Ancient Spain

The Celtiberians were the original inhabitants of Spain, and were a mixture of of a Celtic and indigenous Iberian people with a distinct early European culture.

Spanish Nobility via Costumes of All Nations (1882)
The Ancient Celtiberian World

The Woman of Elche; polychrome stone, Celtiberian 4th Century BCE

Celts, living on the central mesetas, or table lands, in direct contact with the Iberians, adopted many Iberian cultural fashions, including wheel-made pottery, rough stone sculptures of pigs and bulls, and the eastern Iberian alphabet on coins and inscriptions, such as the bronze plaque from Botorrita (Saragossa), but they did not organize themselves into urban settlements until the 3rd century BC. The Celt-Iberians were tribes of mixed Iberian and Celtic stock who inhabited an area in present north-central Spain from the 3rd century BC onward . These Celtiberians inhabited the hill country between the sources of the Tagus (Tajo) and Iberus (Ebro) rivers, including most of the modern province of Soria and much of the neighboring provinces of Guadalajara and Teruel.

The Iberian Tribes

The lady, or Dama of Baza, an ancient Celtiberian sculpture

In historic times the Celtiberians were composed of the Arevaci, Belli, Titti, and Lusones. The earliest population of Celtiberia was that of the southeastern Almería culture of the Bronze Age, after which came Hallstatt invaders, who occupied the area shortly before 600 BC. The Hallstatt people were in turn subjugated by the Arevaci, who dominated the neighboring Celtiberian tribes from the powerful strongholds at Okilis (modern Medinaceli) and Numantia. The Belli and the Titti were settled in the Jalón valley, the Sierra del Solorio separating them from the Lusones to the northeast.

The material culture of Celtiberia was strongly influenced by that of the Iberian people of the Ebro valley. Horse bits, daggers, and shield fittings attest the warlike nature of the Celtiberians, and one of their inventions, the two-edged Spanish sword, was later adopted by the Romans. To the west and north of Inland Spain developed a world that classical writers described as Celtic. Iron was known from 700 BC, and agricultural and herding economies were practiced by people who lived in small villages or, in the northwest, in fortified compounds called castros. The people spoke Indo-European languages (Celtic, Lusitanian) but were divided culturally and politically into dozens of independent tribes and territories; they left behind hundreds of place-names. Metalworking flourished, and distinctive neck rings (torques) of silver or gold, along with brooches and bangles, attest to their technical skills.

the distinct style of Torque worn by the Iberians differed from the typical Gaulish ones which had a braided appearance, which could signify the stylistic preferences of the Pre-Celtic Iberian peoples.

The warriors of Celt-Iberia enjoyed a reputation as the finest barbarian mercenary infantry in the western world. They were believed to possess the finest qualities of the Celts, savage battle lust and great physical courage, along with the steadiness and organization of the more civilized Iberians. Their reputation was such that after the rout of the Carthaginians by Scipio Africanus at the Burning of the Camps in 203, the arrival of a band of only 4,000 Celt-Iberians encouraged the Carthaginians to take the field once more.

The Celtiberians first submitted to the Romans in 195 BC, but they were not completely under Roman domination until 133 BC, when Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus destroyed Numantia. The Mediterranean way of life reached the interior only after the Romans conquered Numantia. Asturias was only pacified in 19 BC.

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Early Spanish Origins

The Tribes of Hispania, as the area was known even in ancient times, Interestingly the Vascones, or Basques still inhabit the same region today, and speak a language preserved through time that may be the ancestral language of Iberia

The first of the areas mentioned above corresponds to the inland regions of the Iberian Peninsula, where the Celtiberians would have been located. This group was expressly considered by several authors to be Celtic. From the late third century BC onwards, Graeco-Roman literary sources began to provide the earliest information on the Celtiberians and Celtiberia, and gave accounts of the names of Celtiberian peoples and their location. This information, which is at times contradictory, not to say blatantly imprecise, allows us to define the theoretical Celtiberian territory in two ways.

By using Strabo’s descriptions of Celtiberia, or the use of the nouns “beginning” or “end” when referring to this area, such as Clunia, Celtiberiae finis, Segobriga, caput Celtiberiae, or Contrebia, caput eius gentis, referring to the Celtiberians. By analyzing the peoples thought to be Celtiberians and examining the location of cities linked to them, or by looking at peoples who occupied neighboring territories but who were not Celtiberians. However, Classical sources and contemporary historiography do not coincide on these issues, mainly because of the different ways the Graeco-Latin authors used the terms “Celtiberian” and “Celtiberia”. There is no single unanimous opinion regarding the links between peoples that could be considered Celtiberians, which include the Arevaci, Pelendones, Lusones, Belli and Titti, and occasionally Vaccaei, Carpetani, Olcades, Lobetani, and even more distant groups such as Oretani, Bastetani, Bastuli or Celtici. There is similarly no shortage of authors who reject the ethnic content of the term altogether, and take it to refer to all inhabitants of an extensive area of the inland Peninsula.

A scepter found at Numantia, the last stronghold of the Iberian tribes

A scepter found at Numantia, the last stronghold of the Iberian tribes

The first reference to Celtiberia is made within the context of the Second Punic War, in Polybius’ narration of the siege of Saguntum in the spring of 219 BC. From this date onwards, information about Celtiberians and Celtiberia is plentiful and varied, since the Celtiberians were one of the key players in the various wars and battles that took place throughout the second and first century BC, which culminated in the destruction of Numantia in 133 BC. Celtiberia also played a vital role in the Sertonian Wars.

The geographical concept of Celtiberia underwent a process of evolution following its first appearance in texts. It began as a rather generic concept, obvious in the most ancient literary testimonies, such as Poseidonius, for whom the Pyrenees separated Gaul from Iberia and Celtiberia. Clearly, these initial concepts were vague and contained blatant errors. However, there was also a narrower definition that referred to the eastern Meseta and the right side of the Middle Ebro Valley. This concept was largely due to an increased understanding and knowledge of the ethnic complexity of the Peninsula. Such an overview was offered by authors such as Strabo, Pliny or Ptolemy, although Strabo included information that referred to both the extensive and narrower definitions of Celtiberia, which has been put down to his use of sources from different periods.

Strabo, who wrote around the time of Christ’s birth, offered a very broad concept of Celtiberia using information provided by Polybius and Poseidonius. Many of the largest rivers of the Atlantic basin started there, such as the Douro, the Tagus, the Guadiana and even the Guadalquivir, as well as the Limia and the Miño, although Poseidonius believed this last example began in Cantabria. The easternmost point of Celtiberia was located in the Idoubeda – the Iberian Mountains – although Strabo himself placed a few Celtiberian cities even further to the east. According to Strabo, Celtiberia was divided into four territories, of which he only made reference to those inhabited by the Arevaci and Lusones, although Polybius and Appian revealed that the other two corresponded to the Belos and Belli and Titthi tribes. A little further on, Strabo indicated that some believed that there were five areas. Several candidates were proposed as inhabiting this fifth zone, including the Vaccaei, who were considered Celtiberians by Appian although in general they appeared in sources as two separate peoples. In all probability, this fifth section was inhabited by the Pelendones, whom Pliny described as Celtiberians.

Pliny’s writings reflected the administrative situation in Hispania following the reforms introduced by Augustus; in his descriptions of Hispania Citerior he only referred to the Arevaci and Pelendones as Celtiberians. However, in the second century AD, Ptolemy, in his description of the province of Tarraconensis, treated the Arevaci and Pelendones as separate from the Celtiberians, whom he considered another ethnic group, and placed all these peoples on an equal footing.

Analysis of the literary sources reveals an enormously complex Celtiberia whose geographic scope and ethnic composition are difficult to define and substantially changed during the process of the Roman conquest and subsequent Romanization. It is important to remember that over three centuries passed between the oldest references to the Celtiberians and Ptolemys’ writings. During this period, the wars and battles and later on the administrative reforms surely had a marked impact on the Celtiberian lands.

A map showing the current understanding of the ancient Linguistic families in Iberia and could also represent the various tribal movements of the people in ancient times

A map showing the current understanding of the ancient Linguistic families in Iberia and could also represent the various tribal movements of the people in ancient times

The fact that the term “Celtiberia” did not originate there makes it even more difficult to assess, as do the frequent contradictions found in its usage and application in literary sources, which can sometimes but not always be explained by chronology. As for the term Celtiberi, it appears to be used to refer to a people considered to be a mixed group. Diodorus, Appian and Martial certainly used it in this way, and believed that the Celtiberians were Celts mixed with Iberians, although for other authors such as Strabo, there was a definitive domination of the Celtic component in this mixture. Even if not all scholars believe that the concept “Celtiberian” refers to an ethnic unit, it is equally important to study aspects of the indigenous features that could have been passed on to visitors to the area, such as customs and languages, since they could form the basis of a proven identity. The Celtiberians could be considered an ethnic group insofar as they included subordinate ethnic units, just as the Gauls or the Iberians did, but on a smaller scale, without evidence for centralized power or even a political hierarchy.

In short, the true significance of the terms “Celtiberian” and “Celtiberia” in the different contexts in which they were used is unknown, although it is likely that they had ethnic and purely geographical connotations. It has been suggested that the term “Celtiberian” could have been used to refer to the “Iberian Celts”, even though, as we have already pointed out, the Celtiberians were not the only Celts on the Peninsula. Possibly this term was simply used to highlight the personality of these people within the Celtic world. The Berones were another Celtic population that inhabited the area now known as La Rioja, on the right bank of the Upper Ebro River. According to Strabo, they settled to the north of the Celtiberians, were neighbours of the Cantabrian Coniscos, and had been part of the “Celtic immigration”. He stated that they inhabited the city of Varia. Ptolemy also mentioned this city, which he calls Vareia, along with Tritium Megallum and Oliba.

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Spanish Warfare

War trumpets from Izana and Numancia (with wolf-headed amplifier), Museo Arqueológico Nacional, Madrid

Polybius’ description provides a good example of the tremendous visual impact and fear that the Celts instilled in Roman armies before they engaged in the fight: naked, furiously shaking their long hair in order to intimidate the enemy, shrieking brutally, bragging and defiant, they showed an outrageous contempt for their own life The same is true of Celtiberians to a great extent.

Appian and Valerius Maximus describe two kinds of war dances performed during individual fights: an orthodox circunambulatio and a triumphal dance. While there is evidence of other Hispanic peoples we only have a fragment by Livy on the Celtiberians: . The text, which describes how Hannibal had a pyre built at the entrance of his camp to incinerate Gracchus, is used by Livy in order to demonstrate that these people no doubt performed typical war dances. Some images on ceramic pieces also seem to depict such dances, including the practice of the exhibition of the hair. The Celtiberians’ intimidatory use of their hair in war seems to be confirmed by Martial, who boasted of his bristly hair (after the fashion of his Celtiberian) and Catullus, who attributed to the Celtiberian Egnatius the use of urine as toothpaste and a thick head of hair , but is also attested by paintings and coins . The intimidating use of cries and shaggy hair appears to have been captured in a scene from Numancia, which shows two big men fighting against a smaller one: the latter has thick and bristly hair and he is yelling and moving towards the left, armed with a shield and a spear.

Archaeological remains of clay trumpets attest to the existence of the uproar accompanying warfare that was common to all Celtic conflicts . About fifteen whole and sixty fragmentary Celtiberian trumpets are known. These were heavy wind instruments, with a mouthpiece at one end and an amplifier at the other. Their function was due more to the power of the blower than to the disposition of their components: Celtiberian trumpets were designed mostly for the production of noise although the possibility of their use for the transmission of commands through acoustic signals should not be discounted. Appian mentions these trumpets in 140 BC , hinting at the fact that they were commonly used even when surprise was not intended. This instrument also appears on coins from Louitiscos, a mint of uncertain location in Celtiberia . Comparable pieces found in Celtic areas are similar to the Celtiberian trumpets except that they are made of metal.

The Falcata, a distinctive sword used by the Iberian tribes

The Falcata, a distinctive sword used by the Iberian tribes

The Greeks well understood the ritual importance of trumpets, as proved by the Greek sculpture of the Dying Gaul (at the Musei Capitolini of Rome), which synthetized the same four archetypal elements of feritas celtica listed by Polybius and Poseidonius : nakedness, the torc, the sword and the carnyx or war trumpet. As can be seen on the Gundestrup cauldron, the noise produced by the trumpets invoked an eschatological dimension , a fact that is also endorsed by the findings of offerings, including four trumpets intentionally placed near human skulls, in the lake of Loughnasad (Armagh, at the foot of Navan Fort hill). A funerary stele from Lara de los Infantes (Burgos) sets Celtiberian trumpets in an identical transcendental scenario, showing two men playing, a dead fighter, a vulture about to devour him and a number of architectural structures belonging in the Other world. Consequently, the trumpets had a symbolic ornamentation that varied according to the place of origin: boar-shaped horns, like the one from Deskford, and monster-shaped instruments, like the ones on the Gundestrup Cauldron, were very common in the Celtic world. Celtiberian trumpets, on the other hand, were characterized, apart from the multicolored abstract decorations, by wolf-headed amplifiers. Such animal decorations alluded to the personification of warlike or ancestral divine powers, with the voice of the trumpet representing the voices of these entities.

The small one handed Celtiberian shield using the unique patterns of the Iberian Celtic culture

The small one handed Celtiberian shield using the unique patterns of the Iberian Celtic culture

Among the Celts, as Poseidonius argues, the use of the helmet was not only defensive, but clearly had ostentatious purposes; this was the piece of equipment with by far the greatest number of added ornamentation (horsehair, feathers, etc) which, among other things, made the fighter look taller . It is also worth mentioning, in this respect, the helmet from Ciumesti, decorated with an eagle or vulture whose wings, hinged in the middle, moved along with the fighter. Poseidonius informs us that Celtiberians also decorated their helmets with crests, as a painting from Ocenilla shows . Silius Italicusreports that the people from Uxama added to their helmets ornaments in the shape of open-mouthed wild animals, a practice confirmed by the decorations of the helmet painted on a ceramic fragment from Numancia; another image from the same scene depicts a typical horned Gaul . The statuary remains from Porcuna include what might be a cat on the helmet of a warrior while the Vase of the Warriors portrays a fighter whose helmet is decorated with a cock . Also worth mentioning is the solar symbolism of the helmets from Almaluez, Griegos and Alpanseque.

The Celts’ lack of moderation in drinking is accepted as a commonplace by Graeco-Roman writers , and is also evident in subsequent literature but, inevitably, it always appears in the highly ritualized contexts of feasts and war . Celtiberians are known to have consumed a kind of beer (caelia) of very high alcoholic content . People from Numancia got drunk with it during the last days before their city was taken and, so inflamed, went out to fight after eating raw meat . In the sixth century AD, Gregory of Tours , still distinguished between British, Gaulish and Germanic ales, corma and the caelia celtiberica, which was obtained from cereal maceration and was highly intoxicating.

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Iberians and Celts

Recreation of Iberian warrior from the tomb of a nobleman found in Spain

According to Almagro-Gorbea, the Celtiberian culture emerged out of a ‘proto-Celtic’ substratum, which would explain the cultural, socio-economic, linguistic and ideological similarities, as well as the progressive assimilation of the ‘proto-Celtic’ substratum into the Celtiberian culture. This process of Celticization allows us to understand better the heterogeneity and clear personality of Celtic Hispania within the Celtic world.

In a recent study, Almagro-Gorbea proposed that the origins of the Celts could be traced back to the third millennium BC, and sought to find the initial roots of the formative process that would eventually give rise to the Celtic people in the Bell Beaker culture. This remote origin would certain explain the wide dispersion of the Celts throughout western Europe, as well as the variability of the different Celtic peoples, and the existence of ancestral traditions.

The Celts described in Classical sources and known to us through archaeological remains would, therefore, have been the result of a long process of progressive or “cumulative” Celticization, presumably explaining the cultural variety which, although they may have all spoken similar languages and held similar beliefs about life and its values, made them stand out from other people in the ancient world.

However, there is an undeniable presence in the Eastern Meseta of ethnic contributions from the Ebro valley, approximately dated to the eighth and seventh centuries BC. Such contributions have allowed us to assess the importance of the Urnfield culture in the development of the Celtiberian world – possibly in the form of small infiltrations of “settlers” – stemming from its introduction of a new socio-economic model into local populations as well as possibly an Indo-European language, the direct predecessor of the Celtiberian language attested in inscriptions. This proposal allows for the indigenous cultures – which did not disappear along with Cogotas I, a characteristic culture of the Late Bronze Age in the Meseta – to play an active role in the process of interaction with the Urnfield model. It was this interaction that gave rise to the ancient Celtiberian world.

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Written Graeco-Roman sources

A Celtiberian gold masterwork from an Iberian excavation

Despite the wealth of information provided by Classical authors on the subject of the Iberian Peninsula, there are very few references to the Celts. The oldest sources simply describe the coastal areas of the Peninsula, mainly the South and the Levant, of which the Classical authors had first-hand experience. References to inland areas are a great deal more general and often vague. As a consequence, any information about the location of these peoples is far too imprecise to be of much value. Mostly, the authors simply made a cursory acknowledgment of their presence, and located them sometimes near cities or other presumably non-Celtic peoples, occasionally explaining their presence as a result of geographical accident.

Traditionally, one of the most ancient sources on the Iberian Peninsula is thought to be the Latin poem Ora Maritima, written at the end of the fourth century AD by Rufus Festus Auienus, although some scholars believe that it presents the story of a voyage to Massalia from the sixth century BC, with a few later interpolations. Despite its controversial nature, a certain passage from the Voyage, which is on the whole excessively obscure, has been interpreted as the most ancient recorded reference to the Celts, along with allusions to a series of other peoples such as the Cempsi, Saefes and Berybraces who are difficult to characterize.

Leaving aside the Ora Maritima for the moment, the first reference to the Celtic world was made by Hecataeus of Miletus (ca. 500 BC), who defined Narbo as a Celtic city (as well as Nirax, but the location of this city is uncertain). He placed the Greek colony of Massalia in the land of the Ligurs, close to the land of the Celts. Herodotus is credited with the first certain reference to the presence of Celts in the Iberian Peninsula, and the oldest evidence of the ethnonym Keltoi. In the fifth century BC, Herodotus indicated that the source of the river Istro (now known as the Danube) was in the land of the Celts, which stretched beyond the Pillars of Hercules, and bordered the land of the Kynesios (or Kynetes), who were thought to be the most western tribe in Europe.

Later on, there were repeated mentions of the presence of Celts in the Iberian Peninsula. Ephorus, ca. 405-330 BC, believed that the Keltiké occupied most of the Peninsula, as far as Gades (today’s Cádiz). Eratosthenes, ca. 280-195 BC, seemed to confirm the fact that the Celts reached the southwest of the Iberian Peninsula. He believed that border regions of Iberia were inhabited as far as Gades by Galatae, a term that was doubtless used as a synonym for the Celts. The references to Celts further inland are reflected in another passage of Pseudo-Scymnus attributed to Ephorus, according to which the source of the river Tartesos, now the Guadalquivir, began in the land of the Celts. Diodorus confirmed the presence of Celts in the south of the Peninsula. He indicated that when Amilcar arrived in the Peninsula in 237 BC, he had to face Tartessians and Iberians who fought alongside the Celts of Istolacio.

A rapid increase in information regarding Iberia occurred in the late third century BC, and particularly during the following two centuries, when the Peninsula became of increasingly strategic interest for Rome. Information came pouring in, not only about the geography of the area, but also about economic, social and religious structures. This information boom provides a much more complete overview of the Peninsular Celts, and allows us to pinpoint their settlements more exactly.

During the wars with Rome and the period directly after that, written sources modified the concept of Celtica, and applied it to areas to the north of the Pyrenees4, although this did not mean that there were no express references to the existence of Celtic populations in the Iberian Peninsula. In-depth analysis of the works of Polybius, Poseidonius, Strabo, Diodorus, Pomponius Mela, Pliny the Elder and Claudius Ptolemy sheds light on three distinct areas located in the center and the west of the Peninsula, in which the presence of Celtic peoples is explicitly indicated: the eastern Meseta, the northwest, and the southwest of the Iberian Peninsula. Clearly, this does not exclude the possibility of other areas that are not mentioned by these sources.

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