Ruairí Ó Domhnaill reviews The Celtic Empire: the first millennium of Celtic history 1000 B.C.-- A.D. 51 by Peter Berresford Ellis, Robinson, £7.99 pbk
THE CELTIC Empire (though no empire) is a tour de force in scholarship, communication and presentation -- and a welcome paperback edition of a book first published in 2000.
“Long, long ago beyond the mystic space of thrice a thousand years”, the Celts emerged first into recorded history. They spread geographically from central Europe to Italy, where they sacked Rome, Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt, Gaul, Britain, and Brittany. In Iberia, typically some helped; some harried Hannibal on his passage into Italy. (For those, like me, whose knowledge of geography just extends to “all Gaul is divided into three parts”, a map would have helped.)
The requirement for scholarship is heightened by the literate Celts’ prohibition of historiography.
The author’s lucid, almost terse accounts of military strategy and tactics are a triumph of clarity. The vast armies and numbers of casualties are surprising, as is the civilised Romans’ proclivity for “face-to-face” genocide.
Julius Caesar appears more the hero of De Bello Gallico than the vain, epileptic Shakespearean character.
Some parallels are found between the ancient Celtic world and the modern Celtic fringe, for example, the Celtic mercenary and worse, the Celtic seóinín (toadying Anglophile, ed).
The Celtic Empire censures easy stereotyping and romanticising of the Celts, like Chesterton’s fairly humorous:
“Last of a race in ruin/He spoke the speech of the Gaels./For the great Gaels of Ireland/Are men that God made mad,/For all their wars were merry,/And all their songs are sad."
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