The Celts: A History by Peter Berresford Ellis

Book Review by Ursus

I have always been woefully ignorant of the Celts. In a desperate attempt to remedy that malady, I bought Ellis' book. There is also a certain overlap between Celtic and Roman histories, and I felt as a Romanophile I needed to know something about the other side.

Ellis first tackles the subject of the Celt's alleged illiteracy. He then outlines several sectors of Celtic society. He then offers some examples of Celtic high cultural achievements. Finally, he gives us a sketch of Celtic history from distant origins to Christian conversion.

Ellis writes in a clear and organized manner, and I had no problem digesting all the unfamiliar information he was throwing at me. There are times when he goes unncessarily the extra mile to drive home a point, but I stop far short of calling his style pedantic. Indeed, he manages to cram much information in a book that is suprisingly short and light. There are also some pictures and illustrations buried throughout the book, and suggestions for further reading.

I am now better acquainted with the Celts, and more respectful of their achievements which have been underrated by society. I have even developed an interest in furthering my studies on the matter. In that sense, Ellis achieved his aims, at least with this reader.

However, I am not going to bestow this work with an unqualified rating. There are some serious issues in the manner in which it is presented. For one thing, since most writings on the Celts come to us from Greco-Roman sources, there has always been an issue of how much we can trust the alleged biases of a people who were often at war with the Celts. For Ellis, there seems to be a double standard. When the classical authors say something about the Celts that make them seem smart and cool, he readily embraces their views. When the Classical authors say the slightest negative thing about the Celts, Ellis dismisses them as evil propagandists.

How convenient.

The author waxes eloquent about the achievements of the Celts and is always comparing them to other ancient societies, usually the Romans for whom Ellis seems to sneer in high contempt. As a Romanophile, I can see Ellis' own biases and prejudices against Roman society. Does being a good Celtophile mean despising the Romans? I don't think so, but then I'm admittedly biased myself as a Romanophile. I would have loved Ellis to devote more time to the fascinating subject of Celto-Roman society, where the cultures and the religions of the conquerers and conquered co-existed more or less peacefully and the Celts became valued members of Romans society. Ellis seems to largely gloss over these centuries of history. Again, conveniently.

Let's take the Celtic achievements in perspective. The Celts did build roads and buildings. But they built them with wood, which is prone to rotting. This is why few Celtic constructions have survived today, and why most people don't associate Celts with engineering feats. The Romans, on the other hand, built with stone and marble, which is why many of their creations are still around and why we marvel at their works.

Ellis points out the Celts could write when they had to, but otherwise frowned on doing so as the Druidic caste did not want to lose its intellectual control over the people, or have its knowledge stolen by enemies. Fine. But the fact remains that the ancient Celts didn't write things down. Which means most of their legacy necessarily comes to us through the eyes of hostile Greek and Roman contacts. Let's not complain that Caesar slandered the Celts in his writings; if the Druidic caste had not been so paranoid and parochial, they could have let the Celts speak for themselves, and we wouldn't have to rely on Caesar's biased accounts for our knowledge of Celtic society.

The image the Romans left us of the Celts as being illiterate, savage warriors may not be totally accurate. But all in all I do find that Ellis overstates his case in trying to correct the image. The basic theme of the Celts being less advanced than their Mediterranean and Oriental peers is I think still deserved on the whole. The contributions that the Celtic peoples made within the framework of Romanization would make a fascinating subject, but neither Ellis nor many other Celtophiles seem especially interested in the subject.

Ellis dissmisses academics critical of Celtic society as having an agenda against modern Celtic nationalism. I wonder if Ellis has his own agenda in the opposite direction.

As I said, I have a greater appreciation for the Celts and am inspired to learn more about them, and I thank the author for that. But I do feel there is some sort of agenda here to make the Celts the greatest thing since sliced bread, and conversely to turn Rome into the boogeyman of the Ancient World. The Celts lost the war with Caesar; get over it already.

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