By Michael Sheane
The oldest surviving records of the Celts are quite brief. In the fifth century BC, Herodotus cites them as occupying the source of the river Danube, while Hecataeus at an earlier date describes the Greek colony of Marseilles had found them in the land of the Liguroans near the territory of the Celts. An ancient work mentions a Celtic settlement at Nyrax.
In Herodotus’ The Histories, the source of the Danube is cited as near Pyrene. He says that the Celts resided near the Pillars of Hercules (The Rock of Gibraltar). It may be said that the name Celtici survived into Spain up to Roman times.
The origins of the Celts, so archaeology tells us, points to their spread to Spain, and into Italy and the Balkans. We may deduce that in Herodotus’ time, the Greeks cited the Celts as being a barbarian race, living in the western Mediterranean and beyond the Alps. Ephorus, writing in the 4th century BC, said that the Celts were among the four major barbarian peoples. The term ‘Celt’ describes them in ethnological sense. From the four centuries since Herodotus to Julius Caesar, they lived near their literate neighbours. In regard to the term Celt, the Greeks wrote it down as Keltoi, having received it orally from the native pronunciation.
The term ‘Celt’ was not known to the peoples of Britain and Ireland, and there is no evidence that they used that term to describe themselves. The term Celt only came into existence in the 18th century during the Romantic Movement. In introducing the term Celtic to the study of languages, authorities show that by means of Classical sources, the surviving Gaelic and Welsh languages were descendants of the speech of the ancient Celts.
We come to place names. There are other sources describing the Celtic languages. In the first place, there are a number of inscriptions, mainly written in Latin, or more rarely in Greek. These were inscribed on altars and other monumenta.
What about the historical Celts? For the source material on which an account of the Celts has been based, we must fall back upon the Classical writers. A quarter of a century after the passing of Herodotus, northern Italy was invaded by barbarians coming via the Alpine passes. These invaders were Celts, as is shown in the names and inscriptions, but the Romans called them Galli.
Polybius, writing more than two centuries later, refers to the invaders as Galatae. It was recognised by Caesar and Strabo that the Celts used Galli in his time. This was known to the Greeks. In many writings, there is described a lesser race. There seems to be also a measure of different tongues. There is much ambiguity of names that modern English has simplified.
The Galli, or Gauls, had settled in Italy, first in the upper valley of the River Po and its tributaries. They overran the Etruscans, whose civilisation was well in decay. The Etruscans’ weakness attracted the raiders who plundered what remained of Etruscan culture. The later Roman historians thought that these Celtic invaders had come from the north west, from Gallia Transalpina, as known from the second century BC. These invaders were thought to have originated in Switzerland and southern Germany. The names of the invading tribes has been recorded, and some of them set up a fort that today is known as Milan.
The Insubres were followed by at least four other tribes who settled in Lombardy. They were latecomers. Not only did the Celtic invasion move as would-be settlers with their families and possessions, but were warriors campaigning as far as the south. Rome was an obvious target, but other barbarians raided far to the south of Italy. Rome was sacked in 390 BC when a large Gaulish army was caught between two Roman forces. Other forces were brought from the Alps, and their forces were defeated. The end of Cisalpine Gaul independence came in 192 BC when the Romans defeated the Boii at their fort, a place that was to become the modern Bologna.
To the east, the Celts come to historical notice, first in 369-368 BC, where bands of them were serving as mercenaries in the Peleponnese. In 335 BC, Alexander the Great was campaigning in Bulgaria. He took tribute from what he saw as the Celts of a later age. For some two generations, a horde of Galatae attacked civilisation. They were accompanied by their wagons and families. They started to raid and seek places to settle.
Their campaigns were well reported in Greek history, and the invaders were subjected to continuous guerilla warfare. The names Bolgios and Brenus are cited as leaders of this Celtic migration, but it is not impossible that these names may have been that of tribal gods, rather than those of tribal chieftains. These peoples are said to have attacked Delphi, but in doing so, brought an end to their own destruction. The Celts were still strong enough to have remained in the Balkans for some time longer.
But the most important recorded event historically was that undertaken by many tribes who parted from those that had invaded the Dardanelles. By enlisting in local disputes, they got themselves transplanted into Asia Minor, and to the modern Ankara in Turkey. These tribes enjoyed a period of unchecked banditry. It was the Roman Empire that eventually subjugated the Celts, especially in Britain, but a planned invasion of Ireland did not come about.