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Spread of the Celts: from the 5th century BC

By the 5th century BC vigorous tribes are speading outwards from their original homeland east of the Rhine, in places such as Hallstatt and La Tène. With the advantage of iron weapons, they are able to press east into the Balkans and west into France and Spain. Considerably later, in about 300 BC, they cross the Channel to Britain. They are the Celts.

The Celts are great story-tellers, great drinkers and great fighters - with a liking for single combat, after which the victor proudly displays the severed head of his opponent. Soon they begin to trouble their very different neighbours, the sober and disciplined Romans.

The Celts push south through the Alps, raiding and marauding. In about 390 they even reach and sack Rome. Many of them stay in Italy, settling in an area from the Alps to south of Milan. The Romans call them Gauls, and distinguish their two nearest territories as Cisalpine Gaul ('this side of the Alps', as seen from Rome) and Transalpine Gaul ('across the Alps').

Much of Cisalpine Gaul comes under Roman control after a campaign in 225, but the Celts here remain unreliable; a few years later many of them side with Hannibal. Beyond the Alps, southern Gaul becomes a Roman province in 121. The rest of Gaul escapes the grasp of Rome until the arrival of Caesar.

Caesar's years in Gaul: 58-50 BC

Caesar is away from Rome for eight years. During this time he systematically subdues the Celtic tribes in Gaul, making separate alliances with their many independent chieftains. He even adventures beyond the natural boundaries of Gaul - the region framed by the Alps, the Rhine, the Atlantic and the Pyrenees.

In 55 and again in 53 he bridges the Rhine for brief campaigns into Germany. Twice in the same period he crosses the Channel to test the mettle of the Celts in Britain (see Caesar in Britain). According to Plutarch, writing 150 years later, this expedition is the first to prove to certain sceptical scholars in Rome that Britain really exists.

Celtic tribes and Caesar: 55-54 BC

It is not known precisely when the Celts first enter Britain in their steady expansion outwards from central Europe. But Caesar states, in his own account of his campaigns, that they have been migrating across the Channel since at least the 2nd century BC.

Caesar makes his first tentative excursion to Britain in August of 55 BC. He lands on the coast of Kent, meeting considerable opposition from the cavalry and war chariots of the neighbouring Celtic chieftains. After staying long enough to demonstrate to the British the strength of a Roman legion, he returns in September to Gaul.

During the winter Caesar builds 600 new ships. He sails again, in July of 54 BC, with five legions and 2000 cavalry. They are sufficient to bring him north of the Thames into the territory of Cassivellaunus, the tribal chieftain chosen to lead the British forces. Caesar easily captures the Celtic leader's primitive stronghold, and removes from it a large herd of cattle. But by the time he sails away again, in September, little has been achieved - except that Cassivellaunus has agreed to a treaty and has promised an annual tribute. It is unlikely that any tribute is paid.

The Celtic chieftains of Britain have almost exactly a century before they are again disturbed by the Romans.

Caesar's campaigns into Germany and Britain suggest that he considers Gaul itself secure. The year 52 BC proves him wrong. The Celts find an inspiring leader in Vercingetorix, a young chieftain of the Averni. His early successes against Roman contingents are in the absence of Caesar, who has been wintering south of the Alps. But the great general's arrival does not make quite the difference to which he has become accustomed.

Caesar is besieging the town of Gergovia when Vercingetorix attacks and routs the Roman forces, killing 700. This is Caesar's first defeat in all his years in Gaul. It prompts many more tribes to come out in support of the rebels.

The next siege in the campaign reverses the situation. Vercingetorix holds the fortress of Alesia. Caesar and his troops, attempting to blockade the garrison, are themselves threatened by a large army of Gauls. But when the Romans win the first major battle between the two sides, the Gauls melt away. To save further lives, Vercingetorix rides out of the town and surrenders - in a dramatic gesture of Celtic chivalry.

He is kept in captivity for six years, until Caesar finds the right moment to lead him through the streets of Rome in a triumphal parade.

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