Who Were the Celts?
Ancient Greek historians, like Herodotus (400 BC) and Hecataeus of Miletus (500 BC), wrote about the Keltoi, a group of Iron Age “barbarian”tribes with a common language and culture that inhabited vast territories of Europe. The Keltoi’s dominion stretched from Ireland and the western Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) in the west to Bohemia (Czech Republic), Bavaria (Germany) and Austria in the east. The Celts were a mixture of western Indo-European peoples who created vivid ornamental art and spoke a language described by the Romans as Celtic. Their social power structure included warlords and priests known as druids. They lived in hill towns made to defend populated areas from other warring Celtic tribes. With the arrival of the Roman Empire, Celtic civilization nearly disappeared. Most of western Europe, except Ireland, was Romanized.
The Celts in Ireland
In Ireland, the Celts prospered. Ireland was linguistically untouched for many centuries, protected by the sea which made it inconvenient and inaccessible to Roman invaders. It was also unique in being the only western European country, with the exception of the Viking north, to which Christianity came without the Roman conquest. Old pagan festivals like Bealtaine, Samhan and Lughnasa, became saints’ days. From the 8th through 10th century, Vikings raided and set up colonies in eastern Ireland. Later came the Norman invaders and the English, who subdued Ireland and suppressed its Gaelic language until the early 20th century.
The Celts in the British Isles
With the arrival of the Romans, the Celts in the British Isles were pushed to inaccessible regions. Celtic traditions and language were maintained in the remoter parts of Great Britain: Cornwall, western Wales and the Highlands of Scotland. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Great Britain was conquered by northern Germanic tribes: Angles, Saxons and Jutes, in the 5th and 6th centuries AD.
The Celts in the Iberian Peninsula
Most Celts settled in the northwestern Iberian peninsula (Galicia, Asturias, Tras-os-Montes). In other parts of western Iberia they became known as Celtiberians. Far from home, they mixed with the local population. It took two centuries for the Romans to subdue Iberian Celts because of widespread guerrilla fighting. In the end, most of Spain and Portugal were Romanized and Latin replaced all pre-Roman languages except Basque. When the Roman Empire fell, most of Spain and Portugal were conquered by the Visigoths, except Galicia where a Germanic tribe known as the Sueves formed an independent kingdom. Galicia and Asturias in Spain and Tras-os-Montes in Portugal are currently the Iberian regions with deeper Celtic roots.
The Celts in France
The “barbarians”who inhabited France during the Roman invasion were known as Gauls, a Celtic culture. The Celts, who were already a mixture of peoples, mingled with the conquered population. With Romanization, the Celtic language disappeared from France. After the Romans, Franks and Burgundians took over most of France, including Brittany. The Breton language was re-imported from the British Isles in the 6th and 7th century when Celts from Wales colonized the region. It was a re-Celtization of Brittany, ethnically and culturally.