The History of English Podcast - Episode 17: Ancient Celts and the Latin Invasion of Gaul

Welcome to the History of English podcast, a podcast about the history of the English


This is episode 17, Ancient Celts and the Latin Invasion of Gaul.

In this episode, we’re going to look at the ancient Celts, the people who once dominated

much of Europe.

And we’ll look at the spread of Rome and Latin into many of the territories where the

Romance languages are being spoken today.

But before I begin, let me give you an update on a couple of matters.

First, I sometimes neglect to mention the website for the podcast, so let me do that.


And also I’ve mentioned in past episodes that I’m working on a series dedicated to the history

of the alphabet from its ancient origins to modern English.

And it’s taken me a little longer than I anticipated to put that together because I’ve been trying

to maintain a regular schedule for this podcast.

And so in order to get an episode of the podcast ready every two weeks, I’ve not had

as much time to dedicate to the alphabet series.

But it looks like that series will be ready by the start of the new year.

And it will actually consist of several parts.

First, there’ll be an overall history of the alphabet and then a look at the various letters

and how they got to use in their current form.

So it’ll basically be an audio book, which will be divided into several chapters.

So look for that in January.

So let’s turn now to this episode.

Now last time I explored the rise of Rome from a small village in western Italy to the

dominant political and military power of the Mediterranean.

And with the spread of Rome, the Roman language went with it.

But the overall role of Latin was still limited at this point.

In the eastern Mediterranean, Greek was still the dominant language.

And it would remain the dominant language even after the Romans conquered the Macedonian

and Greek territories in the east.

In north of Italy, in the areas we know today as France and Germany and Britain, it was

the Celtic languages that dominated.

So let’s look at these Celtic-speaking people of western Europe and try to figure out who

they were.

When we think of modern Celtic cultures, we think of places like Ireland, Scotland, and


We can also include places like the Isle of Man and the French province of Brittany.

In all of these places, modern Celtic languages are still spoken.

But these are merely the remnants of a culture, or at least a linguistic group, that once

dominated most of central and western Europe.

In fact, during the time of the early Roman Republic, pretty much all of Europe, between

Italy in the south and Scandinavia in the north, was occupied by Celtic-speaking tribes.

And this included Britain and large portions of modern Spain.

So who were these ancient Celts?

Well, they were the linguistic descendants of the early Celtic tribes which I’ve mentioned

in earlier episodes.

So, like the Greeks, and the Romans, and the Germanic tribes to the north in Scandinavia,

they all spoke languages which were descended from the original Indo-European language.

As you may recall, I’ve mentioned in prior episodes that late in the 2nd millennium BC,

there were a variety of Indo-European tribes in the region north of Greece in southeastern


And I’ve mentioned that these tribes included the tribes that swept down into Greece and

caused disruptions which led to the period known as the Invasion of the Sea Peoples in

the eastern Mediterranean.

And I’ve noted that some language historians believe that these tribes may have also included

the ancestors of the Latin-speaking tribes and the other Italic-speaking tribes that

found their way into Italy.

And I’ve mentioned that these tribes may have also included the ancestors of the Celtic-speaking


But let’s keep in mind that, as with so much of this part of ancient history, we can’t

be too definitive about any of this.

There are still lots of competing theories about the specific treks taken by the various

Indo-European tribes.

By now, if you’ve listened to the earlier episodes of the podcast, you’ll know that

much of what is known about ancient history is the product of relatively recent discoveries

– and by relatively recent, I mean within the past couple of centuries.

And that’s generally true for our view of the ancient Celts as well.

In the mid-1800s, a prehistoric cemetery was discovered near Hallstatt in modern Austria.

And excavations revealed that this was the site of a culture that existed from around

the 8th century BC until the 6th century BC.

And it turns out this was one of the earliest Celtic settlements in Central Europe.

And about a decade after the discovery of the Hallstatt Cemetery, a prolonged drought

in Switzerland lowered the level of several lakes and revealed the remains of another

ancient settlement near the city of La Tène in Switzerland.

And this was a later Celtic settlement which originated near the end of the earlier Hallstatt

period and indicates a general westward movement of these peoples from southeastern Europe

into western Europe.

And both of these sites have revealed a tremendous amount about these early tribes.

These Celtic tribes also existed at a time when early Greek and Roman historians encountered


In addition to the archaeological evidence, we also have some contemporary accounts of

these Celts by these ancient historians.

So if we put all these pieces together, we can get a general sense of who these people


As I’ve said, it’s likely that the linguistic ancestors of the Celts were located in southeastern

Europe in the area north of Greece late in the 2nd millennium BC.

From here, they began a migration northwestward along the southern side of the Carpathian

Mountains into the area of modern Hungary and then further westward into modern Austria.

Remember this is where the Celtic cemetery was discovered in Hallstatt in Austria.

And this site represented one of the earliest of the ancient Celtic settlements.

And so historians call this the Hallstatt culture.

And we can think of it as the Hallstatt phase of the overall Celtic culture.

Now this Hallstatt phase begins around 750 BC.

So to put that into some perspective, that was around the time that the ancient Greeks

were emerging from the Greek Dark Age, having just adopted the Phoenician alphabet.

And that was around the same time that the first Latin speaking tribes were settling

into the community that would become known as Rome.

So at this very early stage, these early Celts were just another group of tribes settling

into Western Europe and speaking an Indo-European dialect or language.

And by this point, there may have been enough of a distinction between the languages of

these tribes and the other Indo-European tribes that we can say that we have a distinct Celtic

language in place.

But linguists are not in universal agreement on that point.

So regardless, if the Celtic language didn’t exist yet, it was quickly emerging.

And by this point, these early Celts had discovered the first organized farming in northern Europe.

And archaeologists who study this part of Europe call the people who lived there before

the Celts the Urnfield culture because they cremated their dead and they interred them

in urns.

And around the time that this Hallstatt phase began, around 750 BC, this pre-existing Urnfield

culture began to morph into the emerging Celtic culture.

So we probably have native peoples in these regions who were beginning to adopt some of

the Celtic cultural characteristics, including the Celtic dialects.

Remember that there’s a difference between the spread of a language or culture and the

spread of ethnicity.

So this early Celtic culture was spreading throughout Central Europe, perhaps by invasion,

perhaps by migration, perhaps by assimilation of native cultures, but it was spreading and

it was spreading very quickly.

And these tribes continued their westward expansion so that by the time we get to the

La Tène settlement in modern Switzerland, say around 450 BC, we can say with some certainty

that we have a distinct Celtic language in place among these peoples.

And by this point, Celtic tribes occupied or they were in the process of occupying much

of the territory of modern Germany and Austria and Switzerland.

Now during this so-called La Tène period from around 450 BC until about 200 BC, these

tribes were spreading throughout Western Europe, eventually occupying all of modern

France and the British Isles and large portions of modern Spain.

So what we really have is a group of tribes spread out over a broad swath of Central and

Western Europe.

At one time, early historians were reluctant to group all these people together as part

of some larger unified cultural group.

The fact is these tribes were often at war with each other and there’s no indication

that these people saw themselves as part of some larger interconnected culture.

But as modern scholars have examined these peoples more closely, and with the benefit

of hindsight, they’ve begun to focus on the similarities between these people.

And they’ve increasingly concluded that we do in fact have a common culture among these

people that we can now call the ancient Celtic culture.

There was no unified government among these peoples, instead it was really more like a

confederation of independent tribes.

But they had a common material culture, and they had a common religion, and they had a

common language, or at least a common family of languages.

And it’s these three things, material objects, religion, and language, that allows us to

group these people together and call them the Celts.

So let’s start with the material objects.

Archaeologists have determined that these ancient Celts were the first people of Europe

to master the use of iron.

They’ve discovered amazing artwork and tools and weapons, all made from iron and all of

a very similar style.

Now once these people had mastered iron, they exported the technology throughout Western


And like their Indo-European ancestors, the Celts were well equipped for mobility with

horses and wagons and carts and chariots.

But they were not nomadic.

They were farmers who lived in settled communities.

Now farming was certainly not unique to the Celts.

Most ancient people by this point were engaging in some type of farming.

But again, unlike other peoples of Northern Europe, these early Celts were renowned for

their mastery of iron, and their ability to forge iron tools for farming.

And this use of iron technology was widespread among these tribes, but not nearly as common

among non-Celtic tribes.

And as I’ve said, this mastery of iron extended to iron weapons and jewelry and other items.

So this early use of iron and mastery of iron is the first thing that linked these

early tribes together.

The second major unifying factor was religion, and specifically the class of religious leaders

which these tribes utilized.

And you’ve probably heard of these religious leaders before.

They were called the Druids.

The Druids were Celtic priests and they conducted a wide variety of religious ceremonies.

They officiated at the worship of gods and they regulated private and public sacrifices.

They also acted as judges in disputes between both individuals and tribes.

They had a very special status in Celtic society.

They came from leading families and they were exempted from paying taxes or taking part

in fighting.

And they were basically the teachers and the judges within Celtic society.

And the key here is that you don’t really find Druids outside of these Celtic tribes.

The later Romans noted that the Germanic tribes, further north in Scandinavia and into northern

Europe, they didn’t have Druid priests.

So the Druids were unique to the Celtic culture.

And that fact provides another unifying link between them.

Now at the height of Celtic power, it was possible to cross the entire continent of

Europe from east to west without ever leaving Celtic territory.

Remember that the Germanic tribes occupied the territory to the north in northern Europe

and the Romans were expanding throughout the Mediterranean to the south.

But the vast territory in the middle was occupied by the Celts.

And even though they were not a cohesive group of tribes, the Druids within these various

tribes did communicate with each other over vast distances.

According to the later Romans, the Druids of Gaul, which is in modern France, they communicated

with the Druids of Britain.

So again, we do see a type of networking between these groups.

And this is even more evidence of a common culture.

Now the word Druid comes from the Indo-European root word for oak tree.

And oak trees had very mystical, sacred properties to the ancient Celts.

So the term Druid reflected a connection between the priests and the sacred oaks.

The rituals performed by Druids often took place outside, especially in the woods.

And since mistletoe often grew in trees, especially oak trees, the Celts soon came to believe

that mistletoe was sacred as well.

They thought that mistletoe had healing properties and could fend off evil spirits.

It was thought to be a sign of good luck and blessings.

It was so sacred that when the enemies happened to meet and pass under mistletoe in the forest,

they would lay down their weapons and agree to a truce, at least until the next day.

And this was the origin of hanging mistletoe above a doorway as a sign of peace and good


And of course, that tradition later passed into Christianity many centuries later.

By the way, the Germanic tribes also held mistletoe in high regard and the tradition

of kissing under the mistletoe comes from those tribes.

So we see many similarities between the ancient Celts and the ancient Germanic tribes during

this period.

But I’m going to deal with the Germanic tribes in an upcoming episode.

And speaking of holiday traditions rooted in ancient Celtic culture, many of our modern

Halloween traditions can also be traced back to the Celts, specifically the Celts of the

British Isles.

But that was a much later borrowing that occurred during the Middle Ages, so I’m not really

going to go into that here.

So the use of iron and the creation of specific iron objects helps to establish a connection

between these people and certain religious practices, especially the existence of Druids,

marks another cultural connection.

But one of the most important connections between these people, especially for our purposes,

was the fact that they all spoke closely related languages, which we call Celtic today.

And again, these were ancient versions of the modern Celtic languages, like Gaelic

and Breton.

But like many ancient people, the Celts were illiterate, meaning simply they didn’t write

down their language.

So that obviously makes the study of the early Celtic languages very difficult.

And the major point here is that by the 2nd century BC, Celtic languages were widely spoken

across Western and Central Europe, and even though those languages were quite likely diverse

and may not have been mutually intelligible, they still reflect a common linguistic ancestry.

So all of these factors allow historians and linguists to lump these various European tribes

together under the general heading of the Celtic tribes.

Now by 400 BC, these tribes had already spread across much of Western Europe, and they were

also probably filtering into the British Isles at this time as well.

They brought with them all of the cultural factors I just discussed, ironworking, druids,

and Celtic languages.

Now as I mentioned earlier, archaeologists call the earliest Celtic culture the Hallstatt

culture, based around what they’ve unearthed at Hallstatt in Austria.

And then there was this later Celtic culture exemplified by the site at La Tène in Switzerland.

But these later artifacts, discovered at La Tène, have much more elaborate designs, and

they reflect influences from trading with the Greeks and the Etruscans.

And this would have been a time when ancient Greece was flourishing and the Etruscan culture

was still prominent in Italy.

So let’s take a look at the early contacts between these Celtic tribes and their neighbors.

I mentioned earlier that the Celtic tribes were illiterate, but the Greeks and the Etruscans,

and the later Romans, they were literate.

They had written languages, and they also had writers and historians.

And since they encountered the Celts, and since their writers sometimes wrote about

the Celts, we can get a glimpse of these ancient Celtic people from these limited written accounts

which do exist.

But one of the problems we have is that we’re getting the perspective of outsiders who didn’t

always have a positive view of the Celts.

So we have to keep that in mind as we review these writings.

It was in fact the Greeks who coined the term Celt.

The Greeks called these Central European tribes the Keltoi.

And some linguists believe that the term Keltoi may have simply been a generic term for the

people who they considered to be barbarians in the north.

So it may not have referred to any particular cultural or linguistic group.

Now the later Romans also encountered the same Celtic tribes as they ventured north

across the Alps into the heart of Europe.

But the Romans coined their own term for these people.

They called them the Galli.

And unlike the term used by the Greeks, which was probably more of a generic term, many

linguists believe that the Roman term Galli initially referred to a specific tribe.

But it eventually came to be used to describe the entire region, which they called Gallia,

and which we would come to know as Gaul.

And the area of Gaul roughly corresponds to modern France.

So the term Gauls can be a little confusing.

The Romans used it to refer to the people who inhabited the region of Gaul.

And these people were Celts.

But for the early Romans, they generally just called them Gauls.

But Julius Caesar did note that some of the Celts living in Gaul called themselves Celti.

So there does appear to be a connection between this word Celti and the Greek term Keltoi.

It’s possible that the early Greeks and the Romans had each encountered the same tribe

or groups of tribes which used that term to refer to themselves.

But the major point here is that these terms, Celts and Gauls, they often get used interchangeably

by historians.

But technically speaking, the Gauls represented only a portion of the overall Celtic people

of Europe.

Now in 324 BC, the Greek explorer Pythias traveled all the way to the British Isles.

And he referred to Ireland and Britain as the Britannic Islands.

What the Celtic inhabitants referred to as the Britanni.

And the Britannic Islands became known as Britannia.

And eventually, in the hands of the Romans, it was called Britannia.

And according to Pythias, the Celtic residents of Britannia, they mined tin and iron, they

made pottery, they weaved cloth, and they raised large herds of cattle and sheep.

So this was an ancient culture that still resembled the original Indo-European culture

in many respects.

And speaking of the connection between the early Indo-Europeans and the ancient Celts,

they both revered horses and they placed them in very high regard.

The ancient Celts held annual parades and chariot races.

And in times of war, they fought on horseback and were especially skilled at using horses

in their cavalry.

In fact, the Celtic cavalry was capable of intimidating the Roman infantry.

And it wasn’t until the Romans finally developed a disciplined, professional army that they

were able to routinely defeat the Celts in battle.

But more on that later.

And by the way, some historians believe that these ancient Celts invented horseshoes.

Remember the Celts were some of the first people of Europe to master the use of iron.

So what else did the Greeks and the Romans have to say about the Celts?

Well, they described the physical appearance of the Celts.

Supposedly, they were tall people and they were fair-haired.

So that means they had light-colored hair.

Archaeologists have unearthed graves with Celtic warriors and chiefs who were in excess

of six feet tall, which was very tall for that period of time.

They were also said to bear large mustaches with neck rings made of gold, silver and bronze.

They wore colorful clothing and they loved to fight in battle.

The colorful clothing attributed to these ancient Celts also provides a cultural and

historical link to modern tartan and plaid fabrics associated with Celtic societies.

And speaking of Celtic clothing, the Romans were amused by the fact that the Celts wore

pants instead of tunics.

And in fact, the word breeches, or as we say in the American South, britches, may have

been one of the oldest Celtic words in the English language.

That word actually predates Old English.

It goes all the way back to the original Germanic language spoken in Northern Europe.

But the ancient Celtic language had a very similar word.

The original Germanic word was something like broches.

And the Celtic word used in Gaul was bracha.

So it’s believed that one of the tribes borrowed the word from the other.

And remember that by this point, the Celts and the Germanic tribes were neighbors and

sometimes rivals fighting for the same territory.

So words would have likely passed between them, both figuratively and literally.

If the Germanic tribes borrowed it from the Celtic Gauls, then that would make it one

of the first Celtic words to arrive within English, or actually in this case, the ancestor

of English.

By the way, the Celtic term bracha passed into Latin after the Romans conquered Gaul

and eventually passed into French as braguette, which meant codpiece armor to protect the

crotch area.

And this word, braguette, eventually gave us the word bracket, due to some resemblance

in shape between early brackets and the French braguette.

It doesn’t sound very comfortable, but think of the braguette as the connecting point between

the two legs.

So in that sense, the term bracket makes a little more sense.

So there you go.

Now according to these early Greek and Roman writers, women held many positions of equality

with men in Celtic culture.

They fought alongside men in battle, and they retained control of their personal possessions

after marriage.

They also wore makeup, and they placed their hair in braids.

So I’ve discussed what the Greeks and the Romans wrote about the Celts, but let’s

explore the relationship between them a little further.

First I mentioned in the last episode that Celtic tribes from Gaul crossed the Alps and

traveled down into northern Italy where they sacked the early city of Rome around 391 BC.

And I noted that it had a tremendous psychological impact on the Romans.

It shaped the way they viewed the Celts, or the Gauls, going forward.

The Romans basically viewed them as savage barbarians and as a lingering threat in the


And following the conflicts with the Romans, some Celts moved to the east, into the Balkans

and eventually to Macedon and Thrace in modern day Greece.

About 25 years after Rome was sacked, there were reports of Celts fighting as mercenaries

in the wars between Sparta and Thebes in Greece.

And a few years later, in 335 BC, Alexander the Great fought a brief skirmish against

the Celtic tribe in the Danube Valley region to shore up the northern territory before

he moved on to Anatolia and the Middle East and eventually India.

So even Alexander had to deal with Celts on his northern border.

And in fact about a century later, well after the death of Alexander, and with Greek power

waning, another group of Celtic tribes invaded Greece and they sacked the city of Delphi.

Now this was around the time when the Romans were fighting the Punic Wars with Carthage

to gain control of the Mediterranean.

And I mentioned Hannibal’s famous trek from Spain through southern Gaul and across the

Alps on his way into northern Italy.

Now this trek took Hannibal through Celtic territory in northern Spain and southern Gaul

– remember, that’s modern France.

So along the way, Hannibal actually retained Celts as mercenaries in his army.

And large numbers of them fought as part of Hannibal’s army against the Romans in Italy.

It’s estimated that Hannibal had about 10,000 Celtic mercenaries from Spain alone.

So you can probably see why the Greeks and the Romans had a generally negative view of

the Celts.

And you can see why the Romans really wanted to eliminate this northern threat.

But this was barbarian territory to the Romans.

They mainly wanted security from the Celtic threat in Gaul, but that could only be accomplished

by actually conquering Gaul.

And up to this point, Rome had been occupied by its quest to conquer Italy and the Mediterranean.

Now at this point in history, in the 2nd century BC, western Europe can be roughly divided

into three distinct territories.

Around the Mediterranean was the Roman Republic, where Latin was spreading and becoming a lingua

franca, except in the east where Greek held on.

And far to the north were the Germanic tribes, which included the ancient ancestors of the


And this is where the early Germanic languages were being spoken.

But the vast territory in the middle was occupied by Celtic-speaking tribes.

And a series of events were about to transpire which would mark the beginning of the end

of the Celts as a distinct culture in continental Europe.

And it would pave the way for the Romans and the Germanic tribes to take over in these

Celtic areas.

Shortly after Rome began to establish trading posts up the Rhone River in Gaul, a situation

developed in northern Europe which caused a great deal of concern in Rome.

This was around 120 BC, and at this point, a group of tribes from Jutland and the North

Sea coast began to migrate southward, possibly as a result of a flash flood in their Jutland


Now you may remember from way back in episode 3 that Jutland means home of the Jutes.

And the Jutes were part of the Anglo-Saxon tribes who brought Old English to Britain.

But since there were a lot more Angles and Saxons than there were Jutes, the Jutes didn’t

get their name in that label.

But there were enough Jutes to establish their own territory which eventually became Kent

in England.

So a group of tribes from this region around Jutland in modern-day Denmark, they began

to move southward into southeastern Europe.

And this confederation of tribes was led by two specific tribes, the Teutons and the Cimbri.

Now remember Jutland is in modern Denmark, and it’s the same region, as I said, that

produced the Jutes, a Germanic-speaking tribe.

So this is Germanic territory, not Celtic territory.

And in fact, the Teutons were a Germanic tribe.

But there’s debate about that other tribe, the Cimbri.

Based upon the location of their homeland, some historians think that they were also

a Germanic tribe.

But their name, Cimbri, is definitely Celtic, not Germanic.

And many of the tribal leaders also had Celtic names.

So most modern historians consider them to have been a Celtic tribe.

But it shows you how the distinction between Celtic and Germanic was sometimes blurred

in many of these areas.

To emphasize that point, the name of that Germanic tribe, the Teutons, it’s the origin

of the modern term Teutonic, which is usually used as a term for things associated with


But even though the Teutons were a Germanic tribe, their name actually comes from the

Celtic word for people, which was Teuto.

And initially it was applied to this unnamed Germanic tribe.

Over time, the term was applied by the Romans collectively to all of the Germanic tribes.

But what about that term Germanic?

Well, it, too, comes from the name of a Celtic tribe which lived east of the Rhine known

as the Germani.

The Romans applied this term to all of the people who lived north and east of the Rhine.

However, many of those people were Germanic, not Celtic, because they spoke Germanic languages.

To the Romans, the distinction was largely irrelevant, because the Romans considered

them all to be barbarians.

But over time, the name Germania stuck with regard to the people who inhabited this region

beyond the Rhine.

So non-Celtic peoples in this region simply became known as the Germanic peoples.

And of course, that’s also the root of the modern word Germany.

So the great irony is that all of these terms which mean Germanic today, words like Teutonic

and Germanic in Germany, they are all of Celtic origin.

So you can see how these distinctions between Celtic and Germanic were often blurred, especially

from the perspective of the Romans who were often unconcerned about those distinctions.

So we have the two tribes, the Teutons and the Kimberi, both Germanic or both Celtic

or perhaps one of each, you take your pick.

But they were moving southeastward to the region around modern Hungary.

But then all of a sudden, around 113 BC, they turned westward, and they soon approached


And as they came closer to Italy, a Roman army intervened, but the Roman army was defeated

by those migrating tribes.

And then many of the citizens of Rome began to panic, as they began to think back to Rome

being sacked by the Celts from Gaul a couple of centuries earlier.

But these migrating tribes didn’t move south into Italy.

Instead they continued to move westward into Gaul.

And the Romans could actually breathe a sigh of relief for a while, as they were apparently

spared by those barbarian tribes.

And the Romans actually continued to engage those tribes in Gaul for the next few years,

but they didn’t really have any success against them.

And eventually, for some reason, the Teutons and the Kimberi decided to divide their armies.

And the old divide and conquer strategy finally came to the Romans’ rescue.

The Roman legions finally defeated the Teutons in southern Gaul in 102 BC, and they defeated

the Kimberi tribe in northern Italy in 101 BC.

But the Celtic threat didn’t end there.

By this point, the Germanic tribes in northern Europe were expanding southward into the Celtic


And in the east, the new kingdom of Dacia, formed in the Balkans, well, it was expanding

as well.

And a Celtic tribe in Switzerland, called the Helvetii, outgrew its homeland, and it

began to spread westward as well.

And all of this expansion on the northern and eastern sides of the Celtic lands was

having a domino effect.

And it was pushing more and more Celtic tribes westward and southward into the fringes of

the Roman territory.

And skirmishes were starting to break out between the Celtic tribes on the northern

border of Rome.

Now all of this uncertainty and instability caused more and more concern within Rome itself.

The Romans already had a deep fear of the Celtic tribes since the initial sacking of


And now the fear of invasion was a frightening reality.

The stage was set for someone who could take advantage of the situation by leading a Roman

expedition against the Celtic tribes and delivering peace and security to Rome.

And when Rome had such a person, his name was Julius Caesar.

Now Julius Caesar was an aspiring politician looking for a great propaganda victory to

match the exploits of his rival Pompey who had acquired territory for Rome in the east.

And Gaul was an obvious target.

Now Caesar also had a professional army which he needed to keep employed.

So in 59 BC Caesar steered a special law through the Roman Senate which gave him a five-year

command over Gaul.

He argued that the Germanic tribes to the far north were beginning to threaten the states

allied with Rome in the region of Gaul.

And he said that Gaul would either become Roman or it would be overrun by those Germanic


And the next year he began his conquest of Gaul.

He began by attacking the Helvetii tribe which I mentioned earlier, which had been expanding

into Gaul from its homeland in modern day Switzerland.

And he defeated the Helvetii and then he focused his efforts in northern Gaul and he finally

subdued the tribes there.

Now Caesar completed his conquest of Gaul, at least temporarily, in 55 BC.

Estimates, some based on Caesar’s own accounts, are that hundreds of thousands of Celts, perhaps

more than a million, were killed as a result of Caesar’s conquest.

It was a nasty and brutal business.

But everything didn’t go well for Caesar.

In that same year, 55 BC, Caesar attempted to invade Britain for the first time with

two legions.

But the conquest of Britain turned out to be a lot more difficult.

Britain was considered the very edge of the Roman world.

And you had to get there by boat which was never really the forte of the Romans.

Now this first invasion was really more of an expedition.

The Romans didn’t intend to establish a permanent settlement there.

It was partly a show of force to discourage the British Celts from supporting their fellow

Celts in Gaul who they routinely traded with and aided.

Now except for a few skirmishes with some southern Celts, the expedition didn’t really

have any military consequences.

But a year later, in 54 BC, Caesar tried again.

And this second invasion of Britain was a proper invasion with intentions of establishing

a permanent Roman settlement there.

But the native Celts were prepared this time.

And Caesar fought the Celts in Britain but he could never secure a decisive victory there

after three months of fighting.

And at this time, there was a revolt of Celtic tribes back in Gaul.

So Caesar withdrew from Britain to deal with the uprising in Gaul.

And he never returned to Britain.

And Britain would remain outside of the Roman Empire for almost another century until the

Emperor Claudius finally returned to conquer Britain for Rome.

Now this revolt that was happening back in Gaul was a very big deal.

Remember that the various Celtic tribes shared some common cultural characteristics but there

was no political cohesion there.

They were more likely to fight against each other than unify as a common military force.

And this gets back to the divide and conquer approach which the Romans used to great effect

against the Celts.

But now, in 53 BC, they had finally started to unite under a single leader named Vercingetorix.

And Vercingetorix was the chieftain of a tribe in central Gaul.

He had encouraged the various Celtic tribes to unify against the Romans.

And he soon emerged as the supreme military commander of the Celts.

And as the leader, he actually burned Celtic towns and crops to prevent the Romans from

accessing the food.

And he adopted guerrilla tactics to interrupt and cut off Roman supplies.

His rebellion was initially successful against the Roman army and their Germanic mercenaries.

But the Romans eventually got the upper hand due to their superior discipline and organization.

And the Romans were finally able to surround Vercingetorix and force him to surrender.

And this effectively marked the end of any real Celtic threat to Roman power in Gaul.

Now Caesar’s conquest of Gaul had taken eight years.

And that’s an incredibly short period of time to conquer such a large territory.

And needless to say, it was a huge political victory for Caesar.

But politics is a messy business.

And Caesar’s political rival back in Rome, remember, was Pompey.

And Pompey recognized what Caesar’s victory meant for Caesar, and therefore meant for

Pompey himself.

Now technically, Caesar’s term as the governor of Gaul had expired.

So Pompey was able to get the Roman Senate to order Caesar to disband his army and return

to Rome.

But Caesar was having none of it.

Pompey had accused Caesar of insubordination and treason.

And Caesar suspected that he would be prosecuted if he returned to Rome as a civilian.

So he took his army and headed for Rome with his army in tow.

And in 49 BC, Caesar crossed the Rubicon River, which was the northern boundary of Roman territory

at the time.

Now, by crossing this river, Caesar was entering Rome with his own army in violation of the

Senate’s order.

And for Caesar, crossing the river was basically a point of no return.

He knew that it would mean civil war.

And this is where we get the modern English phrase, crossing the Rubicon, to mean going

beyond the point of no return.

Now civil war in Rome did ensue, and Caesar emerged victorious.

He also emerged as the dictator of Rome in 48 BC.

And we can now start to speak of the Roman Empire as opposed to the earlier Roman Republic.

And I’m going to talk a lot more about Caesar and the Roman Empire in the next episode.

But let’s turn our attention back to Gaul, because that’s the focus of this episode.

Now, after the Romans finally subdued the Celts in Gaul, the Celts there were largely

assimilated into the Roman Empire.

Rome began an extended period of Romanization, which I described a little bit in the last


Now, Rome promoted trade and farming and industry within Gaul.

But the most important part of this story for our purposes is that the native Celtic

languages began to disappear in Gaul, and Latin gradually began to replace those languages.

The Latin dialect spoken in this region would eventually evolve into an early form of French.

And as I’ve noted throughout this podcast series, this was the avenue by which English

inherited a very large portion of its modern vocabulary.

The Latin words evolved into French and then passed into English with the Norman invasion

of England in 1066.

So the Roman conquest of Gaul was a crucial event in the overall story of English.

But what about those Celtic languages that were now being replaced by Latin?

What was the long-term impact of those languages on English?

The answer is not very much.

I’ve already mentioned a few Celtic words that have found their way into English.

But the fact is that most of the Celtic tribes were eventually conquered by the Romans in

the west and by the Germanic tribes in the north and east.

They were basically caught between a rock and a hard place.

And after the Celts were conquered in continental Europe, their languages largely disappeared.

Of course, the Celts held on in the British Isles, at least for a while, until the Romans

returned there under Claudius.

And I’ll look at that part of the story next time.

So there was some Celtic influence on English from the lingering Celtic languages which

were still being spoken when the Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain.

And of course, some of those languages have held on to this very day in places like Ireland

and Scotland and Wales.

So there was some limited Celtic influence on English when the Anglo-Saxons encountered

those Celts in Britain.

But I’ll address those influences when we get to the Anglo-Saxon invasion.

The other Celtic influence on English comes in the form of a few words used by those continental

Celts in Gaul which were adopted by the Romans and the Germanic tribes.

And a few of those words have found their way into modern English through Latin or through

the Germanic languages.

I’ve already mentioned a few words like britches and bracket, Teutonic and Germanic, all of

which have roots in the ancient Celtic languages of Gaul.

We also get lots of place names from the original Celts.

For example, the names of London and Paris are both rooted in Celtic names, as is the

Thames River which runs through London and the River Seine which runs through Paris.

And since Gaul eventually evolved into the territory we know today as France, it’s not

surprising that we can find a fair amount of Celtic words in modern French.

It’s estimated that there are about 500 Celtic words in modern French, and there may actually

be quite a bit more than that.

But what about English?

Well, the Latin word bulga, meaning a leather bag or knapsack, came from a Celtic term used

in Gaul.

And the word came into English from French as baguette, and later becoming budget.

It originally retained its meaning as a small bag, then a leather purse or wallet, then

it came to mean the collection of papers in the wallet, and much later in the 18th century

it came to be used in its sense as a financial record or document today.

So budget comes from Celtic origins.

And the Old English word riche, which is the original version of our modern word rich,

also came from Celtic origins.

I mentioned this word back in the episode I did on the letter C. Well, this word riche

was almost certainly borrowed from the Celts by the early Germanic tribes on the continent

before they migrated to Britain.

The word meant kingdom in Old English, and it’s directly connected to the Germanic word

reich, as in third reich.

It eventually came to also serve as an adjective, meaning rich or powerful, and that’s the sense

that we have it today.

So again, the word riche comes to us indirectly from these ancient Celts.

Another very common English word which comes from these Celts is the word car.

And this word comes from early Roman contact with the Celts.

The Celts in Gaul had used the term for their war chariots, and Julius Caesar borrowed the

term during his wars there.

The term passed through Latin and French before finally making it into English.

And the English word bin, B-I-N, as in trash bin, may have come from a word used by the

Celts in Gaul as well.

The word was bin, and it was a type of cart which usually carried a woven wicker form

which was made to look like a person.

And these forms may have been used to contain bodies that were sacrificed by burning.

And the term was adopted into Middle English to mean crib or manger.

And it eventually came to mean a type of storage container.

And of course, that’s the sense that we have it today, as in trash bin.

Now beyond those words, we get a few words from the Celts in Britain after the Anglo-Saxons

arrived there.

A word like ass, for example, was probably adopted from a Celtic word by the Anglo-Saxons.

But it’s estimated that no more than a dozen or so Celtic words, other than place names,

were adopted by the Anglo-Saxons prior to the Norman invasion.

So in terms of vocabulary, Celtic influence on English is very limited.

Now there may be some Celtic influences on English grammar, but again, I’ll deal with

that topic when we get to Old English and the Anglo-Saxons.

Now I should re-emphasize the fact that Celtic languages are still being spoken in parts

of the British Isles and northern France.

And a few of those words have passed into English mainly during the late Middle Ages

and thereafter.

This includes words like bard, bog, glen, banshee, flannel, clan, whiskey, plaid, lock,

galore, brogue, shamrock, and leprechaun.

There was also a Gaelic term which combined the Gaelic words for war and cry.

It was something like slraigam, like I don’t speak Gaelic so sorry for butchering that,

but it literally meant war cry or shout of the troops.

And it was the rallying cry of a Celtic chieftain in battle, and it was used in the middle of

a battle to rally the troops and bring them together.

And it came into modern English as the word slogan in the 1700s.

But again, that’s about it for Celtic influences on English vocabulary.

But as I said earlier, the biggest impact of this episode on the overall story of English

is the fact that much of Western Europe was now under Roman control, and that meant the

spread of Latin.

So next time I’m going to look at this later period of Roman history and the large number

of Latin words from this period which have found their way into modern English.

This is also the story of the Roman conquest of Britain and the rise of the Germanic tribes

in the north.

So I’ll be setting the stage for the fall of Rome and the Germanic invasions of Europe.

So until next time, thanks for listening to the History of English Podcast.

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