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"Celtic"...is a magic bag, into which anything may be put, and out of which almost anything may come.... Anything is possible in the fabulous Celtic twilight.
-- J. R. R. Tolkien
One warm summer day in the year 335 B.C., a young Alexander the Great was sitting outside his tent on the banks of the Danube River. His father, Philip of Macedon, had been murdered just the year before during a wedding, but Alexander had lost no time in seizing his father's throne and firmly establishing his own rule throughout Macedonia and Greece. Philip had long nursed a dream of invading the mighty Persian Empire to the east, a vast kingdom stretching from the borders of Greece to Syria, Egypt, Babylon, and all the way to India. Alexander shared this vision and prepared for the upcoming Persian campaign by securing his northern frontiers against the wild tribes of Thracians and Scythians who rode south to raid and pillage whenever they saw an opportunity.
Alexander had just defeated these fearsome warriors of the north in battle using the legendary daring and determination that would soon gain him the largest empire the world had ever known. But on this day the twenty-one-year-old Macedonian general and former student of the philosopher Aristotle was content to rest from war and enjoy the glow of victory with his companions. Among them was a young man named Ptolemy, a childhood friend of Alexander who now served as a trusted lieutenant. Twelve years later, after Alexander's death, Ptolemy would seize control of Egypt and establish a ruling dynasty that would end with his descendant Cleopatra.
Ptolemy'smemoir records that as Alexander sat before his tent, a small group of warriors approached the camp and asked for an audience with the king. They were unusually tall men with drooping mustaches, each wearing a gleaming gold torque -- a sort of thick necklace -- around his neck, and a brightly colored tunic that reached halfway to his knees. They carried long swords in finely decorated scabbards attached to chain belts, while flowing cloaks of checkerboard green were fastened around their shoulders with enormous gold brooches. Strangest indeed to the eyes of a civilized Greek was the utterly barbaric way they dressed below the waist -- they wore, of all things, pants.
The embassy approached the astonished King and presented themselves as Celts who had traveled from the mountains of the west to seal a pact of goodwill with the victorious monarch. Alexander welcomed them warmly, assured them of his peaceful intentions toward their people, and invited them to share a drink of fine Greek wine. The Celts gladly accepted, though they refused an offer to dilute the wine with water as was the Mediterranean custom. Aristotle had taught Alexander never to pass up an opportunity to discover something new about the world, so the young general eagerly inquired about Celtic culture, history, and religion. Finally, when their tongues were thoroughly loosened by drink, Alexander asked his visitors one last question: What do you fear the most? Most men in such a situation would naturally have turned to flattery and quickly answered that they most feared the military might of the great general who sat across from them. But the leader of the Celtic band soberly looked Alexander in the eye and said, "Nothing. We honor the friendship of a man like you more than anything in the world, but we are afraid of nothing at all. Except," he added with a grin, "that the sky might fall down on our heads!" The rest of the Celtic warriors laughed along with their leader as they rose and bade farewell to the Macedonians. Alexander watched them stride out of camp and begin the long trek back to their mountain home. He then turned to his friends and exclaimed, "What braggarts these Celts are!"
This meeting between Alexander and the Celts was one of the earliest encounters between the Greeks and an almost legendary people who lived in the unexplored forests and mountains of western Europe. The few Greek records of the Celts before Alexander's time speak only of a wild and uncivilized collection of tribes known as the Keltoi, who dwelled in the distant lands of Italy, Spain, and beyond the Alps, all the way to the mysterious northern sea. But the Celts were rapidly becoming a force in the classical world. In the decades before Alexander, they had swept south over the alpine passes and breached the gates of Rome. Fifty years after Alexander, they would attack the sacred Greek site of Delphi, home to Apollo's oracle, and cross the Hellespont into Asia Minor, ravaging the coast before settling permanently in their own kingdom of Galatia in the middle of the Greek world. From that time to the end of the Roman Republic, the Celts would be a constant threat to the civilized lands of the Mediterranean. Only with the crushing defeat of the Gauls by Julius Caesar in the first century b.c. would the Celts virtually disappear from the stage of history.
Today, more than two thousand years after Caesar, the Celts are everywhere. Turn on the radio and you can hear the lilting melodies of Celtic music. Browse your local bookstore and count the numerous volumes available on Celtic art, history, mythology, and spirituality. Hollywood movies regularly feature fearless Celtic warriors facing down a vastly superior enemy or immortal elves speaking a hauntingly beautiful language of Celtic origin. You can watch high-stepping Celtic dance at almost any local folk festival or purchase intricately crafted Celtic jewelry.
But who were the Celts? Do modern ideas of Celtic culture have genuine roots stretching back to ancient times? If so, what were these Celts of Greek and Roman times really like?
The truth about the Celts may surprise you, because many of the most common ideas about them are based on fantasy or, at best, half-truths. They were not wild and mindless barbarians who knew little of civilized ways but a sophisticated and technologically advanced culture spread throughout Europe who in many ways surpassed the Greeks and Romans. Did the priests of the Celts, the Druids, really practice human sacrifice? Yes -- archaeology and ancient literary sources firmly agree that they did, but they were also believers in reincarnation who studied the subtle movement of the stars and composed hauntingly beautiful poetry. Were women really equal to men in ancient Celtic society? Yes and no -- it was definitely a man's world, but a Celtic woman had rights and power even Cleopatra might have envied.
We know about the ancient Celts through different kinds of evidence, such as Greek and Roman writers, archaeology, and the emerging study of early Celtic languages. But by far our best source for the true story of the Celts comes from the pen of a single man who is scarcely remembered today -- a Greek philosopher of the first century b.c. named Posidonius. When Posidonius was a young man, he set out on an extraordinary journey to the still unconquered Celtic lands of western Europe. Rome was even then beginning to sweep into Celtic territory. It was only a matter of time before the unstoppable legions would move north and destroy what remained of independent Celtic life in continental Europe. But Posidonius was a scientist as well as a philosopher, a man skilled at careful observation and methodical record keeping. Just as Lewis and Clark journeyed to discover the American West and its native people before both were changed forever, Posidonius set out on a mission to uncover the truth about the Celts before they were swallowed up by Rome.
The account Posidonius wrote of his journey was his History, a marvel of ethnic study that became a best-seller across the Mediterranean world. But somehow in early Christian times it disappeared, so that not a single copy of this priceless book survives today. However, we can reconstruct much of the lost original by carefully sifting through ancient authors, both famous and obscure, and piecing together like a jigsaw puzzle the scattered fragments of Posidonius that they quote. Even though many parts of the puzzle are forever lost, enough remain to create a vivid picture of a vanished people. By building on this forgotten History of Posidonius, along with the works of other early writers and recent discoveries by archaeologists, we can uncover the fascinating and true story of the ancient Celts.
Copyright © 2006 by Philip Freeman