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PRINTED FROM the OXFORD CLASSICAL DICTIONARY ( (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2020. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 28 October 2020


  • John Frederick Drinkwater


  • Ancient Roman History

A name applied by ancient writers to a population group occupying lands mainly north of the Mediterranean region from Galicia in the west to Galatia in the east. (Its application to the Welsh, the Scots, and the Irish is modern.) Their unity is recognizable by common speech and common artistic traditions. (1) Dialects of Celtic are still spoken (Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany), or are attested by inscriptions, quotations, and place-names in this area. See celtic languages. (2) The artistic unity is most apparent in the La Tène style (called from the Swiss type-site) which appears c.500 bce. It is a very idiosyncratic art of swinging, swelling lines, at its best alive and yet reposeful.

It is generally accepted that the primary elements of Celtic culture originated with the bronze age ‘Urn-field people’ of the upper Danube (13th cent. bce), who probably spoke a proto-Celtic language. From the 8th cent. bronze-working was gradually overtaken by iron-working, and as a result the ‘Urn-field culture’ was transformed into the ‘Hallstatt culture’ (from the Austrian type-site). It may have been the availability of iron weapons that allowed and encouraged cultures which we may term Celtic to appear in Spain and Great Britain as early as the 8th and 7th cents. Hallstatt society reached its highest point in the 6th cent., but fell victim to economic and political dislocation early in the 5th. However, Celtic development continued unabated with the emergence of La Tène culture, which was so strong that it gave Celtic warriors the power to break through the defences of the Classical world and reach the Mediterranean. In 390 they sacked Rome; and while in 279 one band raided Delphi, in 278 another crossed the Hellespont and eventually settled the territory called Galatia, where Celtic was still spoken in the 5th cent. ce. It was a developed Celtic La Tène society that Caesar confronted and described in Gaul in the mid-1st cent. bce, and indeed the migration of the Helvetii may be interpreted as the last great ancient Celtic population-movement. But by then the tide was running against the Celts. The ancients knew them as fierce fighters and superb horsemen, and noticed the savagery of their religious rites conducted by the priesthood, the Druids, who derived their doctrine from Britain. See religion, celtic. Yet the Celts’ political sense was weak, and they were crushed between the migratory Germans and the power of Rome, to be ejected (e.g. from Bohemia and southern Germany) by the former, and conquered outright by the latter. However, there was a notable revival of the Celtic warrior-spirit in the late Roman period, when western nobles either fought against the final wave of invaders or served their kings as counsellors and generals.


  • T. G. E. Powell, The Celts (1958).
  • A. Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain (1967).
  • S. Piggott, The Druids (1968).
  • A. Momigliano, Alien Wisdom (1975), ch. 3.
  • J. Untermann, Der kleine Pauly 5 (1979), 1612 ff..
  • J. Collis, The European Iron Age (1984).
  • H. D. Rankin, Celts and the Classical World (1987).