Monday, 1 February 2016

Understanding the ancient Celts and their art: pre-Roman Celtic Society, part four

 Bronze coin of Ariminum, Umbria, Italy, ca. 268-225 BC shows Celtic warrior with shield and spear

The most important early Celtic cultural frame was warfare. It established status and wealth. The end of the late Bronze Age saw a metal shortage in Britain but the activities of the Celts brought vast amounts of Mediterranean gold back to Gaul and Britain. The earliest coin of the Ambiani was struck from that highly refined Mediterranean gold and it copied a gold coin of Taras in Italy. The Ambiani were one of the Celtic tribes defending Taras in Pyrrhus' army, but the gold coin of Taras was earlier than that and came from the time of Alexander the Molossian's (Alexander I of Epirus) Italian campaigns of 334-331 BC. Alexander was uncle to both Alexander the Great and to Pyrrhus. He was killed in those Italian campaigns.

The Mediterranean civilizations mostly really did not understand the Celts purpose in warfare. To them, warfare was about conquest and expanding territory as a means to greater wealth. The Celts, on the other hand were less interested in occupying foreign lands apart from being able to set up military bases closer to the action. For them, the wealth was obtained more directly: through raids to carry off booty; through hire to wealthy Greek leaders; through payments made so they would not attack cities; and through the ransom of cities they did attack. The amounts of gold demanded for the last two methods was far more substantial than those cities imagined. Rome could not afford to pay them off at all, and that payment was supplied by wealthy Massalia. Livy invented a story that the Romans defeated the Celts at the end and Polybius did not mention that Rome could not afford the ransom as his patrons were Roman. The complete story come from Trogus. We see ancient history being the truth; part of the truth; and nothing like the truth. At my best guess, the Celts took half of the Etruscan's treasury and the Etruscans did not even understand that this payment would get them no help from the Celts against the Etruscan's enemies. Etruscan gold coins underwent a 50% devaluation, and this did not bode well for them in future campaigns. Who knows? If the Celts had not taken half of the Etruscan wealth, Latin, and not Etruscan might have ended up being a dead language. Ptolemy Keraunos lost his head (literally) when he mistook the Celts' request to discuss terms as terms of their own surrender.

In Celts and the Ancient World, London, 1996, p. 94, David Rankin gives the following:
"Possibly, Greek propaganda added to the story of Callium the item that the warriors ate the flesh of infants and drank their blood. Those women who could summon up enough courage killed themselves or ran on to the swords of the Celts: those who did not were raped so repeatedly that they died from the injuries they sustained, or else were left to starve to death. The Celts are said not to have abstained from intercourse with the dying or the dead. History is so rich in authenticated horrors that we should be careful of falling into facile incredulity about such stories as this. Nevertheless, we may recall a similar story in Herodotus (8.33) of women killed by multiple rape in the Persian invasion of Phocis"

Truth or not, I imagine that such stories would have been welcomed by the Celts because they would increase the likelihood of a negotiated peace through the payment of ransom. The Celts also would allow a victory to be decided through a battle between two champions. While appealing to the Celtic champion's desire to achieve greater status through heroics, it would also prevent further casualties among their troops when ransoms were not going to be paid. Holding land and governing it afterwards was superfluous to Celtic motives which can be summed up as gold and glory.
Another cultural frame tomorrow.


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