The World of the Celts by Simon James

Book Review by Ursus

James begins the book with the obligatory essay on what a "Celt" was in the first place. "Celt" as moderns use the term is a label applied to various European peoples who shared a linguistic and material culture. However, "Celt" as a label is no more precise than lumping together everyone who speaks a Romance language and calling them "Latins." The Ancient Celts would have thought of themselves in terms of tribes and regions rather than adhering to some pan-Celtic identity. Nonetheless, as a modern descriptor "Celt" is sufficient to aggregate these loosely related people together into a field of study.

Celtic history begins with Hallstatt culture, c. 1200 - 475 BCE. These peoples in Central Europe seemed to have benefitted as middlemen between trade in the Mediterranean (especially at the Greek port of Massalia in southern Gaul) and tribesmen still further north. This river based trade was controlled from hill top forts, and it seems that a small aristocracy developed an economy of prestige goods that reinforced their own status. If the archaeological evidence is anything to judge, Hallstatt princes had a taste for Greek and Etruscan wine. However, James asserts that Hallstatt culture was already developing before contact with the Mediterranean, for only a culture with a sufficiently advanced local elite would be able to import Mediterranean luxury goods in the first place.

The material record shows that Hallstatt culture broke down, and after a period of adjustment a new culture called La Tene developed. The trading patterns shifted from Massalia to northern Italy and the Adriatic coast. Le Tene culture is defined by its curvilinear art, advanced metallurgy, and a widespread pattern of settlements. When we think of Celtic invaders who intruded upon Greek and Roman history, those Celts belong to Le Tene culture.

And of course, the Celts invaded, seeking new lands possibly in response to overpopulation (and the Celts faced their own migratory pressures from the Germanic tribes). Macedonia and Greece were breached; the Oracle at Delphi was possibly looted, while a tribe took up residence in Galatia. Meanwhile, the loose confederacy of Etruscan city-states in northern Italy fell before the Celtic onslaught. When Rome intervened and bungled what passed for international law in those days, it too was sacked, setting back its advancement by half a century at least.

But as we know, the Mediterranean fought back. The Hellenistic kingdom of Pergamon was able to check the advance of the Galatians. Meanwhile, Rome recovered and began its inexorable conquest of the Celtic West, leaving only Ireland independent. Coordinated Roman tactics on the battlefield were generally superior to a more individualized Celtic fighting style. Then too, Rome practiced a shrewd policy of divide and conquer; Celtic tribes semi-Romanized through trade and diplomacy were used as allies against more independent tribes.

James provides not only a summary of this well known history, but also a survey of the various regions of Celtdom. The vast majority of the book then outlines various facets of Celtic culture. Which as a whole was not urban based, but centered around an extended kinship group inhabiting a small geographic area. However, the erection of populated areas around hilltop forts, along with the institution of annually elected magistrates, show that the more advanced areas of Celtdom were developing along lines similar to the Mediterranean.

The Celts of the La Tene era seemed to have been a "heroic" people. Warrior elites presided over a society of peasants and craftsmen. These warrior elites were wont to hold feasts where they bragged about their martial valor and the wealth they plundered, while bards sung the praises of their aristocratic masters. In this, the Celtic and Roman aristocracies were not so different, as both sought advancement through wealth and warfare. Indeed, this likeness facilitated Romanization of the Celtic upper classes after conquest.

But there might be at least four major areas where the Celts differed from the Greeks and Romans. One was illiteracy; information was passed down orally. Second, Celtic women had a higher status in their society respective to their Roman and Greek peers, but this should not be overstated as Celtic culture was still fundamentally male dominated. Third, Celtic art tended to be abstract and geometric rather than the more lifelike art of the Mediterranean. Fourth, Celtic religion was very localized, and was presided over (in certain areas of Celtdom) by special officials called Druids.

James spends some time looking at the history of Romanized Celtdom, and surveys some areas of how Celts adjusted to Roman rule (including a look at the hybrid Romano-Celtic religion). Gaul in particular became a success story of Romanization, becoming a linchpin of the Roman West. The book then concludes with a look at Celtic myths, the Celts in Ireland, and a resurgence in Celtic interest from the Middle Ages through modern times. (Much of what the New Age industry labels as "Celtic" is pure garbage, and I wish the author had taken a few pages to document this. Perhaps the author felt that New Age revisionism was beneath him, but I feel it is a topic that should be addressed by a qualified academic).

This is a beautiful "coffee table book." It is not written for academics - among other things it has no foot notes. But it is written by a British archaeologist for a general audience. The prose is intelligent and clear, and the various photographs, illustrations and charts are visual feasts.

Perhaps best of all it offers a fair assessment of the Celts, rather than barefaced revisionism. In an effort to rescue the Celts from history, some people go too far and overly romanticize them. Peter Ellis comes to mind, whose entry on the Celts was a barely constrained sneer at the Roman world. James seemingly has no axe to grind other than academic veracity, and while this book is almost a decade old, it nonetheless remains at the top of my reading list for its objectivity.

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