Map of Celtic tribes during Roman Empire

Celtic Tribes during Roman Empire

As I swept the verandah this morning I came to contemplating the ‘Close the Gap’ movement, the history of disenfranchisment of the Australian Aboriginal people, and the significant difficulty Aboriginal youth have in utilising access to the education system in Australia as a means to realise their potential. This contemplation was sparked by a discussion with my son, a teacher who has worked with Aboriginal children and youth. The discussion lead to a sense that there is an observable gap between potential and certain educational and social outcomes. At the extreme end, minors are being arrested and sentenced to juvenile detention. From a health perspective, this is a group already sentenced to chronic disease and mental health disorders.

It is long recognised that the domination of the Aboriginal people across Australia since the turn of the 19th century, by British and Christian Churches supported settlement, lead to the decimation of the population and culture. Especially as Aboriginal culture is a transmitted verbally and in praxis, once a significant number of elders had been removed from tribal environments, culture failed. In the Eastern seaboard of Australia that became home to high numbers of non-Aboriginal people, cultural transmission is very low. In Central and Western Australia cultural transmission continues at a higher level but still with loss of up to 80% of storyline and ceremony.

As I thought about the influence of the more dominant culture that Europe and the United Kingdom brought to the world from the 16th century onward, I found myself thinking about older incursions, especially those of the Roman Empire into the British Isles, and the domination of the Celtic tribes, my own ancestors.

The Celtic tribes of Britain formed through slow migration from Central Europe. Before the Romans invaded ‘Britain’, they covered the territory in clans that had kings, equal status for women, a written language but relied heavily on oral tradition, and had a religion supported by Druids (priests, teachers, healers).  They farmed with ploughs and were known for love of war. There tribalism is thought to have been their downfall, not being able to unify long enough to defend against the Roman Empire.

As the Roman Empire took hold the Celtic lifestyle changed to take advantage of the Roman Highways for trade. Eventually the Roman Empire turned from Paganism to Christianity and bought Christianity to Britain by 600AD especially through St Augustine. Christian minsters travelled throughout Britain teaching in villages and eventually christianity took predominance over the older Celtic religion.

The history of Christianity in Britain, parallels a history of the making of the United Kingdom under one King, and the eventual establishment of Britain as the world’s greatest colonial power ever seen.

My purpose in drawing this connection is to reflect upon the advancement of a people, not through withstanding invasion and change, but in adapting to the invaders style and technologies. Certainly, as Celtic history shows, fighting the intruder was an essentially aspect of their identity. Fighting meant they were not victims. Eventually the Roman empire faltered for other reasons, and, by then, the Celts had taken to Christianity and that adaptation made them the greatest players in the world, for a time.

The Celtic story serves to give us all, even Aboriginal Australians, great hope for the future. We will none of us remain culturally the same. We will even achieve greatness by incorporating styles and technologies and trading capacity with dominant powers. We will achieve greatness by supporting new and invigorating spiritual inspiration. We should certainly endeavour to maintain cultural identity but not at the cost of rejecting all new things. Eventually our conquerers will pass into history, and that which will remain is our larger humanity soaring in spiritual and material power. And, while it may take one or two thousand years to realise that power, nonetheless, history encourages us to take that longer view.


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