The wonders that preceded Greece

The Ancient World of the Celts

June 11, 1999

Books on ancient history seldom combine aesthetic elegance with strong scholarship and attractive style. The Ancient World of the Celts , Peter Berresford Ellis's new addition to his series of works in the increasingly vigorous discipline of Celtic studies, happily blends these qualities. It is comprehensive, argumentative and balanced. Not only is it an effective introduction to its field of study, but it also has much to say to those who are already involved in Celtic studies. Its illustrations are notably beautiful, subtly expanding the argument.

Pictures of artefacts, of archaeological sites, of continental and insular locations, inevitably recall that which has been lost as well as that which this ancient civilisation achieved. Scenes from the insular Celtic world might easily, not least by the beauty of the illustrations, suggest the elegiac mode only too familiar in countries of Celtic derivation, and now fortunately withering as their populations gain confidence.

Berresford Ellis approaches his subject with the same respect that classical historians use in relation to Greco-Roman civilisation. He reminds us that we are looking at a domination that stretched, at its greatest extent, from the west of Ireland and the Iberian peninsula to the borders of present-day Russia, with powerful intrusions into Italy, whose north remained Celtic, and invasions of Illyria, Thrace and Greece. A Celtic nation, Galatia, was established in Asia Minor.

We are not certain what environmental or demographic pressures ignited this expansive energy. Celtic peoples are identified, with some confidence, in the latter centuries of the second millennium bc. Their expansion was beginning to falter in the third century bc, and from that time Roman and Germanic resistance continually reduced their sphere of influence.

The Celts did not develop an exploitative imperial structure. Their society retained archaic Indo-European features: kingship, a class system composed of warriors, a priestly, intellectual class (the druids), freemen and dependent groups of slaves and bondsmen. The more powerful grades of society were bound more by loyalty and kinship than by legal obedience.

This did not mean that the Celts were the anarchic, ignoble savages described by Greek and Roman writers. Their society was complex, but of such structure that Celts were more likely to found nations than empires. A society held together by a network of kinship tradition and clan obligations was liable to be misunderstood by one based on the polis. The Celtic culture could scarcely avoid being underestimated. The Romans were traumatised into an attitude of fixed hostile prejudice as a result of the partial sack of Rome early in the fourth century bc and further threats and incursions thereafter. Their struggle with the Celts of northern Italy, Gaul and Spain lasted centuries. Their propaganda sought to dehumanise the Celts, reducing them to nomadic uncivilised hordes, incapable of agriculture or any of the virtues of settled life, and given to vicious human sacrifice.

Greek sources were more fair-minded, but often mistaken in their interpretation. Greece, too, had repelled a Celtic invasion in the third century bc, and Greek city states had employed Celtic mercenaries at least from the fourth century bc.

Classical sources discussing the ancient Celts are significantly contaminated by fear, cultural prejudice and dire historical experience. The Celts themselves left no written history. Their intellectual culture was mostly oral. They were not illiterate, as their detractors, who supposed that actually writing history was a telling indicator of civilisation, maintained. So the author takes it as one of his main tasks to cut through the mass of Greco-Roman misrepresentation.

He uses archaeological evidence to accomplish this. But he also uses his comprehensive knowledge of a range of classical sources - especially writers of Celtic origin - to show that, in many areas, Celtic achievements equalled or outstripped those of Rome. In agriculture, the Celts devised the coulter plough, which enabled more land to be used; their development of wheeled transport was advanced. Their skills in building roads of "corduroy" wood construction - as in the Corlea road in Ireland - were impressive but went unrecognised. They even devised a reaping machine. They used coinage before the Romans. They invented chain-mail in the third century bc. They were not systematically cruel in war, fierce though they might be, nor did they practise wholesale human sacrifice as the Romans did for centuries in their gladiatorial displays.

These are a few of many points that Berresford Ellis makes in this vivid and enlightening representation of a fascinating civilisation. Anyone interested in the ancient world will find in it an informative and enjoyable adjustment of many assumptions about the Celts.

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

The Ancient World of the Celts

Author - Peter Berresford Ellis
ISBN - 0 09 478720 4
Publisher - Constable
Price - £25.00
Pages - 237

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