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The Gauls - the Celtc tribes of Continental Europe

The home of the continental European Celts.

The home of the continental European Celts.


The Gauls were the Celtic tribes of Continental Europe as distinguished from the Britons and Gaels of the British Isles. They inhabited the region of continental Western Europe during the Iron Age and Roman Era. They encompassed the present day countries of:

  • France
  • Luxembourg
  • Belgium
  • Switzerland
  • parts of northern Italy
  • parts of the Netherlands
  • parts of Germany around the west bank of the Rhine River

The Greeks called these peoples Keltoi and the Romans called them Celtae. It is believed the Celts first appeared c. 600 BC in an encounter with the Greeks and later c. 400 BC in an encounter with the Romans. Both the Greeks and Romans described the Celts as uncivilized and uncultivated barbarians and continued to describe them in a disparaging fashion.

What the Celts called themselves we do not know. And, why don't we know? Because the Celtic tribes left little written record of themselves. But, they did have a rich verbal tradition which they used to learn all they needed to live the rough and tumble life of a Celt.

So, if the Celts left very few, if no written record of themselves, how have we learned what we know about them today? Obviously, there have been massive archaeological diggings which have unearthed the art, utensils, weapons, burials and religious items of the Celts. Historians and archaeologists have drawn conclusions about the Celts from these items.

But, where did we learn the specific dates that correspond with Celtic lives and battles? How do we know what these Celtic people looked like, dressed like, or what their festivals and religious rituals were like? Our sources are the classical writings of the Greeks and the Romans who had first hand knowledge and witnessed the Celts and their culture. But, with that information also came a bias against the Celts. So what we read in these classical writings has to be taken with 'a grain of salt.'

The chief classical writers of which we learn much about the Celts are:

  • Diodorus Siculus was a Greek from Sicily. He settled in Rome around 56 BC and wrote and his writings include his encounters with the Celts.
  • Polybius was a Greek historian and wrote around the second century BC.
  • Posidonius was a Syrian-Greek philosopher who lived in Rome
  • Julius Caesar lived in Rome and gives us overly biased accounts of the Celtic Gauls as he had conquered the Gauls around 51 BC. He presents the most Roman stereotypes of the Gauls of any of the sources.
  • Strabo was an Asiatic Greek geographer and historian. He presents second hand knowledge of the Celts that he got from Posidonius
  • Tacitus was born in Cisalpine in northern Italy and originally may have been a Gaul himself. He "reports conversations he heard as a young man." And he spoke himself in a "Romanised Celtic accent."
  • Ausonius was a fourth century AD Gaul from Bordeaux. He taught grammar and rhetoric at the University of Bordeaux for thirty years and was then called to Rome to tutor Gratian, a future Roman emperor.

Remember, most of the Celtic tribes throughout Europe, the Gauls included, were eventually conquered by the Romans. It was the Romans who wrote the history of the Celts and much of what we know about them today. So, we must keep an open mind when dealing with the classical sources and realize the "barbarian Celts" the Romans describe were probably not as barbaric as they were originally described.

Iron age Celtic Gaul digging showing burial site near Paris, France.  From La Tene culture. c. 325-260 BC

Iron age Celtic Gaul digging showing burial site near Paris, France. From La Tene culture. c. 325-260 BC

Map showing all the areas where Celtic tribes lived in Europe and the British Isles.  The Celtic Gaul tribes were located in Continental Europe in the 3rd century BC.

Map showing all the areas where Celtic tribes lived in Europe and the British Isles. The Celtic Gaul tribes were located in Continental Europe in the 3rd century BC.

The peak of the Celtic  Hallstatt and La Tene cultures in central Europe during the Iron Age.

The peak of the Celtic Hallstatt and La Tene cultures in central Europe during the Iron Age.

Celtic jewely pieces from the Hallstatt culture

Celtic jewely pieces from the Hallstatt culture

Celtic art warrior from the La Tene culture

Celtic art warrior from the La Tene culture

Celtic jewelry from the the Hallstatt culture

Celtic jewelry from the the Hallstatt culture

Who were the Celtic Gauls?

Today, it is believed the first home of the Celtic people thousands of years ago was probably somewhere in eastern Europe or western Asia. As they grew in number, they were forced to leave their homes to seek new hunting and fishing grounds and better pasture for their cattle and sheep.

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The Celts kept migrating west and during the Neolitic and Mesolithic periods, some of these peoples made their way to the land between the Rhine River and the Atlantic Ocean. In a later period they were followed by younger Celtic tribes and they soon gained possession of the best parts of continental Europe.

Historians and archaeologists today believe the Celts we call the Gauls gradually migrated to what is today continental Europe from the far east, Asia Minor and from the extreme north. The territory of east and southern France was the home of the Gauls and from the twelfth to the eighth centuries BC the Celts participated in the Late Bronze Age Urnfield culture.

It is during this time that linguists believe these people spoke an early form of Celtic a Proto-Celtic language. This early Celtic language evolved into their Gaulish language which formed the main branch of the Continental Celtic languages.

From this culture, developed the early iron-working Hallstatt culture of the seventh to sixth centuries BC. By around 5,000 BC there was a strong Hallstatt influence throughout most of the area of modern day France. The Hallstatt culture is named after a village in Austria where archaeologists discovered remnants of old Celtic settlements.

The Celts also extracted salt form the Austrian mountains c. 1000 BC - 50 BC in the areas known as Salzkammergut or what we call Saltzburg, Austria today.

It is believed today that out of the Hallstatt culture and background emerged an early form of continental European Celtic culture. La Tene culture begins around the Mediterranean Sea with influences from the Greeks, Phoenicians and Etruscan civilizations. It quickly spread across Europe. La Tene culture was named after a village unearthed by archaeologists by Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland and they believe this to be the first distinctive Celtic culture on continental Europe.

By the late fifth century BC, La Tene culture influence spread rapidly across the entire territory of Gaul. (home of the Gauls) La Tene culture developed and flourished during the late Iron Age (450 BC - 1st century BC) in France, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, southwest Germany, Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia and Hungary.

During the fourth and third centuries BC, Gallic clan confederations expanded far beyond the territory that would become Roman Gaul into Pannonia, Illyria, n. Italy, Transylvania (Romania) and Asia Minor.

The Gaulic Celts made their way south in Italy all the way to Rome and attacked and sacked Rome around 380 BC. The Romans had to pay tons of gold in ransom to get rid of the Celts. But the Romans never forgot their defeat to the Gauls and bode their time until they would eventually conquer and destroy them.

During the second century BC, the Romans would distinguish Gallia Transalpine (north of the Alps) from Gallia Cisalpine (south of the Alps.) The Gauls stayed in Italy until the Gallic Wars (58 BC-51 BC) when they were forced out of Italy and from then on the Gauls were not longer a political force in Europe.

According to Julius Caesar the Gauls were divided into three parts:

  • Gallia Celtica
  • Belgica
  • Aquitania

The Gallia Celtica of the Gauls controlled the trade routes along the river systems of the Rivers Rhone, Seine, Rhine and Danube. They quickly expanded into northern Italy, the Balkans, Transylvania (Romania) and Anatolia, Turkey.

The Gauls were never united under a single ruler or government and there were hundreds of Gaulic Celtic tribes living in continental Europe, but the Gallic tribes were capable of uniting their forces in large-scale military operations which they did against the Romans.

The Celtic Gauls reached their peak of power in the third century BC and their daily life was abundant. Their lifestyle was not as barbaric as the Romans wanted to make them out to be. In fact, it is the Gauls that invented soap and Gaulish women used cosmetics they invented.

They were meticulous farmers and attended their farms and acres with great skill and diligence. They took their active share in shaping the culture of Europe. It was the Gaullic Celts who first introduced the iron plow, scythe and reaper to Europeans. They made farming more efficient with the introduction of the rotation of crops and they refined and improved their grain strains by selective breeding.

Their agricultural products were widely appreciated for their quality. Their beef cattle were refined through generations of breeding and were a sought after delicacy among the Romans.

The Celts constructed and expanded the road system in Europe through their bricklaying. They improved the wheel. The Celts constructed the wheel from one piece of wood on which they forged an iron-tire.

The Celtic Gauls were also skillful craftsmen and built boats and fortifications. As mentioned before they invented soap and bathed regularly. The Romans are said to have adopted their famous bathing culture form the Gauls. Toga wearing Romans were impressed with Celtic clothing, especially the trousers the men wore. These were later adopted by the Romans. The Celts dressed in rich, colorful textiles and wore boots, which the Romans also adopted.

Deodurius Siculous (1st century BC) in his history described the Gauls as:

"of high stature with bulging muscles and a white complexion They are fair-haired but not always from nature. They have this habit of intensifying nature's color with artificial means. They always wash their hair in lime-water and then they pull it backwards from their foreheads to the top of their heads and down towards their necks . . . that it resembles a horse's mane."

~ from

The Gauls had a strong tribe identity and they attached great importance to the upbringing and education of their children. Their children lived with their birth parents until seven years of age and then were sent to live with a foster family. Usually the foster families were families of a relative or close friend. There the children learned the life-skills they would need as an adult. Education of their young was very important to the Celtic Gauls

As the Gauls reached their power zenith in the early third century BC, the rising Rome Republic put increasingly pressure on the Gallic sphere of influence.

The Battle of Telamon around 225 BC, which the Gauls fought against the Romans, brought a gradual decline of Gallic power by the first century BC.

Julius Caesar and his Roman legions eventually conquered the Gauls in the Gallic Wars in the 50's BC. Then, Gaul became a province of the Roman Empire and they culturally assimilated into a Gallic-Roman culture. By the end of the first century AD, all Gallic identities were lost.

Larzac tablet (c. 100 AD) found in 1983 in southern France.  Longest known Gaulish text ever found.

Larzac tablet (c. 100 AD) found in 1983 in southern France. Longest known Gaulish text ever found.

Cup with gold designs from the La Tene culture

Cup with gold designs from the La Tene culture

Map showing Gaulic invasions of Italy all the way to Rome.

Map showing Gaulic invasions of Italy all the way to Rome.

  • The ancient Belgae tribes
    The origin of the Belgae tribes of northern Gaul were a mystery to Julius Caesar in 50's BC and they remain a mystery today.

Gallic language

The Celtic languages of continental Europe are now extinct. None of them have survived as distinguished by the Insular Celtic languages of the British Isles in which some have survived to today. There are no modern Celtic languages that survived central continental Europe. Continental Celtic, therefore, is a geographical not a linguistic grouping of ancient Celtic languages.

The continental Celtic languages were spoken by people known to the Romans and Greeks as Keltoi, Celtae, Galli and Galatae. These languages were spoken from the Iberian Peninsula to the west to the Balkans and Anatolia,Turkey to the east.

Breton, the Celtic language spoken today in France, is not a continental European Celtic language but an Insular Celtic language, specifically a Brittonic language closely related to Cornish and Welsh in the British Isles.

Historians and linguists today believe the Celts spoke dozens of different languages and dialects across Europe in pre-Roman times.

Only five Celtic languages are commonly said to be attested to. They are the following:

Lepontic (7th to 4th centuries BC) This language was spoken on the south side of the Alps. It is considered an early dialect of Gaulish and a later dialect of Galatian. This language is evidenced in a number of inscriptions as well as place names.

Gaulish or Gallic (3rd century BC to 2nd century AD) This was the main language spoken in Greater Gaul. It is divided into two dialects. The Cisalpine (the Italian side) and the Transalpine (the French side). This language is evidenced in a number of inscriptions as well as place names and tribal names in classical authors' writing.

Galatian This language was spoken around Ankara, Turkey. Classical writers say the language is similar to that of the Gaulish. There is also evidence of invasion and settlement of the Ankara area by the Celts of central Europe.

Noric This name is sometimes given to the Celtic dialects spoken in central and eastern Europe. It was spoken in Austria and Slovenia. Two fragmentary texts are preserved and there are plenty of personal names and toponyms.

Celtiberian (3rd to 1st century BC) This is the name given to the Celtic language in northeastern Iberia between the Rivers Douro, Tagus and Ebro. This is attested to by approximately two hundred inscriptions as well as place names and is distinct from the Iberian language.

Gallacian or Gallaic This Celtic language is from a small group of Latin inscriptions containing some linguistic features that are unmistakably Celtic. They form a continuum of Celtic dialects. Other inscriptions appear to be similar to Lusitanian.

These were the major continental European Celtic languages at the time of Gaul (France) and the Gauls (the Celtic people) . This is a modern term given to the continental Celtic languages in contrast to the Insular Celtic languages of the British Isles.

There is no evidence that the continental European Celtic languages can be grouped like the Insular Celtic languages can. The Continental languages are all P-Celtic (except for Celtiberian which is Q-Celtic) and have had a definite influence on all the Romance languages.

At the same time as the La Tene culture came to the forefront in central Europe,a division occurs in the Celtic languages. The Q sound transforms to the P sound. The P-Celtic languages are spoken in central Europe and the Q-Celtic languages, Celtic Goidelian or Gaelic, were spoken in the British Isles. The Q-Celtic are the older of the two languages.

What we do know about these other central European Celtic languages is that most of them were dialects of Gaulish. There were three varieties of dialects of Gaulish that have substantial inscriptional evidence:

  1. Leoponic is attested from a small area on the southern slopes of the Alps. It is the area around the present day Swiss town of Lugano. Here the oldest Celtic lanuage is to have been written with inscriptions in a variant of the Old Italic (Etruscan) script appearing around c. 600 BC. It is described by linguists as both an early dialect of Gaulish and/or a separate continental European Celtic language.
  2. Gaulish proper that was spoken in what is modern day France was called Transalpine or from the north slope of the Alps. A record begins in the third century BC with inscriptions in the Greek alphabet and found mainly in the Rhone valley area of southern France. After the Roman conquest of Gaul the writing of the Gaulish shifted to the Latin alphabet.
  3. Cisalpine Gaul (modern northern Italy) of the south slope of the Alps has a number of inscriptions from the second to the first century BC. It shares the same archaic alphabet as the Leponic inscriptions but found outside of Leponic proper. It is identified as Cisalpine Gaulish and also shares a feature of Transalpinic and Leponic.

This relationship between Gaulish and other Celtic languages is subject to debate and most scholars and linguists agree that Celtiberian was the first to branch off from the remaining Celtic language.

Gaulish is situated in the center of the Celtic language and shares with the Brythonic languages the change of the Indo-European labio-velar consonant of K or Q to P. This means a change from using the back of the throat to produce a sound to the lips closing together to produce a sound.

Tacitus, the Roman historian, wrote in his history of the similarity of the Brittonic language with the Gaulish language.

As the Roman culture expanded and the Gauls came into more contact with the Romans in northern Italy, the Gauls finally did begin to write some text. Gaulish texts were first written using the Greek alphabet in southern France and a variety of Old Italic script in northern Italy.

After the Roman conquest of the Gauls in the Gallic War, their writing shifted to the use of the Latin alphabet. Gaulish was replaced by vulgar Latin and various Germanic languages are noted from the fifth century AD and on wards.

Latin was quickly adopted by the Gaulish aristocracy after the Roman conquest so they could maintain their elite power and influence. Cassius Dio (207-220 AD) another classical historian said the Cisalpine and Transalpine Gauls spoke the same language. He writes that the Gauls between the Pyrenees and the River Po considered themselves kinsmen and their languages were very close.

The longest known Gaulish text, the Larzac tablet, was found in 1983 in L'Hospitalet-du-Larzac in southern France. It is the longest preserved Gaulish text with inscriptions in the Gaulish language from approximately 100 AD. The text cannot be translated with any certainty but historians and linguists believe it to be a 'magical curse.'

The Coligny Calendar, a calendar created by the Gauls,  was found by French archaeologist J. Mounard in Coligny, Ain, France in 1897.  Engraved in bronze tablet

The Coligny Calendar, a calendar created by the Gauls, was found by French archaeologist J. Mounard in Coligny, Ain, France in 1897. Engraved in bronze tablet

The Celtic Gaul calendar

The Celtic Gaul calendar was named the Coligny calendar for the place it was found in France in 1897 by French archaeologist, J. Mounard. It is a lunisolar calendar and engraved in a bronze tablet.

Recent studies on the calendar by two modern European researchers, Dr. Peter Forester of the University of Cambridge in England and Dr. Alfred Toth of the University of Zurich, have come to the conclusion that the Celtic language is in fact older than previously believed.

The Celtic language is part of the Indo-European family of languages and this family of languages was thought to have come to Europe around 4000 BC. Through a new method of language tracing developed by Dr. Forester, a geneticist, who uses a tree-drawing technique that has been used to trace the evolutionary relationship among genes, these two researchers believe the Indo-European languages first appeared c. 8100 BC.

Dr. Forester's method was used on the Coligny calendar and the two scientists believe the Celtic languages have been around since c. 3200 BC. Dr. Colin Renfrew, another researcher, also supports this theory.

The Celtic Gauls had their own calendar which was different from the Romans. The Coligny calendar (called so because it was found in Coligny, France) was constructed around the first century BC by the Gauls. It was constructed around the same time as the Julian calendar was being introduced to the Romans.

The Celtic calendar is a moon calendar and each month begins with the full moon and not the new moon (as most calendars do). The Gauls made use of a mathematical rule in deciding the New Year. Thirty years equaled 371 months. They lost almost one day and a half in thirty years so it was not as exact as the Gregorian calendar we use today.

They decided time in nights instead of days. Fifteen nights constituted the bright time of the month (increasing moon) and fifteen nights equaled the dark time of the month (decreasing moon.)

The Celtic year was divided into four seasons each with an introductory festival and each new year began with autumn and each new day began with sunset. New Years was celebrated on November 1st because the Gauls believed on this day order was created from chaos.

Day and night was divided into eight watches each lasting three hours or 24 hours in a night/day.

Gaul, Vercingetorix, surrendering to Julius Caesar.  Painting by Lionel Noel Royer 1899.

Gaul, Vercingetorix, surrendering to Julius Caesar. Painting by Lionel Noel Royer 1899.

"The Dying Gaul"  Roman copy of a Greek original sculpture.  Originally found on the grounds of Julius Caesar's villa in Rome.  Presently on view in the Rome Capitoline Museum.

"The Dying Gaul" Roman copy of a Greek original sculpture. Originally found on the grounds of Julius Caesar's villa in Rome. Presently on view in the Rome Capitoline Museum.

The Gallic Wars

By approximately 58 BC, Julius Caesar had had enough of the Gauls from northern Italy coming south to Rome and creating havoc with the Roman Republic. He also wanted to become emperor of Rome and thought finally getting rid of the Celts would help him achieve that. Also, he had some war debts to pay off, so engaging in another war would help him do that, especially as the conqueror.

Also, Julius Caesar never forgot that back in the second century BC the Gauls had invaded, sacked, and pillaged Rome. Now was the time to seek revenge.

So the Gallic Wars were a series of military campaigns waged by Julius Caesar against several Gallic tribes between 58-51 BC. These military campaigns culminated in the decisive Battle of Alesia in 52 BC.

The battle was a complete Roman victory just as Julius Caesar had planned and the Roman Empire expanded over all of Gaul which was present day France, Belgium and northern Italy.

And, Julius Caesar reached his goal and became the sole ruler and emperor of the Roman Empire.

Gaul (France) became a province of the Roman Empire and the Gauls assimilated into Roman rule and the Roman Republic and Empire. Thus, was the end of the Celtic tribes in continental Europe.

The Celts survived longer in the British Isles, with the Irish Gaels prevailing until the 17th century AD.


the Battle of Alesia 52 BC and the surrender of the Gauls


Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 30, 2014:

CMHypno: The Romans were something labeling everyone they conquered barbarians but displaying the same behavior themselves. Well, the Roman Empire finally fell, too, so they got their due. I am pleased you enjoyed reading this and I became so interested in the Celts, I had to write these to learn more about them.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 30, 2014:

Hi Audrey: Thanks so much for your comments. Yes, ancient history is one of my favorite periods also. I loved studying it in college.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 30, 2014:

DDE: Thanks for you visit and votes. Yes, I find them very interesting too. So glad you enjoyed this.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 30, 2014:

April: Thanks so much for reading this and I am pleased you enjoyed it. I love ancient history and found the Gauls very interesting and amazing.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 30, 2014:

Dianna: Thank you so much for reading and commenting. I have visited the salt mines near Saltzburg but didn't realize mining salt went all the way back to the days of the Gauls. I find that incredible. I always learn something new when I write these historical hubs.

CMHypno from Other Side of the Sun on June 29, 2014:

Funny how all races tend to label others they come across who live differently as 'barbarians'. Thanks for all the great information on the Celts and a very interesting hub

Audrey Howitt from California on June 28, 2014:

Just excellent--one of my favorite periods in history!

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on June 28, 2014:

Incredible! Informative and very interesting. I voted up and useful.

April Garner from Austin, Texas on June 28, 2014:

This is very well-written and interesting. The photos are wonderful - very eye-catching. Thanks for the Celtic education. I've always been interested in them.

Dianna Mendez on June 28, 2014:

They certainly were pioneers in many areas. Interesting to know about the naming of Salzburg. You told this history lesson with great interest.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 28, 2014:

Martie: How interesting of you to look at it from the South African standpoint. I guess it took a while for the migration of whites to get to get all the way to the south of Africa. So glad you enjoyed this and found it interesting.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 28, 2014:

Nell: I found the New Year on Nov. 1 to be interesting too. It does go along with the beliefs at that time. So glad you enjoyed reading this and some of these ancient beliefs and festivals are so interesting and they do make sense! LOL!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 28, 2014:

Thanks Bill. So glad you enjoyed reading this. Thanks for you comments and visit. Most appreciated.

Martie Coetser from South Africa on June 27, 2014:

Keeping the history of South Africa in mind since the arrival of whites in 1652, plus prior conditions, the ancient history of Europe seems to be very familiar and easy to comprehend. Very interesting, Suzette :)

Nell Rose from England on June 27, 2014:

Fascinating read Suzette, and to be honest the calendar made sense to me! lol! not the day and night getting muddled up, but their new year on the 1t November. I always say that the year is in two parts, winter and summer, and winter starts november 1. This was another great read and I loved it!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on June 27, 2014:

I almost missed this one. So glad I went back and re-checked what I had read....very well-written and quite interesting....a winning combination if you ask me.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 27, 2014:

Thanks Kim! Your students were so astute! Have you ever studied the German language? It has four cases and so many rules, I don't even remember them all now. Anyway, English is a Germanic language and then it has borrowed words from the Anglo-Saxons, French, Latin, Greek etc. The English language is practically made up from every other language in western Europe. And, then, pronunciation has changed so much over the years. Words like knife, knot etc. the original letter K was pronounced back in Shakespeare's day. Now, I'm not a linguist (I wish I was) LOL! so I don't know why English has so many exceptions to the rules, but

English seems to be a mishmash of European languages. That's my answer. LOL! Actually, I find the sources that tell me how the languages have specifically changed like the P and Q thing in the Celtic languages. Changes like that just happen over time to all languages. I just have a love of languages and how they work.

ocfireflies from North Carolina on June 27, 2014:


Once again, you dazzle with such interesting information. I have been asked so many times from students why English has so many exceptions to the rules. I am sure I was never smart enough to give them the kind of depth of information as you provide every time you produce another hub regarding the history of language. This is like all your other hubs filled with fascinating information and presented with extra-cool details.




Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 27, 2014:

Jackie: Thanks for your comments. I like to see the relics too. It is amazing how artistic and talented these people were. Thanks for your visit.

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on June 27, 2014:

Fantastic job as always and thanks so much for the many relic photos; I love them!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 27, 2014:

Will: Thank you so much for your comments. The Gauls were the major Celtic force in continental Europe and the information on them is huge. I appreciate your visit.

WillStarr from Phoenix, Arizona on June 27, 2014:

Very interesting history, and so well written! Voted up.

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