Learning About Celts Through Roman Authors

3122 words - 12 pages

Learning About Celts Through Roman Authors

The Celts left very little written documentation behind them. What is
known about the Celts has been discovered through archaeology and
through the writings of Roman authors such as Caesar, Strabo and
Tacitus. Caesar wrote about the Celts in his Gallic Wars as he
documented his arrivals in Britain in 55 and 55 BC. Strabo was a Roman
geographer, and included his knowledge of the geography of Britain in
his texts, and Tacitus in his "Agricola", his histories and his annals
also wrote of his knowledge of the Celts. These three authors, amongst
others, gave us written evidence of the agricultural lifestyle of the
Celts, their trading, commerce and economy, their tribal system, their
politics and their religion.

However, all the Roman authors' works are subject to bias, either
pro-Roman (as in Caesar and Strabo) or of flattery (as in Tacitus, who
was writing a eulogy). Caesar's first paragraph in his account of the
first invasion of Britain, for example, states that the Celts had been
sending reinforcements to the Gauls on the continent during Caesar's
Gallic campaigns. The full truth of this statement is unknown, however
it is unlikely that the Celts would have been interested in sending
men out to Gaul, as it would have been harvest time during that
period, and the Celts were primarily a farming people.

Roman authors tended to share the same opinions concerning the
geography of Britain as each other. Caesar, Strabo and Tacitus all
wrote of Britain as being triangular in shape. Caesar stated that the
southern side faced Gaul and measured roughly 475 miles, the western
side faced Spain, measuring 665 miles, and the third side faced north
with no land lying opposite, although its eastern corner pointed in
the general direction of Germany, and measured roughly 760 miles.
Caesar's geography, considering the time of writing, was fairly
accurate as far as measurements were concerned. It seemed to be a
popular Roman belief that the western side of Britain faced Spain, as
both Caesar and Tacitus wrote of this, although it is not true. Caesar
questioned the natives as to the size of the island and also had
Volusenus make a general reconnaissance of the area, which could
account for his apparent accuracy of measurements and other
geographical points that he made. He was fairly accurate, although
vague, about Ireland, saying that it was the same distance from Gaul
as Britain and about half its size. His knowledge of the whereabouts
of the Isle of Man was also accurate.

Tacitus is very self-assured of his knowledge of Britain's geography,
assuring the reader that "where my predecessors relied on style to
adorn their guesses, I shall offer assured fact." He stated that
Britain was the largest island known to the Romans, and followed the

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