The Heroic Age
"A musician sang the praises of Britius, king of the Allobroges" - Appian
The Celtic Realms
The Celts of the Heroic Age, opening with the fifth century BC, lived in the region bound by the Atlantic to the west, the Rhine and Danube rivers to the north and east, and the Alps and Mediterranean to the south. Commonly grouped into the Gauls, Belgics, Celtiberi, British and Irish by geographical location, the Celts were in fact organised into scores of individual territories, referred to by the Greeks as ethnoi, peoples of the Keltoi (Morris, 2005, 63; Corcoran, 1971, 17), for which the Irish had the self-description tuath (Chadwick, 1971, 111; Todd, 1997, 23). They were bonded by language. The Celtic culture was one of several that developed in the first millennium BC within the Indo-European cultural family, along with the Teutonic, Greek, Latin and Balto-Slavonic in Europe (Chadwick, 1971, 43; Corcoran, 1971, 18).
When the use of iron spread into Europe, the transformation of the way in which resources could be harnessed paved the way for the recognisable cultures, and the earliest Celtic archaeological period, the Hallstatt, dates to the eighth century BC (Corcoran, 1971, 30). The Heroic Age may be defined archaeologically by the La Tène period of the fifth century BC (Chadwick, 1971, 223), an age where the warrior hero, distinctive art and beliefs of the Celts flourished across the temperate sweep of Europe.
Tuatha were headed by an elite of nobles headed by the ri, king, together with druids, the arbitrators with religious and judicial authority, supported by warriors and peopled by farmers and artisans (Todd, 1997, 23; Woolf, 1998, 8). The power of the ri stemmed from their noble birth, the wealth they accumulated and generated, and their reputation based on the provision of protection through the command of their warriors (Woolf, 1998, 8).
A major expression of the wealth and reputation of the nobles was in the weaponry, feast-ware and jewellery, including unique gold torcs, produced for them. Celtic craftsmanship in metalwork was particularly developed with its distinctive spiral, curvilinear and zoomorphic design (Chadwick, 1971, 225). Tension between tuatha for territory or resources provided opportunities for strong warrior leadership and alliances sealed by strategic marriage (Caesar, Bellum Gallium, 1.3). Great fortifications, such the caer of Bibracte, an enclosure of 135 ha surrounded by a 5 km ditch and stone faced wall (Woolf, 1998, 9) also demonstrated their strength. Luxuries further enhanced their reputations, such as imported wine from the Mediterranean acquired through trade of resources such as salt and tin (Corcoran, 1971, 36; Todd, 1997, 3).
The power held by the druids within the Celtic societal structure is shown by their adjudication of crimes, territorial or inheritance disputes, and presidence of festivals and elections (Caesar, Bellum Gallium, 6.13, 7.33). Their organisation was under an elected head and their annual assemblies, in 'the centre of Gaul' (Caesar, Bellum Gallium, 6.13) and Ireland at Aill na Mirenn, the Stone of Divisions, at Uisnech 'the centre of Ireland' (Ellis, 1994, 72) served as venues for the reporting, discussion and settlement of matters and strategies for issues that affected the world, and the sharing of news, legal precedents, innovations, solutions to problems and technical knowledge. In these ways the Celtic cultural continuity across very large distances and geography could be maintained and developed.
Gods and Goddess
The Celtic attachment to rivers is reflected in the divine matres, the tripartite Mother (Ellis, 1994, 42), and expressed as the goddess rivers Danu, Sequana, Sabrina, Boann and many others. The spread of the Celtic tuatha may have been divinely mediated through the incorporation of rivers and their associated territories into the realm of the Goddess. In Ireland, the Celtic deities were known as the Tuatha Dé Danann, alluding to the Celtic Mother Goddess and her original river, the Danube, and goddess-mediated origin stories exist there for rivers (Ellis, 1994, 129).
Protection and success was reflected in Teutates, Protector of the Tuath, (Ellis, 2003, 7). Gods such as Belinos, Lugos, Taranis and Camulus further reflected the strength and power of the sun, sky and the warrior hero. The continued success of the tuath was celebrated through Maponos, son of Rigantonia the mother and Tigernonos the father (Jones and Jones, 1993, xiv), whose multitude of heroic titles fill the pages of later Celtic mythological epics, including the 'Divine Sons' Mabon, Gwri, Mac Oc and Setanta.
The Celtic people lived across a wide temperate and resource rich landscape, suitable for sustained arable and pastoral production. Their world was driven by its ties to the land, and the ebb and flow of the seasons, Samhradh, summer, and Geamhreadh, winter, dividing the year. A sophisticated calendar of months, years and thirty year 'ages' (Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, 17.95) marked the seasons and their progress through the year, divided into Samon and Giammon halves (Ellis, 2003, 118). The time to plough, the time to reap, the time to make war, to take or defend territory, the time to feast, the time to plead, hear and settle disputes and the time to reflect on the success of the year - the cultural world of the Celtic people and the natural world within which they lived were bound together.
Conflict and Conquest
The Celtic world did not in any way exist in isolation to the events and influences of their neighbours, nor were the neighbours isolated from developments in the Celtic world. Through trade the rich lands of the south became known to the Celts, and as populations grew, expansion across the Alps brought them into conflict with Roman interests in the north of the Italian peninsula. Germanic expansion into the west threatened Celt and Roman alike. Rivalry for dominance between the Gallic tuatha of the Arverni and the Aeduans led the latter to specific alliances with Rome, and Rome in turn took the opportunity to expand its command after a call to assistance against a renewed incursion by Germans, beginning the conquest of the Celtic world by Rome. Informed by ancient sources, the sections that follow provide insights into some of the major conflicts between Celt and Roman imperium.