|Compilation of Celtic swords from|
the La Tène archeological site
image: Kirk Lee Spencer
Yesterday, I spoke of how advances in Celtic culture (or any culture for that matter) are dependent upon communication -- different ideas come together resulting in new ideas and the greater communication between peoples then the greater are the chances of innovation. As one group, within a culture, benefits from such innovation, the other groups can suffer from increased competition. One of the most popular ways to counter this situation for the disprivileged group was to seek alliances with the more successful group and we start to see clan structures forming. The more fortunate group knows that with success can come greater outside threat and by allowing the clan system to form and grow, they can amass enough people to defend themselves from those who would wish to take over.
Long before there was much danger from military invasions, farmers and herders found that reciprocity was one of the best investments that you could make. If your crops failed, if disease struck your herds, or if you became ill or injured, then your neighbours would all pitch in and help and you would be expected to do the same for others whenever the situation was reversed. Gradually, such behaviour became formalized and an important part of the culture. In the British Columbia and the U.S. Pacific northwest, the potlatch helped to define the culture, and in Africa, an entire tribe would come together, voluntarily, to build their chief's kraal. As well as a defense, it showed his neighbours that he had the support of his people, for it was too great a project for the chief and his family to handle on their own. Such solutions are so common as to be almost universal to some degree and can be considered a human trait. The Celts also had systems that were more specific in their details and thus differentiated them from other cultures -- one of these was fosterage. If someone else raised your son, then the two families would form an alliance that would make conflict less likely. Raimund Karl suggested (pers, comm) that this fosterage system might also have applied to artisans in an early "apprenticeship program", and this makes perfect sense to me as well. This, alone, could explain the arrival of La Tène art in Britain that trade, dismally, fails to do.
Eventually, such customs and cultural markers become the laws of the land as the situations increase in their complexities. Also, as families and smaller groups unite, larger groups are thus formed and the seat of power can become more distant. I remember reading about an African tribe who had a set of penalties that were based on the geographical distance between the perpetrator and the victim -- the farther away the victim lived, the lower the penalty for the same crime. In all societies, systems will be developed to handle transgressions. In Ireland, the idea of an honour price is evidenced in their early legal documents and it is believed that these laws originated before Christianity, during the Irish La Tène. The penalty for any infraction was determined according to the status of the victim -- and thus you really did not want to mess with a king! Of course, the better that you did, the greater your honour price would become. Your status would also determine how many retainers you could have; what expectations guests would have when attending your feasts, and just about every aspect of your life would be clearly defined. This also tapped into the credit system which gave you one of the easiest ways to increase your status. If you also acted bravely in defending your clan leader from attack, then your status would also increase, accordingly.
Another situation also created the need for clan systems and that was advances in food production: surpluses could help when times were bad and they also provided the opportunity for trade. The natural desire for reciprocity soon became formalized in credit systems. If someone had enough land to support greater productivity and wanted to expand quickly, they could borrow livestock from a wealthy clan leader and then pay back those animals with the interest of some of their offspring. In ancient Irish law, there were three repayments at set times.
What starts off as just being a good neighbour gives rise to clan systems, and as things become ever more complex, the clans form into tribes, and eventually states. When we say that something is primitive, we might think that this means crude, simple, or unenlightened. Primitive governments, however, are often surprisingly complex. As territories grow in size, the laws can no longer address the specific situations of a farmer and his immediate neighbours. Laws become rewritten to have wider applications and, by necessity, become simpler as a result. Modern people, in many countries, often complain that their leaders are so far removed from the common people, that they share very little and do not understand life at local levels at all.
Also yesterday, I mentioned the proliferation and great variety of hillforts in Britain during the Iron Age. From what I have written above, we might imagine that the unusually large hillfort of Maiden Castle was not protect a really huge population from an equally large army, but to cement relationships on the path to statehood for the tribe in question. It is the small hillforts, though, that give us the best clue as to what was going on. As the Iron Age progressed, most of these small hillforts with only a single bank and ditch (univallate) were abandoned. Looking at them, they do not offer much in the way of military defence. Really, though, I think that the bank and ditch was not even a symbol of might but was the equivalent of our modern locked front doors. A feature in the Irish epics is the cattle raid. We might also assume that in other places, other sorts of livestock and even grain storage pits might well be the target of raiders. A bank and ditch (with probable fences too) would be enough to prevent cattle getting out, and a little extra defence of the gates would help if a raider wanted to drive your cattle away.
As alliances formed and laws were implemented, the need for such small defenses diminished. In Ireland, the cattle raider came to expect that, even if he got away with your best bull, then his family would be made to come up with the repayment and the honour price fine, and if one of you neighbours allowed the bull to graze on his land, then he would then become responsible to right the wrong.
Even before the Celts started to become employed by Greek commanders and set up their bases in northern Italy, they were a warrior society. As the tribal/state transition progressed, there was greater need for larger armies and greater defenses. The Celtic-speaking Britons were trading with the Celtic-speaking Gauls, and because of cultural lag, the former were not so well equipped or trained. The cattle raid was nothing compared with the fierce competition of rival clans or tribes and this had been handled, anyway, by the evolution of laws and penalties -- the very things that enabled such political structures to form and flourish. In Britain, we also see some large hillforts and evidence of conflict in the fifth century BC. This is the first time that the Britons might well have hired Gaulish troops. By the fourth century, however, these same troops were looking toward the Mediterranean as a more lucrative source for military work. History is clear that conquest was not the motive -- it was gold. Rome was captured by the Celts and then given back when a ransom was paid; From two types of Etruscan gold coins of about the same weight, but where one type bears a value mark half that of the other, I reason that it was the Celts' demands that had decimated their treasury. The Etruscans thought that they were buying troops with that money, but really, it was a "protection racket". Ptolemy Keraunos, one of the sons of Ptolemy I of Egypt, made the fatal mistake of thinking that the terms put forward by his Celtic attackers was some sort of surrender terms from them instead of an offer to just go away if paid. It cost him his head.
When the Gauls started to return from Italy in about 200 BC, those who escaped from the Romans brought back vast amounts of gold and considerable military experience. Later still, Caesar wrote about how some tribes built mounds of captured booty that could not, under penalty of a horrible death, be used again. I believe that this was yet another evolved system that helped prevent the emergence of warlords gaining too much wealth and eventually becoming tyrants. It was in the best interests of the tribes that such a measure be put in place. Like any business, if one market fails, its leaders try to find another market. It seems likely that some Britons had already joined the Celtic troops in the Mediterranean, and came back, not just with gold, but with greater knowledge of strategy and tactics. Caesar also tells us that British troops had reinforced the Gauls in just about every campaign in Gaul -- the coin evidence supports this.
Putting all of these threads together, we can see that while one British king hires continental troops to defend his people from a powerful neighbour, without a monetary system, payment can only be through shares in booty. In agricultural lands, such booty can only be in livestock and grain. We can imagine that a continental warrior would be in a similar situation to a visiting artisan, and the benefits would come from patronage. Within as little as one or two generations, the local population would see themselves as part of the same clan or tribe. Some of those who had started as warriors for hire would move upward to become kings or druids with land, tenant farmers and retainers. A warrior could eventually become a king with his own army.
Contrary to what Simon James says, we cannot know if, or how much, the Britons came to call themselves Celts. Mostly, whether in Britain or the continent, the people would refer to themselves by their tribal or clan names, but perhaps Celt was a term reserved for cultural and philosophical discussion, just as Caesar had used the word druid in the ethnographic book of his commentaries.
It is not just matters of farming, ranching and conflict that worked, in synergy, to create the British La Tène Celtic culture but we know, from late inscriptions, that religious matters, even local deities were all absorbed into the Celtic ethos. John Rhys, in the nineteenth century, mentioned the vast number of Celtic equivalents to the Roman god Mars. Some have imagined that different deity names refers to different aspects of a war god, but there are just too many names for that to be possible. Instead, it would seem that the Celts understood much of what Joseph Campbell has labelled as mythogenic zones. We also know that the later later Celtic festivals are evidenced in Neolithic alignments as early as five thousand years ago -- long before anyone could be identified as Celtic. The Celts managed to place themselves within many societies and acculturation is a two-way street. If, or how much, the Iron Age Britons called themselves Celts can never be securely established. It is usual for us to use the term today, but labelling is unimportant -- call a duck anything you like, it will still quack. The similarities between the Britons and the Gauls in the Iron Age are just too numerous to deny any cultural unity and the differences are few and negligible -- mostly due to environmental differences and not even specific to the Iron Age.