, London (E.T. Archive, London)

Celtic war helmet dating from the 1st century BC, British Museum, London (Werner Forman Archive, London)

A female figure of the early Celtic period in the Museum in Este, (G. Dagli Orti, Paris)

Bucket found at Aylesford, Kent dated to the 1st century
, British Museum, London (Werner Forman Archive, London)

Reconstruction of a typical Celtic farm building of the 1st century
(Mick Sharp Photography)

Horned helmeted figure holding a spoked wheel depicted on the Gundestrup cauldron, National Museum, Copenhagen (AKG/ London, photo Erich Lessing)

The Corlea Road, a causeway across a bog in Co. Longford, dated to 148
(Top, The Heritage Service, Dublin/Professor Barry Rafferty, University
College, Dublin)

Celtic coin dated to the 1st century BC, Musée de Rennes, Brittany (Werner Forman Archive, London)

Between pp. 140 and 141

The Desborough Mirror (British Museum, London)

The Snettisham Torc (British Museum, London)

Flagon, one of a pair from Basse-Yutz in the Moselle, dated to the 5th century (British Museum, London)

The broch of Carloway on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland (Ancient Art and Architecture Collection, London)

Reconstruction of a ‘crannog’, Graggaunowen, Co. Clare (Bord Fáilte, Dublin)

Cernunnos, from the Gundestrup cauldron, National Museum, Copenhagen (E.T. Archive, London)

Section of the Gundestrup cauldron depicting Danu, National Museum, Copenhagen (Werner Forman Archive, London)

7th century BC bronze wheeled cauldron, Landesmuseum, Graz (AKG/London, photo Erich Lessing)

Model ship from the 1st century, the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin (Werner Forman Archive, London)

The Cerne Abbas Giant, Dorset (Fortean Picture Library, photo Janet Bord)

The Uffington White Horse (Images Picture Library, Charles Walker Collection)

Plate from the Gundestrup cauldron, National Museum, Copenhagen (G. Dagli Orti, Paris)

Lindow Man (British Museum, London)


At the start of the first millennium
, a civilisation which had developed from its Indo-European roots around the headwaters of the Rhine, the
Rhône and the Danube suddenly erupted in all directions through Europe. Their advanced use of metalwork, particularly their iron weapons, made them a powerful and irresistible force. Greek
merchants, first encountering them in the sixth century
, called them Keltoi and Galatai. Later, the Romans would echo these names in Celtae, Galatae and Galli. Today we
generally identify them as Celts.

The ancient Celts have been described as ‘the first Europeans’, the first Transalpine civilisation to emerge into recorded history. At the height of their greatest expansion, by the
third century
, they were spread from Ireland in the west across Europe to the central plain of what is now Turkey in the east; they were settled from Belgium in the north
as far south as Cadiz in Spain and across the Alps into the Po valley. They not only spread along the Danube valley but Celtic settlements have been found in southern Poland, in Russia and the
Ukraine. Recent evidence has caused some academics to argue that the Celts were also the ancestors of the Tocharian people, an Indo-European group who settled in the Xinjiang province of China,
north of Tibet. Tocharian written texts survive from the eighth to ninth centuries

That the Celts left a powerful military impression on the Greeks and Romans there is little doubt. In 475
they defeated the armies of the Etruscan
empire at Ticino and took control throughout the Po valley; in 390
they defeated the Romans and occupied the city for seven months – it took Rome fifty years to
recover from that devastating disaster; in 279
they invaded the Greek peninsula, defeating every Greek army which was sent against them before sacking the Greek holy
sanctuary of Delphi and then returning back to the north. Some of them crossed into Asia Minor and established a Celtic kingdom on what is now the central plain of Turkey. So respectful of the
Celts’ fighting ability were the Greeks that they recruited Celtic units into their armies, from Epiros and Syria to the Ptolemy pharaohs of Egypt. Even the fabulous Queen Cleopatra had an
élite bodyguard of 300 Celtic warriors which, on her defeat and death, served the equally famous Herod the Great and attended his funeral obsequies in 4
. Hannibal
used Celtic warriors as the mainstay of his army and, finally, after the conquest of their ‘heartland’ Gaul, the Celts even served the armies of their arch-enemy, Rome.

Yet warfare was not their only profession. They were basically farmers, engaging in very advanced agricultural techniques whose methods impressed Roman observers. Their medical knowledge was
highly sophisticated, particularly in the practice of surgery. As road builders they were also talented and it was the Celts who cut the first roads through the previously impenetrable forests of
Europe. Most of the words connected with roads and transport in Latin were, significantly, borrowed from the Celts. As for their art and craftsmanship, in jewellery and design, they have left a
breathtaking legacy for Europe. They were undoubtedly the most exuberant of the ancient European visual artists, whose genius is still valued and copied today; their masterpieces in metalwork,
monumental stone carvings, glassware and jewellery still provoke countless well-attended exhibitions throughout the world.

BOOK: A Brief History of the Celts
9.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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