Plunder and fighting folk

Celt and Greek
August 15, 1997

Long dormant seeds of ethnic and cultural consciousness have sprouted in the gaps left by nation states shrinking between the new Carolignian dispensation of Europe and the anonymous disequilibriated hell of the so-called new world order. Regions designated as Celtic by tradition and descent reflect these changes, as do others, in an increased awareness of their special identities. Archaeological, linguistic, historical and literary evidences relating to the Celts are studied with increasing interest. The power, sophistication, and geographical range of the ancient Celtic domain are being brought into sharper focus. We find that we are considering a culture, Indo-European in character, dialects, and social structure, which stretched at its greatest extent from the Atlantic to the confines of what is now Russia.

Appearing in the bronze age, it achieves its most characteristic form in the iron age. Its massive irruptions into the Greek and Roman world in the fourth and third centuries bc are part of a historical record, partial and intermittent, but capable of reasoned and constructive interpretation. Peter Berresford Ellis's book is devoted to just such a procedure in its acute and sensitive discussion of the relations between various Celtic groups and the world of Hellenistic Greece, first of all in its last phase of apparent political independence, and then as a component of Rome's expanding field of influence.

Until recently, this area of Greco-Celtic history has not received as much attention as that of Gaul, which was for centuries the safe repository of western Roman civilisation. Berresford Ellis does it eloquent justice.

The story of the combined armies of Celts which invaded Italy in the first decade of the fourth century bc, wrecking Rome, effectually destroying Etruscan power, and turning Northern Italy into a Celtic country, is part of general knowledge. Less well known is the fact that Celts were sufficiently strong in the Balkans (Belgrade was originally Singidunum, a Celtic fort) to be a potential embarrassment to Alexander the Great when he was preparing his Graeco-Macedonian expedition against Persia. He came to terms with them. In the decades after Alexander's death they were powerful players in the power struggles in Macedonia and its neighbouring regions. But it was in 9bc that they fell on peninsular Greece with such ferocity and in such numbers as to recall the Persian invasions of the early fifth century bc.

The Celts wanted plunder. Delphi, the religious and cultural heart of the Greek world, was an obvious goal. There is discussion about the extent of the damage which Delphi sustained and the amount of available treasure not confiscated by the Phocians much earlier. Freak weather conditions at Delphi combined with tough resistance from the Phocians, constant guerrilla attacks, and the death of the supreme commander, broke Celtic morale. Their army, which was really an enormous raiding party, drained away from Greece, not destroyed, nor indeed sufficiently damaged not to be still a significant power.

From an offshoot of it emerged Galatia, a region of Asia Minor colonised by three Celtic tribes, Trocmi, Tectosages, and Tolistibogii, which remained identifi-ably Celtic for many centuries,and in the time of Julius Caesar became for a while sufficiently unified politically for us reasonably to regard it as the first Celtic nation-state, the second being modern Ireland.

Berresford Ellis discusses with sympathetic insight the self-congratulatory, but not hubristic attitudes adopted by the Greeks after their "salvation" (as one famous inscription puts it) from a menace which seemed likely to destroy Greek peninsular civilisation. Greece was terrified enough by the experience to make the typical move of recruiting this enemy into its mythology, specifying a certain Keltos as a son of Heracles. Celts had been known to some parts of the Greek world since the sixth century bc: they are mentioned by the geographer Hecataeus of Miletus as neighbours of the Greek city of Massilia. We hear from Plato that they are hard drinking and warlike.

Also in the fourth century bc, Dionysius of Syracuse employed them as mercenaries and sent them to help the Spartans, of all people, in their losing struggle with Thebes. This is perhaps the first notice we have of a very long professional tradition in the Celtic world. To the Greeks they seemed to belong to an archaic order of life, heroic, individualist, lacking in the qualities of the citizen. The dun was never to become a polis. Celts were physically depicted in this heroic mode in surviving ancient statuary.

Considering the way in which peoples of IndoEuropean language and culture have behaved towards each other over the millennia, and in particular the threat to Greece which the Celts, like the Persians, another IndoEuropean people, seriously posed, we need not be surprised that the Greeks did not embrace the Celts as cultural and linguistic cousins. Yet it was not only on the mythological level that the Greeks attempted to assimilate them. Where the populations came in contact, especially in Galatia, they intermarried, producing a blended stock.

These and related themes are treated in detail by Berresford Ellis in his elegant and judicious narrative history, which is a valuable and noteworthy contribution to its field.

David Rankin is emeritus professor of ancient philosophy, University of Southampton.

Celt and Greek: Celts in the Hellenic World

Author - Peter Berresford Ellis
ISBN - 0 09 475580 9
Publisher - Constable
Price - £20.00
Pages - 285

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