A Brief History of the Celts

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A Brief History of the CeltsA Brief History of the Celts by Peter Berresford Ellis
Published: 2013
Length: 255 pages

I started reading this months ago and it just dragged on and on. I was close to abandoning it quite a few times, but I’d always encounter something interesting just before dropping it. That’s the problem. The book is full of interesting events and facts, but it doesn’t go into enough detail and is just so dry.

I thought, as a Brief History, this would essentially be a high level overview of the timeline of the Celts with a few key periods looked at in-depth, but instead it felt like a full history of the Celts shoehorned into a book the size of a brief history. It was as if he still wanted to mention every major figure in the history but didn’t have enough room to explain anything about them, so it became a meaningless list of references. This book contained sentences in which I didn’t recognize a single noun.

The history itself is really interesting, and I found the chapters that touched on the stories, even superficially, fascinating. The common view of ancient Celts are as uncultured, drunken barbarian hordes scouring the countryside, raping and killing, but that idea originated through the historical writings of the Roman expansions, and it seems to be a case of history being written by the victors. The Celts were forbidden to write their history down until they began practicing Christianity, so a lot of their stories are forgotten or altered.

Maybe this is commonly known and shows my lack of knowledge in history, and why I really should be reading more along these lines, but I had no idea the ancient Celts occupied Rome for seven months. A tribe of Celts known as the Senones settled in peace outside of Clusium, an Etruscan city under Roman rule, as there were no other areas to settle north of the Alps. They asked the city elders to grant them permission to the lands, but the Etruscans felt threatened and called on ambassadors from Rome. Two arrogant brothers were sent to negotiate with the tribe, but instead of acting as liaisons and enabling communication, they led the Etruscans in war against the Senones. One of the brothers killed a chieftain tribe personally. They were meant to act neutrally, and failing to do so was apparently against international law (and just generally uncool).

The Senones were rightfully pissed off by this and sent a delegation to Rome to demand apology and compensation. The Romans didn’t budge, as the ambassador brothers held too much power in their senate, so this single tribe, led by their Chieftain Brennus, ignored the warring Etruscans and marched on to Rome. In the 130 kilometer walk, it’s noted that no Etruscans were harmed and nothing was taken from their fields. As they passed near cities, the tribe shouted out that they had declared war on Rome and that the people in the countryside were still regarded as friends.

They defeated the Roman army, which included their best generals and legions, 18 kilometers north of the city in what is known now as the Battle of the Allia, and walked into Rome the following morning. They held the city for seven months and decided, of their own will, to leave once a ransom of gold was paid and, a detail I love, an apology was extracted. They had no intention of taking the city permanently or forming an empire, it was all just punishment for a breach of trust and law.

While they were weighing the gold, there were complaints that the tribe’s weights were fixed, which prompted Brennus to toss his sword on top of the scale and exclaim “Vae victis,” Latin for “woe to the vanquished,” and the Romans were forced to bring extra gold to counter-balance the additional weight of the sword. I mean, come on, that is badass.

The Celts could certainly be fearsome and savage, but in many ways they were also fairly sophisticated for their time. Their scholars were treated with great reverence, they developed early roads and medicine, and the women had rights that weren’t common in other cultures. They had access to education, were able to participate in battle, could own land, and could even initiate divorce. The Battle of the Allia and the fact that the Celts were quite strong in battle probably led to the perpetuation of the rumours that they were war-hungry, childish animals.

I really wish Ellis had picked a few key moments in history, like the war above (to which only two pages were dedicated), and focused on those. I’ve learned that dry facts and dates just don’t do it for me. I need a narrative if I’m going to remember a historical event, and I should probably seek out books that tell the stories rather than just the facts. I’m glad I read this, even if it often did turn into a chore at times. It’s a good jumping off point, if nothing else.

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