Were the Ancient Britons Really Celts?

We commonly think of the ancient Britons as being Celts. But in recent decades, some scholars have argued that this is incorrect. Which conclusion is best supported by the evidence?

Jan 5, 2023By Caleb Howells, BA Doctrines and Methodology of Education

royer alesia vercingetorix smith convention britons painting


In popular media, as well as many academic sources, the inhabitants of ancient Britain are called “Celts”. In this way, they are presented as being part of the same nation as the inhabitants of ancient France, or Gaul. However, some scholars in recent decades have called this classification into question. They argue that the Britons should not be classed as Celts. What is the basis for this argument? And do these arguments stand up to scrutiny?


The Greek Use of the Term “Celts”

The World According to Herodotus, via Wikipedia Commons


The key argument against using the term “the Celts” to refer to the ancient Britons is the fact that the term is never used in that way in ancient writings. So, how did ancient writers use the term “the Celts”?


The earliest use of this term comes from Greek historians. One notable early example is Ephorus. When describing the world as it was known at that time, he referred to four nations in four cardinal directions. According to his description, the Ethiopians lived to the south, the Indians lived to the east, the Scythians lived to the north, and the Celts lived to the west.


That is not to say that these were generic terms given to nations living in those directions. Ephorus displays knowledge of countless specific nations in all directions, including to the west. Therefore, it is evident that those four nations were merely the major nations living in those cardinal directions. To the Greeks, the Celts (or Keltoi as they spelled it) was not a generic term for westerners, but they were the most notable nation living far to the west.

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Did the Greeks Consider the Britons to Be Celts?

Biblioteca Historica, by Diodorus Siculus, via splendidsicily.com


The fact that the Greeks considered the Celts to be the most significant westerly nation does not prove or disprove whether they considered the Britons to be included. However, there is at least one early record that may well reveal what they thought. Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian of the first century BCE, stated the following in his Bibliotheca historia (2.47.1):


“Hecataeus and certain others say that in the regions beyond the land of the Celts​ there lies in the ocean an island no smaller than Sicily.”


Although there is no universal agreement, many scholars agree that the island referred to in this passage is Britain. If so, the fact that it was said to have been “beyond the land of the Celts” implies that the island itself was not considered to be included in the realm of the Celts. Since this Hecataeus was a historian of the fourth century BCE, this would suggest that the Greeks of that century distinguished between the Celts and the Britons.


How Did the Romans Use the Terms “Celt”?

Julius Caesar, by Peter Paul Rubens, 17th century, via the Leiden Collection


The Romans seem to have used the term “Celt” very similarly to how the Greeks used it. They applied the term to a large collection of tribes covering huge portions of western Europe. All the Gallic tribes — the tribes of Gaul — were called Celts by the Romans. We clearly see this in Julius Caesar’s De Bello Gallico (1.1):


“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.”


But beyond just using the term “Celts” to refer to the Gallic tribes, other Roman writings show that they also used the term to refer to some of the inhabitants of Iberia. For example, Strabo (3.4.5) refers to Celts in that region who became the Celtiberians and the Berones. Many other tribes in Iberia were also considered to be Celtic. In other words, we see that the Romans considered the Celts to cover several large portions of Western Europe. This is consistent with Greek description of the Celts being the single most notable people to the west.


If the Romans used the term “Celts” in a similar way to the Greeks, how did they view Britain? Just like the Greeks, the Romans always distinguished between the Celts and the Britons.


Why Do Modern Sources Call the Britons “Celts”?

Coin from the British Isles, 60-20 BCE, via the British Museum


If ancient sources are unanimous in never calling the Britons “Celts” why is it such standard practice in modern sources?


The reason is primarily a matter of language. The language of the ancient Britons, usually called “Brythonic” or “Brittonic” by scholars, is known to be closely related to the Celtic language of the Gauls. Evidence of this is seen in ancient place names, personal names, and the few surviving inscriptions we have from ancient Britain. It is also evident from surviving traces of Brythonic — that is, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton. All the evidence shows that the Britons spoke a language that was extremely similar to the language of the Gauls. In fact, the languages were probably mutually intelligible.


Grand Conventional Festival of the Britons, designed by Charles Hamilton Smith and engraved by Robert Havell senior, 1815, via Royal Academy of Arts, London


Because of this firm linguistic evidence, it came to be widely believed that the Celts migrated from Gaul to Britain in the Iron Age. However, this conclusion has been increasingly called into question by modern scholars. The reason is that there does not appear to be any evidence of a large-scale invasion of Britain during the Iron Age. Additionally, genetic evidence does not support the conclusion that the Britons are particularly closely related to the Gauls.


Nevertheless, the majority of scholars today still refer to the ancient Britons as being a Celtic people. Why? Because they are using the term primarily in a linguistic sense, not an ethnic sense. The Britons did speak a Celtic language inasmuch as it was a language that shared a seemingly-recent origin with the language spoken by the Celts in the Roman era. With that being the case, is it not appropriate to refer to them as Celts?


What Makes a Celt?

Vercingetorix Throws Down His Arms at the Feet of Caesar, by Lionel Royer, 1899, via Le Puy-en-Velay, musée Crozatier


To a large degree, this is just an issue of perspective. Should a nation be considered “Celtic” simply because they spoke what was essentially the language of the Celts? Or do they need to be related through genetics? Or is it a matter of culture? There are many different ways of looking at this issue.


Nevertheless, it is important to note that the material culture of the Celtiberians was very different from the material culture of the Gallic Celts. This being so, it is evident that archaeology cannot determine which nation was or was not Celtic. It is evidently not the style of artwork or design of houses or type of pottery that determines whether one is or is not a Celt. Regarding genetics, there does not appear to be any evidence of large-scale migration from Gaul to Iberia. Yet, that does not stop the Celts of Iberia from being considered Celts, either in ancient or modern sources.


On the other hand, the genetics of the population of England is known to be primarily made up of genes from the pre-Saxon inhabitants. Yet despite that, no one would call the English a “Brythonic” nation. So it does not seem very useful to use genetics as the main criterion for determining whether a nation was or was not Celtic.


Therefore, using language as the main basis for determining that ancient populations of Europe does seem to be the most useful method, even if it is not perfect. On this basis, it is very reasonable indeed to refer to the Britons as “Celts”.


Ancient Observations Concerning the Britons

The Britons, by James William Edmund Doyle, 1864, via welt.de


It is true that the Greeks and the Romans never explicitly called the Britons “Celts”. However, there is no hiding the fact that the Greeks and the Romans did consider the Britons and the Celts of Gaul to have been very similar. For example, Caesar tells us at De Bello Gallico (6.14) that some of the inhabitants of Britain do not “differ much from the Gallic customs”. Similarly, Strabo (4.5.2) tells us that “their habits are in part like those of the Celti”. In Agricola 11, Tacitus tells us that the religious beliefs and customs of the Britons were very similar to those of the Gauls. He also states that “their language differs but little”.


What these descriptions confirm is that the Greeks and Romans observed that the Britons and the Gallic Celts were very similar in language and customs. Their similarities are not just a modern, scholarly point of interest — it was a fact of life to those ancient writers and one that was obvious.


Ancient Beliefs About the Origins of the Britons

Modern statue of Tacitus, Austrian Parliament Building, Vienna, via tacitusforum.com


Beyond simply noting their similarities, there is even evidence that the Greeks and Romans did consider the Britons and Gallic Celts to have originally been one people. In the passage by Tacitus mentioned previously, he offers some speculation as to where the southern Britons originated from. He wrote the following:


“Those who are nearest to the Gauls are also like them, either from the permanent influence of original descent, or, because in countries which run out so far to meet each other, climate has produced similar physical qualities. But a general survey inclines me to believe that the Gauls established themselves in an island so near to them.”


In other words, Tacitus believed that the southern Britons were descendants of the Gauls. In his view, they were originally the same people. This shows that the idea that Britons descended from a wave of Celts migrating from Gaul is not a modern idea. Put another way, the idea that the Britons were Celts goes back at least to the time of Tacitus. It also shows that a Roman writer would not necessarily use the term “Celts” for every nation that they believed were in fact originally Celtic.


Hercules Fighting with the Lernaean Hydra, by Francisco de Zurbaran, 1634, via Museo del Prado, Madrid


This was not a belief that was unique to Tacitus. Parthenius of Nicaea, a poet of the first century BCE, wrote a story about the origin of the Celts. This account tells us that Heracles was wandering through “the land of the Celts” (Gaul) and came across a king named Bretannus. Heracles then had a son with Celtine, the daughter of King Bretannus. This son was named Celtus, from whom the Celts were descended.


This story does not specifically mention the Britons, but it is evident that King Bretannus is supposed to be their eponymous forefather. This being the case, this account displays the belief that the Britons originally came from the “land of the Celts” and had shared ancestry with the Celts of Gaul.


Again, just because no ancient source explicitly calls the Britons “Celts” does not mean that the Britons were not considered to have originally been the same people. The words of Tacitus and Parthenius demonstrate that at least some ancient writers did consider them to have originally been Celts.


Were the Britons Celts?

Illustration of Ancient Britons, by Angus McBride, via warfarehistorynetwork.net


With all of the aforementioned in mind, is it right to keep calling the Britons “Celts”? Or are modern arguments against such a classification sufficiently weighty? It is certainly true that there is no surviving record in which the Greeks or Romans referred to the Britons as Celts. In fact, they consistently distinguished between the two. Yet, there are at least two ancient references which display a belief that the Britons were originally of the same stock as the Celts.


But more importantly, the evidence is abundantly clear that the language of the Britons was little more than a variation of the language of the Gallic Celts. That being the case, it is entirely appropriate to call Brythonic a Celtic language. While there are clearly different viewpoints about what makes a nation Celtic or not, a linguistic definition seems to be the most reasonable. When we combine that with the fact that the Britons were also very culturally and religiously similar to the Gallic Celts, it is completely appropriate to refer to the Britons as Celts.

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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.