Who were the Celts? Was there a Celtic Empire? Did they build Stone Henge? The answer to the two latter questions is simple, no. The Celts shared a culture and a common language from which their dialects originated. But there never was a Celtic Empire. Stone Henge was erected thousands of years before the Celts left their first traces of existence.
The Celts were possibly not even the ancestors of the current populations of the countries in which they lived: Ireland, Wales, Scotland, France, Spain, Switzerland, Austria and Northern Italy. DNA research has so far been unable to establish a genetic link between the DNA of conserved bodies of Celts and the populations of these countries, not even between the Celtic tribes themselves. The only link between them and between them and the Europeans is cultural and linguistic. Paris, Belgium, Switzerland (Helvetia) owe their names to Celtic tribes. The names of the river Seine and Rhine (and many more) are Celtic. Surprisingly, the common ancestry of the Celtic dialects spoken in Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall and Bretagne wasn´t recognized until the 16th or 17th century. And only in the 18th century, during the ´Celt Craze´ public and (pseudo) scientific interest in who the Celts were and how they lived really took of.
The Hallstat and La Tene cultures
It was shortly after the Danish archeologist Thomsen divided the time before Christ into the Stone, Bronse and Iron Age that two important archeological finding places in Europe were discovered and the findings classified accordingly. The two places were Hallstatt in Austria (1846) and La Tene in Switzerland (1857).
In the third millennium bc Iron was first produced as a by-product of cupper and lead melting. It turned out to be stronger and more flexible than bronze and in 1300bc iron was the greatest secret of the Hittites in what is now Turkey. After the Hittite Empire collapsed, the art of welding iron spread to Europe. It was in Hallstatt, at the foot of the Salzberg, where in 1000bc the first iron objects in Europe were welded by Celtic blacksmiths. This new technology would spread the typical Hallstatt-culture across Europe and the British Islands. Hallstatt owed its influence on European culture to the salt mine which penetrated the salt core of the Salzberg. The economic value of salt is illustrated by the fact that it took the people of Hallstatt years of hard labour before they reached and could trade the salt inside the core of the Salzberg. Salt was traded for goods from Italy, Greece, Slovenia and even Africa.
The Hallstatt culture (800bc-450bc) was characterized by beautiful symmetrical lines and patterns, an art which became even more refined and flamboyant during the period of the La Tene culture (450bc-0bc). The swords, spear heads and other fine iron objects in this style were discovered in the lake of La Tene by Friedrich Schwab in 1857, after the water level had suddenly decreased and woodwork, once supporting a big concentration of housing, was exposed.
Hallstatt style (left) and La Tene style (right). As trading increased and the Celtic people became richer and richer, the most powerful men and women began constructing fortified hills along the trading routes, from eastern France to the south of Germany, the west of Hongary and Bohemen, building what archeologists call a ´hero community´: powerful figures surrounding themselves with heavenly armed warriors, providing a safe place for trade to be conducted.
Iron proved decisive in the transformation of Europe from a forest-covered continent to an agricultural powerhouse. Sharp and durable axes cut down forests, crops were harvested with iron sickles, plows were fitted with iron points, hammers, drills and other tools revolutionized carpenting and living conditions, while cooking become easier with iron hooks, knives, cauldrons and spits. The wheels of carts and chairots were fitted with an iron strap which greatly increased their durability. (The word car comes from Celtic carbanto).
The Celtic tribes basically spread over Europe largely unchallenged for the reason that there were few significant forces to stop them. An exception is the defeat of the Roman army and the subsequent invasion of Rome in 391bc.
In 334bc a Celtic army stood face to face with the army of Alexander the Great. The two parties had different agendas though, and decided not to fight. After the death of Alexander in 323bc the Celts took advantage of the chaos and invaded deep into the Greek Empire and destroyed the religious center of Delphi, killing the high priests.
Celts also were mercenaries for the Spartans, Carthagens, Syrians and even Romans. This brought them in contact with money, in the form of metal coins, which they began to produce themselves in the 2nd and 1st century bc. Their fortified hills were eventually replaced by more developed villages or even little cities, which the Romans called oppida.
Invasion of the Gaul by the Romans
It were eventually not the Romans from the south that initiated the end of the Celtic age, but the Germanic tribes from the east. The Celtic Sequani tribe asked the Germanic Suebi tribe to help them beat the Celtic Aedui tribe...
They did, in exchange for a territory which is now the Elzas in France. However, the Aedui asked for help from the Romans. The second time they asked for help, when the Helvetics fleed plundering across their land, the ambitious governor of Cisalpine Gallia and Gallia Narbonensis Julius Ceasar saw it as a great opportunity.
In five years, 58bc to 53bc, Ceasar defeated not only the Helvetics, but also the Germanic tribe, led by Ariovistus, and eventually all the Gallic Celtic tribes. After an expedition to Britannia there was another Celtic uprise, led by Ambiorix of the Eburons (a Belgium tribe). Ceasor defeated them again, destroying all villages and harvests, causing starvation among the Celtic population. Still not defeated morally, a year later, Vercingetorix led the last Celtic resistance against the Romans. 40.000 people died when Ceasar took the oppidum of Avaricum. After Aviricum the Romans were beaten once at Gergovia but they then besieged the fortified Alesia. In a last attempt, the Celts were finally united, bringing together some 250.000 soldiers to fight the Romans, but they were defeated and Vercingetorix surrendered himself and was taken to Rome, to be publicly decapitated in 40bc during festivities.
Invasion of Britanny by the Romans
Ceasar would never beat the Celts in Brittany though. He did establish a loose treaty with Cassivelaunus, the high king of south England, who himself needed support from outside to stay in power, but who revoked the deals when he regained his authority. The death of king Cunobelinus in around 40bc and his succession by his anti-Roman sons Caratacus and Togodumnus was the event that led the new emperor of Rome, Claudius, to invade Britanny and so increase his low reputation.
The first guerilla resistance of the Celts in Britanny was quite successful, but when it came to a big battle at the border between Wales and England around 50ad, the Romans could claim their final victory over the Celts. A last great uprise occured when the widow of the english king, queen Boudica, resisted the confiscation of her land and was flogged and her daughters raped. 70.000 Romans were killed. The Romans killed 80.000 brits and the queen and her daughters comitted suicide when they retook the country, but future governing of Britanny would be milder to prevent the event from reoccuring. In 122ad emperor Hadrianus built a wall across the entire British Island to protect the Roman part of Britan from attacks by the Scottish Picts (´painted´) and other Celts in the north.
The Fall of the Roman Empire
As early as the 2nd century ad Rome was pulling back troops from the Empire to defend borders closer to Rome. Around 407ad the last troops were pulled out of Britannia and the romanized leaders now had to deal with the threats from the Irish, the Picts and the Germanics themselves again. In the 5th century ad what was left of the Roman Empire was destroyed by tribes like the Gothics, the Franks, the Anglons and the Saxons.
Christianity and the Celtic heritage
In the 9th century the famous ´Book of Kells´, a manuscript of the four gospels, was composed and richly illustrated by monks working on the island Iona of the Scottish coast. In it, the La Tene style is used to illustrate the religious work:
During their spare time the monks finally wrote down the heroic tales which the Celtic Bards and Druids learned by heart for centuries but were not allowed to write down...