The Celts by John Haywood

John Haywood in his introduction of the book tells us that in recent academic writing about the Celts the focus has been on whether or not the Celts really existed and on whether the modern Celts are real Celts.  His opinion on the matter (with some reservations which he will discuss in the book) is that both are real.  He feels that rather than focusing on Celtic history as a two-millennia-long decline, it should be seen as a real story of survival.  John Haywood in his book is trying to explain the reasons WHY the Celts have survived in one form or another until today.  He gives us two reasons.  The first is that the Celts were not united so in his opinion they were harder to conquer and even when defeated they were harder to subdue because there was always someone ready to rebel.  The other reason is the limitations of their enemies’ colonial systems, which could not easily assimilate the decentralized tribal societies even after they were defeated.  He uses for his resources the Classical writers, archeology, and vernacular records.  The book has a beautiful bibliography that could be used for references or further reading on a specific subject.

The first chapter of the books was a very brief history of the possible origins of the Celts.  The author talks about the Indo-Europeans, and their connection to the Celts both through possible blood and language.  The author also talks about the Hallstatt and the La Téne periods.  The chapter was very brief, but I think that has more to do with the fact that this was something that a lot of Celtic history books have hashed and re-hashed a thousand times.  A few ideas that the author presented in this chapter stuck with me though.  The first idea that came through loud and clear is that trying to define the Celts by their culture is not a viable option because there has been so many changes across time in culture, technology and social structure that the modern Celts would not be recognized by their ancient ancestors.  Also in some of the places that have been distinctly called Celtic the Celts had adopted so much of the cultures they lived in it was no longer considered Celtic culture.  The strongest way and the most widely accepted way to define Celts is through language.  Another idea is that the Celts never collectively called themselves that, this only came about in the 18th Century and because of that, modern historians and linguists argue that the idea of the Celts as a people is simply a modern fabrication.  We have no myths of origin by the Celts and yet that did not stop the Greeks and Romans from giving them myths of origins based on their gods and cultures, and the chapter lists a few of these myths, which was really interesting.  The author also believes that during the Hallstatt period when the Celtic World began to integrate itself with the Mediterranean economy and encourage the process of political centralization they made themselves more vulnerable to conquest and political as well as cultural assimilation by the Romans.  The author believes that the end of the Hallstatt period may have been due to changes in the trading routes and the rise of the new chieftains in the North (the La Téne Chieftains).  This new power was more militant than the Hallstatt chieftains and its appearance marked the beginning of a long period of instability in northern and central Europe.  This is very much in keeping with what other experts in these two periods had said, the most widely known of which is Barry Cunliffe who wrote “The Ancient Celts” and most recently “Europe Between the Oceans”.

Chapter two discussed the Celtic migrations that were known in recorded history and they were certainly widespread.  The author believes that most of the larger scale migrations were actually planned well in advance like the Helvetii migrations, which took two years to plan.  The reasons for these migrations were believed to be due to shortage of resources, and to social tensions caused by over-population.  This includes warriors who wanted to make a name for themselves and lead their own groups of people.  Looking at the people that the Celts succeeded against, they were believed to be at the same stage of development as the Celts and this made it easier for the Celts to assimilate them into Celtic culture and identity.

The third chapter of the book talks about the Celts of the La Téne World.  It begins by discussing its social structure and how it differs from the Atlantic fringe to Continental Europe, the economy, housing and living conditions, the Celtic religion and Celtic warfare and ends by telling us that the Continental Celts were open to conquest and assimilation not because they were barbarians but because they were actually civilized enough to be included into the Roman world.  The chapter also tells us how the Celts were viewed through the ages.  For example, in the classical times they were inferior barbarians, while in the 18th century they were seen as Noble Savages.  In the age of environmentalism and New Age beliefs the Celts became a symbol for spirituality and respect for nature.  The author also goes into greater detail about the social structure of the La Téne Celts.  He tells us that it depended on the environment and the resources available to them, which in my opinion makes great sense.  The main form of social structure was chiefdom and it depended on lineage and inheritance and it was mostly tribal based.  Chiefdoms survived in Ireland until the 16th century CE and in the Scottish Highlands until the 18th century CE, which is the reason they were hard to conquer and keep by the Romans.  In Celtic Europe however, they were already developing kingdoms and tribal republics by the last centuries BCE.  This the author attributes to the trade with the Mediterranean World, a rising population and increasing prosperity based on efficient agriculture.  Celtic Europe’s adoption of state formations led to the arrival of literacy using different borrowed scripts by the 6th century BCE.  Around the 2nd century BCE they also began to use and issue coinage.  The chapter includes great explanations of the economy and what it was based on, how the houses were built and the living conditions of people, the Celtic religion and how it was similar and yet different to the Roman and Greek ones, and the methods and instruments used in warfare by the Celts of the La Téne World.

The Celts and the Roman Republic is the next chapter in the book.  The author begins by telling us that the Romans wrote this part of the Celtic story and so it is offered with all the limitations that that entails (i.e. this is a one sided story and we don’t get to hear what the Celts had to say about the same events).  The Roman version of events is colored by their memories of the 390 BCE sack of Rome by the Gauls. The author makes good points in this chapter about the Romans and the Celts.  The Roman expansion in his opinion was no more planned than the Celtic expansion previously was.  It was driven by internal politics and the search for secure frontiers.  The Romans were not averse to the Celts even though they tended to see them as inferior.  They formed alliances with some of the Celtic tribes just like they did with other peoples.  The Celts saw this as an advantage against their enemies of other Celtic tribes or non-Celtic tribes.  Of course these alliances tended to make the Celts easier to assimilate by the Romans but that was not necessarily unwelcome by the Celts whose main concern was whether the Elites’ wealth and status was preserved and if it was then so be it.  Most modern and classical Roman historians (like Tacitus for example) saw the Celtic disunity as a weakness that led to their defeat, but if it was so, the author asks, would it have taken the Romans 400 years to conquer the Celts??  The author gives as an example the Roman conquest of the Celtic Iberians.  He says that in the time it took to subdue and conquer these Celts the Romans were able to conquer the entire eastern Mediterranean with its ancient and sophisticated civilizations like Greece and Egypt.  Could it be that the disunity or more precisely the decentralization of the Celts be the reason that the Celts held on so long?  After all, it took only one year for the Romans to put down the rebellion of Vercingetorix after he united all the Gauls under him…I think this is an interesting concept and idea.  The author goes on to describe how the conquest of Cisalpine Gaul, Spain, and Galatia took place.  He describes how these conquests started and why and the strategies used by both parties in the wars.  The chapter ends with the threat from the north or the German tribes and their alliance with Gaulish tribes and how the Romans dealt with them after they (the German and Gaulish tribes) gave them quite the scare.

Chapter five deals with Caesar’s conquest of Gaul and how that came about.  The last chapter ended with the northern threat to the Romans and even after putting that threat down Roman attitudes towards Gaul changed.  The Romans saw Transalpine Gaul as a safe land route to Spain and a necessary buffer zone against invasions from the Germanic tribes in the north.  This is why when it was threatened by the Helvetii in 58 BCE and the Aedui, who were Roman allies, asked for help against the Arverni and the Sequani it was easy for Caesar to get the Senate to agree to war to protect Transalpine Gaul and the trade the Romans had there.  After dealing with these threats Caesar decided to go further.  He defeated the Belgae in September 57 BCE.  He then went after the Armorican tribes because they controlled the most important trade routes between Gaul and Britain.  The author then goes on to expound on Caesar’s incursions into Britain.  In the end of these raids Romans had increased trade and diplomatic contact with southern Britain and nothing more, it was up to the next leaders of Rome to conquer Britain.  The chapter also discusses the troubles that Caesar had with rebellions in Gaul like the ones led by Ambiorix and Vercingetorix.  Even though some Celtic areas remained Roman free in Transalpine Gaul in the end they too decided to get under Roman rule, which they preferred to the German tribes.

Chapter six is dedicated to the Roman conquest of Britain.  The chapter contains a lot of details that are not really given in other history books on the Celts.  It describes the troubles that the Roman had to endure while trying to conquer Britain and all the rebellions they had to deal with from people like Caratacus, Togodumnus, Boudica, Venutius, and the people of the Highlands.  It is interesting that when the Britons used guerrilla tactics they could win but when they united they lost.  In the end the Romans could not go beyond Hadrian’s Wall nor could they conquer Ireland.

In chapter seven the author discusses the Celts in the Roman world.  The Romans were good at assimilating other cultures because they tolerated other religions, which made it easier for the people to accept them.  The Celts appeared to have controlled the pace at which they became Romanized as evidenced by their burial practices.  The chapter was interesting because it told you of how the assimilation happened and how it differed from one Celtic region to another.

The making of Wales is the subject of chapter eight.  The author begins by giving you the version of events that Gildas the monk made famous and then he tells you what really happened.  Chapter eight is a very interesting starting point for anyone interested in the history of Wales and how it came about.

Scotland or Alba is the subject matter of chapter nine.  Again the author gives a great introduction to the history of the people who live there, where they came from, their struggles and what led them to the union with England.

Chapter ten is about my favorite subject, the history of Ireland.  Like the previous two chapters it makes an interesting read, whether you just want an introduction to Irish history or if you want a refresher to Irish history.  The history starts with early Christian Ireland and extends to the end of the fifteenth century CE.

Brittany in north-western France is a Celtic speaking region that I don’t know much about so I was very interested in reading about it in chapter eleven.  The history starts from when the Bretons went over as immigrants and ends around the fourteenth century CE.

England’s Celtic ulcer is the title of chapter twelve.  I automatically thought it would be about Ireland and I was right.  The Chapter dealt with the English attempts to control Ireland up until the time of Cromwell.

Chapter thirteen discusses the end of the clan system and how it affected Scotland politically.  The author discusses how these clans worked in the Highlands and how they came to be, in a very simplistic manner.

The last three chapters of the book discuss the Celtic revival (how, why and where it took place), the Celtic Diaspora and the causes and effects of it and the modern Celts.  The last chapter especially discusses (though very briefly) the future of the Celts.

I really enjoyed the book because it filled in gaps in my knowledge in certain areas like Brittany and Wales and complemented what I already knew about Ireland and Scotland.  It presented the latest of the known facts on the Celts and that is what a lot of older books lack.  It is a great book for beginners or for people who want an up to date discussion of the history of the Celts.


2 thoughts on “The Celts by John Haywood

  1. pastophoros says:

    Nice review. I intend to buy the book based on this review. Thanks.

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