Celts is a modern term used to describe any of the European peoples who spoke, or speak, a Celtic language. The term is also used in a wider sense to describe the modern descendants of those peoples, notablythose who participate in a Celtic culture. The historical Celts were a diverse group of tribal societies in Iron Age Europe. Proto-Celtic culture formed in the Early Iron Age in Central Europe (Hallstatt period, named for the site in present-day Austria). By the later Iron Age (La Tène period), Celts had expanded over wide range of lands: as far west as Ireland and the Iberian Peninsula, as far east as Galatia (central Anatolia), and as far north as Scotland. The earliest direct attestation of a Celtic language are the Lepontic inscriptions, beginning from the 6th century BC. Continental Celtic languages are attested only in inscriptions and place names. Insular Celtic is attested from about the 4th century AD in ogham inscriptions. Literary tradition begins with Old Irish from about the 8th century. Coherent texts of Early Irish literature, such as the Táin Bó Cúailnge, survive in 12th century recensions. By the early centuries AD, following the expansion of the Roman Empire and the Great Migrations of Germanic peoples, Celtic culture had become restricted to the British Isles (Insular Celtic), with the Continental Celtic languages extinct by the mid-1st millennium AD. “Celtic Europe” today refers to the lands surrounding the Irish Sea, as well as Cornwall and Brittany on either side of the English Channel. The origin of the various names used since classical times for the people known today as the Celts is obscure and has been controversial.

The Latin name Celtus seems to be based on a native Celtic ethnic name. However, the first literary reference to the Celtic people, is by the Greek historian Hecataeus of Miletus in 517 BC; he says that the town of Massilia (Marseille) is near the Celts and also mentions a Celtic town of Nyrex (possibly Noreia in Austria). Herodotus seems to locate the Keltoi at the source of the Danube and/or in Iberia, but the passage is unclear. The English word Celt is modern, attested from 1707 in the writings of Edward Lhuyd whose work, along with that of other late 17th century scholars, brought academic attention to the languages and history of these early inhabitants of Great Britain. Latin Gallus might originally be from a Celtic ethnic or tribal name, perhaps borrowed into Latin during the early 400s BC Celtic expansions into Italy. Its root may be the Common Celtic *galno, meaning ‘power’ or ‘strength’. The Greek Galatai seems to be based on the same root, borrowed directly from the same hypothetical Celtic source which gave us Galli (the suffix -atai is simply an ethnic name indicator). The English form Gaul comes from the French Gaule and Gaulois, which is the traditional rendering of Latin Gallia and Gallus, -icus respectively.

Celtic Cross

“Celticity” generally refers to the cultural commonalities of these peoples, based on similarities in language, material artifacts, social organisation and mythological factors. Earlier theories were that this indicated a common racial origin but more recent theories are reflective of culture and language rather than race. Celtic cultures seem to have had numerous diverse characteristics but the commonality between these diverse peoples was the use of a Celtic language. “Celtic” is a descriptor of a family of languages and, more generally, means ‘of the Celts,’ or ‘in the style of the Celts’. It has also been used to refer to several archaeological cultures defined by unique sets of artifacts. The link between language and artifact is aided by the presence of inscriptions. Today, the term ‘Celtic’ is generally used to describe the languages and respective cultures of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man and Brittany, also known as the Six Celtic Nations. These are the regions where four Celtic languages are still spoken to some extent as mother tongues: Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, and Breton plus two recent revivals, Cornish (one of the Brythonic languages) and Manx (one of the Goidelic languages). There are also attempts to revive the Cumbric language (a Brythonic language from Northwest England and Southwest Scotland). “Celtic” is also sometimes used to describe regions of Continental Europe that have Celtic heritage, but where no Celtic language has survived; these areas include the western Iberian Peninsula, i.e. Portugal, and north-central Spain (Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, Castile and León, Extremadura), and to a lesser degree, France. “Continental Celts” refers to the Celtic-speaking people of mainland Europe. “Insular Celts” refers to the Celtic-speaking people of the British Isles and their descendants. The Celts of Brittany derive their language from migrating insular Celts from southwest Britain and so are grouped accordingly.

The Celtic languages form a branch of the larger Indo-European family. By the time speakers of Celtic languages enter history around 400 BC (Brennus’s attack on Rome in 387 BC), they were already split into several language groups, and spread over much of Central Europe, the Iberian peninsula, Ireland and Britain. Some scholars think that the Urnfield culture of northern Germany and the Netherlands represents an origin for the Celts as a distinct cultural branch of the Indo-European family. This culture was preeminent in central Europe during the late Bronze Age, from ca. 1200 BC until 700 BC, itself following the Unetice and Tumulus cultures. The Urnfield period saw a dramatic increase in population in the region, probably due to innovations in technology and agricultural practices. The spread of iron-working led to the development of the Hallstatt culture directly from the Urnfield (c. 700 to 500 BC). Proto-Celtic, the latest common ancestor of all known Celtic languages, is considered by this school of thought to have been spoken at the time of the late Urnfield or early Hallstatt cultures, in the early first millennium BC. The spread of the Celtic languages to Iberia, Ireland and Britain would have occurred during the first half of the 1st millennium, the earliest chariot burials in Britain dating to ca. 500 BC. Over the centuries they developed into the separate Celtiberian, Goidelic and Brythonic languages. The Hallstatt culture was succeeded by the La Tène culture of central Europe, and during the final stages of the Iron Age gradually transformed into the explicitly Celtic culture of early historical times. Celtic river-names are found in great numbers around the upper reaches of the Danube and Rhine, which led many Celtic scholars to place the ethnogenesis of the Celts in this area.

The Proto-Celtic language is usually dated to the early European Iron Age. The earliest records of a Celtic language are the Lepontic inscriptions of Cisalpine Gaul, the oldest of which still predate the La Tène period. Other early inscriptions are Gaulish, appearing from the early La Tène period in inscriptions in the area of Massilia, in the Greek alphabet. Celtiberian inscriptions appear comparatively late, after about 200 BC. Evidence of Insular Celtic is available only from about AD 400, in the form of Primitive Irish Ogham inscriptions. Besides epigraphical evidence, an important source of information on early Celtic is toponymy.

Very few references to the language of the Celts are found in ancient ethnography. Jerome (AD 342-419) in his commentary on St Paul’s epistle to the Galatians notes that the language of the Anatolian Galatians in his day was still very similar to the language of the Treveri.

Traditionally the Celts were considered a Central European Iron Age phenomenon, through the cultures of Hallstatt and La Tène. However, archaeological finds from the Hallstatt and La Tène cultures were rare in the Iberian Peninsula, and did not provide enough evidence for a cultural scenario comparable to that of Central Europe. It is considered equally difficult to maintain that the origin of the Peninsular Celts can be linked to the preceding Urnfield culture, leading to a more recent approach that introduces a ‘proto-Celtic’ substratum and a process of Celticization having its initial roots in the Bronze Age Bell Beaker culture. The Iron Age Hallstatt (c. 800-475 BC) and La Tène (c. 500-50 BC) cultures are typically associated with Proto-Celtic and Celtic culture. The La Tène culture developed and flourished during the late Iron Age (from 450 BCE to the Roman conquest in the 1st century BCE) in eastern France, Switzerland, Austria, southwest Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. It developed out of the Hallstatt culture without any definite cultural break, under the impetus of considerable Mediterranean influence from Greek, and later Etruscan civilizations. A shift of settlement centres took place in the 4th century. The western La Tène culture corresponds to historical Celtic Gaul. Whether this means that the whole of La Tène culture can be attributed to a unified Celtic people is difficult to assess; archaeologists have repeatedly concluded that language, material culture, and political affiliation do not necessarily run parallel. Thus, while the La Tène culture is certainly associated with the Gauls, the presence of La Tène artefacts may be due to cultural contact and does not imply the permanent presence of Celtic speakers.

Polybius published a history of Rome about 150 BC in which he describes the Gauls of Italy and their conflict with Rome. Pausanias in the second century BC says that the Gauls “originally called Celts live on the remotest region of Europe on the coast of an enormous tidal sea”. Posidonius described the southern Gauls about 100 BC. Though his original work is lost it was used by later writers such as Strabo. The latter, writing in the early first century AD, deals with Britain and Gaul as well as Hispania, Italy and Galatia. Caesar wrote extensively about his Gallic Wars in 58-51 BC. Diodorus Siculus wrote about the Celts of Gaul and Britain in his first century History.

At the dawn of history in Europe, the Celts then living in what is now France were known as Gauls to the Romans. The territory of these peoples probably included the low countries, the Alps and what is now northern Italy. Their descendants were described by Julius Caesar in his Gallic Wars. Eastern Gaul was the centre of the western La Tene culture. In later Iron Age Gaul, the social organization was similar to that of the Romans, with large towns. From the third century BC the Gauls adopted coinage, and texts with Greek characters are known in southern Gaul from the second century. Greek traders founded Massalia in about 600BC, with exchange up the Rhone valley, but trade was disrupted soon after 500BC and re-oriented over the Alps to the Po valley in Italy. The Romans arrived in the Rhone valley in the second century BC and encountered a Gaul that was mostly Celtic-speaking. Rome needed land communications with its Iberian provinces and fought a major battle with the Saluvii at Entremont in 124-123 BC. Gradually Roman control extended, and the Roman Province of Gallia Transalpina was formed along the Mediterranean coast. The remainder was known as Gallia Comata – “Hairy Gaul”. In 58 BC, the Helvetii planned to migrate westward but were forced back by Julius Caesar. He then became involved in fighting the various tribes in Gaul, and by 55 BC, most of Gaul had been overrun. In 52 BC, Vercingetorix led a revolt against the Roman occupation but was defeated at the siege of Alesia and surrendered. Following the Gallic Wars of 58-51 BC, Celticia formed the main part of Roman Gaul.

Traditional 18th/19th centuries scholarship surrounding the Celts virtually ignored the Iberian Peninsula, since material culture relatable to the Hallstatt and La Tène cultures that has defined Iron Age Celts was rare in Iberia, and did not provide a cultural scenario that could easily be linked to that of Central Europe. Modern scholarship, however, has proven that Celtic presence and influences were very substantial in Iberia.

One group, from Galicia and along the Iberian Atlantic shores. They were made up of the Lusitanians (in Portugal and the Celtic region that Strabo called Celtica in the southwest including the Algarve, inhabited by the Celtici), the Vettones and Vacceani peoples (of central west Spain and Portugal), and the Gallaecian, Astures and Cantabrian peoples of the Castro culture of north and northwest Spain and Portugal). The Celtiberian group of central Spain and the upper Ebro valley. The group originated when Celts migrated from what is now France and integrated with the local Iberian people. The origins of the Celtiberians might provide a key to unlocking the Celticization process in the rest of the Peninsula.

There was an early Celtic presence in northern Italy since inscriptions dated to the sixth century BC have been found there. In 391 BC Celts “who had their homes beyond the Alps streamed through the passes in great strength and seized the territory that lay between the Appeninne mountains and the Alps” according to Diodorus Siculus. The Po Valley and the rest of northern Italy (known to the Romans as Cisalpine Gaul) was inhabited by Celtic-speakers who founded cities such as Milan. Later the Roman army was routed at the battle of Allia and Rome was sacked in 390 BC by the Senones. At the battle of Telemon in 225 BC a large Celtic army was trapped between two Roman forces and crushed. The defeat of the combined Samnite, Celtic and Etruscan alliance by the Romans in the Third Samnite War sounded the beginning of the end of the Celtic domination in mainland Europe, but it was not until 192 BC that the Roman armies conquered the last remaining independent Celtic kingdoms in Italy. The Celts settled much further south of the Po River than many maps show. Remnants in the town of Doccia, in the province of Emilia-Romagna, showcase Celtic houses in very good condition dating from about the 4th century BC.

The Celts also expanded down the Danube river and its tributaries. One of the most influential tribes, the Scordisci, had established their capital at Singidunum in 3rd century BC, which is present-day Belgrade, Serbia. The concentration of hill-forts and cemeteries shows a density of population in the Tisza valley of modern-day Vojvodina, Serbia, Hungary and into Ukraine. Expansion into Romania was however blocked by the Dacians. Further south, Celts settled in Thrace (Bulgaria), which they ruled for over a century, and Anatolia, where they settled as the Galatians. Despite their geographical isolation from the rest of the Celtic world, the Galatians maintained their Celtic language for at least seven hundred years. St Jerome, who visited Ancyra (modern-day Ankara) in 373 AD, likened their language to that of the Treveri of northern Gaul. The Boii tribe gave their name to Bohemia and Bologna, and Celtic artefacts and cemeteries have been discovered further east in what is now Poland and Slovakia. A celtic coin (Biatec) from Bratislava’s mint is displayed on today’s Slovak 5 crown coin. However, the Celtic invasions of Italy, Greece, and western Anatolia are well documented in Greek and Latin history. There are records of Celtic mercenaries in Egypt serving the Ptolemies. Thousands were employed in 283-246 BC and they were also in service around 186 BC. They attempted to overthrow Ptolemy II.

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