What Was the Society of the Celts Like?

The Celts are famous for being fierce warriors who fought against the Romans. But what was their day-to-day Celtic society like? Do we even know much about them?

Feb 27, 2023By Caleb Howells, BA Doctrines and Methodology of Education

druid chysauster village painting


The ancient Celts were one of the largest nations — or collections of nations — in Western Europe. Yet, they are most famous today simply for being fierce warriors who fought against the Romans. Needless to say, there was a lot more to the Celts than just their fighting ability. Like all civilizations, they had a complex society, with different social levels, occupations, and customs. What did Celtic society actually look like?


The Society of the Celts: Tribal Structure

celts history map
Map of tribes of Gaul, via HubPages.com


Let us first consider the overall structure of Celtic society. The first major fact to recognize is that they were not a single, united nation. In reality, the Celts were a collection of many different tribes spread across a very large area. Each tribe was essentially its own miniature ethnic group, made up of a distinct collection of families. For that reason, each tribe had its own shared identity.


There is debate as to what degree the Celts from one tribe had a shared identity with Celts from another tribe. Although this shared identity may not have been very strong, there is some evidence that they did view themselves as distinct from non-Celtic people.


vercingetorix and caesar painting
Vercingetorix throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar, by Lionel Royer, 1899, via Musée Crozatier, Le Puy-en-Velay


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An indicator that the Celts had a basic shared identity is found in the words of Julius Caesar. When describing Gaul, he mentions that it is divided into three parts. One part is inhabited by the Aquitani, the second part is inhabited by the Belgae, and the third part is inhabited by the Galli. This third group, Caesar tells us, are called “Celtae” (Celts) in their own tongue. According to this information, the Galli as a whole referred to themselves as Celts. This shows that the Celtic tribes of Gaul did have a certain shared identity as distinct from non-Celtic peoples, whom they did not call “Celtae”.


It would also be very surprising if they did not have a shared identity to some degree. As Caesar himself implied, and as archaeology demonstrates, the Celtic tribes of Gaul all shared the same language and essentially the same customs and laws. It would be remarkable if they had failed to notice the clear similarities they shared in contrast to non-Celtic tribes.


Settlements of the Celts

chysauster village celtic society
Ancient Celtic settlement of Chysauster Village, a late Iron Age and Romano-British village of courtyard houses in Cornwall, England, via history.com


Famously, the Celts inhabited hillforts. However, this was not always the case. In the Hallstatt culture (c. 800 to 475 BCE), the settlements of Celts were somewhat different. While Hillforts did exist, there is evidence that they were only used for specific purposes rather than for general habitation. For example, some of them might have functioned as the royal residence of the chief of the tribe. Other hillforts appear to have been used as places of refuge during times of war. Some seem to have been little more than fortified look-out posts.


There are a few examples of large hillforts that seem to have been proper settlements. However, these were rare. It seems that the general Celtic populace during the Hallstatt era lived in relatively unfortified settlements.


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Illustration of a Celtic hillfort, via the BBC


However, this changed during the La Tène era which immediately followed the Hallstatt era. During this period of Celtic history, hillforts became commonly used as settlements for tribes. Many existing hillforts were greatly expanded and more heavily fortified. They became the true towns and cities of the Celts.


The size of a hillfort could vary considerably, but they all shared essentially the same plan. They were settlements built on the top of a hill (hence the name), with a series of defensive rings constructed around them. These defensive rings were usually made of earth mounds and were often topped by wooden palisades. Occasionally, vertical stone walls surrounded settlements, although this was not common. Inside, the population lived in roundhouses made of wattle and daub (a woven lattice of wooden strips covered with a mixture of clay and straw).


Economy of the Celts

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Celtic sword and scabbard, ca. 60 BCE, via Met Museum


The economy of the Celts was founded on cattle raising, sheep farming, and crop production. It can be fairly said that most Celtic settlements were essentially farming communities. In Britain, for example, there is clear evidence of extensive organization in the ancient division of fields all over the country. Even the sides of hills were cultivated since the land was valuable and could not be wasted.


Cattle were very valuable to the Celts. A rich chieftain, by necessity, had a large herd of cattle. Beef made up a large proportion of the food eaten by the Celts, and milk was also consumed in large quantities. Sheep were valued for their wool and celtic clothes were made from this useful commodity. Clothes were also made out of animal skins, again showing the importance of cattle and sheep within Celtic society. There is evidence that sheep were also used for meat, although not nearly as much as cows.


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Celts trading, by Peter Connolly, via Pinterest


The Celtic economy did not just include what was locally available. Both ancient written sources and archaeology have demonstrated that the Celts engaged in far-reaching trade. For example, Diodorus Siculus recorded the fact that there was a trade route that went from the Mediterranean right through to the northwest corner of Gaul.


The primary product that Mediterranean nations were so interested in was tin. There were very few sources of tin within the Mediterranean itself, so Celtic sources were highly valued. Tin mines in Devon and Cornwall were the subject of extensive trade with other nations. In fact, as early as the Late Bronze Age there is evidence that Cornish tin was being traded as far afield as the Eastern Mediterranean. Another source of tin was found in northwest Gaul. As Diodorus explained, this was taken down the Rhone and out into the Mediterranean to be traded with the nations there, such as the Greeks and the Etruscans.


In return, the Celts received many luxurious goods. For example, Greek and Etruscan wine jugs and pieces of jewelry have been found in Celtic graves.


Celtic Social Classes

coin king diviciacus suessiones
Coin of Diviciacus, king of the Suessiones, via etc.usf.edu


Within each tribe, the Celts usually had a king or chieftain ruling over them. However, this was not always the case. Sometimes, a single king would rule over multiple tribes. For example, in c. 100 BCE, a king named Diviciacus ruled over the Suessiones tribe in northern Gaul. As well as his own tribe, he also ruled over other tribes in Gaul, as well as some tribes in southeast Britain. He was clearly an exceptionally powerful king. Yet, it is likely that each tribe still retained its own chieftain or sub-king, although subject to Diviciacus.


Another example is seen in the case of Togodumnus, the king of the Catuvellauni tribe in the first century CE. The Roman historian Dio Cassius reports that the Bodunni tribe was subject to the Catuvellauni. Thus, Togodumnus had sovereignty over both his own tribe and a least one other.


druid celtic society
Detail of an illustration of a druid, after Meyrick, 1837, via Historic.uk.com


Beneath the king, there were three main classes. The lowest were the commoners. Most of the commoners were farmers, hence why Celtic settlements were usually farming communities. Many of these people lived outside the main settlement to which they belonged, often because they needed more space for their livestock and crops.


Above the common people were the warrior aristocracy. These, of course, were the military leaders, chiefs, and soldiers of the Celts. This does not mean, though, that the common people did not get involved in the fighting when faced with an enemy.  In fact, Caesar tells us that the common people were allegedly the ones responsible for attacking his fleet when he landed in Britain in 54 BCE. Nonetheless, the warrior aristocracy were the ones in positions of authority.


Above the warrior aristocracy were the druids. The individual druids were actually drawn from the warrior aristocracy, but as a class, they had more authority than the warriors. The druids were the religious leaders of the Celts, though they also wielded some political influence. One of the ways in which they exerted political influence was that they acted as judges among the people.


Religion of the Celts

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Illustration of a wicker man, via A Tour in Wales, Thomas Pennant, 18th century, via National Library of Wales


The druids were the priests and teachers of the Celts. They were responsible for educating the people in the ways of their religious customs and traditions. The druids used oral tradition to preserve their teachings, since they did not approve of writing down sacred matters. Most of their religious rites were performed in sacred forests. There is some evidence that they occasionally used dedicated buildings — temples — but these were evidently extremely rare. Notably, the Celts performed human sacrifice as part of their worship. One specific practice involved constructing a large wooden-framed statue of a man, filling it with victims, and then setting it alight.


arthur b davies elysian fields painting
Elysian Fields, by Arthur B Davies, 19th-early 20th centuries, via The Phillips Collection


What may have gone hand-in-hand with the practice of human sacrifice is the fact that the Celts had a firm belief in an afterlife. This is evidently why they buried their dead with weapons, ornaments, and even food. In particular, the Celts also believed in reincarnation. This belief allegedly motivated them to be fierce warriors, since they were not afraid of dying in battle. However, it is also known that they believed in the concept of living in another realm. The exact relationship between these two different afterlives is not entirely clear. In any case, the otherworldly realm was envisioned as an island, similar to the Greek concept of Elysium or the Isles of the Blessed.


Understanding Celtic Society

celtic roundhouses wales celtic society
Reconstructed Celtic Roundhouses, Wales, via the National Museum of Wales


In conclusion, we have seen that Celtic society at its largest level was composed of various different tribes which may have had a shared sense of identity. The Celts lived in settlements known as hillforts — essentially fortified town atop hills. Cattle, sheep, and crops formed the basis of their economy. They also traded extensively with powerful Mediterranean nations such as the Greeks and the Etruscans. Each tribe usually had one king ruling over it, although sometimes a single king would rule over multiple tribes. Beneath the king, the three main social classes were the common people, the warrior aristocracy, and the druids, who led the people in religious matters.

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By Caleb HowellsBA Doctrines and Methodology of EducationCaleb is a published history author with a strong interest in ancient Britain and the Mediterranean world. He holds a BA in the Doctrines and Methodology of Education from USILACS. He is the author of "King Arthur: The Man Who Conquered Europe" and "The Trojan Kings of Britain: Myth or History?". Caleb enjoys learning about history in general, but he especially loves investigating myths and legends and seeing how they might be explained by historical events and individuals.