Celts and the Classical World

By David Rankin | Go to book overview

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Origins, Languages and Associations

To observe the Celts through the eyes of the Greeks and Romans is the first aim of this book. We shall scrutinise their perceptions of this powerful and numerous group of peoples, who lived to the north of their Mediterranean world, and who had the inconvenient habit of coming south. In this chapter we shall consider what may be the earliest Classical references to the Celts. We shall try to identify and describe as far as we can within the evidence who and what the Celts were, and what was their origin. Most of our evidence in this and the following chapters comes from the literature of Greece and Rome. The Celts themselves had a lasting prejudice against putting important matters in writing. Not until we reach the eighth century AD, about three centuries after the end of the period which mainly concerns us, do we find insular Celts, not Romanised, but influenced by Rome through Christianity, beginning to set down in writing a literature which was not predominantly Classical in form and content.

Specifically we have to discuss from Greek and Roman points of view some late Bronze Age and Iron Age peoples of Europe who, as far as we may conjecture, spoke dialects of Indo-European origin which are close to what we would now describe as Celtic, and who had a distinctive, but not unique mode of Iron Age culture. Like ourselves, when we talk about the Celtic-descended societies of Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, Man, Scotland and Ireland, the Greeks and Romans had a broad and generally coherent understanding of what they meant by Celtae (Keltoi), Galli and Galatai, even though they occasionally were mistaken about the ethnic affiliations of more remote tribes with whom they had not yet made contact. The word ‘Celt’ as an ethnic attribute was first used by Greeks to refer to people living to the north of

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