The Origin and Expansion of the Celtic Peoples

Table of Contents:

  1. The Origins
  2. The Expansion Of The Celtic Languages and Culture
    1. The Gauls
    2. The Celtiberians
    3. The Insular Celts
    4. The Balkan and Anatolian Celts

The Celtic peoples were not a homogeneous ethnic group. If they can be called an ethnic group at all remains debatable. They rather were, similar to the Italic peoples, many different tribes speaking related languages and spreading all the way from Ireland to Anatolia, Iberia to Pannonia, covering most of western Europe, large parts of central Europe and even spreading into eastern Europe, the Balkans and Asia Minor.

For the sake of keeping this article short and informative at the same time I won’t cover every single detail about every individual Celtic tribe in Europe and Anatolia, but rather give a quick overview in regards to the origin of the Celts and the different major branches in Iberia, Gaul, Britain, the Balkans and Anatolia. Please keep in mind that one could write entire books about each individual branch and that the information given here merely serves as an introduction into the origin and expansion of the Celts, not as a complete guide.

The Origins

The first times we hear about the Celts are in accounts of Greek and Roman writers, probably most famously in Gaius Iulius Caesars “De Bello Gallico”. But the Celts had been around for much longer than this and had built sophisticated civilizations of their own which could at least match the mediterranean powers.

Maximum expansion of Celtic peoples across Europe.
Maximum Expansion of Celtic peoples across Europe. By QuartierLatin1968,The Ogre,Dbachmann; derivative work Rob984. – Derived from File:Celts in Europe.png, omission of the early modern stage. Sources for data: See File talk:Celts in Europe.png, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50243888

The map above shows the core of the archeaological Hallstatt Culture in yellow, which has been associated with the earliest Celtic-speaking peoples in Europe. Interestingly, this puts the earliest Celts in Central Europe, especially Southern Germany, northern Austria and Switzerland as well as parts of the Czechia and France, parts of Europe where predominantly Germanic languages are spoken today.

Celtic Tribes
Overview of ancient Celtic tribes. By Dbachmann, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4003285

Whilst this theory remains the most commonly accepted one in regards to the origin and the expansion of the Celtic language and culture, there are others which prefer an Atlantic origin of the Celts along the western coastline of the continent, such as Barry Cunliffe, all the way from Iberia to Britannia.

Atlantic Bronze Age Culture
The Atlantic Bronze Age Culture. By Sugaar – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1286380

The Hallstatt Culture and perhaps its predecessor, the Urnfield Culture, still provide the most widely accepted origin theory for the Celts, but this might be due to the fact, that this new theory only was proposed in 2008, making it fairly new in comparison to the well-established Hallstatt theory. Further research will have to be conducted to give a definitive answer.

The Expansion Of The Celtic Languages and Culture

From it’s core region in Central Europe, Celtic culture and language quickly spread across the continent and even beyond. It is important to note, that only in rare cases we can actually testify, that the Celts themselves migrated into these regions to a large degree. So the answer to the question whether the Celtic Expansion was merely a spread of ideas or the spread of people remains unclear.

The Gauls

The first people to come under the influence of this continental celticisation process probably were the inhabitants of modern day France, ancient Gaul, to the west of the Hallstatt core. There, another presumably Celtic culture arose in the late Iron Age under mediterranean influence: The La Tene Culture. It encompassed most of ancient Gaul, which might be where the commom misconception of Gaul as the Urheimat of the Celts comes from. Furthermore it should be mentioned that the language spoken by the people living in the Alpine region is often considered Gaulish as well, hence the Roman name for Northern Italy: Cisalpine Gaul. Gaul itself, just as Galatian, are etymologically just different version of the Greek word Celtoi, Celt.

By around 600 BC the Celtic Culture and Language had spread to Iberia, giving rise to the Celtiberians. Whilst the culture of these people showed strong Hallstatt and La Tene influence their unique location and the stronger Mediterranean influence made them distinct enough to speak of them as an individual group within Celtic Europe. As in Italy, not all of Iberia’s inhabitants became celticised, and some tribal groups retained their pre-celtic identity, especially the Aquitanians, possibly the ancestors of the modern day Basques. Apart from the Celtic and Aquitanian inhabitants of the Iberian peninsula, there also were the Turdetani. Unfortunately, we don’t know much about them, other than they were supposed to be descendants of the inhabitants of the mythical city of Tartessos and that the Greeks believed, in ironic contrast to the modern view, that this city was the beginning of European civilization.

The Celtiberians

Apart from the Celtic and Aquitanian inhabitants of the Iberian peninsula, we’ve also got the Turdetani and the “actual” Iberians. Unfortunately, we don’t know much about the Turdetani, other than they were supposed to be descendants of the inhabitants of the mythical city of Tartessos and that the Greeks believed, in ironic contrast to the modern view, that this city was the beginning of European civilization. The Iberians themselves also were a people shrouded in mystery and very little is known about them, other, than they weren’t related to the Celtic speakers on the peninsula on the role they played in the Second Punic War, basically between hammer and anvil of the Roman and the Carthaginian forces.

After Hannibal lost the war against Rome, Iberia fell into the hands of the Romans and the inhabitants of all of Iberia became romanized, just as the Gauls would about 150 years later, after Caesars bellum gallicum.

The Insular Celts

Meanwhile, around the same time, further to the north of Europe, the Gauls from mainland Europe started to invade the British Isles.

Little is known about the inhabitans of pre-celtic Britain, just like the inhabitants of northern Europe in general, as the classic ancient writers didn’t usually venture too far from their mediterranean homes. But we know, that when the Celts arrived, they mixed with the British and Irish natives to form a new group of Celts, just as they had done in Iberia, to create the Insular Celts.

Interestingly, the British Isles are pretty much the only place on earth where Celtic languages remain spoken today, apart from Brittany. But the similarities in the words “Brittany” and “Britain” are no coincidence, as they are cognates and basically mean the same thing, “The Painted Ones”, “Britannia” being the Island of The Painted Ones. The close relationship of these two toponyms stems from the colonization of northeastern Gaul by Britons in the 6th Century CE because the Roman usurper Magnus Maximus had them settle there to aid him in his struggle for power. The amount of British settlers increased with the invasion of the British Isles by the North Sea Germanic Tribes from the continent in the 5th and 6th century.

Briton Settlements in the 6th century AD.

The Balkan and Anatolian Celts

Some Celts moved along the Danube Valley into southeastern Europe, reaching the Carpathian Basin and establishing first settlements there They came into conflict with the local Thracian and Illyrian tribes as well as with the Greeks and Macedonians after migrating further into the peninsula following Alexander the Greats death. After one particularly ambitious but unsuccessful raid with the goal of sacking the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi some Celts even moved into Anatolia, giving rise to the Galatians (see Cunliffe, Barry, “Europe between the Oceans”, p.360-361 and Theodossiev, Nikola, “Celtic Settlement in North-Western Thrace during the Late Fourth and Third Centuries BC: Some Historical and Archaeological Notes*”).

References:

  • Cunliffe, Barry: Europe between the Oceans, London and Newhaven 2008.
  • Theodossiev, Nikola: Celtic Settlement in North-Western Thrace during the Late Fourth and Third Centuries BC: Some Historical and Archaeological Notes*, Kraków 2004: Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of the Sciences

Featured Image: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/ab/Celts_in_III_century_BC.jpg


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