Classic Essays

The Celts, Part 2


Celtic folkways and the clash with Romans and Germans

by Nick Griffin

IN THE previous issue we looked at the origins and prehistory of the Celts. We traced their spread westward over Europe and their growing influence on their neighbors, up until the time of their first clashes with the Romans. (ILLUSTRATION: traditional Irish step-dancers)

Although they were ferocious enemies, the Celts were certainly not unwashed or uncultured barbarians. The fourth-century Graeco-Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus noted that “the Gauls are all exceedingly careful of cleanliness and neatness, nor in all the country . . . could any man or woman, however poor, be seen either dirty or ragged.” Pliny tells us that the Celts invented soap and were taking regular baths long before the Romans adopted the habit. The women used perfumes and cosmetics, checking their appearance in delicately decorated bronze mirrors. The men were generally clean-shaven, except for their characteristic long, drooping moustaches. The Celts had a great reverence for natural beauty, including that of the human body. Obese men, unsightly and unfit for war, could be fined.

As with all the Aryan peoples of northern Europe before the coming of Christianity, their women enjoyed a great deal of freedom, and sex was not regarded as sinful. When the wife of fourth-century historian Sulpicius Severus reproached the wife of an aristocratic Celt for the wantonness of Celtic women, the Celtic woman replied cuttingly: “We fulfill the demands of Nature in a much better way than do you Roman women: for we consort openly with the best men, whereas you let yourselves be debauched in secret by the vilest.” In those late days of decadent Rome, commerce and wealth were overwhelmingly in the hands of immigrant Levantine merchants, particularly Jews, so the proud Celt chose her words well.

Both sexes were well dressed. The toga-wearing Mediterraneans were especially impressed by the trousers favored by the men, a practical fashion the Romans adopted for their cavalry — the best of whom were in any case recruited from Celtic tribes. Knee-length linen tunics were worn by both sexes, as were long and often gaudy woollen cloaks. Strabo comments on their personal ostentation:

To the frankness and high-spiritedness of their temperament must be added the traits of childish boastfulness and love of decoration. They wear ornaments of gold, torques on their necks, and bracelets on their arms and wrists, while people of high rank wear dyed garments besprinkled with gold. It is this vanity which makes them unbearable in victory and so completely downcast in defeat.

Linen and woollen garments from the Celtic lands were popular with well-to-do Romans, as was Celtic leatherwork, including fashionable Gaulish boots. Archaeologists have recovered fragments of Celtic textiles which, as with their metalwork, show consistent levels of skill which can only have been maintained by a well-ordered system of craft apprenticeship.

Such specialization is only possible in a society with regular surpluses of food; hence, it is no surprise to learn that the Celts were great farmers. Many of their agricultural innovations remained the basis of the rural economies of the European peoples until the modern era. These included the system of leaving fields fallow every third year; the heavy, two-wheeled iron plow; the harrow; the hay-scythe; the breeding of strains of cattle for various roles, including draught purposes; the selective development of new types of grain; and the cultivation and use of a large number of herbs. Some parts of France still noted today for the quality of their pork charcuterie first established their reputation by exporting their products to ancient Rome.

At the Butser Hill research station in southern England experimental archaeologists have recreated an Iron Age farm. Using only the techniques and tools possessed by the Celts, they have found that their small fields of wheat yield similar quantities to those expected by English farmers in the 19th century. Although this is only half the modern yield, analysis of the grain shows that it has twice the protein content of today’s heavily chemical-dependent crops.

For many years, historians of the period were puzzled by evidence of a strange cart with a long row of wooden teeth along its front edge and drive shafts to allow a horse or ox to push it. The Butser Hill researchers built a replica and thereby proved it to be a “combine harvester,” giving the big estates of late Celtic times the ability to harvest far larger areas than would have been possible by hand. Once collected, the grain was stored in pits dug deep into the ground, lined with basketry and sealed with a lid of wet clay. This method has also been tested at the experimental farm and shown to work well even in unusually wet years.

These facts suggest that one of the reasons for the Roman conquest of Britain was to secure a large and reliable supply of grain to feed the legions and the growing population of parasites in Rome. But before the inexorable rise of Rome ripped the heart from the Celtic world, the Celts built upon this sound agricultural base a sophisticated and clearly European rural civilization.

Map depicting the British Isles
Map depicting the British Isles

The Celts of Ireland, whose culture was never disrupted by Roman invasion and which continued to prosper for centuries, did not grow such quantities of grain. The wet and mild climate of Ireland, while unsuitable for wheat, is ideal for rearing cattle, so the country’s economy was always based on them. Fines were based on the value of a cow, cattle-raiding was endemic — a cross between an aristocratic sport and tribal warfare — and seasonal cattle fairs combined with religious festivals to provide the focus for a totally rural way of life.

This emphasis on cattle may well have preserved the lifestyle of the earlier continental Celts. The La Tene culture developed following a marked climatic deterioration and an accompanying increase in the importance of cattle. The great Irish epic, The Cattle Raid of Cooley, although not put into writing until the twelfth century, uses language from four hundred years before and has some verses which appear to date back to the sixth century; and even the latter are based on a tradition which was already hundreds of years old when they were composed. Regarded as the oldest vernacular epic in Western literature, the story describes a society of boastful warrior-aristocrats: chariot fighting and feasting, head-hunting and cattle-raiding. It is an authentic picture of the Iron Age.

Another story from the ancient literature of Ireland, Bricriu’s Feast, tells of the tragic outcome of rivalry, where each of the three heroes invited to a feast claims the best cut of pork: “the champion’s portion.” Compare this with the account of Celtic life left us by the Roman Diodorus Siculus: “When they dine . . . they have hearths with big fires and cauldrons, and spits loaded with big joints of meat . . . and some of the company often fall into an altercation and challenge one another to single combat. They make nothing of death.”

These stories, with their emphasis on personal honor, physical courage, and loyalty unto death, bear marked resemblances to ancient Greek epics, such as Homer’s Iliad. Both the Romans and the Greeks approved strongly of the typical Celtic maxim quoted by Diogenes: “To worship the gods, to do nothing base, and to practice manhood.” Closer to home, the original motifs discernable in the heavily Christianized Welsh Mabinogion reveal the fundamental unity of the Celts’ great tradition of oral literature, its close kinship with the original culture of all the early Aryans, and its similarity to the later sagas of the Germanic branch of the family.

In Ireland these tales were preserved and declaimed by the filid, an ancient institution of highly trained storytellers and law-bearers, who enjoyed high rank and, through their ability to praise or satirize a ruler, substantial power. Their role and status were very similar to those of the vates described by Strabo as important among the Gauls, who were as a people so renowned for their eloquence that wealthy Romans sent their sons to be trained in rhetoric by Gaulish tutors.

Even more demanding was the 20-year training undergone by the Druids, the mysterious priests and seers who, according to Caesar, “are concerned with the worship of the gods, look after public and private sacrifice, and expound religious matters; a large number of young men flock to them for training and hold them in the highest honor.” The Druids were also renowned for their knowledge of the stars and the motions of the planets. A bronze moveable calendar found at Coligny in France was used to predict eclipses as well as to note the passage of the months. Rather than days, they thought in terms of nights — our word “fortnight” being a distant echo of this. As with the Germanic peoples from whom we get the word for our main divisions of the year, the Celts reckoned by the phases of the moon, splitting their year into 28-day cycles. These in turn were grouped into four seasons, the start of each of which was marked by a religious festival intimately linked with the natural concerns of a farming people.

The Celtic New Year began on Samhain, at the beginning of November. This marked the gathering in of the cattle and the slaughter of livestock which could not be over-wintered. Imbolc fell on the first day of February and seems to have been connected with the lactation of ewes. Beltaine — the feast of the Good Fire — was the forerunner of the later May Day celebrations and marked the day when the spring sun allowed the herds to be let out onto the fresh pastures, having been driven through twin fires around which the young men and women danced sunwise. Lugnasadh, on the first day of August, was even more strongly a sun festival, being dedicated to the solar god Lugh. Sympathetic magic was used during this festival to ensure the success of the ensuing harvest.

The Gundestrop Cauldron
The Gundestrup Cauldron

A number of gods seem to have been widely revered. Lugh’s name occurs in place-names from Lyon (ancient Lugdunum) to Carlisle (ancient Caer Luel); Cernunnos — “the Horned One” — is named on an altar in Paris and is widely represented elsewhere, including on the Gundestrup cauldron. The cult of the horse goddess Epona seems to have been popular in Britain and may even account for the long-standing British taboo against eating horsemeat. There does not, however, appear to have been a single, well organized pantheon of gods on the Greek or Roman model. It is likely that each tribe and various special locations such as springs and groves had their own local deity. Dedications on altar stones have given us the names of more than 400 Celtic gods, the vast majority of whom are only mentioned in one place. In addition to these local communal gods, each family worshipped its own ancestors, gathering in prayer around the hearth which, as with the Romans, was the spiritual center of the home.

Like all the true Indo-Europeans, the Celts did not consider the worship of any particular god to preclude veneration for another. This acceptance that other folk could pray to different deities without being regarded as sinful non-believers is reflected in the ancient and widely accepted Irish oath: “I swear by the gods my people swear by.”

As well as leading the sacrifices and rituals at the great festivals, the Druids taught the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. This belief was no doubt a major reason for the Celts’ total lack of fear of death. So strong was their faith in the afterlife that they would make loans in this life with agreement to repay them in the next.

Caesar also noted that the Druids were recruited only from the aristocracy and that they delivered legal judgments in everything from murder cases to boundary disputes. In this judicial role, there was an overlap between the functions and rights of the Druids and of the brithem, experts on the traditional brehon law of Ireland recruited from the ranks of the filid poetic order.

This latter fact, together with Caesar’s accounts of Druidic human sacrifice and statement that the cult originated in Britain, suggests that the Druidic order was not entirely of Celtic origin, but had its roots among the older Atlanto-Mediterranean population. Having said that, the Italic tribes and early Romans had a similar institution, as did the early Aryan conquerors of Iran and the northern part of the Indian subcontinent. It is also necessary to remember that Caesar’s account was sensationalist propaganda aimed at boosting his own prestige by, among other things, painting an ugly picture of his enemies. The real reason for his determination to exterminate the Druids was probably their key role in stirring up rebellions, both in Britain and in Gaul.

The fundamental religion of all these peoples was based on the sun worship which was universal among their common ancestors, and the Celts were no exception. The sunwheel and three- and four-armed swastikas are common Celtic solar symbols. The life-giving force of the sun is, of course, more important to a people living in a land of harsh winters than to those who dwell in warmer climes, hence it is quite possible that this religion, like the fair complexions of its devotees, arose thousands of years earlier among their ancient ancestors, who had for generations survived the rigors of life on the edge of the European ice sheets.

By the time the Aryans began to spread out from their original homeland, their religion, like their language, was already fully developed, with the result that, in the words of distinguished British archaeologist Professor T.G.E. Powell: “There are many vestiges in myth, cult, and sacred terminology, springing from a common Indo-European tradition which the Celts shared in particular with the Aryan ancestors of the Hindus and with the Italic forerunners of the Romans.”

The same was true of many Celtic laws and institutions of government. The Irish brehon laws dealt with all aspects of social organization, including marriage, distraint, sick-maintenance, and the relationships between the different strata of society. These were ancient when finally put into writing by Christian monks at the end of the sixth century. Preserved orally until then in verse form, the language was already archaic and many points obscure. According to the Irish expert, Professor Binchy, “Irish law preserves in a semi-fossilized condition many primitive Indo-European institutions of which only faint traces survive in other legal systems derived from the same source.”

Many historians have noted the marked similarities between the Celtic laws and social structure found in Ireland and the fossilized Aryan system preserved in the Vedic laws of India. The duties and privileges of the now hereditary Brahmin caste certainly reflect those of the Druids, as well as those of the Magi of Iran. According to the French expert on the Celts, the late Professor Henri Hubert, “the priesthoods are not merely very similar, but exactly the same,” and this “proves that Druidism was an Indo-European institution,” albeit a pre-Celtic one inherited from the Aryan farmers who had settled in Britain and Gaul long before the great period of Celtic expansion. Many aspects of the institution of kingship are clearly related; even the vocabulary involved is fundamentally the same. Binchy comments that in the brehon laws “we also find the unreal schematism and passion for classification which meet us in the Hindu law books.”

Nora Chadwick, late professor of Anglo-Saxon at Cambridge and internationally renowned authority on the origins and customs of the Celtic peoples, in her book The Celts (1970) notes that the customs connected with the symbolic “marriage” between the king and the land have affinities with traditions traceable to ancient India, and that such similarities show the “close relationships” between the two far-flung groups of Indo-Europeans. Quite apart from the links with northern India, she also points out that “the society of Homeric Greece offers parallels, and in Italy the Italic-speaking peoples possessed perhaps the closest links with the Celts until the supervention of Etruscan and, then, urban Roman institutions.”

A specific example given by Hubert is that both the Indo-Aryans and the Irish Celts used ritual fasting by an aggrieved party to gain redress. The laws, institutions, and languages in each of these later Aryan culture are so alike that they can only spring from an ancestral system which was already fully established before the Aryans began the wanderings which made them the masters of so many lands.

This fact can be reconciled with Professor Colin Renfrew’s convincing theory about the link between the initial expansion of the Indo-Europeans and the spread of subsistence agriculture if we think in terms of the first wave of Aryan farmers spreading by slow colonization over many generations, as he maintains, and then the subsequent development in one part of their range of some improvement in military technology which gave its possessors the opportunity to spread, in a far shorter time, as an aristocracy ruling over their more and more distant relations. Thus, the Battle Axe people may have been the first such example of a later Aryan elite, rather than the initial carriers of the Indo-European language and racial type.

A significant piece of Celtic art, the Battersea Shield. Only the bronze sheet remains that covered the wooden shield. Typical of the La Tene style.
A significant piece of Celtic art, the Battersea Shield. Only the bronze sheet remains that covered the wooden shield. Typical of the La Tene style.

The men of the same race who first made the more deadly long bronze sword took advantage of a similar superiority, and the Celts who replaced it with weapons of much stronger iron became in their turn the masters wherever they spread. Because their new technology also enabled them to increase greatly their food production, the Celts would have been able, in the thickly forested parts of western Europe at least, to swamp the earlier Indo-European and aboriginal inhabitants by mass migration rather than by a genetically much less effective change in the ruling elite alone.

In food-rich coastal areas, and particularly in the warmer southern and southeastern parts of the Indo-European lands, where the environment could support relatively large numbers of primitive hunter-gatherers, the initial settlers were probably thoroughly mixed with the aborigines by the time of the Battle Axe expansion. While the Aryan warriors who destroyed the agrarian cities of northern India around 1500 B.C. had nothing but contempt for the “dark ones” (as they refer to the aboriginals in the Vedic literature), it is thus quite possible that the creation of the despised inhabitants’ relatively advanced but stagnant civilization had been the work of a tiny but vigorous Indo-European minority which already had vanished. Indeed, that is the case in the Indian subcontinent today, with the now-vanished British conquerors and culture-bearers of the 18th century in a similar role to that of their ancient Aryan forebears. Certainly the Aryans — the “Shining Ones,” a name they used both in the figurative sense of “noble” and literally, on account of their blondeness — were well aware of the genetic danger of race-mixing. The Hindu caste system originated with their ultimately unsuccessful attempt to reinforce racial segregation by incorporating it into their religion.

A great deal of information as to what the Celts made of their Aryan inheritance may be gathered from the well-preserved literature of Ireland, at the other end of the Indo-European range. This shows us a very hierarchical system of up to a hundred petty kingdoms, each occupied by a tuath — meaning “tribe” or “people”–and led by its ri. Each of these minor kings was bound by oath to his ri ruirech, the “over king” of one of the five wider provincial kingdoms, who in turn owed allegiance to the High King seated at Tara.

Society below the king was divided into three sections: the aes dana — the intelligentsia — made up of Druids, bards, jurists, and skilled craftsmen; a warrior aristocracy of land owners; and the class of freemen, commoners, and minor craftsmen. This arrangement is very similar to that recorded by Caesar in Gaul: druides, equites (“knights”), and plebs.

At the bottom of the ladder in both Ireland and Gaul came slaves and kinless outlaws. In parts of Celtdom with a large pre-Celtic population the lower levels of society were initially composed entirely of these subjugated inferiors, but over the generations the lines were blurred. Even when this process was long advanced, however, the bards generally upheld the ancient convention that high rank in men and beauty in women went hand-in-hand with blonde hair, blue-eyes, and fair skin.

The rights and obligations of each class were clearly defined by custom. Here was a homogeneous and stable hierarchy which needed no “police” to maintain social order; tradition and the threat of banishment from the communal religious rituals were quite sufficient. The parties in any dispute were bound to accept the ruling of the brithem jurists. Prisons were unknown; the basis of punishment and restitution for serious crimes such as murder being the payment of a fixed “honor price,” which varied according to the rank of the injured party. Payment of this sum wiped out the guilt of the crime and its injury to the honor of the victim and his family, thereby avoiding the perpetual warfare which inevitably results from blood feuds in less disciplined tribal societies.

Various Germanic peoples, including the Saxons, used the same system: Wergeld, literally “man gold.” Unlike the later Saxons, however, among the Irish such payments were not made solely by the guilty party alone, but by his entire extended family, his fine. This kin group spanned four generations, and its members were jointly liable for the actions of any person within those four generations. This obligation was matched by a right to a share in the inheritance of the elders of the fine when they died.

Naturally, this institution created powerful bonds of mutual responsibility and support which helped to impose a complex pattern of laws with a relative scarcity of legal machinery. In the words of Professor Powell, “the maintenance of customary law was not due to the power of any central authority, but it in fact rested on its own venerability, ritual potency, and popular acceptability.”

Although the heroic poetry of the Celts emphasizes the importance of the actions of great men and exceptional women, their society was geared towards the preservation of the entire folk community, rather than the “rights” of any individual. All ranks were restricted by their status as to what they could and could not do. A king who failed in battle was expected to commit suicide or to give himself up to the enemy as a sacrifice to save his people. Many of the Irish tales feature kings or heroes dying violent deaths, often by fire or drowning, on feast days. Such stories are almost certainly based on memories of the ritual sacrifice of aging or ailing kings in order to restore agrarian fertility by making way for a new and virile young consort for the goddess of the tribal land. If there was any facet of sky-based and patriarchal Celtic religion strongly influenced by the earth-based and matriarchal faith of the earlier, Atlanto-Mediterranean agriculturalists, it was this.

Perhaps an even deeper gulf between the organic society of the Celts and today’s atomized and alienated individualism is the fact that people only enjoyed whatever rights they were entitled to within their own community. An individual who had, for one reason or another, lost or been cast out by his kin group had no rights at all. An identical state of affairs existed in Wales until early medieval times, where the kinless alltud was regarded as a cross between outlaw and slave.

The Welsh kindred — the cenedl — also spanned four generations. Even today, the Celtic-speaking populations in the western fringes of the British Isles are well known for the importance they place on their family trees and on knowing who is related to whom.

Its kinship laws gave the Celtic world great stability. Likewise, an overall cultural unity was maintained over great distances by the fact that the aes dana were excepted from the requirement to remain in their tribal territory. The bards and jurists in particular wandered where they wished or where events demanded. Traders and skilled craftsmen also seem to have been unrestricted.

For whatever reason a Celt became a traveller, he would have found a communications system which was at least as good as that of medieval Europe. Not only does the widespread use of heavy goods carts and fast, light personal chariots imply a well-kept road system, but the Irish laws actually tell us how it was maintained. The obligations of each community for the upkeep of the roads running through its area are clearly set out, as are the arrangements for ferry services at major river crossings.

Nor did the sea present any obstacles. Caesar’s account of the wars in Gaul includes comments on the immense navy of the Veneti, a maritime tribe in southern Britanny occupying the area around the modern port of Vannes. In 56 B.C. this people and their allies from the rest of the Armorican coast and Britain opposed the Romans with a fleet of 220 massive ships. Their oak planks were “fastened by iron nails as thick as a man’s thumb” and their sails were made of thin leather. Unfortunately for the Celts, a sudden shift in the wind left their heavy vessels at the mercy of the lighter Roman ships, and the defeated crews drowned themselves rather than surrender. Nevertheless, the ability to muster such a fleet of ocean-going vessels with experienced crews gives an indication of the seafaring skills of the Gauls.

Throughout much of the Celtic era, the trade facilitated by this communications network was based on barter, with wealth itself being reckoned in cattle. Long, sword-sized ingots of raw iron seem to have been used as a form of currency, however, and in view of the importance of salt in the preservation of winter food supplies it is likely that the Celts also used it as a medium of exchange, just as Roman legionaries were later to receive salt as part of their wages (the salarium: hence, “salary”), which was used to pay for goods and services supplied by occupied peoples. The use of coins reached Gaul in the late third century B.C., with the style of the early currency inspired by the gold staters of Macedon and the silver coins of the western colonial Greeks.

At about the same time the Gauls began to move away from their traditional scattered and undefended rural settlement pattern. After four hundred years of peace, they now established walled towns on strategic hilltops, known to the Romans as oppida. It is unclear to what extent this was a response to the growing threat of invasion, first by Germanic-Celtic tribes from across the Rhine and later by Roman legions, and how much urbanization was due to increased trade and the fashionable example of Rome. Certainly the oppida developed far beyond the original use of hilltop enclosures for occasional festivals. The hill fort of Bibracte, the site of which was near Autun in modern France, encompassed 335 acres, dwarfing the Homeric settlement at Troy, which covered a mere five acres.

Such evidence of large local populations, together with classical material such as the estimate of the first-century B.C. Greek historian Poseidonius that the largest of Gaul’s three hundred or so tribes could raise 200,000 men and the smallest 50,000, leads Hubert to conclude that the population on the eve of Caesar’s conquest was in excess of 30 million: at least as big as that of France under Louis XIV. The many tribes making up this vast population were linked together in sixteen separate, large groups, which the Romans termed civitates or nationes. Each of these possessed its own name and capital oppidum. Hubert points out that the names of many of these are perpetuated in France to this day — Paris was the capital of the Parisii, Trier the tribal center of the Treveri, and so on — and goes so far as to claim that the political divisions of modern France are based essentially on the Gaulish structure taken over by the Romans.

Each of the nationes had its own king, although by Caesar’s time the king’s influence was giving way to that of the vergobret, or chief magistrate, further evidence that the Celtic world was increasingly coming under the influence of bureaucratic Rome. Each kingdom was in turn divided into pagi, to use the Roman term; to the Romans a pagus was a village, but as applied to the Gauls it meant a rural district or province. The major divisions of each Gaulish army were the pagi.

In 221 B.C. the mixed Iberian and Celtiberian tribes of Spain were attacked and quickly defeated by Hannibal, the great general of Rome’s deadly rival on the North African coast, Carthage. Hannibal was joined by a few Celtic allies as he marched on through the mainly Ligurian south of Gaul, but most of the Celts stood aloof as the fortunes of Hannibal’s war with Rome lurched from one side to the other. Finally, with disastrous timing, large numbers of Celts threw their lot in with the Carthaginians when the latter were already effectively defeated. As a result the Celts of southern, and particularly Cisalpine, Gaul were broken with heavy losses. Although the Gaulish colony in northern Italy was not formally annexed as a province until 82 B.C., the failure of the adventure with Hannibal pushed the Celtic boundary in the Italian peninsula northward to the Alps by 178 B.C.

Marble bust of Hannibal Barca
Marble bust of Hannibal Barca

The Roman armies which had entered Spain to stop Hannibal did not leave when he was defeated. From 197 B.C. until 133 B.C. the campaign to subdue the Celtiberians went on with only short breaks. As we have already noted, the native resistance seems to have been led by a Celtic aristocracy, but in spite of their resistance and continual rebellions, the whole of Spain was effectively under Roman rule by 154 B.C.

Since the Celts of Spain had already been more or less absorbed by the Mediterranean majority, this Roman success had no immediate effect on the true Celts further north. But the conquest of Spain and the destruction of Carthage greatly increased both the manpower and resources of the growing Roman Empire. The days when the Gauls could count on their freedom without fighting for it were numbered.

A more immediate threat to the Celtic heartland, however, was the increasing pressure from land-hungry German tribes pushing over the Rhine. In 71 B.C. the Celtic Sequani of Gaul invited the Germanic Suevi to join in an attack on their Celtic neighbors, the Aedui in the Rhone valley. The Aedui were themselves divided by a power struggle between their former king Divitiacus and his brother and popular successor, Dumnorix. Divitiacus, in his position as vergobret, appealed to the Romans for help against the Germans.

Imperial ambitions, the wealth of Gaul, and the memory of the threat posed by the Celts in the past had already persuaded the Romans to attempt to conquer the Gauls north of the Alps, so this was the opportunity for which Caesar had been waiting. His legions defeated the Germans, and then with the help of his Aedui allies he turned on the Belgae and the other independent tribes. Having fought his way to the Channel coast, Caesar undertook two brief expeditions, in 55 and 54 B.C., against the southern Britons who were sending reinforcements to their continental cousins.

The conquest of Gaul was a triumph for Rome and an object lesson in the power of organization: a relatively tiny but well-trained and well-equipped force overcame far greater numbers which were lacking in unity and discipline. Breaking the power of one Gaulish tribe after another, a total of just 60,000 legionnaires led by a brilliant commander conquered a martial people numbering millions. Not until the British conquest of India in the 18th century were so many again subdued by so few. Caesar’s campaign lasted eight years, but only in the last few did the Celts make a determined effort to resist on a “nationwide” basis.

By the end of 54 B.C. Gaul was in ruins, with more than three million of her best warriors dead or enslaved and 800 hill forts and villages razed to the ground. In the wake of the legions came the slavers, hurrying to make a quick profit. This trade already was dominated by Levantine immigrants, notably Jews and Syrians. No doubt these racial aliens, then as now, found the blondest girls the most desirable and the most profitable. As the flower of Gaul’s youth were driven in chains to the slave markets of Rome, Ambiorix, king of the Eburones, led an attack on a Roman fortress on the middle Moselle. The uprising spread like wildfire throughout the most purely Celtic north and center of the country. The desperate Celts adopted scorched earth tactics to deny the invaders food, and for two years the struggle hung in the balance. No quarter was given on either side: after seizing the rebel town of Avaricum, Caesar ordered that every one of its 40,000 inhabitants be put to the sword. The hideous torture of Celtic prisoners was routine. The struggle for freedom had become a fight for survival.

map_of_gaulIn mountainous central France lived the Arverni, a people whose name is still preserved in that used for the region, the Auvergne. Their king was the charismatic Vercingetorix, a Celtic name meaning “warrior king.” He soon showed himself worthy of his name. Joining the uprising, Vercingetorix inflicted several heavy defeats on the Romans, rousing the hopes of many who had thought that all was lost. Tribe after tribe flocked to his banner, and it began to look as if Caesar might be driven back across the Alps.

Although the Celts were fearless warriors, they were too impetuous and individualistic to accept the discipline which was needed to defeat the Romans. Chances of a crushing victory were thrown away until, in the summer of 52 B.C., Caesar trapped Vercingetorix and 80,000 followers in the fortified town of Alesia, on the Seine well upstream from modern Paris. Preparing for a long siege, Caesar ordered his own men to construct an outer ring of defences of their own to hold off any attempt by the Gauls to relieve their heroic leader. By the time the expected reinforcements arrived, the Roman fortifications were complete. The huge army of a quarter of a million men, drawn from 41 tribes, made repeated but futile attempts to break through, and the Celts encircled in the ring of Roman steel slowly starved.

Finally, in the cool dawn of a late September day, in a valiant attempt to save his men from certain death, Vercingetorix rode out and surrendered himself to Caesar. The defeated hero was sent to Rome in chains. Without its inspiring leader the rebel confederation quickly crumbled, and the remaining pockets of resistance were easily mopped up. Caesar took ferocious revenge for the shock of his near defeat. After taking the town of Uxellodunum, for example, he had the hands of every prisoner chopped off.


Thus the once mighty tribes of Gaul were utterly conquered by a Rome which, although many of her military leaders, soldiers, and men of letters were still of Nordic stock, was already irreversibly mongrelized. The end of the Celts as a world force was symbolized during Caesar’s triumphal procession through Rome in 46 B.C., when Vercingetorix was dragged from his dungeon to be strangled and beheaded in the Forum for the entertainment of the braying, half-caste mob.

Back in Gaul the following years saw a number of scattered uprisings, but the surviving Celtic aristocrats quickly found that there were distinct personal advantages for them in cooperating with the new regime. Under the old laws of their people, kings had ruled their tribal land, but did not own it. Their power and prestige were tempered by customary duties, and under no circumstances could a king sell or otherwise alienate a single square foot of his tribe’s patrimony. Under the new regime, on the other hand, while huge tracts of land were given to Roman speculators and army veterans, large parts of what was left now became the personal possessions of the local king and his direct descendants. This led to a rapid breakup of the old social order and the speedy creation of a heavily Romanized native upper class whose interests coincided with those of their conquerors rather than with those of their own folk. Deprived of their true leadership, the last desperate rebellions were ineffective peasants’ revolts.

Large numbers of Gaulish refugees sought a safe haven across the sea in Britain. Once again, however, the wealth and prestige of Rome weakened the resolve of a number of local British kings. Some, such as the Cantii — whose name is preserved in the English county of Kent between London and the Channel — were already effectively puppets by the time Claudius launched a renewed Roman assault on the island in 43 A.D. The heroic leader of the British resistance, Caratacus, defeated in the south of the country, headed north to gain fresh support, but was treacherously handed over to the Romans by Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes. Like Vercingetorix, the prisoner was taken in chains to Rome, but the shameful memory of the Romans’ ancient defeats by the Celts was now in the distant past, and Caratacus justified his defiance so eloquently that he and his family were freed.

The ruthless dispossession of the British Celts continued apace, however. Once again, the squabbling tribes realized their mortal danger too late. In 61 A.D. Suetonius destroyed the last Druid stronghold on the island of Mona, known in English as Anglesey, but still to the Welsh as Mon, then turned south to deal with the Iceni and their allies. Their rebellion was sparked by the expropriation of Queen Boudicca’s lands and the rape and flogging of her daughters. It spread throughout the southeast, with the total destruction of the three main Roman cities, Camulodunum (Colchester), Verulamium (Saint Albans), and the important new trading center of Londinium. Both the revolt and its suppression were particularly brutal affairs, with the few surviving rebels being enslaved and worked to death draining the low-lying, disease-ridden fen country north of Cantabrigensis (modern Cambridge).

The lowland parts of mainland Britain were rapidly Romanized and remained so for nearly 400 years. Caledonia, the bulk of modern Scotland, however, was fiercely defended and too poor to be worth the effort of subduing. This northern border of the Roman Empire fluctuated several times, but was finally stabilized along the line of the great wall and chain of forts and watchtowers built by the Emperor Hadrian from Carlisle to the North Sea estuary of the Tyne. The Welsh mountains too were not worth completely pacifying, although a network of military roads and forts ensured that the natives didn’t interfere with the lead or gold mines. Only Celtic Ireland remained completely independent, though during Agricola’s campaign in southern Scotland the great general kept a disaffected Irish chieftain by his side as a potential ally and calculated that the island could be subdued with a single legion. Fortunately for our posterity, Agricola had more pressing business elsewhere, and Ireland, once a conservative backwater of the Celtic world, now became its sole survivor.

We have already seen how this happy accident bequeathed us a large body of what is essentially Iron Age literature. Much of this deals with the doings and deaths of kings, thereby reflecting the interests of the poets’ aristocratic patrons. But the fragments of archaic poetry and prose also show a great appreciation of natural beauty. For example, the song of the hermit Marbon to his brother, the king of Connaught, tells of the joys of his lonely life in the forest:

The voice of the wind against the branchy wood
Upon the deep-blue sky:
Falls of the river, the note of the swan,
Delicious music.

The significance of such snippets is explained well by Kuno Meyer in his Introduction to the Ancient Irish Poetry: “In Nature poetry the Gaelic muse must vie with that of any other nation. Indeed, these poems occupy a unique position in the literature of the world. To seek out and watch and love Nature, in its tiniest phenomena as in its grandest, was given to no people so early and so fully as the Celt.” Here, surely, is the source of the impulse which, for all our industry and technology, also puts Western man at the forefront of efforts to conserve nature for its own sake all over the world.

As with Celtic literature, so the La Tene artistic style, which ceased almost overnight when the Roman conquest destroyed the patronage of the aristocracy, continued to develop in Ireland. Harnessed by a native church with strongly Celtic undertones, the La Tene style enjoyed a long final flowering until the Viking invasions. The fantastic imagery of sinuous plant tendrils merging into strange animals and the heads of birds and dragons graced not only the tall, stone crosses which still dot the countryside, but also the pages of many handwritten religious works, such as the Book of Durrow. The famous Book of Kells dates from between 760 and 820 A.D., and in its richly illuminated pages it is possible to find superb examples of virtually every motif and piece of artwork ever produced in the entire Celtic world. Irish silversmiths raised Celtic art to its most dazzling peaks. The master craftsman who made the eighth-century Ardagh Chalice used typical La Tene enamelling and abstract swirls, but made them more dramatic than ever by abandoning the old practice of covering every scrap of surface with intricate detail. His own superb designs stand out from the areas of plain, pure silver which he dared to leave unadorned. This is not a well-made trinket from a rude rural backwater; this is one of the most beautiful man-made objects ever contrived on planet Earth.

Ardagh Chalice
Ardagh Chalice

Long before this last artistic flowering, the final collapse of Rome early in the fifth century A.D. left the former Celtic provinces to fend for themselves and, perhaps, to take back control of their own destinies. The softened, urbanized inhabitants of Gaul proved totally incapable of doing either. In spite of a general drop in population as a result of the various problems created by the Roman “system collapse,” the population of the country must still have numbered millions. Even so, they offered no effective resistance to the waves of marauding German tribes who swept through the crumbling defences along the Rhine, alternately requesting or seizing land, or simply looting and demanding protection money from the cowering citizens of the wealthy towns and cities.

The Britons seem to have put up a stiffer fight, perhaps because their province was already strongly militarized as a result of fending off hit-and-run raids and land-grabs, not just from Germanic pirates on the south and east coasts, but from the untamed Picts from beyond Hadrian’s Wall, and from the incursions of the Irish, who, just to confuse the issue, were in those days known as Scots. But in spite of some victories and a general revival in about 500 A.D., which may be the root of the legend of King Arthur, the lowland Britons were steadily overwhelmed by the Germanic invaders of their island.

The earliest surviving British poem, the Gododdin, relates how a handpicked army of heroes marched in about 600 A.D. to glory and death at Catraeth (modern Catterick in northeast England) in a vain attempt to win back their lost lands.

@VERSE = The warriors rose, they mustered together. All of the one intent, they charged. Short their lives. Long their kin miss them. Seven times their own number of English they slew. In that contention, they made women widows. On the lash of many a mother are tears.

The surviving fragments of the ninth-century saga dealing with the life three centuries earlier of Llwyarch the Old give a vivid picture of the Celtic collapse. The verses tell how his last son falls defending a ford against the English; how Heledd, sister of the dead Cynddylan, laments in the cold ruins of his great hall, and how the sea-eagles feast on the bodies of her slain kinsmen near modern Shrewsbury, in the border lands between England and Wales:

@VERSE = Eagle of Eli, loud it cried tonight, It swam in men’s blood. There in the trees! And I’ve misery on me. Grey-capped eagle of Pengwern, tonight Is its claw aloft, Greedy for the flesh I loved.

Celtic society was also badly weakened by the emigration of large numbers of aristocrats and the intelligentsia to the part of northern Spain still known as Galicia and particularly to the northwest of France, which was thenceforth called “Little Britain”: Brittany. There is also some evidence that the rough and uneducated Anglo-Saxons had a higher birthrate to add to the effect of continual reinforcement by new boatloads of adventurers, land-hungry farmers, or refugees from other tribal migrations in continental Europe.

Perhaps to the ordinary Romano-Briton in the street, the final destruction of what remained of his culture and ethnic identity was not so different from the experience of today’s outbred builders of the great cities of America, Canada, Britain, and the other formerly Celtic lands of Western Europe, as they join the “White flight” to the suburbs or even to new lands in the vain hope of escaping the deluge of today’s far more alien barbarians.

This process of “Celtic flight” continued on and off for centuries. The English conquest of Ireland led to Irish soldiers by the thousand taking service in European armies. A little later the Presbyterian Scots-Irish sought to escape Anglican religious persecution by joining the early settlers in America, where they played a leading role in the War of Independence. In the next century the Catholic Irish followed in their millions, while smaller numbers formed the rough-and-ready backbone of White Australia.

At the same time, some thousands of Welsh nationalists decided to take even more drastic steps to escape the domination of the old Saxon enemy and established colonies in Spanish South America, particularly Patagonia. Their short-lived independence was quickly ended, and their assimilation is now effectively complete. More than a century later, however, at the time of the Falklands War, some of the Argentinian conscripts facing British regiments which included the Welsh Guards were themselves Welsh speakers. This neatly symbolizes the way in which the Celtic peoples, having lost their own cultural identity through their failure to develop effective large-scale political unity, now only appear in world history in events directed by others.

During the American Civil War, Northern recruiting agents toured Ireland, offering the oppressed peasantry the chance both of a new life and a chance to hit back at the “Saxons” by helping to defeat the predominantly English stock of the Confederacy. Having said which, several military historians have seen in the heroic charges and wild yell of the Rebels the last gasp of the furious rush to battle with which the ancient Celts routed even the armies of Rome.

Other commentators, however, reserve that honor for the Protestant Ulster division, which was the only section of the British army to get beyond all of its objectives in the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, at a cost of more than 6,000 casualties in a few hours. Their southern Irish counterparts, also all volunteers, were the only other British division to achieve all its objectives in that same terrible slaughter. The English generals, who for centuries reserved their Scottish, Irish, and Welsh regiments for the most desperate and bloody moments of decision, seem to have seen in them some reckless fire not to be found in the ranks of their equally brave, more dogged, but less wild English troops.

Whatever the collapse of their world felt like at the time, the might of the Celts has gone forever. We have seen how, in the remote and rocky fastnesses where Europe meets the Atlantic, their language and culture have clung on for centuries, ironically among peoples who were far less Celtic racially than the larger populations which have vanished without linguistic or cultural trace in modern Germany, France, the Low Countries, and England.

Several of the Celtic languages are at present enjoying a limited revival as part of a natural local reaction to the alienated consumerism of modern Europe. But the numbers involved can never be anything other than totally insignificant in geopolitical terms. The survival of even the memory of the Celts therefore depends completely on the survival of the White race as a whole.

In particular, such hope as there is for the future rests with the peoples of the English- and German-speaking world. Although they have often shared their Celtic cousins’ tendency to division and fratricide, these nations at least have the numerical, technological, and military potential to regain the position of world dominance which they have lost so recently through subversion, stupidity, and treason. They are all descended from the “barbarians” who reinvigorated Aryan Europe after the dark, multi-racial centuries of decadent Rome. Whether or not they can survive the 21st century is not yet clear, but ever since the fifth century, when they cleansed the mess that Rome had made of the Celtic lands, the western vanguard of the White race has been manned by the various branches of the great people known as Germans.

* * *

Source: National Vanguard magazine, Number 116, August-September 1996

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