What the Romans Found: The Celts

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The Romans must have felt quite a bit of historical deja vu when they crossed the Channel en masse and discovered that the British Isles were inhabited by the Celts, the ancient people that they thought were rid of. The battles between the Romans and the Celts go back to the days of the Punic Wars and beyond.

The Romans first encountered the wild, savage Celts as Rome was beginning its expansion north and west. Roman historians reported the Celtic warriors to be long-haired, naked-fighting savages whose bloodlust in battle was the stuff of legend. The Celts, it seemed, got stronger as a battle wore on. They wielded great shields and swords and struck quickly. Their nakedness undoubtedly took their opponents aback, and their exploits were large and impressive. The Romans, being Romans, figured out how to win, though.

The Romans discovered that the Celts had a soft spot (or a sweet tongue) for wine. More than one Celtic tribe turned the sweet taste of victory into sour defeat by imbibing too much wine and falling asleep, to be slaughtered by Roman patrols. More important tactically, though, was the discovery that a Celtic warrior who wore no clothes and, hence, no real armor was vulnerable in many more places than an enemy who wore heavy armor.

After the Romans got over the initial shock of seeing their enemies wild-eyed and naked and driven by bloodlust, the efficient Roman warriors got down to the business of piercing the suddenly vulnerable defenses of these once-seeming invincible Celts and carving out territory for the ever expanding Roman population base.

It was even feared that the Celts would ally with Hannibal in his march on Rome. Yet, the Celts remained aloof, for the most part, still smarting from the recent Roman defeats.

As the Romans moved north and west, they drove out the indigenous peoples before them. Gauls by the thousands were either killed, sold into slavery, or forced to move. Julius Caesar (who was responsible for about a million Gallic deaths himself), when he landed in Britain in 55 B.C., discovered that the Belgae, whom he thought he had driven out of Gaul a few years earlier, had taken up residence in Britain. The same was true of the Celts.

Like so many things in ancient British history, the Celts came from somewhere else. It is generally believed that the Celtic migration to Britain took place between 2000 and 1200 B.C. And when the Romans came, they protected their culture, taking it far from the Roman reach.

This fact is all the more remarkable when held up against the illumination of this fact: The Celts never became a united nation. In hundreds of individual tribes, they dug in their heels against Roman encroachment and held firm in their belief that they alone knew how to govern and instruct themselves. (They seemed to have forgotten their relativity recent defeats at the hands of the Romans. Indeed, some archaeologists argue that the British Celts came from settlements nowhere near Roman lands and, hence, had no first-hand knowledge of Roman victories over their brethren.)

Each of these individual tribes had its own particular culture, based on the common Celtic model. In essence, a tribe was several families having a common ancestor. (This idea is present in the development of the clans of Scotland as well.) The tribes had different classes, including an aristocracy, a commoner class, and a learned class. This last class comprised the lawyers, poets, and priests, otherwise known as Druids. These Druids wielded enormous power over the lives of their fellow Celts. They kept their secrets to themselves but were never shy in instructing their people in how to live and how to keep their culture alive. It was the Druids who urged the Celts to fight the Romans. Tragically, the Romans were victorious in driving the Celts out of England. The Celts retired northward and westward. Next focus: Druids.