on 25 May 2010
While I have great respect for the author on this subject and even met him once and know his enthusiasm for this area, I was a bit disappointed in some areas of the book. The most notable was that when talking about the Celtic aristocracy, warrior class and "druids" he discussed in a fair amount of detail the lives of individuals in these classes. When he comes to talk about the farmers - he does not talk about them at all but only about farming methods! This is very odd as this class would have made up a very large proportion of the population. Even more perplexing is that at no point does he mention slaves in this book. Slavery - or "the unfree" as they were known, formed a significant section Celtic society, as it did most if not all cultures at the time. It is not as if there is no evidence for them - there is plenty and we only need look at the ancient Irish Brehon laws to see frequent mention of slaves. This is all the more strange especially when Celtic Ireland's most famous slave was St Patrick, who became Ireland's national saint.
This could be due to sloppy writing, but I very much doubt this as the author is very knowledgeable about the whole area of Celtic studies. This can only make me feel that he has deliberately not mentioned slaves in Celtic society. This is very strange; Slavery was very common throughout different cultures at the time and not to mention them at all gives a very incomplete description of Celtic society. Additionally not to mention the experience of being of the farming strata and only talking about farming techniques is inexcusable.
It is unfortunate that I have to bring this up as the author is very knowledgeable in the area of Celtic studies.
on 24 August 2010
This is a fun and fascinating read but it does seem the Celts can do no wrong as far as Peter Berrisford Ellis is concerned! His partisan approach makes you wonder if what you're reading can really be relied on.
There are times when the author gets his facts wrong, too. The idea of the savage Anglo-Saxons driving out or wiping out the Celtic indigenous population of Britain has been shown to be false by modern DNA evidence. In fact, even the English today have predominantly pre-Roman genes, showing that the invading Anglo-Saxon and Viking minorities settled and interbred with the locals rather than simply slaughtering them all. No doubt the Anglo-Saxon invasions were a brutal affair, but the idea that England underwent some kind of ethnic cleansing has been disproven. It's none too impressive that Ellis represents this old myth as an indisputable fact!
He also claims there are only 18 million Celts left in Europe. Considering they once stretched right across Europe, that is very hard to accept. By what mechanism could ancient cultures have utterly annihilated such a vast population? Is it not more likely that the Celts' descendants still exist all over Europe?
Admittedly, Ellis does decide to define 'Celt' mainly as someone who speaks a Celtic language. Indeed, he uses this argument to dismiss any debate over whether the Celts were really the single ethno-cultural group that we imagine. But at the end of the book he completely contradicts his own definition by claiming there are 18 million Celts left, only 2.5 million of whom speak Celtic languages.
Well, if we define Celt as a speaker of a Celtic language, there are only 2.5 million left! If we define them as people with ancestors who spoke Celtic langauges there are probably hundreds of millions left, scattered all over the world. But the 18 million figure has no foundation at all, no matter whose definition you use!
Of course, the idea of the total 'ethnic cleansing' of this supposedly close-knit cultural group by the evil Romans and Anglo-Saxons is a popular romantic idea. But in truth, it is far more likely that certain early Celtic tribes imposed their language and culture on other non-Celtic tribes, and in turn had their language and culture subsumed into other more dominant groups. No doubt this would have been accompanied by a lot of bloodshed in both cases. But DNA evidence does not support the idea of 'ethnic cleansing' at all. It may not be such a romantic story, but it's much more uplifting, and probably more true!
on 21 February 2010
When reading this book it feels as if Peter Berresford Ellis has been there and then, has met those kings and warriors and civilisation builders, has observed those men of art and craft and science, talked to them, asked questions, and then come back to our time to give us a stunning account. Not only that, but all the sources and sites and findings are cited along the way, so that we actually do the journey with him through time and space.
This book doesn't put the Celts in a Pantheon of mysticism and doesn't it bring them down to tribal societies. It shows you all along the pages what a prodigious civilisation they were.
It's not a big book but if there's anything you still don't know about the Celts after reading it, you've probably missed a page.
on 12 July 2014
I read this out of curiosity as it is now somewhat dated, and it has some useful information in it, but the author did not understand what has been going on in the field of Celtic Studies, especially archaeology. I am not aware that he has attended any of the major conferences on the Celts in recent years. I am one of the people he mentions in his criticism of the new approaches pioneered by archaeologists, but he really does not understand the archaeology, e.g. thinking that storage pits in places like Wessex are the same as Cornish fougous. He suggests there is an ideal 'Celtic Society' of kings, druids etc., which he then tries to impose on the archaeological record - it just does not work, and there are many different types of 'Celtic Society' from the urbanised coin-using societies of central Spain or temperate Europe to the more simple societies of western Britain and Ireland. He criticises someone anonymously (in fact me) on comments on the Gundestrup cauldron, and whether it can be called Celtic or not, and saying that I am not able to judge because I never had training in Celtic Studies! He clearly misunderstood what I was saying in my book on 'The European Iron Age'. In ethnic terms the cauldron is very mixed in the iconography on it - for many elements the best parallels lie in areas such as Gaul (some of which was Celtic), but other aspects come from elsewhere - the slaying of the bull, the boy on the dolphin, etc. as well as the art style, so simplistic ethnic interpretations just don't work. My views on the Celts are now available in my book on 'The Celts: origins, myths and inventions' which is gradually being accepted in the field of Celtic Studies, and which will hopefully update the theory and methodology of the subject which was still stuck in 19th and early 20th century with concepts like race, Culture Groups, etc.. So Celtic Studies is an interesting area of study at the moment, but for discussion, not sticking one's head in the sand and hoping that criticism will go way!
In the Western world no libel has endured with greater persistence than the one of "barbarian" levied against the Celts. The ancient Greeks applied the term "Keltai" to the peoples living north of their peninsula. They described them as "barbarians" which originally meant "outsider" or "foreigner". The meaning of "barbarian" changed over the centuries, especially when the Roman Empire's expansion was checked by these ancient people and Caesar became a propagandist in his campaigns against them. He admired their courage and fighting abilities, but disparaged nearly every other aspect of their culture. And his depiction persisted for centuries.
In an outstanding brief overview, Ellis provides a corrective to that portrayal. We learn the Celts have Indo-European roots reaching into deep time. We also learn all those centuries allowed the Celts to achieve high cultural attainments in society, urban development and the arts. Oh, yes. They also successfully defeated nearly every force sent against them. Only a long war of attrition plus a few renegade leaders turned defectors ultimately led to Rome's overrunning them. Which didn't destroy their culture. It took the Christians to achieve that.
In describing Celtic society, Ellis frequently reminds us that these "first Europeans" had no written records. In large part, this lack was due to the prohibition of religious matters being set down in writing. Their leading intellectual class, the Druids, who had a far larger role than chanting in oak forests, maintained a detailed oral tradition. Not until the Christians came among them were any of their legends committed to parchment, and those, in Ellis' words were "bowdlerised" versions, designed to transform Celtic historical and mythical figures into the Christian mythology.
Ellis guides us through the metaphysical and concrete aspects of Celtic life. Gods proliferated, with countless local deities, but some which appear to be common across their areas of occupation. The Celts had a strong sense of the human soul, which they knew resided in the head, not in the stomach of Greek philosophy. The Christian Trinity, not "officially" promulgated until Nicea, may have originated with ideas derived through a Celtic bishop a century before the "Creed". Kings and warriors played their roles, but the Celts had a highly talented artisan class. While swords were significantly superior for their time, they also produced superb jewellry and other artefacts. Their technology, going far beyond weaponry, included a strong use of glass and enamelling techniques. They built strong houses and castles, expanding some sites into major urban centres. While the libel against them has persisted, so have many of their ideas, words and deities. As Ellis has attempted to do with this book, a better balance needs to be struck. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
on 30 January 2008
I can't believe the review by Invotis, below. It's the first book on the Celts he has read, yet interprets world-renouned Celtic historian Ellis' account as Partisan and belittles some of his claims!
Being a 'brief' history, some facts are left as statements without specific detailed discussion. And that is the sole reason why the reviewer is left doubtful. I suggest he/she reads some of Ellis' larger works on the Celts.
Being a historian myself, I am well-immersed in Ellis', as well as other historians' works on the Celts. Ellis is by far the most sound, and his studies convey an understanding of Celtic culture that as yet no Anglo historian has been able to achieve. Likewise other classical historians, who are dazzled by the glitz of Rome and ancient Greece, and fail to take into account Roman propaganda. It's easier for them to grasp a civilization that resembles their own pre-conceptions of civilization - that is one that is more similar to their modern surroundings. This leaves them blinkered.
Peter Berresford Ellis, on the other hand, has his eyes and mind wide open, and has a deep understanding of Celtic philosophy, and is therefore capable of recognizing it wherever it has been borrowed, stolen or adapted.
This is the best overview of Celtic history you will read.
on 21 December 2014
An excellent, clear and concise introduction to the Celts. Well-written and accurate. The best book I've read about the Celts so far. strongly recommend it.
on 29 December 2015
Easy reading not too much silly detail.
on 14 June 2004
This book was the first book on Celts I've come across and read. It is a good introduction into the topic for somebody who has a very little previous knowledge of the Celtic culture and history - easy to read, with basic illustrations and suggested further reading.
However, a word of warning. From the very beginning it becomes obvious that the author is a convinced Celtic partisan and, in my opinion, he tries rather too hard. The Celts were (and are?) the best - their social organization, their art, their crafts, their literature, their treatment of women, their wagons, their roads, their ships, their saddles, their arms, their medicine, their porrige, their pants - you tell, they had it in the the best possible way. Greek and Romans were just poor mucky puppies in the times of the great Celtic civilization and happily picked up their leftovers (including the language), but later the Romans did have their revenge so that those nasty Roman historians distorted the truth and presented the Celts as scruffy unshaved barbarians. This is the gist of the book. I've got an impression that it was written by some mysteriously survived descendant of Dumnorix who'd rather die than surrender to Rome. Well, this last Celtic gladiator does entertain you - and this book is not supposed to serve as a scholarly reference anyway. Just don't take Ellis' interpretations of Greek and Roman authors too seriously (for he IS subjective, no joking here). And yes, don't believe him when he calls Cornelius Nepos "a Celtic historian writing in Latin" - honestly, THIS is too much!
on 16 March 2015