Viewing the Ancient Celts through the Lens of Greece and Rome

From the lecture series: The Celtic World

By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., The Catholic University of America

Few primary sources exist to educate historians about the ancient Celts. Thus we must rely on the writings of the Greeks and Romans, which are filtered through their biased perceptions. Learn how the Celts were often stigmatized and portrayed as barbarians.

Julius Caesar and Divico the celtic commander
Julius Caesar and Divico the Celtic commander parley after the battle at the Saône. Historic painting of the 19th century inspired by a scene described by Caesar. (Image: Karl Jauslin/Public domain)

Relying on Secondary Sources

Our knowledge of the ancient Celts occurs mostly through the eyes of the Greeks and Romans who wrote about them 2,000 or more years ago. Researchers rely on Greek and Roman authors, because—other than a few mostly fragmentary inscriptions—there is little information that was written by the Celts themselves. The reason for this dearth of primary sources is interesting.

Historical sources tell us that the druids, who were the intellectuals of the Celtic world, did not believe in writing. Druids believed that writing things down made people soft in the head; if you didn’t have to make the effort to remember things, then how could you say you truly knew them?

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Imaginative illustration of 'An Arch Druid in His Judicial Habit' from "The Costume of the Original Inhabitants of the British Islands" by S.R. Meyrick and C.H. Smith. 1815
The druids monopolized sacred lore, and were secretive about their knowledge and history. (Image: S.R. Meyrick and C.H. Smith/Public domain)

Another reason given for the lack of written records involves a trade secret issue. The druids wanted to monopolize sacred lore, but if it was written down, it was feared outsiders could access it.

Other reports suggest the druids did write things down but kept them secret. If true, those writings have been lost to time. Almost all of the written texts about the ancient Celts that still exist were written by the Greeks and Romans who encountered them.

Learn more about the common preconceptions about Celtic identity

Outsider Perceptions of the Celts

The story of the encounter between the Celts and the classical world is fascinating. Greek and Roman writers had various reactions to the Celts, depending on the message or portrayal they wanted to convey to their audience.

Roman bronze statuette of a captive gaul, 2nd century AD.
Roman bronze statuette of a captive Celt, 2nd century A.D. (Image: archaicwonder.tumblr.com/Public domain)

Sometimes the Celts were portrayed as barbaric warriors who threatened the survival of classical civilization. At others, they were noble savages whose high ethical standards presented a stark contrast with the degraded manners of contemporary Romans. On still other occasions, Celts appeared merely as curiosities exhibited to an interested reading public.

An important factor to keep in mind as well includes how much Greek and Roman authors truly knew about the Celts.

Some authors, having traveled to the territories where the Celts lived, knew an enormous amount. We know several ancient writers undertook extensive travels, both by land and by sea.

Helpfully, both the Greeks and the Romans established colonies all around the Mediterranean, frequently coming into contact with Celts on their borders.

Other writers had less firsthand knowledge of the people about whom they wrote. In some cases, they merely recycled stories they had heard or read elsewhere. In reading original sources, we have to be cautious in relying on the works of some authors.

Learn more about the earliest written records of the Celts 

Lost in Translation

Many of the texts about the ancient Celts survive only in fragmentary form. In the ancient world, writers commonly took works written by various earlier authors and copied the most interesting passages into a new work.

In some cases, this process could lead to the original, longer work going out of fashion; if it stopped being copied, the original work could be lost entirely.

As a result, bits and pieces of what people wrote about the Celts exists, but not the entire original text. It’s possible what survives are the most lurid, interesting stories and not the day-to-day information modern scholars want to study most.

Despite the aforementioned shortcomings, modern scholars are lucky to have information about the ancient Celts written down by people who knew or knew of them.

The Origins of “Celt”

Before proceeding further, let’s tackle an important question on the subject: the question of the name “Celt” and where it derives from.

There is no easy answer to this question. We know the word “Celt” was first used by the Greeks to refer to the peoples who lived in Gaul, just north of the Greek colony at Massalia, now the French city of Marseilles.

The earliest author who used the word “Celt” was a man called Hecataeus of Miletus, who described these peoples in 517 B.C. Hecataeus is an author whose work is known only through extracts written down by later authors. The Greeks tended to call these people the “Keltoi,” with a “k,” ever afterward.

However, researches aren’t sure what the word “Celt” refers to, but there are several theories. Some linguists think the word means “to hide,” while others think it means “to strike” or “to impel.”

“Celt” could mean “foreigners,” a common way that one people refer to another, or it could mean “the tall ones.” The Celts were often described as taller than the Greeks or Romans, so while that interpretation would fit, it cannot be verified.

Then there is the problem of what the Romans called the Celts. Some borrowed the word “Keltoi” from the Greeks and Latinized it as “Celtae,” with a C.

But most Roman authors referred to these people as “Galli,” or “Gauls.” Whether this was originally a name these people gave to themselves, or it was the name of a particular tribe, remains unclear.

In the 3rd century B.C., the Greeks called the people who invaded Asia Minor the “Galatae,” which is related to the Galli. This word may have as its root a word that means “warlike,” and it may be related to the name the Irish later used to refer to themselves: the Gaels.

Who Exactly Were the “Celts”?

Just as we don’t know the origin of the word “Celt,” we don’t know what ancient authors meant when they used the word Celt—who were they talking about? There was no formal definition of what a Celt was.

Classical writers from antiquity were not verifying to see if the people they called Celts spoke a Celtic language. The concept of the Celtic languages as a family of related languages didn’t exist in the classical period.

Ancient authors likely relied much more on descriptions of similar customs. They were likely diagnosing “Celticness” more in the fashion of an anthropologist than the way of a linguist, using social customs rather than language to define them.

One point to repeat here, though, is that the ancient writers never referred to any residents of the British Isles or Ireland as “Celts.”

Celtic Warrior Represented in the Braganza Brooch, Hellenistic art, 250-200 BC.
Celtic Warrior Represented in the Braganza Brooch (Image: British museum5/Public domain)

Early references give vague indications, clustered about the time of Hecataeus of Miletus in the middle of the first millennium B.C., that a people known as the Celts were believed to have lived in the north and west of Europe. The only clear thing about these early references is that these authors’ geographic references were inaccurate.

The famous Greek historian Herodotus seemed uncertain whether the Celts lived at the source of the Danube River or beyond the Pillars of Hercules—that is, beyond the Straits of Gibraltar. He is, therefore, unsure whether the Celts come from Central Europe or the western Atlantic coast of Europe.

Some authors had a good excuse for their geographical confusion, namely the fact that they never traveled to the supposed lands of the Celts at all; they were going on rumors they had picked up rather than on firsthand information.

We do know that some travelers ventured into the Celtic territory, leaving tantalizing hints of what they found. For example, an interesting poem called the Ora Maritima, or “Sea Coasts,” written in the 4th century A.D. by the poet Avienus, still exists.

Avienus claimed the poem was based on the Massaliote Periplus, a text from the 6th century B.C. that lists the major ports and landmarks a sailor could expect to encounter in the region around Massalia. The poem probably also contains information compiled by a Carthaginian author named Himilco, likely based on a description of a Carthaginian voyage of exploration undertaken around 500 B.C.

Learn more about the discovery of Celtic inscriptions on the western coast of Spain

Stigmatization of Celts

If these ancient authors were only vaguely sure of where the Celts came from, they assumed the worst of their subjects. Fairly early on in historical writings about the Celts, the group became associated with certain traits that stigmatized them as barbarians.

Bust of philosopher Aristotle
Greek philosopher Aristotle criticized the Celts for having a kind of crazed fearlessness. (Image: MidoSemsem/Shutterstock)

Aristotle, for instance, criticized the Celts for having a kind of crazed fearlessness, and he also reported disapprovingly on their predilection for homosexual relationships.

In contrast, elite Greek society was very tolerant of homosexual relationships. Aristotle’s information about the sexual mores of the Celts may not be accurate; it is easy for outsiders to be wrong, and extremely common to assume the sex lives of other cultures are more noteworthy than one’s own.

Aristotle’s teacher Plato criticized the Celts for drunkenness. This cultural habit seems to have been one of the aspects of Celtic society that classical commentators noticed the most.

Surrounded by myths and half-truths carried through the centuries, the information modern researches have on the Celts reveals little of the culture and traditions of these ancient peoples.

Common Questions About the Ancient Celts

Q: Is a Celt Irish or Scottish?

Celts contain both Irish and Scottish roots as Celt generally means “of the languages” which are Manx, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Breton, Irish Gaelic and Cornish.

Q: When did the Celts populate Ireland?

The Celts entered Ireland around 500 B.C.E. and took over the Irish Bronze age, creating a Celtic Iron Age in just under 100 years.

Q: Do six or seven Celtic nations exist?

Technically there are only six Celtic nations, according to the remnants of Celtic language: Cornwall, Wales, Brittany, Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Mann.

Q: Where do Scottish people originate?

The Scotts are native to Scotland and come from the Gaels and the Picts, who created the Kingdom of Scotland.

This article was updated on November 19, 2019

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About Kate Findley 113 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.