Events still more momentous, however, occurred about the same time in Northern Italy. A new nation was knocking at the gates of the Alps: it was the Celts; and their first pressure fell on the Etruscans.

The Celtic, Galatian, or Gallic nation received from the common mother endowments different from those of its Italian, Germanic, and Hellenic sisters. With various solid qualities and still more that were brilliant, it was deficient in those deeper moral and political qualifications which lie at the root of all that is good and great in human development. It was reckoned disgraceful, Cicero tells us, for the free Celts to till their fields with their own hands. They preferred a pastoral life to agriculture; and even in the fertile plains of the Po they chiefly practised the rearing of swine, feeding on the flesh of their herds, and staying with them in the oak forests day and night. Attachment to their native soil, such as characterized the Italians and the Germans, was wanting in the Celts; while on the other hand they delighted to congregate in towns and villages, which accordingly acquired magnitude and importance among the Celts earlier apparently than in Italy. Their political constitution was imperfect. Not only was the national unity recognized but feebly as a bond of connection--as is, in fact, the case with all nations at first--but the individual communities were deficient in concord and firm control, in earnest public spirit and consistency of aim. The only organization for which they were fitted was a military one, where the bonds of discipline relieved the individual from the troublesome task of self-control. "The prominent qualities of the Celtic race," says their historian Thierry, "were personal bravery, in which they excelled all nations; an open impetuous temperament, accessible to every impression; much intelligence, but at the same time extreme mobility, want of perseverance, aversion to discipline and order, ostentation and perpetual discord--the result of boundless vanity." Cato the Elder more briefly describes them, nearly to the same effect; "the Celts devote themselves mainly to two things--fighting and -esprit-."(6) Such qualities--those of good soldiers but of bad citizens--explain the historical fact, that the Celts have shaken all states and have founded none. Everywhere we find them ready to rove or, in other words, to march; preferring moveable property to landed estate, and gold to everything else; following the profession of arms as a system of organized pillage or even as a trade for hire, and with such success at all events that even the Roman historian Sallust acknowledges that the Celts bore off the prize from the Romans in feats of arms. They were the true soldiers-of-fortune of antiquity, as figures and descriptions represent them: with big but not sinewy bodies, with shaggy hair and long mustaches--quite a contrast to the Greeks and Romans, who shaved the head and upper lip; in variegated embroidered dresses, which in combat were not unfrequently thrown off; with a broad gold ring round the neck; wearing no helmets and without missile weapons of any sort, but furnished instead with an immense shield, a long ill-tempered sword, a dagger and a lance--all ornamented with gold, for they were not unskilful at working in metals. Everything was made subservient to ostentation, even wounds, which were often subsequently enlarged for the purpose of boasting a broader scar. Usually they fought on foot, but certain tribes on horseback, in which case every freeman was followed by two attendants likewise mounted; war-chariots were early in use, as they were among the Libyans and the Hellenes in the earliest times. Various traits remind us of the chivalry of the Middle Ages; particularly the custom of single combat, which was foreign to the Greeks and Romans. Not only were they accustomed during war to challenge a single enemy to fight, after having previously insulted him by words and gestures; during peace also they fought with each other in splendid suits of armour, as for life or death. After such feats carousals followed as a matter of course. In this way they led, whether under their own or a foreign banner, a restless soldier-life; they were dispersed from Ireland and Spain to Asia Minor, constantly occupied in fighting and so-called feats of heroism. But all their enterprises melted away like snow in spring; and nowhere did they create a great state or develop a distinctive culture of their own.

Celtic Migrations-- The Celts Assail The Etruscans In Northern Italy

Such is the description which the ancients give us of this nation. Its origin can only be conjectured. Sprung from the same cradle from which the Hellenic, Italian, and Germanic peoples issued,(7) the Celts doubtless like these migrated from their eastern motherland into Europe, where at a very early period they reached the western ocean and established their headquarters in what is now France, crossing to settle in the British isles on the north, and on the south passing the Pyrenees and contending with the Iberian tribes for the possession of the peninsula. This, their first great migration, flowed past the Alps, and it was from the lands to the westward that they first began those movements of smaller masses in the opposite direction--movements which carried them over the Alps and the Haemus and even over the Bosporus, and by means of which they became and for many centuries continued to be the terror of the whole civilized nations of antiquity, till the victories of Caesar and the frontier defence organized by Augustus for ever broke their power.

The native legend of their migrations, which has been preserved to us mainly by Livy, relates the story of these later retrograde movements as follows.(8) The Gallic confederacy, which was headed then as in the time of Caesar by the canton of the Bituriges (around Bourges), sent forth in the days of king Ambiatus two great hosts led by the two nephews of the king. One of these nephews, Sigovesus, crossed the Rhine and advanced in the direction of the Black Forest, while the second, Bellovesus, crossed the Graian Alps (the Little St.

Italian Books
Theodor Mommsen
Classic Literature Library

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