The Celts Under Roman Rule (50 BCE-450 CE)


The imposition of Roman rule on most of the Celtic world fundamentally transformed Celtic society. Although Celtic languages appear to have survived on the Continent for several centuries in rural areas and among the most conservative aristocratic families, Latin was the only medium of public discourse. The prestige and influence of the Druids was gone, and native leaders could gain power only through dealing with Roman institutions.


However, some aspects of Celtic tradition were able to remain in place despite Romanization. The Romans recognized the integrity of the old tribal territories and made them a part of the new administrative system, so that local populations retained their original tribal identities (many of the modern French provinces still reflect these tribal divisions: Poitou for the Pictaui, Saintonge for the Santones, Limousin for the Lemouices, Auvergne for the Aruerni, etc.). Also, some historians have suggested that the Roman shift from Republic to Empire may actually have made many Celts more comfortable with Roman rule, since it produced something broadly comparable with the more traditional "sacred king" model of political organization (cf Romain _Histoire de la Gaule_1996). Certainly the Emperor Augustus seems to have been catering to such a feeling when he formally assumed the Sovereignty of Gaul in 10 BCE.


In the religious domain, the Romans tended to identify local deities with similar figures in the Graeco-Roman pantheon: we call this the _interpretatio Romana_. Conquered populations were then encouraged to worship their traditional gods as aspects of Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, Minerva, etc, mixing their native attributes with the more widespread Classical ones. Older Celtic places of worship became the sites of Roman-style temples containing representations of the gods in their new guises, complete with written dedications giving both their original Celtic names and their assumed Roman identities. Since native written records of Celtic religion from pre-Roman times are extremely rare, the heritage of the _interpretatio Romana_ is, ironically, a treasure-trove for those interested in getting concrete information on the Celtic gods and their worship. Archaeological investigation of temple sites from all over the Celtic areas of the Continent and Britain suggests that native patterns of religious practice were maintained there despite a veneer of Romanization.


The same applied to the general patterns of rural life. While the Romans spread their urban network north into Gaul and Britain, bringing with it a style of life that was new to the Celts (as well as an ethnically mixed population), in the countryside many of the same goods continued to be produced as before, using similar methods, with little disruption of community organization. The delightful representational sculptures (mostly from the 3rd century CE) found in the city of Trier (the tribal capital of the Treueri, today a part of the German Rhineland) depict a people essentially Celtic in their material culture. Celtic products and fashions not only held their own, but even spread to other parts of the Empire, and many Celtic words were borrowed into spoken Latin.


In the course of the 5th century the Western Roman Empire collapsed under the weight of its economic and political problems. Its institutions (including its ability to defend itself) broke down, its vassal peoples revolted, and the Germanic tribes that had been held at bay east of the Rhine became free to invade and take over. What remained of Celtic identity on the Continent was unable to survive the death-throes of Roman society during this period.


In Ireland and Britain, however, Celtic-speaking communities continued to thrive. While the southeast of Britain had been heavily Romanized, around the middle of the 5th century the first English settlers crossed the North Sea and established themselves on the island, putting an end to the Roman institutions and the culture they had sustained. This gave Celtic culture an opportunity to re-assert itself, and for chieftains from the non-Romanized north of Britain to take advantage of the political vacuum and establish their control over the south. They were unable to stop the English onslaught, but eventually the westward movement of the invaders slowed when it reached the banks of the Severn and the Tamar, leaving what lay beyond to the Celts.


Some Important Sites  




Drumanagh [Roman garrison and trading post] Lambay Island  




Bath (Aquae Sulis)




Carrawburgh (and other sites along Hadrian's Wall) Cirencester






Nettleton Shrub






Hayling Island  




AlŽsia (Alise Ste-Reine)






Bourbonne-Lancy (Bourbonne-les-Bains)






















Lugo (and environs)  


Some basic reading:


Cunliffe "The Ancient Celts": pp.247-261.


James "The World of the Celts": pp.128-151  


Good works for basic reference on the period:


WELLS, Colin: _The Roman Empire_ (1995)


CAMERON, Averil: _The Later Roman Empire: A.D. 284-430_ (1993)


LUTTWAK, Edward M. & GILLIAM, J.F.: _Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire: From the First Century A.D, to the Third_ (1979)


SCARRE, Chris: _The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Rome_ (1995)


STARR, Chester: _The Roman Empire, 27 BC - AD 476: A Study in Survival_ (1983)  


Suggested reading:


BOWMAN, Alan K.: _Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier: Vindolanda and Its People_ (1998)


CURCHIN, L.A.: _Roman Spain: Conquest and Assimilation_ (1991)


DERKS, Tom: _Gods, Temples and Ritual Practices: The Transformation of Religious Ideas and Values in Roman Gaul_ (Amsterdam Archaeological Studies #2, 1999)


DRINKWATER, J.F.: _Roman Gaul: The Three Provinces, 58 BC - AD 200_ (1983)


HALL, Jenny & JONES, Christine: _Roman Britain_ (1997)


HENIG, Martin: _The Heirs of King Verica: Culture and Politics in Roman Britain_ (2002)


JONES, Barri & MATTINGLY, David: _An Atlas of Roman Britain_ (1990)


KEAY, S.J.: _Roman Spain_ (1988)


KING, Anthony: _Roman Gaul and Germany_ (Exploring the Roman World, vol. 3 -- U of Cal., 1990)


RAFTERY, Barry: _Pagan Celtic Ireland_ (Chapter 9, "Beyond the Empire") (1994)


SALWAY, Peter: _The Roman Era: The British Isles, 55 BC - 410 AD_ (Short Oxford History of the British isles)


SCULLARD, H. H.: _Roman Britain: Outpost of the Empire_ (1986)


VAN DAM, Raymond: _Leadership and Community in Late Antique Gaul_ (1985)


WEBSTER, Graham: _Celtic Religion in Roman Britain_ (1986)


WIGHTMAN, E.M.: _Gallia Belgica_ (1985)


WOOLF, Greg: _Becoming Roman: The Origins of Provincial Civilization in Gaul_ (2000)  




Identify the following and place them in historical context:




Civilis and Velleda


Carausius and Allectus


Ambrosius Aurelianus


Maximus Imperator


The "Bagaudae"




Imagine that you are a Celt living in a territory under Roman rule. How does foreign rule affect you in the following areas:


a. the language you speak.


b. the organization and appearance of your community. c. political leadership in your community. d. your economic relations with the outside world. e. the formal practice of your religion.  


What is the "plomb du Larzac"? Explain its significance and indicate what it tells us about Celtic culture in the early centuries of Roman rule.  


Imagine you are a Roman legionary serving in a garrison at Hadrian's Wall. What kinds of relations to you have with the local Celtic population? What separates you from them? What brings you together? Now imagine the situation from a native Celtic farmer's point of view.  

Choose three samples of the lively representational art from Roman Trier. Which features in the represented scenes suggest continuations of Celtic culture? Which suggest Roman influence?