Every people has two distinct lines of descent—by blood and by tradition. When we consider the physical descent of a people, we regard them purely as animals. As in any breed of animals, so in a people, the tokens of physical descent are mainly physical attributes—such as stature, complexion, the shape of the skull and members, the formation of the features. When we speak of a particular race of men, if we speak accurately, we mean a collection of people whose personal appearance and bodily characters, inherited from their ancestors and perhaps modified by climate and occupation, distinguish them notably from the rest of mankind. It is important for us to be quite clear in our minds about this meaning of Race, for the word Race is often used in a very loose and very misleading way in popular writings and discussions. Thus we hear and read of the Latin races, the Teutonic race, the Anglo-Saxon race, the Celtic race. If these phrases had any value in clear thinking, they would imply that in each instance it is possible to distinguish a section of mankind which, by its inherited physical characters, differs notably from the rest of mankind. Now in not one of the instances mentioned is any such distinction known to those who have made the races of man the subject of their special study. There is no existing Latin race, no Teutonic race, no Anglo-Saxon race, and no Celtic race. Each of the groups to whom these names are popularly applied is a mixture of various races which can be distinguished, and for the most part they are a mixture of the same races, though not in every case in the same proportions.
In the case of the populations which are recognised to be Celtic, it is particularly true that no distinction of race is found among them. And this is true of them even in the earliest times of their history. Tacitus, in the remarkable introductory chapters of his book, “De Moribus Germanorum,” gives a brief physical description of the Germans of his time. “Their physical aspect,” he says, “even in so numerous a population, is the same for all of them: fierce blue eyes, reddish hair, bodies of great size and powerful only in attack.” Upon this the well-read editor of the Elzevir edition of 1573 has the following remarks: “What Tacitus says here of the Germans, the same is said by Florus and Livy in describing the Gauls…. Hence,” he continues, “it appears that those ancient Gauls and Germans were remarkably similar in the nature of their bodies as well as of their minds.” He goes on to develop the comparison, and sums up as follows: “Who then will deny that those earliest Celts were similar to the Germans and were in fact Germans?”
These Latin writers were contemporary witnesses, and among the captives taken by Roman armies they must have seen the men that they describe. Thus, in early times the Romans observed the same physical semblance in the two peoples, Celts and Germans. It may be pointed out, however, that the physical characteristics on which they lay stress are those which exhibit the greatest difference between these northern peoples and the peoples of southern Europe. For that reason we may suspect a certain element of exaggeration in the description. We may take leave to doubt whether all the Germans of antiquity were fair-haired and blue-eyed, as Tacitus describes them. It was the fair-haired and blue-eyed Germans and Celts that attracted the attention of Latin writers, accustomed to a population almost uniformly dark-haired and dark-eyed, and they would naturally seize upon the points of distinction and regard them as generally typical.
If, then, by the name Celts we cannot properly understand a distinct race, what are we to understand by it? By what criterion do we recognise any ancient population to have been Celts? The answer is undoubted—every ancient people that is known to have spoken any Celtic language is said to be a Celtic people. The term Celtic is indicative of language, not of race. We give the name Celts to the Irish and the Britons because we know that the ancient language of each people is a Celtic language.
A certain amount of enthusiasm, culminating in what is called Pan-Celticism, has gathered around the recognition of this fact that the Irish, the Gaels of Scotland, the Welsh and the Bretons are Celtic peoples. So much favour attached to the name Celtic that in our own time the Irish language was, so to speak, smuggled into the curricula of the Royal University and of the Intermediate Board under that name. What ancient writers called opus Hibernicum, “Irish work,” is popularly known in Ireland as Celtic ornament. In the same way people speak of Celtic crosses, and there are even Celtic athletic clubs. There is no small amount of pride in the notion of being Celtic. It is somewhat remarkable, then, to find that throughout all their early history and tradition the Irish and the Britons alike show not the slightest atom of recognition that they were Celtic peoples. We do not find them acknowledging any kinship with the Gauls, or even with each other. In Christian times, their men of letters shaped out genealogical trees tracing the descent of each people from Japhet—and in these genealogies Gael and Briton and Gaul descend by lines as distinct as German and Greek. This absence of acknowledgment of kinship is all the more noteworthy because there is little reason to suppose that, before Latin displaced the Celtic speech of Gaul, the differences of dialect in the Celtic speech of Gaul, Britain, and Ireland were sufficient to prevent intercourse without interpreters.
From this ignorance of their Celtic kinship and origin we must draw one important conclusion. The extraordinary vitality of popular tradition in some respects must be set off by its extraordinary mortality in other respects. There must have been a time when the Celts of Ireland, Britain and Gaul were fully aware that they were nearer akin to each other than to the Germans and Italians, but this knowledge perished altogether from the popular memory and the popular consciousness.
It was re-discovered and re-established by a Scottish Gael, George Buchanan, in the sixteenth century. Buchanan, in his history of Scotland, published in 1589, dismissed as fabulous that section of the Irish and British genealogies that purported to trace the origin of each people, generation by generation, from Japhet. He was a man of great classical learning. No better refutation could be adduced of the notion that Bacon, who was a child when Buchanan wrote, established the inductive method of scientific proof than the clear and well-marshalled argument by which Buchanan proves from numerous Greek and Latin sources that the Gaels and the Britons were branches of the ancient Celtic people of the Continent.
An account of Buchanan’s discourse on this subject will be found in an article by me in the “Irish Review,” of December, 1913. Buchanan’s discovery seems to have lain dormant, as regards any effect on learning or the popular mind, for more than a century. In his argument he dealt rather severely with the statements of a contemporary Welsh antiquary, Humphrey Llwyd, and this controversy had probably the effect of sowing the seed of what may be called Celtic consciousness in the soil of Welsh learning. In Ireland, though Buchanan’s work was doubtless known and read, his theory of the Celtic origin of the Irish people and their language, and of their kinship to the Britons and the Continental Celts, does not appear to have been thought worth discussion, so firmly established were the ancient accounts which attributed to the Gaels of Ireland a Scythian origin. Yet these ancient accounts, as I propose to show in the third lecture of this series, did not belong to the true national tradition, ran counter to tradition, and owed their invention to the Latin learning of Ireland in the early Christian period.
In 1707 the publication of the first volume of Edward Llwyd’s “Archæologia Britannica” exhibits the first fruiting of Buchanan’s theory, in the form of a sort of conspectus of the Celtic languages then extant, namely, the Gaelic of Ireland and Scotland, and the British languages of Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. From this time onward, the existence of a group of Celtic peoples may be taken as a recognised fact in the learned world. I do not know whether anyone has yet traced the early stages of the recognition of the same fact in Continental learning.
The Celtic languages now began to attract attention from outside. I ought, however, to note here that already for a brief period the Irish language had seemed about to extend its influence beyond the limits of its own people. It will be remembered that Edmund Spenser, during his residence in Ireland (1586-1598), made some small acquaintance with Irish poetry which was translated for him, and that he was pleased in some degree with its peculiarities. About the same time an English official in Dublin reports to his masters in London that “the English in Dublin do now all speak Irish,” and adds that they take a pleasure in speaking Irish. A primer of the Irish language was composed by the Baron of Delvin for the special use of Queen Elizabeth, and a facsimile of portion of it may be seen in Sir John Gilbert’s “National Manuscripts of Ireland.”
The growing interest in Celtic literature among outsiders is exemplified in some of the work of the English poet Gray, who died in 1771. His poem of “The Bard,” reflected, if it did not initiate, the notions long afterwards fashionable of the character of the Celtic bards and of the spirit of their poetry. Gray had the reputation in his time of being an antiquarian. He made an English version of the vision-poem on the battle of Clontarf from the Icelandic saga of Burnt Njal, and from this same poem part of the inspiration of his “Bard” is acknowledged by him to have been derived. Gray also wrote English versions of some Welsh poems, and the novelty of poetic expression which he borrowed here seems to have baffled for once the critical experience of Johnson, who contents himself with saying that “the language is unlike the language of other poets.” “The Bard” was published in 1755, and, if I am not mistaken, its weird rhapsodical spirit contained the germ of the Celtic literary revival, for Gray’s “Bard” may be regarded as the literary parent of Macpherson’s “Ossian.” In 1760, five years after the publication of “The Bard,” appeared the first collection of Macpherson’s pretended translations, entitled “Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland.” The consequences of this publication are fitly described by Dr. Magnus MacLean: “The arrival of James Macpherson marks a great moment in the history of Celtic literature. It was the signal for a general resurrection. It would seem as if he sounded the trumpet, and the graves of ancient manuscripts were opened, the books were read, and the dead were judged out of the things that were written in them.” In 1764 was published Evans’s “Specimens of the Poetry of the Ancient Welsh Bards”—which supplied Gray with fresh material. In 1784 appeared “Musical and Poetical Relics of the Welsh Bards,” and from that time onward the stream of translations from Welsh to English was fairly continuous. Notwithstanding the controversy that soon arose about the authenticity of Macpherson’s compositions, their direct influence and vogue went on increasing for half a century. Among those who shared in the Macpherson craze were Goethe and Napoleon Bonaparte. In France, de Villemarqué published his “Chants populaires de la Bretagne,” a collection of poems from the Breton. In Scotland, Macpherson had several imitators. In Wales, the new movement took shape in the revival of the National Eisteddfod in 1819. In Ireland, the first fruits of Macpherson’s genius are found in Walker’s “Historical Memoirs of the Irish Bards,” published in 1786, and in Charlotte Brooke’s “Reliques of Irish Poetry,” published in 1789. The originals in this case were genuine, including a number of poems of the kind called, since Macpherson’s time, Ossianic.1 The English versions supplied by Miss Brooke were in close imitation of the style and diction of Macpherson. The same influence extends to Hardiman’s “Irish Minstrelsy,” published in 1831.
The expansion of the new Celtic consciousness is exemplified in the publication in 1804 of a tract in French on the Irish Alphabet by Jean Jacques Marcel. The first important philological treatise on the Celtic languages was published by the French philologist Pictet in 1837, dealing with “the affinity of the Celtic languages to Sanscrit.” Next year, 1838, appeared Bopp’s work in German, showing the relation of the Celtic languages to Sanscrit, Zend, Greek, Latin, German, etc. The Celtic literary enthusiasm was henceforth supplemented by solid scientific research.
In these particulars is presented, I think, a fairly accurate sketch of the wholly modern development of the Celtic consciousness. I wish to recall here the fact that from the earliest traceable traditions of the Gaelic people down to the time of George Buchanan, there is not found the slightest glimmer of recognition that the Celts of Ireland were Celts, or that they were more nearly akin to the Celts of Britain and the Continent than to any other population of white men. The second fact which I wish particularly to emphasise is that throughout all its history the term Celtic bears a linguistic and not a racial significance.
It need hardly be re-stated here that the Celts are a linguistic offshoot of a prehistoric people whose descendants—also in the line of language—comprise many ancient and modern populations in Europe and Asia. It would be out of place now to discuss the central location from which the various branches of this prehistoric people spread themselves over so wide an area. Indeed, it is a facile and fanciful assumption to suppose that the spreading took place from one central habitat. It is enough to say that, whereas the earlier philologists took for granted that the original population, before its division into various linguistic groups, was located in Western Asia, the later philologists are strongly inclined to place its home in Europe, in the region south-east of the Baltic Sea.
The oldest known geographical descriptions of Europe are those of Hecatæus, who flourished about 500 years before the Christian Era, and Herodotus, about half a century after him. Their knowledge of the European mainland, north of the countries bordering on the Mediterranean and its inlets, was of the most vague and general kind. They divided the whole of northern and middle Europe between two peoples, the Scythians in the eastern, and the Celts in the western parts. They also knew of the Iberians in the south-west, in the Spanish peninsula and the adjoining parts of France. Herodotus, however, recognised to the west of the Celts a people whom he calls Kunēsioi and Kunētai, and in the furthest north of Europe a population distinct from the Celts and Scythians, but unknown to him by any name of their own, for he calls them Hyperboreans, i.e., out and out northerns. In the time of Eratosthenes, about 200 B.C., this knowledge does not appear to have been very much increased among the Greeks. They knew, however, of the existence of the islands of Ireland, which they called Ierne, and Britain, which they called Albion, and also of a country beyond the Baltic; but they still divided the northern mainland of Europe between the Celts and the Scythians.
I have already remarked how ancient Irish tradition ignores the Celtic origin and affinities of the Irish. We may go farther and say that our ancient writers, when they set about exploring the geographical knowledge of the world that came to them in Latin writings, had it very definitely in their minds that the Irish were not of Celtic origin; for, of the three great populations of northern and western Europe known to the oldest classical writers—the Iberians, the Celts, and the Scythians—they excluded the Celts, and included the other two, some selecting the Iberians and others the Scythians as the ancestral people from which the Gaels were descended.
The reason why to the Greek mind, in the early centuries of history, the Celts appeared to occupy so much of Middle Europe and to occupy it so exclusively, was I think this: the Celts at that time actually occupied the upper valleys of the Danube, the Rhone, the Rhine, and the Elbe, and the high ground between. These rivers were the principal highways of such transcontinental commerce as then existed, and this commerce was probably considerable, comprising various metals, salt, amber, etc. Whatever came and went in the course of transcontinental trade from north-western Europe to the Mediterranean countries followed trade routes which lay through the central region north of the Alps, and all this region was held by the Celts. In this way, the Celts seem to be more extensively spread over northern middle Europe than they actually were.
Archæology takes us back farther and tells us more than history in relation to the Celts while they were as yet, so far as we know, located solely or mainly in the mid-European region to the north of the Alps. It is not questioned that the ancient cemetery discovered and explored many years ago at Hallstatt in Upper Austria belonged to Celts and that the curious remains of art and industry found there are the work of a Celtic people. The period assigned for that work begins in the ninth century before the Christian Era and may extend onward for several centuries. The discoveries indicate an organised and progressive community, among whose resources were agriculture and the working of mines for metals and salt; but the principal fact disclosed is that, already in that early time, the Celts were acquainted with the use and manufacture of iron. In the northern parts of Europe, in Scandinavia, Britain and Ireland, as archæologists are agreed, the Iron Age did not make its appearance until several centuries later.
We need not doubt that it was this possession of iron in abundance and of skill in its manufacture, at a time when neighbouring peoples found in bronze the highest class of material for their implements of industry and war, that gave the Celts the power and prosperity which they long enjoyed in Mid-Europe and enabled them to conquer and colonize all the countries that surrounded them.
One effect of the mastery of iron, for a people occupying an inland region with small facilities for water-traffic, was that the Celts acquired a notable skill in the making of vehicles. From them in a later age the Romans borrowed the names of nearly every variety of wheeled vehicle that the Romans used: carrus or carrum, carpentum, esseda, rheda, petorritum. From this it obviously follows that the Celts were also great road-makers. During the nine years that Julius Cæsar spent in the conquest of Transalpine Gaul, and marched his legions in every direction over that vast region, it is quite evident that he was operating in a country already well supplied with roads.
The earliest recorded expansion of the Celts from the region north of the Alps was over northern Italy, and no historian supposes or suggests that the first Celtic occupation of northern Italy was earlier than about 600 B.C. This item ought to be borne in mind, for it has an important bearing on the date of the early Celtic migrations to Britain and Ireland. It was probably about the same time that they began to move westward across the Rhone, occupying the parts of France between the Garonne on the south and the English Channel on the north, which parts are specifically described by Julius Cæsar as Gallia Celtica, Celtic Gaul. Between 500 and 400 B.C. they spread south-westward into Spain, apparently more as conquerors than as colonists, for the resultant of the Celtic occupation of the Spanish Peninsula was the formation of a mixed people, partly Celts and partly Iberians, whom ancient writers distinguish from the Celts by giving them what we may call a hyphenated name, Celtiberians. We are not to imagine from this that Celtic conquests elsewhere were of an exterminating character, or that they did not result in a fusion of peoples. The notion that the migratory conquests of antiquity resulted in the displacement of one population by another is one of the favourite illusions of popular history. In Spain no doubt the Celtic element was relatively less numerous than in Gallia Celtica, and also perhaps the Celtic civilisation became less dominant, for the Iberians were in touch more or less with another and still more highly developed civilisation, that of the Phœnicians. That there was a somewhat distinctive civilisation south of the Garonne is clearly to be inferred from Cæsar’s account, which tells us that the people of Celtic Gaul differed from those of Aquitaine, as well as from those of Belgic Gaul, in language, culture, and institutions.
In the fourth century B.C. a second wave of Celtic migration poured over Italy. The Celts in this movement captured and destroyed the city of Rome. But they also appear to have destroyed the predominance of the Etrurians, and thereby to have facilitated the later imperial expansion of the Roman power. There was also an eastward Celtic movement along the Danube. In the third century B.C. the Celts overran most of what is called the Balkan Peninsula, including Greece, and in 278 B.C. large bodies of them passed over into Asia Minor and settled in the country which after them was named Galatia.
Let it be noted at this point that so far as history casts light on the subject, the known period of Celtic expansion on the Continent lies within the years 650 B.C. and 250 B.C. We shall have to recur to this fact when we come to consider, in the following lecture, the probable date of the Celtic colonisation of Ireland. We shall see also that the evidence from archæology leads to the same conclusion as the evidence from history.
History recognises the expansion of the Celts from inland and central Europe southward, westward and eastward, but is silent about any expansion northward. No one doubts that in these early times the parts of Europe northward of the old Celtic country already described were occupied by the Germans, but Greek and Latin writings have no word of the Germans until the last quarter of the third century B.C. Yet we know from archæology that there was trade intercourse long before that time between the Mediterranean countries and the shores of the Baltic, extending even to Scandinavia. As geographical facts, the Baltic and Scandinavia were known to the Greeks, if only vaguely known to them, in the time of Eratosthenes, i.e., about 200 B.C. How is it, then, that the Germans are not mentioned by that name or by any name? I suggest that the reason was that the Germans of that period were so much under Celtic domination that they were not recognised as a distinct people of importance.
The first mention of Germans in history is found in the Roman Acta Triumphalia for the year 222 B.C., in the record of the battle of Clastidium. Clastidium, now called Casteggio, is in northern Italy, on the south side of the river Po and a few miles from that river. It is a little west of the meridian of Milan, which at the time of the battle was Mediolanum, the chief town of the Insubrian Gauls. In the battle, the Roman consul Marcellus overcame the Insubrians and gained the spolia opima by slaying with his own hand their commander Virdumarus. The Acta Triumphalia state that he triumphed “over the Insubrian Gauls and the Germans.” Now so far as is known or thought probable there was no German population at the time settled anywhere within hundreds of miles of Clastidium, whereas the Insubrian Gauls were settled on the spot or in its near neighbourhood. Moreover, unless the Germans were there fighting in considerable force, it is most unlikely that any notice of them would have appeared in the record. The commander was a Gaul, bearing an undoubted Celtic name. Therefore the Germans at Clastidium were not fighting for their own hand, they had not come there as invaders. Thus we are brought to the interesting conclusion that, on this first appearance of the Germans in history, they had been brought from their own country, hundreds of miles away, to assist a Celtic people resident in the valley of the Po. To assist them in what capacity? Undoubtedly either as hired troops or as forces levied on a subject territory. Whichever view we take, the presence of German forces at the battle of Clastidium in 222 B.C. must be regarded as an indication that the German people, or portion of them, were still at that time under Celtic predominance. I say “still at that time,” because it will be seen that the Celtic ascendancy over the Germans soon afterwards came to an end.
What is thus inferred from the historical record is corroborated by philology. A number of words of Celtic origin are found spread through the whole group of Germanic languages, including the Scandinavian languages and English, which was originally a mixture of Low German dialects. Some of these words are especially connected with the political side of civilisation and are therefore especially indicative of Celtic political predominance at the time of their adoption into Germanic speech. Thus the German word reich, meaning realm or royal dominion, is traced to the Celtic rigion, represented in early Irish by rige, meaning kingship. From the Celtic word ambactus, used by Cæsar in the sense of “client” or “dependent,” indicating one of the retainers of a Gallic nobleman, but originally signifying “one who is sent about,” a minister or envoy—from ambactus is derived the German word amt, meaning “office, charge, employment.” From ambactus are also derived the words embassy and ambassador, with their kindred terms in the Romance languages. From the Celtic word dunon, a fortified place, represented in Irish by dun, is derived the word town in English and the cognate words in the other Germanic languages. Professor Marstrander holds that several of the names of the numerals in all the Germanic languages, and therefore in the original German speech from which they have diverged, are formed from or influenced by Celtic names of the same numerals. If this is so, it indicates a thoroughly penetrating Celtic influence among the ancient Germans, for the names of the numerals may be regarded as among the most native elements of speech, so much so that it is said that facility in the speaking of two languages rarely exists to the degree of being able to reckon numbers with equal readiness in both, and that the language a person uses in ordinary reckoning must be regarded as his native and natural speech.
This matter of the early intermingling of Celts and Germans in northern Mid-Europe will be afterwards seen to have a special interest in reference to the Celtic colonisation of Britain and Ireland. Before concluding the evidence I have to bring forward on the subject, it will make the drift of the matter clearer if I state the later outcome of the Celtic migrations northward among the Germanic population. We have already seen that, as archaeologists are agreed, the Celts north of the Alps were in possession of iron long before the use and manufacture of iron was established in the more northern parts of Europe. It is mainly to this advantage that we may ascribe the predominance acquired by the Celts among the Germans. In the German regions, however, the Celts were for the most part an ascendant minority. Their domination must have lasted for several centuries. A time came when, in those parts which in the Celts were numerically and otherwise in greatest strength, a fusion of peoples took place, resulting in a Celto-Germanic population, Celtic in language but mainly Germanic in race. Meanwhile, the less blended section of the Germans, retaining their native language, had acquired the craft of ironwork, and were advancing in civilisation and no doubt increasing at the same time in numbers. Eventually the German-speaking Germans became more powerful than the once dominant Celtic minority and more powerful also than the Celto-Germanic folk who had become Celtic in language. A sense of distinct nationality grew up between the two populations. The Celticised Germans were located in western Germany, towards the Rhine, the un-Celticised Germans farther east. Under hostile pressure from the German-speaking element, the Celtic-speaking element were forced westwards across the Rhine into Gaul. Here they in turn pressed back the Celts who had settled in north-eastern Gaul, and modern events will help to fix in the mind the fact that this overflow of Celto-Germans into Gaul extended as far west as the river Marne, where it was brought to a stand by the resistance of the earlier Celtic inhabitants. The date of this migration was probably later than that of the battle of Clastidium, 222 B.C., when, as we have seen, the Celts appear to have still held sway over the Germans. The Celto-Germanic settlers between the Rhine and the Marne were the Belgae of Cæsar’s time.
At first sight, this account may seem to be too precise an effort to fill up a blank in history, but the testimony of Cæsar and Tacitus, witnesses of prime authority, seems to leave no room for any alternative view.
Cæsar is the first writer in whom any mention of the Belgae is found. Holding the Gallic command for about nine years, he reduced the whole of Gaul to obedience to the Roman power. For him, Gaul, Gallia, signified the whole country between the Rhine and the Pyrenees. All its inhabitants in general were named Galli by him, but we also find that he uses the name Galli in a more precise sense as proper to the people of those parts which were not occupied by the Belgae. He also calls this people Celtae, Celts. Therefore in Cæsar’s mind the Belgae were less Gallic and less Celtic than their neighbours to the west. His evidence on this subject however is much more precise.
The Rhine was for Cæsar the main boundary line between Gaul and Germany, between the Belgae and the Germans. The Belgae, he states, differ from the Celtae, as these from the Aquitani, in language, culture, and institutions. The difference between the Celtae proper and the Aquitani has already been accounted for. The Aquitani, bordering on Spain, were the same Celtiberian mixture as the people of Spain; they were Celtic, or mainly so, in language, but otherwise mainly Iberian. I am proceeding to show that the difference between the Celtae and the Belgae is to be explained in a similar way. The Belgae were likewise Celtic in language, at all events mainly so, but otherwise they were mainly Germanic. When Cæsar says that the three divisions of Gaul differed from each other in language, we must understand that he refers to broad distinctions of dialect, for the names of persons and places in Belgic Gaul at that time appear to the reader to be quite as Celtic as those in Gallia Celtica or western Gaul. Cæsar tells us that the Belgae are ruder, less civilised and more warlike than the Celtae or Galli more properly so called, and his explanation for this is that they have less commerce and less intercourse with outsiders, and so are less softened by refinement and luxury. This is interesting, because it implies that Gallia Celtica had a sufficient degree of commerce, intercourse, refinement and luxury to considerably soften down the character of its inhabitants.
The westward and southward pressure of the Germans, then a very powerful and numerous people, was in full force in Cæsar’s time, so much so that it seems certain that Cæsar’s conquest of Gaul came just in time to stay and delay that tide of Germanic invasion which overran Gaul some centuries later. His first operations in Gaul were against the Helvetii, whose country corresponded to the modern Switzerland. He tells us that the Belgae are at continual war with the Germans along the Rhine, and also that the Helvetii in their own country fight almost daily battles with the Germans. In the first year of Cæsar’s Gallic command, the Helvetii came to a decision to migrate from their country westward, and Cæsar’s first campaign was conducted with the purpose of forcing them to return to their own country. He ordered them to return thither, he states, lest the Germans should take possession of the territory and thus become neighbours to the old Roman province in southern Gaul.
Cæsar states plainly that the Belgae for the most part are of German origin; that in former times they had crossed the Rhine and dispossessed the Galli (here he used the name Galli as proper to the other inhabitants of Gaul in distinction from the Belgae). He indicates that, after this migration, they had offered a successful resistance to the invasion of the Cimbri and Teutones (between 113 and 102 B.C.).
Modern Frenchmen, though their national name is in origin the name of a Germanic people, show a tendency, easily understood, to minimise the Germanic element in their composition, and M. D’Arbois de Jubainville, dealing with Cæsar’s statement that the Belgae were mainly of Germanic origin, seeks to explain that this was true geographically not ethnographically, that they came from German lands but did not come of German ancestry. Against the plain statement of a contemporary observer, such explanations are always to be received with caution. In this instance, there is corroborative evidence which indicates that Cæsar’s words are to be taken at their face value. Cæsar also tells us that the Condrusi, Eburones, Cærosi and Paemani “uno nomine Germani vocantur”—are called by the common name of Germans. Again he says that the Segni and Condrusi are “ex gente et numero Germanorum”—of the German nation and so accounted. Strabo, writing within a century of Cæsar, says that “the Nervii are a Germanic people.” According to Cæsar, the Nervii had no commerce, avoided wine and other luxuries, and were fierce men of great valour. They led the rest of the Belgae in opposing him. Tacitus is a hardly less valid authority, for his father-in-law Agricola had been engaged in long campaigns against the Germans in the Rhine country. “The Treveri and the Nervii,” he says, “are especially forward in asserting their German origin, as though by this boast of race to be distinguished from the pacific character of the Gauls.” It was surely not a geographical origin that was claimed in such a way. The Treveri dwelt on the west side of the Rhine. They were a Celtic-speaking people, and unlike most of the inhabitants of Gaul they seem to have retained their Celtic language throughout the period of Roman domination, for St. Jerome, writing in the late part of the fourth century, says that “the Galatians (of Asia Minor), apart from the Greek language, which all the East speaks, have a language of their own almost the same as the Treveri.” In one respect the Treveri, Cæsar tells us, resembled the Germans of his time—they excelled in cavalry; and his continuator, Hirtius, writes that “in fierceness and in manner of life they differed little from the Germans.” The Advatuci, he writes, “were descendants of the Cimbri and Teutoni.” All these peoples dwelt in Belgic Gaul and came under the common appellation of Belgae. In addition to Cæsar’s statement that the Belgae as he learned, not supposed, were, for the most part of German origin, we have detailed evidence that, of about eighteen States composing Belgic Gaul, no fewer than eight, in Cæsar’s time and long after it, were still accounted to be German.
On the other hand, then and afterwards, a number of peoples reckoned to be Celtic continued to inhabit countries to the east of the Rhine. The Tencteri and the Usipetae, on the German side of the Rhine, were Celts, according to Dio Cassius. Tacitus, speaking of the Helvetii and the Boii, says that “both are Gallic nations,” yet in another passage he speaks of “the Boii, a nation of the Germans.” Still further east dwelt the Cotini and the Osi, of whom he writes: “The Cotini by their use of the Gallic language and the Osi by their use of the Pannonic language are proved not to be Germans”: from which it appears that language was the criterion by which the Romans were accustomed to distinguish Germans from Celts. Again Tacitus writes: “The Triboci, Vangiones and Nemetes are certainly Germans,” but modern German authorities recognise that the Triboci and Nemetes are Celtic in these very names. Of the Aestyi, dwelling apparently on the northern seaboard of Germany, Tacitus says that their language resembles that of Britain.
Further evidence of Celtic occupation of regions considered German in Cæsar’s time and ever since then is afforded by a number of ancient place-names. For example, there were two towns or stations named Carrodunon, i.e. “wagon-fortress,” one on the river Oder, the other in the upper valley of the Vistula. Other Celtic place-names, like Lugidunum, Eburodunum, Meliodunum, are found in central Germany.
Tacitus confirms the evidence of Cæsar to the effect that the Belgae were a Germano-Celtic people who came westward over the Rhine and conquered part of the country already occupied by the Celts. “Those,” he says, “who first crossed the Rhine and expelled the Gauls were then named Germans but now Tungri.” The Tungri inhabited a part of Belgic Gaul between the Nervii and the Treveri.
It seems to me, then, to be certain that the Belgae not only came into Gaul from Germany, but were themselves a mixed population of Celts and Germans speaking a Celtic dialect. Holder assigns their migration into Gaul to the third century B.C. It is, however, undesirable to attempt to fix anything but a somewhat extended period for migratory movements of the kind. The instance of the Helvetii proves that down to Cæsar’s time the Celts in contact with the Germans were still in a very mobile condition.
Before using the facts hitherto stated and the conclusions derived from them to throw whatever light they can on the Celtic colonisation of Ireland, it may be well to state in a general way what can be said as to the stage of civilisation reached by the continental Celts before their subjugation by the Romans.
Some modern writers, but not very recently, have written about a Celtic Empire in ancient Europe. The nearest approach to authority for the existence of such an empire is a statement by Livy, who says: “While the elder Tarquin reigned in Rome, the supremacy among the Celts belonged to the Bituriges. They gave a king to the Celtic land. Ambigatus was his name, a very mighty man in valour and in his private and public resources, under whose rule Gaul was so abounding in men and in the fruits of the earth that it seemed impossible to govern so great a population.”
The most that can be made of this passage, supposing that Livy had it on better authority than some other parts of his history, is that at one time the Bituriges held what the Greeks called hegemony, a political primacy among the Gauls, and this, too, only in the time of a single king. It may reflect a genuine Celtic tradition, going back to the time when the Celts were still a compact nation inhabiting a relatively small territory.
When we come to contemporary evidence of the political condition of the Celts, we find that everywhere on the continent and in Asia Minor, their form of government resembles that of the Roman Republic. There are no kings, and the power of the state is vested in a senate with certain high executive officers. The Celtic form of government in historical time was that of a patrician republic. The Celtic people was divided into a large number of small states without any organised superior power. From time to time, however, one or other of these states might acquire a degree of political pre-eminence over a group of neighbouring states, forming a loose federation in which it took chief direction of the common affairs. We find the same tendency among the states of ancient Greece. In Asia Minor, the three states of the Galatae formed themselves into a strict federation, with a fixed constitution, a common council of state and a common executive both civil and military.
So far as I have been able to trace, wherever the Greeks and Romans came in contact with Celts so as to acquire a closer knowledge of Celtic affairs, they found this kind of patrician republican government. Cæsar found no kings in Transalpine Gaul, and the governing authority, when he mentions it, belongs to senates and magistrates, i.e., chief officers of state. It was apparently so in Spain a century earlier; and in distant Lusitania, corresponding to the modern Portugal, the most western Celtic region on the continent, in resisting the Roman conquest the chief command is held by Viriatus, who is not called a king by the Roman and Greek historians, nor is any king mentioned in his time. Nor do we read of kings in Cisalpine Gaul. Thus from farthest east to farthest west, the patrician republican form of government seems to have prevailed in all Celtic communities with the probable exception of Ireland; and this was probably their political condition as far back as 300 B.C., or earlier, before the Galatians passed into Asia Minor.
At some earlier period, the Celts were undoubtedly governed by kings. The word for king, represented by the Irish word ri, is widely exemplified in ancient Celtic names. From it, as I have already remarked, the Germanic languages took their word for kingdom or realm. Sometimes it is found in the names of peoples, e.g., the Bituriges, Caturiges, etc.; sometimes in the names of men, e.g., Dumnorix, Ambiorix, Vercingetorix. We find evidence, too, of a strong anti-monarchical sentiment, as among the Romans. The law of the Helvetii made it a capital offence, under penalty of being burned alive, to aim at autocratic power.
Not only the Celts, but the Germans of that time, were governed without kings, as Tacitus records. He adds, however, that they appointed kings to command them when they went to war. Here we have a parallel to the Roman dictatorship, the vesting of the power of the republic in the hands of a single ruler during a time of critical warfare.
I have already mentioned the proficiency of the Celts in the construction of wheeled vehicles, and the consequent deduction that they were practised in the making of roads. The passage already quoted from Livy shows that, with all their military ardour, they were known to be active in agriculture; and this is corroborated by other ancient authorities. The countries occupied by the Celts excelled in ordinary agriculture not only during what we may call Celtic times but in subsequent ages, and it is these countries that have furnished the most excellent breeds of domestic animals—cattle, sheep, poultry, dogs.
Originally an inland people, the Celts who occupied the seaboard soon became proficient in navigation. Cæsar bears witness to their skill in ship building, and he seems to have found no great difficulty in collecting from the Belgic coast a sufficient fleet of ships to transport his army and supplies to Britain.
From the Greek settlement at Massilia (Marseille) two arts especially appear to have spread among the Celts of Transalpine Gaul: sculpture and the use of letters. The remains of Celtic sculpture in Gaul show evident signs of Greek origin. Cæsar makes the remarkable statement that the Gauls in his time use Greek writing in almost all their business, both public and private. The Romans of Cæsar’s time had not long emerged, under Greek influence, from a state of comparative illiteracy, as every student of Latin literature must recognise. Among the spoils of the Helvetii captured by Cæsar, he found a complete census of the people written in Greek characters. Inscriptions in the Celtic language before the Roman conquest are in Greek characters, except in Cisalpine Gaul, where the characters are Etruscan.
On the subject of ancient Celtic art on the continent, reference may be made to the book by Romilly Allen, from which also a good idea of the skill and taste of the Celts in metal work may be obtained.
In general, it is clear that the Celts were a highly progressive people with a strong civilising tendency. Under the Druids, the western Celts developed a system of education and some kind of philosophy. With regard to their religion and to the part played by the Druids in Celtic life, I have summarised my own studies in a brochure entitled “Celtic Religion,” which is published by the Catholic Truth Society of England.
1 The Irish term for this class of poetry is “Fianaidheacht,” and is of great antiquity.