Tag Archives: Roman Empire

The Shadow Line. Part 1 – That Damn Graph.

Seek and Ye Shall Find…

The most popular search-term which appears to draw net-trawlers to this corner of the virtual ocean is ‘Saint Patrick’ (and variations thereof), closely followed by ‘Clovis’, and ‘God’. I think this is an interesting situation in itself, but understandable considering the nature of the Endeavour. Indeed most of the search-terms WordPress informs me of appear to be reasonable, before we inevitably reach the realms of utter nonsense, but one query does stick out: ‘dark ages graph’ (and variations thereof). I have discussed, and dismissed, this graph before, but only in brief. Clearly the People (and variations thereof) demand more, though to what end I do not know. I hope the case is that they have seen the graph somewhere, recognised it as nonsense, but yet wish to seek out further detail. I fear, however, that the searchers seek it out to confirm their heartfelt belief in the inadequacy of religion, accepting this graph as some kind of ‘proof’ that the Catholic Church stymied science, and by extension mankind, for the best part of a millennium. This is the scenario you will find in most skeptic/atheist boards and sites, this tedious graph rolled out as ‘evidence’. Hopefully I will be able to aid those of you who are suspicious of the graph, and illuminate those of you who accept it.

First, Some History.

'The Dark Ages'

Taken from the original article (link just over there, to the left).

After some research, I believe I have traced the origin of this pestilential image to an article entitled “The Myth of Christianity Founding Modern Science and Medicine (And the Hole Left by the Christian Dark Ages*)“, which was originally posted on the 22nd of May 2007, with some (unspecified) additions and corrections on the 20th of January 2010. Spreading to forums, by 2008 it was an anti-religious demotivational poster. The article itself is an interesting piece of work which hopes to rebut the claims of Christians who would suggest that Science owes its birth, in some fashion, to religion. In theory, I agree with the writer, though not with his evidence, conclusions, or the manner in which he arrives at them.

The Graph is the Thing…

Leaving aside the article itself for the moment (since the graph appears to have taken on a life of its own), my first question is from where did the writer get the data points from which to plot the graph? How does one judge scientific advancement, or indeed its decline? Did the writer simply take the cumulative amount of inventions created by each of the early empires he mentions? Did he apply some value system to the inventive process? Is it based on the material power of each empire? What is the basic criteria by which we judge ‘scientific advancement’? Scientific advancement appears to be, in this graph, a quantifiable property, a thing we can measure, which, in the modern world it may well be, since we have things like patent offices, but in ancient times, things get murky. Following from that, how does one deduce the reversal of such advancement? Nowadays it would be relatively easy; civilisation as we currently know it would collapse without oil, in fact I know a few people who consider their broadband speeds dipping below 3mbps as the beginning of a dark age. The strange thing is that for most people in the Middle Ages, nothing had changed from Roman times, or even Greek ones. The graph presumes a bizarre level of universality which is untenable, while also seemingly arguing that all history is necessarily progressive unless some outside force hinders it.

Empires and the Fall of Rome.

Contrary to popular belief, Rome did not fall because of Christianity. It fell because of the massive invasions of Germanic peoples, pagans mostly, who tramped around the Western Empire, generally making a mess of things. There were also issues of currency devaluation, the inherent difficulties in governing a massive empire with primitive communication networks, and the fact that the war with Persia was a massive drain on the economy (Americans, learn from history). The West was not where the clever people lived, it was not where the money was made; the East was where the Empire made its fortunes and where the great scholars lived. Gaul, Spain, Britain, these were rustic provinces which provided men and material, the most valuable provinces being Egypt, Greece, Africa, and Asia Minor, home to great urban centres, and lucrative trade. With the decline of the Empire in the West, the provinces of Rome were divided up amongst a variety of competing kingdoms, more keen on spending money on weapons than on books. The only folks who were still keen on the whole book-learning gig were the Church, specifically the great monasteries who carefully copied many works from Antiquity, works that would otherwise have been lost. And even then, while the city of Rome may have fallen to barbarians, the Roman Empire still hung around, except that we call it the Byzantine Empire (they considered themselves, and were considered by others, to be the Roman Empire), clinging on to the wealthier parts of the Mediterranean. In a modern sense we might call this Imperial down-sizing for the sake of efficiency, out-sourcing the governance of the less profitable western provinces to new entrepreneurial kingdoms.

It’s a Numbers Game.

For a moment, let’s wander back to the question of how we judge ‘scientific advancement’, placing it with a historical context. We might suggest that the number of inventions a society creates, or breakthroughs in medicine, or fun scientific discoveries would be a good indicator. The Romans had a very clever way of making concrete, the Greeks invented the natural sciences, etc., etc., with the presumption that the ‘Dark Ages’ offered little. Well, just because things were thought of, or invented doesn’t mean that they were used. A Greek also invented the steam-engine about 2,000 years ago, but nobody cared because slave-labour was cheap. Greek philosophers, while being very clever and all that, had no evidence of their theories (they would have to wait for 20th Century science to prove them right, but sadly they had died in the meantime), and so didn’t really offer a tangible and useful alternative to traditional thought. What I am trying to get at is that the importance of an invention or theory is dependent on its usefulness. Newton’s theory of gravity explained the world pretty well for a long time, so nobody bothered to change it, until scientists began to look at the very very big, and the very very small, and saw that it no longer held up. In walks Einstein and his clever theory about relatives, giving us the modern world. Julius Caesar could have thought up the notion of a guided missile to replace catapults and archers, and we would think him very clever, but that wouldn’t mean the Romans were more technologically advanced than the Gauls; all he would have had was the notion of a guided missile, not the micro-electronics needed to guide it. On a more realistic level, we might wonder why the Romans or the Greeks didn’t invent printing, but preferred to write on papyrus and such, even though they were astonishingly literate civilisations by the standards of the day. It was simply because there was no demand for mass-produced volumes, only a tiny minority of people could read and write, which was true up until surprising recently.

Hark, a Vagrant.

Map of the "barbarian" invasions of ...

Giant arrows are the real impediment to scientific advancement (Image via Wikipedia)

The greatest cause for the decline of Western Europe in the post-Roman world was the sudden appearance of a lot of Germans who wanted indoor plumbing. They didn’t want to destroy Rome, we must be at pains to remember, they wanted to be Rome. The problem was that there was too many of them. Where there had been one (half of an) empire there were now multiple competing kingdoms, all of which dreamed of being as powerful as Rome, and tried to imitate it as best they could. Unluckily for these new kings, most of the clever people had run away, though nobody’s really sure why, it’s not like a bunch of thugs showed up and began pillaging and burning and plundering and… oh, wait… In any case, the Church took over the apparatus of the Roman state in the West, opening schools and (admittedly primitive) hospitals, enforcing laws, and maintaining order, largely because no one else did. Of course there was a certain godly bias to the way they did things, but if the Church hadn’t stepped in and done its best to preserve Roman ways a true dark age would have fallen on the West. Renaissance scholars relied on manuscripts preserved and copied by monks, and indeed based the way that they wrote on Carolingian scripts (of course they thought the script was Roman, because nothing good happened in the Dark Ages).

Continental Divide.

If the Church was such a detrimental force, why was it that the Eastern Empire lasted admirably for quite a few more centuries? It didn’t become scientifically backwards, its construction programmes remained ambitious, and its wealth remained ridiculous, even with the rising power of Christianity. The great Islamic empires, which stretched across the Mediterranean world and into the Middle East, were not unduly impeded by faith, at first anyway. Graeco-Roman culture and learning survived in many respects thanks to early Islam. This mythical ‘Dark Age’ only happened in the remnants of the Western Empire, which reveals a certain bias. Since Britain, France, Spain, and Italy were all part of the glorious Roman Empire, and because they in many respects created and defined the modern world, it is assumed that they were equally as important in ancient times as they are (or were) in recent history. The reality is that most of the great cultural achievements of ancient world happened in the Near East, not Western Europe. Aside from the city of Rome itself, all the great libraries of the ancient world are found in the Near East. Rome was a cultural and scientific backwater when the Greeks found it, it just happened that the Romans were really really good at conquering people who were cleverer than them. The coastal regions of Spain and France were ‘civilised’ by the Romans, but the few cities found in the hinterlands of these regions didn’t even come close to the size and complexity of the cities found in Asia Minor, Greece, Egypt, or the Levant.  The ‘Dark Ages’, if such a thing existed, was a minor blip on the radar, the rest of the world got on just fine without Western Europe.

If we imagine, for a moment, the United States of America as Rome, the issue may become more clear. The great cultural centres of America are, not unlike Rome, its major cities, which are mostly found on the coasts. Much of the materials needed to sustain these cities come from the central states, which may also have large cities, but nothing which compares to the vast metropolises of the north-east or south-west. The central states may benefit from the advances and the wealth of the ocean-facing states, but they are not major economic powerhouses, or home to great academic institutions, or large-scale scientific endeavours (I admit that I am generalising, but you get my drift). If these central states suddenly became a variety of competing nations, or become occupied by migrant Canadians, they may lose the benefits of having belonged to one integrated state, but the coastal regions would still continue to do what they do, probably complaining that the price of corn has gone up.  Western Europe was a part of the great Graeco-Roman civilisation, but it was not really a contributor to it, so, in a sense, nothing really change ‘on the ground’ when the Barbarians took over. And it was the Church which preserved what little Romanitas remained, and which taught the new overlords the value of an education.

Part 2

Search Terms.

Keeping track.

WordPress has this fun little feature which tells me what search terms are used to arrive at my frivolous endeavours. The majority of them make sense, but there are some oddities, some of which are stupid, others disturbing. In the last month Worpress recorded two vaguely racist searches, “anglo saxons in Missouri”  and “anglo saxon and proud” which amuse me all the more because the people who use this phrase tend not to realise how little the Anglo-Saxons contributed to the genetic make-up of the people of the British Isles. In fact the genetics of an Irishman from the extreme west, which never saw an Anglo-Saxon, are almost identical to the point of statistical irrelevance to a woman from York. Even culturally the English owe more to the French, via the Normans, than they do to the Anglo-Saxons. And besides, being proud of your genetic heritage is nonsense, if anything genetic research has proved how little difference there is between individuals humans. So stop it, stop being racist, stop suggesting that your ancestry is superior, stop being an idiot.

And now to more amusing things…

I’m not really sure what people are looking for when they type these – “adam & eve first people on earth”, “what did adam look like”,  “jezus born [sic]”,  “the tree ate by adam and eve”, “jesus birthday photo/portrait”, but at least they are looking for answers, I suppose. The short answers are, in order, no they weren’t; Adam didn’t look like anything, he probably didn’t exist; I assume you mean Jesus, and he may have been born, but not to a virgin, or the daughter of a virgin; even if they did exist, how could they eat a tree, I think you mean the fruit from the tree of knowledge, which isn’t real either; and there is no picture or portrait of Jesus because (a) cameras weren’t invented until about a millennium later (moron), and (b) nobody knows what he looked like anyway, he certainly wasn’t the guy in all the pictures we see in churches, he probably looked a lot more like a Palestinian than a BeeGee…

To be perfectly blunt, most of the characters in the Bible are just that, characters. Adam and Eve, Noah, and all the earlier fantasy folk did not exist, even the Catholic Church accepts this. Abraham and Moses may have existed, and David definitely did, but all have been greatly aggrandised to the point of caricature. Jesus, a charismatic faith-healer who wandered around annoying the establishment, probably existed, but Paul, the real inventor of Christianity certainly existed. If you sincerely believe in the talking snake, fitting all the animals in the world onto one boat, a huge movement of people that nobody else noticed, and the writings of men who were very imaginative if not delusional, seek help, soon.

Bad History.

There are some wonderfully odd entries concerning historical matters, and the Merovingians appear to be particularly popular, with such gems as “merovingian atlantis”, which is an odd opposition of terms since one had nothing to do with the other (aside from the simple fact that there was no Atlantis), and, this is brilliant, “what are merovingians, really”. Clearly someone has become exasperated with all the pseudo-historical nonsense concerning the early rulers of the Franks, which is what they were, really. The ruling family of a bunch of Germans (ironically) who settled in Roman Gaul. No magic, no Atlantis, no conspiracies.

Of course we find the odd historically inaccurate searches, such as “visigoths and roundheads”. The Visigoths began bothering the Romans in the 3rd century, and were running  Spain by the 6th, while the Roundheads were the Parliamentarians of the English Civil War in the 17th century. That’s over a thousand years, most of France, and a narrow stretch of water apart. What could possibly connect the two? Coming in at a close second we have “the huns,the vikings, and visigoths who tear down rome”.  Neither the Huns, nor the Vikings ever sacked Rome, the city, though the Visigoths did. In relation to the larger empire, the Visigoths and the Huns did create instability which contributed to the fall of the empire in the west, but it could hardly be said that they tore it down. The Vikings had nothing to do with Rome, unless you count the sack of 1084 perpetrated by the Viking/French hybrid Normans. The city of Rome was sacked by Gauls, Vandals, Visigoths, and Ostrogoths, the last of who ended imperial power in the west.

This is a strange one, “scottish face hair”… I think it’s called a beard, and yes, sometimes the Scots grow beards.

And, inevitably, I am afflicted with the blatantly stupid search; “fomenko atlantis troy”, which translates roughly as “what does this deranged mathematician who is swiftly losing what credibility that he had think about a fantasy and a true event?”. To be ignored.

Questions and Answers.

I’m guessing the following are lazy students looking for answers. Don’t get me wrong, the internet can be a valuable tool for research, but typing in the essay/exam question hoping for an answer, that’s just indolence of the lowest order. But, just for fun, here are the answers.

“discuss what is meant by salus populi suprema est lex”  In brief, keep the people healthy and the everything will be fine. US Republicans, and others, who think universal free healthcare is bad idea take note. It also has to do with the bee laws, pregnant women, and legal murder, but I’ll let you figure that out for yourself.

“did the celts call themselves celts?” No, thought Caesar said that they did, but we can’t really trust him… Or can we? He may have misinformed us to fulfill Roman stereotypes, but also, since nobody could really contradict him, he could be telling the truth. Ah, ’tis a delicate puzzle.

“what medieval viking basically rose from nothing to becoming a duke” I really don’t know. There were a few Viking earls, but dukes, I’m not so sure. The closest is Rollo, the first Duke of Normandy, who was a viking, but  he didn’t rise from ‘basically nothing’, he was of the nobility. Though, in a sense, we all rose from nothing, a handful of cells which developed music, art, assault rifles, and gelato.

“the 100 years war basic history” It was one hundred years long, and you want a basic history? Actually, that’s a challenge I might take, I’ll get back to you on that.

“explain the causes of world war one”, “what are reasons of second world war” The Germans got a bit uppity, and then the British, French, Russians, and, at the last minute, Americans, gave them a good thrashing. Why did they get uppity? Hunger for land, power, prestige, and the fact that they kept putting megalomaniacs in charge.

“where do you think western art would be today if the byzantines hadn’t continued to support the arts in society” Impossible to know. I don’t really like these ‘what if?’ questions, far too many different factors to consider.

“what was the major factors for european to leap forward from the middle ages overatking the other great civilisation at the time” Luck, lack of space, war, greed, trade, politics… The list goes on. I’m guessing ‘the other great civilisation’ is China, and I really hope this isn’t a reflection of the new (stupid) theory that the East (China) and West (Europe) have been in some kind of cultural war for the last two thousand years. One factor in Europe’s great leap was a sudden shift towards introversion in China, but it wasn’t as if anyone knew what was going on at the time, they couldn’t have planned or foreseen the consequences of their actions. Also, the grammar of this question is terrible.

“french revolution including its legacy and contribution to the world” The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, one of the greatest scenes in cinema, the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, the invention of the bistro, French cinema, the bikini, Napoleon and his complex… The list goes on…


Finally we come to the truly strange, religion. Let’s start with a fun one; “moral worthiness and chances to go to heaven” and “that your good conducts will be rewarded and your soul will ascend to heaven”. You have no chance of getting to heaven, it doesn’t exist. Your good conduct shouldn’t require a reward, don’t be so feeble-minded. Pick a better set of rules to live by than those written down by a bunch of desert nomads and faith-healers.

“issues trying to comprehend the afterlife” Well there isn’t one, so there should be no issue. Unless the statement is philosophical, as, in a similar fashion, I try to understand why people believe in an afterlife. I imagine it is born of the fear of death, or the facile desire for reward or guarantee.

“do not associate with immoral people” Generally speaking, yes, that is a good rule to live by. Don’t associate with rapists and paedophiles, also known as priests and clergy. Don’t associate with people who base their moral code on the rantings of men who speak to their imaginary friend. Sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll are all groovy so long as everyone agrees and nobody gets hurt.

There are more, but I have grown tired of caring. Except for one more, that seems really popular, and is worthy of a longer rant. I’ll get to it later, but for now, I hope you’ve enjoyed this small selection of the strange and irrational things people type to get here.

The Celts. For Real.

English: Vector version of a design from the B...

English: Vector version of a design from the Book of Kells, fol. 29r. Traced outlines in black and white representing three intertwined dogs. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Neo-Pagans are not Celts.

Since I’ve ranted about who the Celts weren’t, I thought I should say who they actually were. The term ‘Celt’ has been abused for quite a long time now; people buy Celtic music, wear Celtic designs, and imagine themselves as part of a great Celtic identity. This is twisted into odd forms of nationalism, neo-paganism, and Christianity. It might seem vaguely ironic that the term is used by both pagans and Christians, but the reality is that they are both wrong, so what’s the difference?

The Term is the Thing…

I must be quite clear on this point, and you must pay attention, as this is crucial; we are speaking here of terminology. Detach the word ‘Celt’ from any image or concept it might arouse in you mind; words are used to denote concepts, and sometimes those words are misused. This misuse might lead to one word being used to describe many individual and separate physical things and abstract concepts. It may be that no connection between these discrete and individual things exists, except for that word. While certain groups of people who specialise in the field of studying these things might grasp this fact, in popular culture the separate identities of these things are muddled and mixed because only one word is used. This mess is compounded by fashion, arbitrary notions of nationalism, and, sometimes, outright deceit. But just because something is popular does not mean that it is true (just look at that whole ‘god’ phenomenon; I mean, seriously, are we not over that yet?).

If you want a very basic example of this, look at Goths. A few hundred years ago the Goths were a migratory nation wandering around the Roman Empire generally taking things over. Nowadays ‘Goth’ refers to a non-violent post-punk subculture which is more likely to feel oppressed than go oppress other sub-cultures. ‘Gothic’ also denotes a type of architecture that has nothing to do with either the Goths (had swords) or the Goths (have ipods). The term is also applied to a type of literature, which may have influenced the Goths (tend to have piercings), but not the Goths (tended to pierce people), and may have itself drawn some inspiration from Gothic architecture. So, here we have a term that describes a certain style of writing, a certain style of building, and a certain style of fashion, none of which are really connected to the original meaning of the term which denoted a bunch of folk from northern Europe who moved to sunnier climates.

Now that we are clear on that…

There are, essentially, four things the term ‘Celt’ is attached to –

1. A historical ethnic group.

2. A family of languages.

3. Archaeological material (well, not really; I get to this in a moment).

4. A bunch of fanciful modern nonsense about faeries, druids, new-age Christian hokum, spirituality, and an economic bubble.

Let’s all agree to ignore 4. So, what are these three Celtic things, and how are they all ‘Celtic’  but not about the Celts? The problem lies with 17th and 18th century scholars (many of the world’s problems are the fault of these guys). These people were working in the dark, fumbling around with artifacts, languages, and cultures, attaching names that made sense at the time, but no longer do. All they had to work with were the histories handed down by propagandists, politicians, and priests (hardly the most trustworthy of folk), and the things they dug up, and had to make some sense out of it all. Certain elements of this process were easy; the ancient Romans and Greek were very helpful in leaving tons and tons of things in the ground and in books to be found by these scholars. Sadly, these scholars believed everything the Romans and Greeks wrote in these books. So when it was said that there were a people called the Celts, and that they were barbarians, it was believed. Almost everyone in Europe who was not Roman or Greek was labelled a Celt, because it was easier to think of great empires and cultures in opposition, civilisation in contrast to barbarity, bad guys versus good guys, us against them. Utter nonsense, of course, but that’s basically the way it was thought of for centuries.

So, history, archaeology, and culture were all muddled up by these scholars, creating a new version of the myth of the Celt (Caesar got there first in many respects, but more on that later). Then, in the 19th century, simply because academics love making things far more complicated than necessary, philologists decided to name a group of languages, which until then didn’t really have much in common with the ‘Celts’ of the historians or archaeologists, Celtic. To make matters worse, around this period racism was becoming tremendously popular, and nationalism was really taking off. Nations had to invent identities, foundation myths, reasons for why you are not one of us. Utter nonsense again, of course, but people are stupid. Certain peoples looked back and picked the bits of history they like; the anti-monarchical French liked to identify themselves as Gauls, ‘Celts’ who had resisted the imperial ambitions of a certain Roman; the English liked the idea of being made up of various peoples who had kicked the crap out of the Britons, ‘Celts’ who had been conquered by Romans, Vikings, Anglo-Saxons, and Normans; and the Irish, being not-English, began to identify themselves as ‘Celts’, something which the neighbours agreed with as they had a fondness for kicking the crap out of Celts. Did the Celts of France, Britain, and Ireland have anything in common? No. And yes… It’s complicated.

Language timothy, language.

Latin survives today as Portuguese, Romanian, French, Spanish, Occitan, Catalan, and the various Italian dialects mostly because the Romans were very, very good at killing some people, and educating those who were left. Sadly, a great number of these people spoke various forms of what is called ‘Celtic’. They didn’t call it Celtic, and they might not even have realised that their languages were related; a Portuguese person might have rather a hard time understanding a Romanian, though technically they are speaking very similar languages. The various peoples of Gaul who spoke Celtic languages might not have immediately understood one another, but they would have definitely had a hard time comprehending the Irish, or the Galatians (who lived in central modern Turkey), even though they were all speaking ‘Celtic’ languages. Not that Caesar cared when he was conquering Gaul; all that mattered to him was that they didn’t speak Latin and they had lots of gold, which he wanted. Keep an eye on this Caesar fella, a lot of the problem is in many ways his fault.

Scholars in the 19th century, when confronted with a bunch of languages, which were clearly related, found in a vast region stretching from Anatolia, central Europe, northern Italy, France, Iberia, and the British Isles looked in the works of ancient writers to see if they could find some great empire or culture to explain this phenomenon. They took a liking to the ‘Celts’ and the name stuck; these languages became known as Celtic, divided into Insular and Continental branches, the latter of which became extinct, though the former survives as Irish, Scots Gaelic, Welsh, and Breton.

A family tree of languages. Click to blow your mind… (Image via Wikipedia)

Are these languages Celtic? Yes, in a very specific linguistic sense meaning that there is a language family which scholars use the term ‘Celtic’ to identify. Were the people who spoke these languages, and those who still do, Celts? No. They may, at best, be called Celtic-speakers, which would be like calling Americans German-speakers (see how often you can get away with saying that to an American before irk turns to anger). The Irish, Welsh, Scottish, and Breton speak Celtic languages but are not Celts.


Pointy stabby thing, also known as ‘sword’ (Image via Wikipedia).

Swords, Scabbards, and other Stuff.

As before, there was a time when anything non-Roman from the Stone Age on was synonymous with ‘Celtic’, but the limits of that term were eventually reduced to the Iron Age, an then into two specific periods, La Tène and Hallstatt. The folk of La Tène persuasion are customarily associated with the Celts of Caesar. The use of Celtic languages far exceeded the territories encompassed by these cultures, which may have included non-Celtic speaking populations. We might suppose that, as there was a certain unity of material culture and language in central Europe, these people were Celts, but ‘Celtic’ Ireland and Britain possess little in the way of this material culture, but are the only places where the language survives. Even the Celtic-speaking peoples of Iberia, the cleverly named Celtiberians (I bet it took months to come up with that), were hardly touched by the La Tène culture. And let’s not get into the difficulties thrown up by the Celtic-speaking Galatians of Anatolia. Can we tie artifacts and remains to languages, and make them both Celtic, essentially inventing a people with a shared ethnic, linguistic, and material identity? Well, yes, if you ignore the facts, which is what people generally seem to do.

There are more Roman archaeological artifacts found in Ireland than ‘Celtic’, which would, with seriously flawed logic, suggest that the Irish were in fact Romans. Which would be an impressive feat, since the Romans never invaded Ireland. So,  what is commonly referred to as ‘Celtic’ in an archaeological sense is really two separate material cultures, neither of which are in any serious way connected to ‘Celtic’ languages, or the modern ‘Celtic’ nations, aside from the use of fancy interlacing to entice shoppers to buy ‘authentic’ Celtic merchandise. We must then conclude that archaeology cannot tell us who the Celts were, only that there were a bunch of people hanging out in Central Europe who made things in a certain distinctive way before the Romans came along and ruined the party. But at least it gets us closer than language does.

Julius Caesar, bane of Gauls and historians (image via Wikipedia)

A Tapestry of Lies.

As for historical Celts? Well. This is where the fun really begins. Celts appear first in the writings of the Ancient Greeks, who wrote that the ‘Keltoi’ lived up around the Danube, northern Italy, and also in southern France. Which seems to map onto the La Tène scheme of things. Caesar gives the most information on these Celts, which is not surprising as he had an excellent research opportunity,  getting up close and personal with the Gauls, what with his conquering, killing, and enslaving campaign. That kind of thing won votes back in Rome, and he was aiming for the big leagues. It’s a pity that he was a politician and a soldier, as his views of the Gauls are heavily laden with stereotypes which had been around for centuries. He is the only person to refer to certain ‘Celtic’ practices, such as the Wicker Man, and so we cannot know if they are true. Caesar was keen to point out, though, that the Gauls were  semi-civilised, unlike the utterly barbaric Germans, but at least Teutonic trains run on time. All references to Celtic culture and religion are based on Graeco-Roman stereotypes, and, as far as I know, no mention is made of Celtic art in their literature. So, in modern terms, Caesar was a racist, and only saw what he wanted to see. To be fair, he was a clever guy, so let’s give him the benefit of doubt, and say that he was telling the Romans back home what they wanted to hear. But, essentially, he was like an Englishman going to America, writing home about the barbarous customs and foods (creationism and cheese in a can) he found there, while ignoring their contribution to world culture and science (jazz and the moon landings).

I suppose we could say that at least Caesar confirms that the people of Gaul called themselves Celts, until we recall that the Romans didn’t care what any named themselves; they called the Greeks Greek! The Greeks called (and still call) themselves Hellenes, since the place where they come from is called Helles. See how that works? Amazing, simple, apt. Like the Romans gave a damn. Uncultured sheep-herders living on the tops of hills near a swamp, the Romans re-baptised the entire Hellenic people after the first ones they met, the Graeci. Imagine if on meeting an American for the first time you asked for their surname, and from that point onwards referred to all Americans by that name. One of the first Americans I ever met was a Mr. Hickey, which would make all Americans Hicks, or Hickeans. In any event, when Caesar says that the Gauls called themselves Celts, he may have just been quoting the Greeks, because nobody back in Rome really cared what the Gauls called themselves, so long as they made good slaves or stayed dead. So they may have been Celts, maybe. But they were not seen to be the same as the people of Aquitaine or northern France, or even Iberia, or Britain. Caesar only describes a small portion of the people we would expect to be called Celts as Celtic. It’s almost like he was making it up…

Interestingly, Caesar didn’t call the people of Britain Celts, but Belgians (of a sort). And throughout the Middle Ages none of the surviving ‘Celtic’ peoples of the British Isles called themselves Celts, or had any notion that they had a shared heritage, other than the fact that they were extremely fond of killing each other. Historically speaking, the ‘Celts’ of the British Isles weren’t labelled as Celts until much much more recently.

So. There you have it.

What have we learned? The ‘Celts’, as they are commonly understood, never existed, and while certain aspects of the linguistic, archaeological, and historical notions of a Celt overlap, they do not provide us with who or what a Celt really was. A person from a La Tène influenced region of central Gaul who spoke a Celtic language may tick all the boxes of what is needed to be a Celt, but this would exclude so many others, making the whole notion invalid.

So, in conclusion, I must apologise. I said at the beginning I was going to tell you who the Celts really were, and I haven’t. But it’s not my fault, nobody can. And anyone who says otherwise has either discovered something revolutionary, and should be published in a book, or is a nutter, and should be hit with one.

Stolen Holidays.

Yule Thieves.

Christmas is a funny thing; it is supposed to be a celebration of the birth of the son of the Christian god, but in reality, for most people, it is an orgy of consumerism and gluttony, which aren’t very Christian concepts. But neither is Christmas. It is, in effect, a pagan winter festival that has had Christian decorations draped upon it; a polytheist tree wrapped in monotheist tinsel. Christmas wasn’t celebrated by the first Christians, or even the second ones; not until the 4th century do we find records of the adherents of this peculiar new Jewish cult regarding the birth of their Messiah as something worth celebrating. Indeed many Christians thought that celebrating one’s birthday was a barbarous thing, particularly Origen, one of the most influential Christian theologians of Antiquity and the Middle Ages. But the time of year was already a cause for celebration before the posthumous popularity of a certain Galilean. The Romans, and many of the folk they conquered, celebrated ‘Saturnalia’ in the depths of winter, a festival of lights and feasting, where houses were covered in green-leaved branches, people were allowed time off work, and bonfires were lit. Sound familiar? Or what about the Northern Europe winter festival called Yule (or Jul), where houses were adorned with candles, animals were slaughtered, great feasts were organised, and vast quantities of beer was drunk? Jealous (possibly) of all this good clean pagan fun, the Christians jumped on the idea, and hijacked it for their own purposes.

Do you know When Jesus was born? Answers on a Postcard, Addressed to “The Pope, The Vatican, Italy”.

The Bible has very little to say about the birth of Christ; only two of the Gospels even bother give an account of that oh so special event, and they provide very little detail, and even then they don’t agree on what actually transpired (if it did), except, of course, for the crucial headline event. The best part about Jesus’ birthday is that no-one knows when it really is; nothing in the Bible even hints at when it could be, which, for a work of revelation and prophecy, is a bit ironic. Before the 4th century, the different Christian factions believed Christ to have been born in March, April, or May. And even then, the year is wrong, all thanks to a monk named Dionysius Exiguus who couldn’t do his math very well; Jesus was born sometime between 6 and  4 Before Himself, not on Year 1.

One Festival to Rule Them All…

In the West, the first mention of Jesus’ birthday is in the mid-4th century in a Roman calendar of sorts, and it declares it to be the 25th of December, a date that was soon adopted throughout the Roman Empire. Which may appear to be a bit random, since Eastern Christians seemed to prefer the idea of a spring or summer birthday. Interestingly, the 25th of December was already commemorated by many pagan Romans, such as that most crucial of Christian Emperors, Constantine, as the birthday of Sol Invictus, the sun-god (where’s a Catholic priest with no understanding of history or linguistics when you need one?).  It also happens to be around the time of the winter solstice, a time venerated in many other non-Christian religions. To co-opt one was to co-opt them all. It’s only a theory, but it seems quite reasonable to suggest that Christmas was invented to appeal to Roman pagans in particular, since they ran the world in those days, and they already had a long tradition of celebration around the 25th of December. Of course theology was later tacked on, the lengthening of the days is symbolic of the light of Christ and such, but the ‘birthday’ of the Christian Messiah has always lived in the shadow of what Christmas is really about; having a good time with friends during the darkest period of the year (in the Northern Hemisphere anyway), drinking and eating, and having a party.

Bring out Your Dead.

The Christians also swiped Hallowe’en from those rascally pagans, who had a thing for equinoxes and solstices. The early Christians seem to have been equally fond of plastering their notions over pre-existing conditions, and Hallowe’en is no different. This was, and continues to be, an essentially pagan, and particularly ‘Celtic’ (not in the sense of an ethnic group, but as a linguistic family which may have shared cultural practices) celebration, probably called something akin to Samhain (‘Sow-an’ not ‘Sam-hain’ as a certain American supernatural TV series claimed), which Christians sneakily sidled up to with ‘All Saints’ Day’, followed swiftly by ‘All Souls’ Day’ and all of a sudden it’s a harmless party-time for children, drunk students, and immature adults (don’t get me wrong, certain aspects of maturity are over-rated).

Bye-bye, mister Nazarene pie.

The one major celebration the Christians didn’t steal from the pagans was Easter (just when you think you have them figured out, they go and change their game to keep you guessing). No, they stole it from the Jews, though, in fairness, the Christ-lovers do have a legitimate claim on it. Unlike his birthday, we have a better idea of when Jesus was killed, because he had become important enough to take notice of by then. He (if he existed, and I reckon he may well have, but without the magic tricks) was crucified sometime in the month of Nisan, possibly on Friday the 15th, at the beginning of, or during, Passover. Which you might think is a good deal of detail, except Jewish months move. Unlike the Roman/Gregorian/Modern calendar, which is solar, the Jewish one is lunar, so the months are not always in the same place every year. The 15th of Nisan provided the early Christians with a bit of an issue; the date of Christ’s execution wandered around a bit. Theologically, some preferred the Paschal celebration to come after the vernal equinox, the world was ‘brighter’ after the death of the Galilean, and others didn’t care, believing that they should celebrate the event on the correct date, even if it happened to fall on the wrong side of the equinox. Of course the pagans also celebrated the vernal equinox as a time of rebirth and renewal, a happy coincidence with the Christian message. The Christians didn’t steal Easter, and, to a certain degree, pagans seem to have successfully inserted their notions into the Paschal celebrations; the term ‘Easter’ comes from a pagan goddess, and bunnies, eggs, and chocolate have very little to do with the vicious scourging of a Jewish reformist.

What have we learned, then? Ignore religion and enjoy the party; life doesn’t last very long, and then you are dead.

Ceterum autem censeo, religionem esse delendam.

Temporal Inconsistency.

Wailing and Gnashing of Teeth.

I loathe historical anachronism, I really do. My disdain for it rivals that of my hatred for the pseudo-Celtic intellectual defecations which litter the shelves of many a high-street bookshop. It drives me up the wall. My particular disgruntlement concerning anachronism is based around the imposition of values. Sure, I often use modern examples to explain past events, use modern phrases to elucidate ancient concepts, and current events as mirrors to the past, but in a tongue-in-cheek, sarcastic, if not cynical, fashion. This isn’t academic scholarship, and I would hope that those (very few) who read these little works appreciated the tone and aims of my efforts, but I do my best to refrain from outright anachronism. I do not impose my values on others (though I reserve the right to not approve their inane comments on my tiny corner of the Internet), and I endeavour to not impose my values on the past.

For Example.

I have often heard and seen people balk at the more bloody exploits of the Romans, TV documentaries refer to Imperial conquests as cruel and vicious, and read comparisons of modern American exploits in the Middle East to the grand designs of those pesky centurions from Latinum. Yes, by modern standards the Romans were savage in conquest, cruel in victory, and bloodthirsty in celebration, but, by their standards, that was an exemplary mode of living. A human life was, essentially, worth less; birth and death rates were very high, slavery was ubiquitous, execution was used as a form of military discipline, diseases could strike down the healthy just as easily as the weak, and any number of random events could end a person’s life prematurely, which itself was, more often than not, limited to forty or fifty years. Yes, by modern standards, what the Romans did to large swathes of Europe, North Africa, and the Near East was ethnic cleansing or genocide, but to them, it was business as usual. This may seem callous on my part, to readily dismiss the conquest, execution, and enslavement of tens of thousands, if not millions of people, but, while I do find it reprehensible on a moral level, we cannot judge the past by the standards of the present. That was the way the world worked in those days; the Persians, Egyptians, and any other empire you care to mention did the same whenever they conquered a new territory, and don’t think that this was just a pagan eccentricity; there are several lengthy passages in the Bible where the Israelites annihilate several other peoples during the various expansions of their kingdom (under Joshua, and several of his successor judges, an under the kings Saul and David), but that was okay because ‘god said so’. The belief in implausible fantasies has allowed the commission of many fetid acts and gruesome deeds, the results, and repercussions, of which litter history, and are still apparent in the world today.

A Carpenter’s Bias.

Sometimes when I raise this issue, I must suffer the bland retort that Christianity changed all this, what with its Bee Gee charismatics, and general hippy ethos of make love not war. Yes, the early Christians were more keen on spilling their own blood than that of others, but once they realised that Jesus was not coming back, along with the fact that the Romans got on-board with the whole ‘Son of God’ thing, and that there was money to be made, the tune promptly changed. Christ was introduced to many converts by the point of a sword, or, later, the barrel of a gun, and, more recently, and in arguably a more cruel fashion, as a condition of receiving aid and charity. Christians were, and continue to be, just as good at ethnic cleansing and genocide as the pagan Romans (and I think we all know that to be a horribly true fact), and the capturing, selling, and owning of slaves by good and loving Christians only ended relatively recently in the West (though one could easily construct an argument illustrating the West’s economic enslavement of the much of the rest of the world). Society seems to have rather quickly forgotten how near atrocity is to our peaceful lives, such that we can feel safe in passing moral judgment on the past.

All too Human.

Humanism, not Christianity, is what changed the moral standards of the West. The value of a human life was found to be in life, not in the illusory everlasting nonsense of an ‘afterlife’. The drive to end slavery came not from faith (though it did eventually jump on the bandwagon) but from reason, and the greatest atrocities of our times were committed by religious or cultish autocrats. Our moral standards are a recent convention, and as such we can judge the recent past by our standards; we can be baffled by the horrors that man inflicted upon man in any age, but we only have the right to judge those who have lived since the Enlightenment (to varying degrees). It is equivalent to calling Ancient Egyptians idiots for not comprehending atomic theory, or mocking the Aztecs for not inventing the transistor.  The Roman economy was based on conquest and slavery, and their entertainment would make Abu Ghraib seem positively pleasant. The Vikings’ idea of a good time was getting drunk, eating lots, and rape and pillage, and the same was true of many Medieval peoples. These were vile deeds, but they were also vile times; a judgment on the past, admittedly, but someone like you or I, or the vast majority of people, would number among the dead, enslaved, or raped in such a world. But yet we cannot, in academic honesty, judge people who lived before Rousseau, Kant, or Paine, before the rise of Reason, before Enlightenment. They lived in a time of abject faith and mundane cruelty; if anything, they should be pitied.