View Full Version : Celtic Migrations and the Celtic Identity

Sunday, September 7th, 2003, 08:42 PM
The first clearly identifiable Celtic migration is that of the tribes who moved westward from Bohemia and southern Germany,across what was later called Gaul,and into the Iberian peninsula,which they reached sometime before 450 BC.At about the same time, other Celts moved southwards over the Alps,occupying the Po river valley. There is evidence that some tribes reached as far as Rome,and even as far south as Sicily.

Archaeologists,careful to avoid controversies surrounding the Celtic identity,sometimes refer to the bronze-using peoples who made these migrations as the Nothern Alpine Urnfield culture .There were many tribes among them,principal of which appears to have been the Insubres who sacked Etruria and reached Mediolanum (modern Milan), Italy.

Later Celtic tribes expanded eastwards through Macedonia,invading Greece via Thrace and Thessaly. They attacked the temple at Delphi in 279 BC.Perhaps as many as 25 000 Celts went even further eastwards into Asia Minor and settled the area later known as Galatia. On the western Atlantic seaboard, there were tribal movements for centuries between the Iberian peninsula,Armorica (later called Brittany) and Scotland and Ireland. The last great migration of pre-classical times was the northward invasion of the Belgae into southern Britain and Ireland around 250 BC.

When these migrations are examined in detail, problems of identity occur. The essence of the problem is that we are forced to rely on the accounts of classical authors who had great difficulty in distinguishing between Celts, Germans and Scythians.

If we rely on linguistic evidence as the most secure indicator of Celtic identity,even access to a time machine might not be as helpful as could be imagined. The very name German is actually Latin in origin - it is from germanus , meaning genuine or authentic , so the Germans were simply the "real ones" - but the real what is not clear.

It may well be that the title Germani actually means the real Celts : that was certainly the interpretationgiven by the Greek historian, Strabo,who lived and worked in Alexandria. Plutarch,Poseidonius and Strabo recorded what the early Celts (or Germans)did with greater or lesser dependability according to one's point of view, but nowhere did they report what they said,at least not in their own words or language. Classical writers livened up their writing by having ket players in the story make elaborate and lengthy speeches, but of course the speeches were in Latin, not in any native tongue.

Tacitus does however make passing reference to native languages. For example,he identifies the Cotini as a Celtic tribe as follows:

Close behind the Marcomanni and the Quadi are the Marsigni,Cotini,Osi and Buri. Of these the Marsigni and Buri are exactly like the Suebi in language and mode of life, The Cotini and the Osi are not Germans:that is proved by their languages, Celtic in the one case, Pannonian in the other,and also by the fact that they submit to paying tribute. The payments are exacted from them,as foreigners,by the Quadi and by the Samartians respectively - of which the Cotini have all the more reason to be ashamed in as much as they work iron mines

The meaning of the reference to iron mines is likely that the Cotini could make themselves weapons,if they chose. Unfortunately while Tacitus makes the distinction, he gives us no examples of the Cotinic language itself. If we had any authentic samples of tribal language,especially any substantial fragements of written text,there is enough linguistic expertise nowadays to reveal a great deal about the origins and inter-relations of these early nothern tribes, but sadly such evidence is not available.

We can illustrate the extent of the problem by following the wanderings of one particular tribe, the Cimbri ,over a twelve year period, namely 113 BC - 101 BC.The Cimbri originated in the region now called Denmark.Their tribal neighbours were the Teutones ,the Harudes and the Ambrones . Most refference books list all four tribes as Germanic . Teutonic , derived from Teutones ,has come specifically to mean "relating to the Germanic languages".

However, the king of the Cimbri during that period was Boiorix , whose name is indisputably Celtic: the -rix element means king , so the name either means "King of the Boii or (far less likely) "King Boio ". The Boii ,who Cato says were subdivided into 112 seperate family clans, were a well known and indisputably Celtic tribe. The tribal name Cimbri is convincingly similar to the Brythonic term cymri , meaning "companions" or "tribesmen" from which Cymru , the Welsh name for Wales is derived.

During the summer of 113 BC, news came to Rome that the Cimbri,Teutones and Ambrones were moving southwards. They passed through the lands of the Scordisci (modern day Serbia and Croatia),then drifted into the territories of the Noricans and the Tauriscian Celts (modern Austria). A Roman army led by Papirius Carbo , met them in battle at Noreia, the Norican captial city. According to Plutarch, the nothern host was 300 000 strong, which is probably a considerable exaggeration,but the result of the battle was abundantly clear - Papirius Carbo's legions were utterly destroyed. Rome prepared for a second Celtic invasion and feared the worst.

In the event, the invading tribes moved west rather than south,and in three subsequent battles, the last at Arausio (modern Orange,Provence) in 109 BC, the Romans were again defeated. A young general named Gaius Marius was then appointed by Rome to deal with the problem. after the defeat at Arausio,he introduced strict and rigorous training regimes into the Roman army,which soon proved very effective. He pursued the Teutones and Ambrones in a series of forced marches towards the Alps and finally defeated them at the battle of Aqua Sextae (modern Aix-en-Provence).

The Cimbri meanwhile, had advanced further south and east into the plains of nothern Italy. Gaius Marius met them at Vercellae (modern Vercelli, Piedmont) in the spring of 101 BC. As was the Celtic custom, Boiorix challenged Gaius Marius to individual combat, and as was the Roman custom, Gaius Marius declined. Full battle was engaged and the new Roman tactics prevailed as they had with the other two tribes earlier. Plutarch paints a vivid and gory picture of the Cimbri allowing themselves to be slaughtered rather than submit to life as slaves in Rome. He tells us that the tribesmen, severely weakened by heat, thrist and exhaustion, chained themselves together to await death so that no individual would be tempted to try and run for his life and thereby bring shame to his people. The women killed their own children and their own menfolk and then killed themselves.

So these Cimbri, who spent 12 years wandering from their nothern homes into Gallia, Germania and Italia, and who were slaughtered in such spectacular fashion at Vercellae, give every indication of being Celts - both the tribe and their king had convincingly Celtic names. But the Roman nomenclature seems to have been based very strongly on geographical origin and followed a very simple scheme: Iberians to the west; Gauls (Celts) came from Gallia to the northwest; Germans (the "genuine ones") came from the north (specifically, from east of the Rhine and being "even more taller,more savage and blonde" than regular Gauls; and the Scythians from the east.

One convincing detail which suggests that the Cimbri, Teutones and Ambrones were not only Celts but the "genuine ones", the most Celtic of Celts, is Plutarch's description of how the Ligurians , Celtic tribal auxiliaries fighting on the Roman side, called out their tribal names during the Battle of Aqua Sextae. They heard the Ambrones calling out their individual tribal or clan names as rallying calls during the battle and followed suit - "they too shouted out their old names, for the Ligurians are known after their origins as Ambrones". In other words, the convincingly Celtic pattern of deep allegiance to the clan or tribal identity emerged even in the heat of battle across opposing armies.

Sunday, September 7th, 2003, 11:19 PM
Good read! Boiorix-now rix is an old Celtic word or Latin word(rex)?

Sunday, September 7th, 2003, 11:27 PM
Good read! Boiorix-now rix is an old Celtic word or Latin word(rex)?

Thanks providenje, I thought you would appreciate the reference to the Scordisci :)
Yes, the -rix element seems to stem from an Indo-European proto-word. Rix (Continental Celtic), Ri (modern Irish), Rex (Latin), Raj (Sanskrit).

Sunday, September 7th, 2003, 11:40 PM
Thanks providenje, I thought you would appreciate the reference to the Scordisci :)
Yes, the -rix element seems to stem from an Indo-European proto-word. Rix (Continental Celtic), Ri (modern Irish), Rex (Latin), Raj (Sanskrit).

Yeah, it's time they got respect:).Do you know if Celtic languages changed alot over the years? Maybe they have more Indo-European proto-words than I imagined.Maybe continental Celtic was really closest to Sanskrit? For example in Germanic and Slavic 'King' is Konig, Kral,Kralj.
We discussed the word ava(aqua)? before as well. In Germanic and Slavic it is Wasser,Voda.

Monday, September 8th, 2003, 12:06 AM
Yeah, it's time they got respect:).Do you know if Celtic languages changed alot over the years? Maybe they have more Indo-European proto-words than I imagined.Maybe continental Celtic was really closest to Sanskrit? For example in Germanic and Slavic 'King' is Konig, Kral,Kralj.
We discussed the word ava(aqua)? before as well. In Germanic and Slavic it is Wasser,Voda.

Hail Scordisci! :D
I do not know for sure how much Celtic languages changed over time.
I would imagine they did change like any other language, for example in the thread here in the Celtic Realm entitled "Dinnseanchas", I posted a short poem in Old Irish and it certainly looks a bit different from modern Irish. One word I see that I can compare is the word "Son", which in modern Irish is mac and in Old Irish was meic . They are different and I doubt a modern Irish speaker could understand very much of an Old Irish text, but in saying that some of it would likely be understandable and a linguist would be able to tell that one was simply a more archaic form of the other.
The problem we have is that Continental Celtic languages became extinct a long time ago (due to Roman expansion and dominion) and apart from some personal and tribal names (which tend to have been Latinised), we know almost nothing about them.
Although they are considered to have belonged to a different branch from Irish, I could still see the similarities between Ava and Abhainn (both meaning river)

I didn't think of Indo European proto-words in the language till you mentioned it. On the surface it does seem as if Celtic languages have retained more in their vocabulary. Old Irish was contempory with ancient Latin, so it does belong to an older era compared with languages such as English (which is really quite a modern language in it's present state). It shouldn't be suprising then, I suppose, that the retention is greater.

I'm going to post more on the eastward expansion of the Celts later, I'll see if I can find out more events which related to the Scordisci or their lands.

Monday, September 8th, 2003, 12:14 AM
It just seems as though the continental Celts didn't really have contact with Germanic or Slavic tribes,thats if they even existed way back then.Dare I say we could have been the same? I will look at the websites in Serbian about the Skordisians and I will translate anything interesting for you when I have the time:)

Monday, September 8th, 2003, 12:26 AM
It just seems as though the continental Celts didn't really have contact with Germanic or Slavic tribes,thats if they even existed way back then.Dare I say we could have been the same? I will look at the websites in Serbian about the Skordisians and I will translate anything interesting for you when I have the time:)

Yes, I would appreciate that very much.
I have wondered myself if the Slavs and Celts are intimately connected.
Certainly the Celts would have settled in South Eastern Europe and their genetic legacy can be found there I'm quite sure. I once thought that Slavs were ther eastern moving Urnfield Cluture people while the Celts were the western moving ones. My findings don't back that idea up though, the Celts moved east and kept their Celtic identity quite distinct and in tact. It may be quite likely that the Celts interbred with the proto-Slavic peoples and thus might be considered one of the progenitor peoples of todays Slavs. That's just an idea though, whether that could be proven (through genetics or some other means) I don't know.
It would certainly be strange though if people like the Scordisci did not have some genetic input into today's populations.

Monday, September 8th, 2003, 07:15 PM
I mentioned in passing in my first post that Rome prepared for a second Celtic invasion . So now I will focus on the Celts in Italy. The first Celtic raids into the Po Valley were so effective that the tribes not only occupied the region, but also gave their collective name to it. The fertile plains south of the Alps became known as Gallia Cisalpina , (Gaul this side of the Alps). Gaul proper, at least before Caesar's conquest of it, was Gallia Transalpina (Gaul beyond the Alps).

When the Senones , a Celtic tribe, attacked and destroyed the Etruscan settlement of Clusium in 390 BC, the Romans retaliated, which in turn led to the first direct Celtic advance against Rome itself.
The Roman army was defeated at the Battle of Allia and the Gauls now siezed and sacked the city. Livy and other Roman historians tell us that the Capitoline hill was staunchly defended by heroes, but this appears to be fictional propoganda. In real terms, it took Rome over fifty years to recover from the shock of the Celtic invasion.

The Gauls had to be bribed to leave the city, and as the legend goes, when the Romans complained at the unjust way in which the ransom money was being weighed out on the scales, the victorious Celtic King Brennus (Bran is probably the Celtic original of the name) threw his sword onto the scale saying (presumably in perfect Latin) "Vae Victus!" - Woe to the conquered!. The Romans coined the term terror Gallicus to describe the Celtic threat and all later classical descriptions of the Celts have to be read in the context of this deep historical animosity.

A few extracts from Livy's account of the Celtic sack of Rome convey a vivid impression of the event and of the Celtic character as seen through Roman eyes:

Rumour had preceded them....but in spite of the warnings, the sheer speed of the Gallic advance was a frightful thing. The Roman army, moving with all the haste of a mass emergency levy, had hardly covered eleven miles before it met the invaders at the spot where the river Allia descends.....The ground in front and on both sides was already swarming with enemy soldiers, and the air was loud with the dreadful din of the fierce war-songs and discordant shouts of a people whose very life is wild adventure (sounds like a typical Saturday at a Celtic game :D). The Roman commanders had taken no precautions....Alas, not good fortune only, but good generalship was on the barbarian side.

In the lines of the legionaries - officers and men alike - there was no trace of the old Roman manhood. They fled in panic......The Gauls could hardly believe their eyes, so easy, so miraculously swift their victory had been.....They began to collect the arms and equipment of the dead and to pile them, as their manner is, into heaps........Rome was indeed a city of lamentation.....Then news came that the Gauls were at the gates;the anguish of personal bereavement was forgotten in a wave of panic,and all too soon cries like the howling of wolves and barbaric songs could be heard, as the Gallic squadrons rode hither and tither close outside the walls"

Mediolanum (modern Milan) was the capital of the Insubres , the largest and most powerful of the invading Celtic tribes. The Cenomani settles in Brixia (modern Brescia). The Boii settled in Felsina (modern Bologna). The Senones and Lingones advanced further south and led the sack of Rome.

Rome signed a treaty with the Senones in 332 BC. Further unrest followed however, complicated by the Roman wars against Carthage, known as the First and Second Punic Wars. In 232 BC, exactly a century after Rome's original treaty with the Senones , Roman troops siezed their territory and installed colonists.

In 225 BC, the Celts were decisively routed at the Battle of Telamon . According to the account of the battle given to us by Polybius, over 40 000 Celts were slain and 10 000 taken prisoner. These were men and women of the Insubres, Boii, Taurisci and the Celtic mercenaries known only as Gasaetae or Sword-Bearers . In effect, it had taken Rome over fifty years to recover from the Celtic invasion, and over a century to exact vengence for it.

Wednesday, September 10th, 2003, 10:12 PM
Strabo tells us that Alexander the Great met Celtic tribesmen in the Balkans in 335 BC,drank with them, and when he asked them what they feared most recieved the now famous reply that the only thing they ever feared was the sky falling on their head (in other words, they were afraid of nothing and no-one other than the gods). Nor was alexander afraid of them at that particular time - he was about to embark on his great conquest of Persia and the Celts were an insignificant little group of barbarians away to the north and west.

After Alexander died in 323 BC however, the break-up of his empire made space for the aggressive Celts to begin moving south and east into Macedonia. They were successfully contained and repulsed until 381 BC, when Celtic tribes siezed and beheaded King Ptolemy Ceraunus. The leader of the Celtic force was King Bolgios, whose name may be related to the tribal name Belgae or perhaps even the Irish people known in legend as the Fir Bolg (Men of Bolg, perhaps?), who were said to have come from Greece.

The invasion of Macedonia was completed in 279 BC. The Celtic force ("army" is too organised a word) then divided into two factions, following the kind of tribal infighting which was endemic in Celtic society.

One faction, headed by Leotarios and Leonnorios,set off eastwards eventually settling in Turkey and establishing a state subsequently known as Galatia, land of the Galls (or Gaels).

The other faction, led by Acichorios and Brennus ("Bran" in Celtic, although not the same person as King Brennus who cried "Vae Victus!" in Rome), headed south towards Greece with the intention of attacking and looting the sacred oracle at Delphi. The attack on Delphi was unsuccessfull,but provided yet another opportunity for classical writers to pen accounts of the barbarous Celts' savagery.

Pausanias wrote in his Descriptions of Greece tales of Celtic warriors pulling spears out of their own wounds so that they could throw them back at the enemy and of tribesmen slaughtering women so they could drink the blood and eat the flesh of their babies. Pasaunias also tells us that the Celts killed their own wounded as they retreated, that they were so terrified by thunder and lighteneing which accompanied the battle that they started killing each other, and that King Brennus took his own life by drinking undiluted wine - a fair amount of it one would have to guess!. I suspect that Pausinias got through a flagon or two of undiluted wine himself while writing the account ;)

Another Celtic force was decisively beated at Lysimachia by King Antigonos Gonatas of Macedonia in 277 BC and that effectively ended the Celtic presence in Greece itself. A few small tribal settlements persisted, but they were eventually absorbed into post-Alexandrian Greece.

The Galatian settlement lasted much longer, but there remains there in central Turkey little archaelogical eveidence of the Celtic enclave which existed there. A Galatian state existed from about 270 BC - AD 74, and the use of a Celtic language persisted for many centuries after that. St Jerome recorded that the Galatians still used their own language in his time (AD331-420), which was similar to that of the Treveri, the Celts of eastern Gaul.

The faction led by Leotarios and Leonnorios originally decided to move eastwards because they were invited there to support King Nicomedes of Bythnia. He was happy to propel these invading barbarians further east to create a buffer state between himself and the Phrygians. Classical accounts tell us that the Celtic force consisted of three tribes - the Tectosages, the Trocmii and the Tolistobogii.

Strabo tells us that the Tectosages came originally from the region near modern Toulouse in France, and that they were a sept or clan of a larger tribe called the Volcae. These three tribes rapidly established territorial control of the region and then ruled over the people they had conquered, Phrygians and Cappadocians for generations after generation. They were feared for their barbarism and cruelty. They indulged in the typical Celtic pastime of cattle-raiding, but also extended into kidnap for ransom and general dealing in the slave trade.

They adopted a system of government unlike that of any other Celtic society. Each tribe was divided into four units, each of which was ruled by a tetrarch. The classical authors don't tell us whether these tetrarchs were appointed or inherited titles. There was also a national assembly with 300 delegates. The Galatian shrine was the drunemeton, which means "sanctuary of the oak". There is no mention of traditional kingship or of druidism in Galatia. There is mention of human sacrifice in 165 Bc, the victims being prisoners whose home states refused to pay tribute.

The Galatians of the first century BC allied themselves first with the Greek cause, more specificaly with Antiochus III of Seleucia, tne later with Rome after the massacre of Pergamon in which Mithrades VI of Pontius invited sixty Galatian representatives to his stronghold and murdered all of them and their families except for three who escaped to tell the tale. The Galatians were on the wrong side in the Roman civil war of 49 BC - they sided with Pompey, who had promoted Deiotarus of the Tolistobogii as sole king of all Galatia.

In AD 74, Galatia was absorbed into the province of Cappadocia. St Paul wrote in his Epistle to the Galatiansafter travelling among them, in particular to the settlements of Ancyra (Modern Angora or Ankora) Pessinius and Tavium. It is interesting to observe that , even in Paul's time, the settlement of Tavium was distinctly less Celtic in character than the other two settlements. As noted, Celtic speech survived in many parts of the region for almost three centuries after the Celtic state of Galatia itself had ceeased to exist.

There are many curious anomalies and omissions in the story of the Celts of Galatia. We have no idea why there are so few artifacts yet discovered (all we have so far is three brooches from the La Tene era), the absence of any reference to druidism or to druids is suprising especially since there is reference to a central place of worship, the drunemeton; the appointment or election of tetrarchs is unique in Celtic societies as is the "promotion" of a single king as representative over the whole people as happened with Deiotarus.

We can only guess that the Celts who followed Leotarios and Leonnorios were unusally susceptible to outside cultural influence. The tales of savagery remind us of the wild Macedonians, from which stock Alexander himself came, while the accounts of St. Paul convey the picture of a society which was greatly Hellenized, despite it's continued use of a Celtic language, and it's vices - boasting,idolatry,sorcery,drunkeness and jealousy, all of which reflect a more distinctively Celtic past :)