There are many variations on the theme, but in outline, the history of the Celts is usually told as follows.

(The outline presented here is obviously a vast oversimplification, but there is now also reason to think that the whole basis of the story may be unsatisfactory, as is explained in an alternative history of 'Celticness')


The first known Celts

By around 8-600BC, in the lands just North of the Alps, peoples had appeared whom their literate Greek neighbours to the South came to call Keltoi.

These earliest known Celts formed principalities in the zone North of the Alps, and traded with the Greeks and Etruscans. Around 500BC these principalities were violently destroyed.

Above, a silver coin of Dumnorix, prince of the Gallic Aedui at the time of Julius Caesar, 50s BC. In his right hand he grasps a war-trumpet and a boar (battle standard? lunch?!) and in his left, it seems, a severed head... 

Left, graves excavated in the 19th cent, Hallstatt, Austria. These are probably the people Greeks called Keltoi


During the 400s, in a band of territory stretching across Europe from Eastern France through Germany, Austria and into Bohemia, new groups arose, characterised by, among other things, warrior graves and a new kind of art. Archaeologists call this the 'La Tène culture', the physical remains of groups who, around 400BC, suddenly erupted into Italy and began to settle the Po Valley.

Right, a bronze wine-flagon from Dürrnberg, Austria, 5th cent. BC, an early example of 'Celtic' art (known  to archaeologists as 'La Tène' style, after the place it was first described).


The Celtic Gauls; fearsome barbarian invaders

These newcomers were the Ancient Celts par excellence, otherwise known as Gauls. No longer a distant scholarly curiosity, the Celts were suddenly the most fearsome 'barbarian' danger. Around 390BC, the Gallic Senones actually sacked Rome, but they were driven back and largely contained in the Po Valley which became Gallia Cisalpina, 'Gaul this side of the Alps'


Left, the early Gaulish migrations.

  Left: the Gaulish warriors of Northern Italy probably looked something like this in the 3rd cent. BC 

The Galatians of Turkey


Migrating Celtic groups invaded the Balkans and, in 279BC, attacked Delphi, the greatest shrine in Greece. Beaten back with terrible losses, some nevertheless crossed into Anatolia (now Turkey) and established themselves as a kind of robber-kingdom around modern Ankara. Known by the Greek equivalent of the Roman name 'Gauls', these 'Galatae' gave their name to the land, Galatia, and so to the Galatians of the New Testament.

The famous Classical statue, the Dying Gaul, actually depicts one of the Galatians of Anatolia


The Celts in the West

It has also long been assumed that there were waves of Celts moving Westwards and North-West from the Central European homeland, to match these historically-attested Mediterranean migrations - even though there were no literate observers in these areas to record such invasions. Nonetheless, in Spain/Portugal, the Romans found people called Celtiberians, and there are traces of Celtic dialects in various parts of the peninsula. This has been explained as a result of early, unrecorded Celtic invasions.


  Detail of a stone inscription from Botoritta, Spain, in Iberian letters, but the words are apparently in a Celtic dialect  

Inferring Celtic invasions of Britain and Ireland

Likewise, it has long been believed that there were Celtic invasions of the British Isles. Caesar recorded that Gauls, especially Belgae, had settled in Britain. Identical tribal names are found on the continent and in Britain (e.g.Atrebates, Parisi). Modern linguistics has shown that the indigenous tongues of the British and the Irish were closely related to those of the continental Gauls, and were all members of the Celtic family of languages.

Then as archaeology developed, the artefacts of Iron Age Britain and Ireland began to be identified, and in important ways showed links with the world of the Continental Celtic Gauls; all three groupings produced the same kind of characteristic 'Celtic' art, of swirling lines, suggesting vegetation, and sometimes stylised faces of people and animals. There seemed to be a common emphasis on weapons, strongholds, and warfare, and historical documents suggested institutions in common too, not least in religion; Druids, for example, are attested amongst all three groups.

The Ancient British and Irish, then, came to be seen as Celts like the Gauls and related continental peoples, from Spain to Turkey.


Small bronze head depicting a mustachioed man, Welwyn, England. Late Iron Age


Roman Conquest; destruction of Continental 'Celticness'

During the last three centuries BC, the expanding Roman empire gradually subjugated all of the Continental Celtic world, except for areas North of the Rhine and Danube, which were soon overrun by a new 'barbarian' grouping; the early Germans.

Many of the wholly or partly Celtic areas, such as the 'Three Gauls' (roughly modern France and the Rhineland) and Hispania (Spain and Portugal) became prosperous Roman provinces, but Celtic language and lifestyle did not survive the process of 'Romanization'. All these lands came to speak Latin dialects, ancestral to the 'Romance' languages of today (Spanish, French, Portugese, Catalan, etc.). Rome extinguished 'Celticity' on the European mainland.


Top right, Hadrian's Wall, a Roman military work built from sea to sea across Northen Britain in the AD 120s)

The cultural exchange was not all one-way. This 'Celtic whirligig' (right) is actually a sword-belt fastener belonging to a Roman soldier, and was found at Dura-Europos on the Euphrates, in Syria. 3rd century AD


Britain, Ireland and Rome


In Britain, Roman occupation of (roughly) the lands which would one day be England and Wales led to a similar loss of Celtic language and culture in the East of the island. Yet there was continuity of independence among the 'barbarians' of Caledonia (Northern Scotland), while Ireland was never invaded by Rome at all, and remained a patchwork of independent chiefdoms and kingdoms.

(The recently announced discovery of an alleged Roman 'military base' at Drumanagh in Ireland was almost certainly a trading centre).




Picts and Scots

As the Empire began to decay in the third and fourth century, the remnants of the free Celts moved onto the offensive. In Caledonia, a new confederation, the Picts, appeared. These threatened the Roman frontier, while Irish sea-raiders, known as 'Scotti', raided the Western coasts, even as Germanic Angles and Saxons were raiding the East.

Right, Pictish silver pendant, from after the Roman period



Catastrophe for the Britons


In the fifth century AD, Roman Britain collapsed, and the Anglo-Saxons invaded and settled the East, eventually to establish Germanic-speaking England. They pressed the native British groups, whom they called 'Welsh', ever westwards, into the land which would become Wales, and Cornwall.




The conquest of Brittany

From the West, some Britons crossed to Armorica, the western extremity of Gaul, even as that land was being renamed France after its new Germanic overlords, the Franks. The British migrants were not so much refugees from Anglo-Saxon invasion as invaders themselves; conquest and migration was the name of the game at the time, and the Britons took this opportunity for some expansion of their own. Henceforth, the island of Britain was distinguished as 'Great Britain' to avoid confusion with this new 'little Britain' (Brittany).


The Irish in Britain; the origin of Scotland

The Irish, too, joined in the military free-for-all, slave-raiding their fellow Celts in Britain (their most famous captive being, of course, the young St. Patrick). They also settled in Britain, most importantly on the West coast of Scotland, which was to take its name from these settlers in Argyll; the land of these 'Scotti' became 'Scotia'. Eventually, wars with the Picts and other lesser kingdoms led to union into the historic kingdom of Scotland, in AD843.


Ireland becomes the Land of Saints and Scholars

Ireland itself became a Christian land as a result of the work of St Patrick in the fifth century, and became one of the greatest centres of piety and learning in Europe during the seventh and eighth centuries AD, its clerics and artists having a profound influence in Britain (not least among the English) and on the Continent.



The Celts in medieval times and beyond

  • BRITTANY, an independent kingdom in the 9th century, became one of the many almost-independent duchies which made up medieval France. As central Royal power grew in the fifteenth century, so its independence dwindled, and it was politically absorbed by France in 1532.
  • WALES remained a separate principality, but under increasing English dominancefrom the 10th century. In 1485 the Welsh Henry Tudor became King of England, but his totally Anglicised son Henry VIII united Wales politically to England.
  • SCOTLAND was divided, roughly, between the Gaelic speaking (Irish Celtic) Highlands and the Scots-speaking (Germanic dialect, close to English) Lowlands. The warlike clans and chieftains of the Highlands were often in conflict with their Lowland neighbours, who thought them cattle-thieving barbarians. This formed the background to their eventual brutal suppression after their (actually luke-warm) support for Catholic Bonnie Prince Charlie's attempt to sieze back the British throne for the Ancient Scottish royal house of Stuart from the Protestant Hannoverians in 1745-6.
  • IRELAND Once the Vikings began to raid in 795, Ireland was permanently occupied, wholly or partly, by foreigners. The Danes were followed by the Anglo-Normans in the twefth century. During the sixteenth century the English imperial grip tightened, and relations were further embittered by the Reformation. Protestant England kept Catholic Ireland under subjection, sometimes incredibly brutal, until after the First World War.
  • MIGRATIONS All these lands saw substantial or massive migrations, especially from the 18th century onwards, partly lured away from often terrible conditions and starvation on the land to equally squalid, but more reliably paid, employment in the industrial cities of Britain, or to the promise of land and liberty in the New World and Australasia. Many of the migrants, especially in Ireland and Scotland, were unwilling, but driven away by llairds and landlords who put their own profit above the welfare of their own people.

The rediscovery of a common Celtic heritage

The 18th century saw the beginnings of nationalism in Ireland and elsewhere, and the rediscovery of a common Celtic heritage. Linguistics, and the beginnings of archaeology, laid the foundation for more detailed understanding of the histories of these peoples, and contributed to growing national self-consciousness, exhibited in politics and in cultural forms, not least art and literature. Perhaps this process reached maturity with the establishment of an independent Irish state in 1921.

Today, not everyone accepts this established view of a Celtic history, and it is now possible to write an alternative history of 'Celticness'