Redressing anti-Celtic propaganda

Celt and Roman
December 4, 1998

In this notable addition to his distinguished series of books on Celtic antiquity, Peter Berresford Ellis analyses centuries of conflict between two of the ancient world's most powerful cultures. It used to be thought that Celtic and Italic peoples shared a common linguistic and, perhaps, ethnic origin. Less is heard of that theory now. Yet for most of the first millennium BC, many Italic tribes seemed to pursue a way of life that in terms of social organisation, technology and art, was broadly comparable with that of the Celtic peoples of Europe, save that some Italic peoples, through contact with the Greek cities of Italy, began to develop the concept and practice of citizenship as distinct from notions of ethnic and cultural kinship.

Rome was sinisterly energetic in this development. From obscure origins in the eighth century BC, roughly the time when Celtic tribes were beginning to settle in the Po valley, Rome had by the 4th century BC transformed a traditional heroic warrior ethos into a civil patriotism more fiercely intense and stubborn than anything achieved by the Hellenic inventors of citizenship. Rome acquired writing from the Greeks, and using at first Greek, and then their own language, Roman authors, in their practical fashion, lost no opportunity to praise Rome and denigrate her enemies as barbarians. Celts did not use writing in this way. They only began to record history when they were Romanised, by which time much had been forgotten.

Berresford Ellis offers penetrating criticism of the Roman version of events. He reveals stalemates and defeats that Roman writers have disguised as victories; strategy where Romans identified labile chaos; inventiveness that the Romans described as stupidity. The Celtic severed-head cult and human sacrifices were ridiculed by Romans, who acquiesced in the institutionalised sacrifice of prisoners at military triumphs. Even in the 3rd century BC they developed an off-shoot of this theme in the gladiatorial (ie, sacrificial) games. The author redresses the balance of Roman propaganda, showing that, apart from the technology of army discipline, tight political cohesion against enemies and the use of writing for laws and records, Rome does not surpass these northern tribes in any significant contemporary area of social or cultural development.

Celts and Celtiberians of Spain and the Celts of Northern Italy would never be forgiven for their part in the second Punic war. Gradually and relentlessly, despite many a Roman blunder and defeat, tribes on both sides of the river were reduced. The Spanish tribes were tough and ferocious and distant and more difficult to bring under control. Their country continued to be a base for dissident Roman leaders, even in the first Principate.

While anti-Celtic feeling persisted for centuries, many Celts were assimilated into Roman ways, taking Roman names. The author describes the incalculable contribution to Roman literature of Celtic-descended writers such as Caecilius and Catullus, but never minimises the cultural incompatibility that remained. Somehow Rome recovered from her original peril, although it arguably helped to scare her into acquiring a world empire.

This well-researched, vigorously written book is a valuable addition to a subject that increasingly commands attention from classicists, Celtic scholars and historians alike.

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

Celt and Roman: The Celts in Italy

Author - Peter Berresford Ellis
ISBN - 0 09 475820 4
Publisher - Constable
Price - £20.00
Pages - 287

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