The most widespread and advanced culture that called Germany home during the prehistoric period was the Celts, a remarkable people who came to the region at some point during the Bronze Age and remained there until the classical period, when Greek and Roman writers described their civilization.
Linguistic and archaeological evidence indicates that at their peak Celtic peoples, dominant in central Europe throughout this period, were spread throughout Europe from Spain to Hungary, and from Ireland to the Mediterranean. While their origins are obscure, some scholars argue that a people known as the Urnfeld culture, because they cremated their dead and buried them in urns, may have been the ancestors of the Celts who lived in central Europe.
The Urnfeld culture was dominant in northern Germany and the Low Countries during the late Bronze Age, from around 1200 to 700 B.C.E. While there are no written records or linguistic evidence to con-clusively determine the ethnic origins of the Urnfeld peoples, many scholars speculate that this culture in fact gave rise to the Celts. In any case, by around 500 B.C.E., the Urnfeld culture gave way to several other civilizations in central Europe that were almost certainly Celtic.
The ﬁ rst of these is an early Iron Age civilization known as the Hallstatt culture. The Hallstatt ﬂ ourished from around 800 to 450 B.C.E. and are named after one of their sites discovered in modern Austria. The Hallstatt culture died out around 450 B.C.E., during the late Iron Age, giving way to the La Tène culture, a vibrant civilization that spread as far as Ireland and Anatolia. The Celts likely stemmed from these power-ful Iron Age peoples, forging their own dynamic civilization in turn.
The Celts were a tribal society geared toward war. Celtic warriors, led by a bellicose military aristocracy, were feared throughout the classical world for the ferocity of their attacks and frequency of their raids. In 390 B.C.E., a Celtic tribe, the Gauls, even sacked the mighty city of Rome, extorting a staggering ransom from its humbled citizens. Their society was tribal and clan-based, founded upon a rigid hierarchy of warrior aristocrats, druids (practitioners of a mysterious animist religion), and commoners. Interestingly,
Celtic women enjoyed more autonomy than either their Roman or Greek contemporaries, serving as warriors and even as rulers in some cases. The Celts were pastoralists, with herds of cattle as the primary form of wealth and source of sustenance within a tribal gift economy.While Celtic culture per-sisted into historical times in much of northern and cen-tral Europe, the Celts have left few inscriptions.
Thus, the best sources for under-standing their culture remain the biased, often negative descriptions written by clas-sical authors from Greece and Rome. The most detailed account available today is the Commentarii de bello Gallico (Commentaries on the Gallic War), written by Julius Caesar (100–44 B.C.E.) in the ﬁ rst century B.C.E. In this famous, and self-aggrandizing, descrip-tion of his conquest of the region the Romans called Gaul (modern-day France, Luxembourg, and Belgium), the future emperor provides interesting ethnographic descriptions of Celtic society in areas of what is today German-speak-ing Europe.
Caesar’s expedition into Gaul, and his conquest of the Celtic peoples there, was prompted by growing disruption along the Roman frontier, caused in part by the arrival of the Germanic tribes in central Europe. A Celtic tribe allied with Rome, the Aedui, had been defeated by its tribal enemies and called upon the Romans for help. A warlike Germanic people known as the Suebi, who had recently migrated into the region, had joined in the attack on the Aedui, further angering the Romans.
Meanwhile, the Helvetii, a Celtic people whose homeland was on the Swiss plateau, had begun their own mass migration to live among allied tribes, pressured by the incursions of Germanic tribes from the northeast who were migrating into their territory. All of these events instigated instability, threatening the Roman frontier in Cisalpine Gaul and prompt-ing a military expedition under Caesar’s command in 58 B.C.E. to crush the Helvetii and the Suebi. Over the next several years, Caesar waged a series of brutal campaigns against the Celtic and Germanic tribes of the region.
These campaigns eventually extended the Roman Empire to the North Sea coast, with the conquest of the Belgae. Caesar even invaded Celtic Britain in 55 B.C.E. After this invasion, Caesar returned to Gaul, where he put down a pair of revolts in occupied territory, the ﬁ rst led by the Celtic chieftain Ambiorix of the Eburones. The second, larger revolt, in 52 B.C.E., was led by Vercingetorix of the Arverni, who had managed to unite many of the Celtic tribes in Gaul against the Romans. Having countered these grave threats, the conquest of Gaul was complete.
In Commentaries on the Gallic War, Caesar provides an account of these campaigns, waged between 58 and 50 B.C.E., as well as a unique view into the mysterious Celtic societies that dominated northern Europe, including the area that is today Germany. According to Caesar, the ﬁ ercest Celts were those farthest removed from the civilizing inﬂ u-ence of the Romans and closest to their dangerous, ancestral enemies, the Germanic tribes who “dwelt beyond the Rhine.” Caesar maintained that the Celtic bands that had the least contact with the Roman mer-chants who traded in the area and engaged instead in constant tribal warfare with the Germans were the ﬁ ercest:
All Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit, the Aquitani another, those who in their own language are called Celts, in ours, Gauls, the third. All these differ from each other in language, customs and laws. The river Garonne separates the Gauls from the Aquitani; the Marne and the Seine separate them from the Belgae.
Of all these, the Belgae are the bravest, because they are furthest from the civilization and refinement of [our] Province, and merchants least fre-quently resort to them, and import those things which tend to effeminate the mind; and they are the nearest to the Germans, who dwell beyond the Rhine, with whom they are continually waging war; for which reason the Helvetii also surpass the rest of the Gauls in valor, as they contend with the Germans in almost daily battles, when they either repel them from their own territories, or themselves wage war on their frontiers. (Caesar in M’Devitta 1853: 1–2)
In his account of his campaigns in Gaul, Caesar provides a sort of proto-ethnographic analysis of the Celts who inhabited the region, detailing their political, social, and religious customs. His account is heavily biased and often distorted by negative portrayals of his Celtic enemies. However, it provides modern readers with an invaluable view on Roman attitudes toward this shadowy people, and affords a few priceless insights into their customs.
For example, Caesar remarks on the clan-based social organization practiced by the Gallic Celts. He describes the egali-tarian nature of their tribal society, marked by loose war-bands governed by chieftains who distinguished themselves in battle and cemented the loyalty of their tribe through lavish gifts and ritual feasting, impressions conﬁ rmed by recent excavations of Celtic burial sites. Archaeologists have discovered the remains of Celtic chieftains buried with hoards of weapons, war chariots strewn with valuables, and stacks of massive drinking horns, equipped for ﬁ ghting and feasting in the afterlife.
The religion of the Celts has proven more elusive than their social organization, and Caesar was mystiﬁ ed by Celtic religiosity, controlled by a mysterious priestly class, the druids. Druidic religion was preserved orally, handed down through the centuries, and scholars can say little conclusively about its nature. Roman accounts, however, give some ideas about its essential features. The privileges and religious functions of the druids were of particular interest to Caesar. For this Roman mili-tary commander, it is the druids’ utility in encouraging Gallic warriors to display valor on the battleﬁ eld that is of the most importance:
The druids do not go to war, nor pay tribute together with the rest; they have an exemption from military service and a dispensation in all matters. Induced by such great advantages, many embrace this profession of their own accord, and [many] are sent to it by their parents and relations. They are said there to learn by heart a great number of verses; accordingly some remain in the course of training twenty years. Nor do they regard it lawful to commit these to writing, though in almost all other matters, in their public and private transactions, they use Greek characters.
That practice they seem to me to have adopted for two reasons; because they neither desire their doctrines to be divulged among the mass of the people, nor those who learn, to devote themselves the less to the efforts of memory, relying on writing; since it generally occurs to most men, that, in their dependence on writing, they relax their diligence in learning thoroughly, and their employment of the memory.
They wish to inculcate as one of their leading tenets that souls do not become extinct, but pass after death from one body to another, and they think that men by this tenet are in a great degree excited to valor, the fear of death being disregarded. They likewise discuss and impart to the youth many things respecting the stars and their motion, respecting the extent of the world and of our earth, respecting the nature of things, respecting the power and the majesty of the immortal gods. (Caesar in M’Devitta 1853: 147–148)
According to Roman authorities such as Pliny the Elder (ca. 23 C.E.–79 C.E.), it appears that the druids functioned as both priests and monks, presiding over religious rites and preserving Celtic religious lore by memorizing hundreds of sacred verses. The druids likely practiced ani-mism, the worship of nature spirits, worshipping in sacred oak groves strewn with mistletoe.
Apparently, the druids preached a belief in a form of reincarnation, which Caesar viewed mainly in its role in incit-ing Celtic warriors to battleﬁ eld valor. The Romans also described the druids as soothsayers, who foretold the future by observing the ﬂ ight of birds and through the ritual sacriﬁ ce of animals and enjoyed tremen-dous prestige within Celtic society. According to many Roman observ-ers, the druids also practiced human sacriﬁ ce.
While archaeological ﬁ nds have not provided conclusive evidence of such practices, Roman authorities suppressed the druidic religion in the second century B.C.E. on the basis of their revulsion of supposed human sacriﬁ ce. The ancient faith of the Celts died out in the following century, and not a single written record of this oral religion survives.
Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul scattered the once mighty Celtic tribes who had dominated the region since the Bronze Age. Subjugated by the Romans, the Celts were left vulnerable to the incursions of a new wave of migrants into central Europe. These warlike newcomers, the Germanic tribes, were to play a dominant role in the history of the region and gave Germany its language and its modern name.