The ancient Celts are commonly viewed as primitive barbarians, at least in comparison to the Greeks and the Romans. One of the reasons for this is that they are commonly thought to have been illiterate. However, this is not true. Numerous pieces of Celtic writing have been discovered across Europe. But what type of writing did they use, and where did it come from?
The Alphabet of the Celts
In the ninth century BCE, the alphabet used by the Phoenicians in the Levant was adopted by the Greeks. From the Greeks, it was adopted by the Etruscans and then the Romans in Italy in the seventh century BCE.
In about 600 BCE, the Greeks established a trading colony in the south of Gaul called Massalia, where the modern city of Marseille is now. This was Celtic territory. The Celts occupied almost the entirety of Gaul, as well as parts of Iberia to the west. Thus, with the founding of Massalia, the Greeks and other Mediterranean nations began to build a close trading relationship with the Celts. The Etruscans in particular exerted a strong cultural influence over the Celts by means of trade, especially from the fifth century BCE onwards. This influence was primarily seen in artwork, but it also became evident in writing.
What Archaeology Reveals About the Celts’ Early Writing
After they came into contact with the Etruscans, some Celtic groups adopted their writing system. The first to do so were the Celts closest to Italy, in a region called Cisalpine Gaul. This group is known as the Lepontii, and their language is called Lepontic. Inscriptions found written in this language date from about the middle of the sixth century BCE, and they are written in a version of the Etruscan alphabet.
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Even though the Lepontii adopted a Mediterranean alphabet quite early on, other Celts did not follow suit until centuries later. Inscriptions in Gaulish (the language of the Celts living in Gaul) do not appear until the third century BCE. These inscriptions are mostly written in the Greek alphabet rather than the Etruscan alphabet. Many of these inscriptions are just personal names. But Gaulish inscriptions date from the first century BCE to the second century CE, and during this period we find plenty of extensive inscriptions. Some of them involve more than 150 words, such as in the case of inscribed tablets found at L’Hospitalet-du-Larzac in southern France.
What Caesar Reveals About Writing in Gaul
Of course, archaeology only provides us with little glimpses into the past. We can also learn about Celtic writing indirectly, from the writings of other nations. Julius Caesar had several interesting comments to make about this. In De Bello Gallico 1.29, he stated the following:
“In the camp of the Helvetii [a Celtic tribe in Gaul], lists were found, drawn up in Greek characters, and were brought to Caesar, in which an estimate had been drawn up, name by name, of the number who had gone forth from their country who were able to bear arms; and likewise the numbers of boys, old men, and women, separately.”
We can see from this that the Gaulish Celts did produce extensive pieces of writing at times. This is also supported by another comment from Caesar, found in De Bello Gallico 6.14. Speaking about the Druids (the religious leaders of the Celts), he says:
“Nor do they regard it lawful to commit these [sacred matters] to writing, though in almost all other matters, in their public and private transactions, they use Greek characters.”
This shows that the Celts produced written works in a variety of contexts. They wrote things down for their personal use, and also for “public transactions”. Writing was clearly not an obscure aspect of Celtic life and from the archaeological and documentary evidence, it is clear that they mostly used the Greek alphabet.
Other Instances of Celtic Writing
Inscriptions have also been found in Gaulish, written in a version of the Etruscan alphabet. Most of these have been found in northern Italy, which is logical because that is near where the Etruscans lived.
As well as writing on tablets and stone monuments, the Celts of Gaul and other areas also put inscriptions on their coins. The vast majority of these just contain the personal names of kings, although they sometimes also contain the Celtic word for “king”, and very occasionally other words too, such as the name of the individual’s tribe.
The Celtic language of Gaul was also written in the Latin alphabet. This shift from the Greek script to the Latin script was primarily a result of the Roman conquest of Gaul in the first century BCE.
Earlier, in the third century BCE, Celtic tribes had migrated from Europe into Anatolia. These Celtic groups were known as Galatae, or Galatians. No examples of Galatian writings have yet been uncovered. However, there are a few examples of inscriptions seemingly written by Galatians but in a language other than their native tongue, such as Greek.
What About the Celts of Britain?
What about the Celts of Britain? Writing does not seem to have been as common here as it was in Gaul, but it seems to have been more common than it was among the Galatians of Anatolia. No Celtic inscriptions on monuments have been found before the Roman era, but numerous inscribed coins have been discovered. They have mostly been found in the south east of Britain. Coins were minted in Britain from about 100 BCE. However, the coins did not start to be inscribed until after the middle of the first century BCE. Just like in Gaul, these coins mostly just contain the personal names of kings, sometimes along with a word indicating royalty. These inscriptions were usually written in the Latin alphabet, but occasionally Greek letters were used too.
Some pre-Roman Brythonic kings had good relationships with the Romans. One notable example is Cunobelinus, a powerful king of the Catuvellauni tribe in the London area. He used Roman motifs on his coins, and he also exchanged the Britons’ Celtic word for “king” for the Roman equivalent, “rex”. This shows that the upper classes of the Britons were capable of writing at least some things in their own language and in the language of the Romans. Granted, no extensive inscriptions in Brythonic have been found, but this does not mean that they were incapable of producing them.
A Clue from Caesar’s Words
Regarding the literacy of the Celts of Britain, the words of Julius Caesar may shed some light on this matter. Recall the quotation mentioned earlier about the Druids writing things in Greek characters for private and public matters. This shows that the Druids were literate, and it certainly does not seem to suggest that they were only just literate. Caesar’s comments suggest that they were perfectly adept at writing. With that in mind, notice what Caesar tells us at De Bello Gallico 6.13:
“It is believed that their rule of life was discovered in Britain and transferred thence to Gaul; and today those who would study the subject more accurately journey, as a rule, to Britain to learn it.”
According to this statement, the druidic center of learning was Britain. If the Druids could write well, and their center of learning was in Britain, then it is not unreasonable to conclude that writing was well known in Britain as well as Gaul.
Writing from the Roman and Post-Roman Eras
Although no examples of extensive Brythonic writing have been found in pre-Roman times, there is an example from during the Roman era. At the city of Bath, archaeologists uncovered a large collection of curse tablets. The vast majority of these are written in a form of Latin, but two of them are written in a different language. There is no universal agreement about what language it is, but it is generally believed to most likely be Brythonic, the Celtic language of Britain. These two tablets, like the others, are written in the Latin alphabet.
Brythonic gradually evolved into Welsh after the end of the Roman era. However, after these Bath curse tablets of the Roman era, there is no evidence of Brythonic or Welsh being written down until centuries later. A monument known as the Cadfan Stone contains possibly the earliest example of written Welsh. It was produced at some point between the seventh and the ninth centuries. However, despite not usually writing down their own native language, the Celts of Britain were definitely literate throughout the Roman and post-Roman era. For example, an impressive piece of Latin literature known as De Excidio Britanniae was produced in the sixth century by a monk named Gildas.
Literacy in Celtic Ireland
Over in Ireland, there is no trace of a written language during the pre-Roman era. The Romans never conquered Ireland, so they never imposed their own writing system on those Celtic peoples. Thus, we do not find the Latin alphabet being used in Ireland, either to write in Latin or in Archaic Irish. The earliest Irish writings appear in the fourth century CE. They are primarily seen on memorial stones in Ireland and Wales. The script used is called Ogham, and it is distinctly different from Greek or Roman lettering.
Scholars continue to debate its origin, but it is often thought to have been consciously created rather than having naturally evolved from another script. However, it is still thought that another script may have been used as a basis for it, such as, possibly, the Latin alphabet.
Although the exact origin of Ogham is unknown, it is widely believed that its use predates the earliest known inscriptions of it. The evidence for this is that the script contains letters that are not used on any actual inscriptions. These letters, in the opinion of some scholars, are traces of phonemes which had stopped being used by the time the first inscriptions were produced. It is therefore believed that Ogham was originally written by the ancient Celts of Ireland on perishable material, such as wood. This is supported by Irish literary traditions, which describe that very process.
How Literate Were the Ancient Celts?
In conclusion, we can see that the some groups of Celts were literate from at least as early as the sixth century. They first adopted the Etruscan alphabet. In later centuries, the Celts of Gaul adopted the Greek alphabet, using it regularly on monuments and coins. The Celts of Britain seem to have used writing a little less, but they did make inscriptions on their coins and occasionally on tablets. Over in Ireland, the Celts were literate at least as early as the fourth century and probably centuries before that. Nonetheless, there is no evidence that the Celts produced any substantial works of literature until long after the ancient period.