Podcast • November 27, 2013

Graham Robb: Rescuing those Celts!

Graham Robb, stellar historian and writer, draws on the “archives of the bicycle,” much as Simon Schama says he draws on the “archives of the feet,” walking battlefields and inaugural parades. Graham Robb pedaled 14,000 ...

celt village 2Graham Robb, stellar historian and writer, draws on the “archives of the bicycle,” much as Simon Schama says he draws on the “archives of the feet,” walking battlefields and inaugural parades. Graham Robb pedaled 14,000 miles through France in the course of re-casting the evolution of a nation of Frenchmen (just in the 20th Century) out of a wild diversity of villages.
And now he’s applied the bicycle method to rediscover a Celtic world of Stone Age Europe, six to eight centuries before Christ – a world built of wood that’s long since disappeared. And yet the bicyclist sees more than meets the eye of the documentary historian, specially with computer maps to draw on.

With his Rediscovery of Middle Earth, the idea was to bicycle through the fantasy land of Camelot and Tolkein’s landscape of the Hobbit and the Rings. And then surprise, surprise: a real civilization appears in the mist of those “middle places.” Robb’s rediscovered Celts were a scientific people with a well-schooled culture in many ways more attractive than Caesar’s Roman juggernaut that crushed the Celts and drove their Druids out of continental Europe – out to the British Isles and the wide world’s imagination. So the conversation here is about what Graham Robb found out about the Celts, and crucially, too, about how he found it.

We think of the Celts as the people who were defeated and crushed by the Romans. Caesar himself explained that his policy included deliberate genocide. He would wipe out entire tribes, either by killing them all or by selling most of them into slavery or multilating all the male members of a particular tribe so they would never bother Rome again. Good old Caesar. His history was a work of propaganda, because even in Rome some people were appalled at what he was doing in Gaul. And the crucial thing about the Roman conquest of the Celtic world is that this wasn’t a simple military conquest. Caesar traveled with huge numbers of merchants and traders who were prospecting the new market in basically gold, precious metals and slaves. And that was going to be the basis of Caesar’s political power, because he was reducing people’s taxes back in Rome and creating a safe buffer zone between Rome and the barbarian world. And that’s why he tends to present the Celts as mud-smeared hooligan barbarians, and that image still survives today, at least in Britain. Certainly when the English think of the Scottish or Welsh or Irish Celts, those are the kinds of images that still come up…

In many ways it was a more sophisticated civilization than Rome. And one of the reasons the Romans were so keen to make the Celts look ridiculous is that every Roman knew that in 387 B.C., before there was a Roman empire, the Celtic army marched into Rome and captured it and plundered it and massacred the citizens of Rome. That was a huge humiliation which the Romans never forgot. So when they set about massacring Celtic tribes that was something in the back of their minds. This was the enormous threat beyond the Alps that had to be eradicated. Ironically it’s because the Celts had moved into Northern Italy and colonized it, and created towns like Milan and Turin and Bologna – which all have Celtic names, not Roman names, not from Latin — they had been driven out by the Romans when the empire began to expand. But it was the Celts who first introduced the Romans to all the sophisticated technology, particularly of transport: the carts and carriages and high-speed chariots and roads. And that’s why in Latin almost every word for wheeled vehicle is actually a Celtic word. For example… there’s the word for chariot itself: currus in Latin, which comes from a Celtic word. Which means that the Celts gave us the word: car. That’s where the word comes from.

Graham Robb in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, November, 2013

Graham Robb calls to mind the amazing persistence of regional-tribal folkways and social-cultural traits as David Hackett Fisher traced them from 17th Century England to modern America in the classic Albion’s Seed. He reminds me also of the recent novel of New York, Open City, imagined by the Nigerian-American Teju Cole. Teju Cole and Graham Robb share a gifted eye for stripping away the visible and seeing history and pre-history, half-hidden like the thousands of miles of stone walls in the re-grown forests of New England, for example. The way to imagine the Middle Earth of Tolkein and King Arthur and the Celts, Graham Robb is telling us, is as a world many of us are still living in.