This is episode 5 called Second Iron Age: Iberians, Celts and other Pre-Roman peoples and in this episode you will learn:
- Everything about the Pre-Indo-European Iberians: Iberian alphabets, urbanism, warfare and weapons, society and politics, traditions, religion, burial costumes and trade
- Everything about the Indo-European Celts: Celtic economy, social institutions, warfare, religion, urbanism, cultures and society
- The Celtiberians, who were famous for being ferocious and brave warriors
- The ancient Basques, the Vascones
- Reflections on the manipulation about the Basque identity and ethnicity done by Basque nationalism
I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 5, called Second Iron Age: Iberians, Celts and other Pre-Roman peoples. In this episode you will learn about the native cultures that were coexisting in the Iberian Peninsula before the Roman conquest of Hispania. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!
The first thing I would like to mention is that we must understand the ethnic, linguistic or other kind of differences I will mention here not in a strict sense, but in broad terms. The Pre-Roman cultures and peoples I will talk about today didn’t have states as we think of them today, they didn’t have strict borders, instead they were very fluid cultures that were, to a higher or lower degree, interconnected, and that sometimes intermixed. There were two major ethnic groups in the Iberian Peninsula before the Carthaginian and Roman invasions, the Iberians and the Celts. We also have the Celtiberians that were a mixed group, and the proto-Basques whose origins are still under investigation.
The Iberians were Pre-Indo-European peoples of the Neolithic stock that populated the Mediterranean side of the Iberian Peninsula, and their culture started around the 5th century BC. Iberian culture was a bit influenced by Phoenician and Greek cultures, as we can easily see in their artistic works. What we know as Iberians though is not a unified group of peoples, but different tribes of each area of the Spanish Mediterranean that shared similar characteristics. For instance, in the Iberian territory there were multiple languages and writing systems. We know the sounds of the characters of the Iberian scriptures, but not their meaning since archeologists haven’t found an Iberian Rosetta Stone. Apart from the Greco-Iberian alphabet that used the Ionic variant of the Greek alphabet, the rest of scripts, the Northeastern Iberian, Southeastern Iberian, Tartessian and Celtiberian scripts were semi-syllabaries, which means that their writing systems were a mix of an alphabet and a syllabary. The difference is that alphabets represent phonemes and syllabaries represent syllables to make up words. It was only between the 1st and 2nd centuries AD that the Iberian language disappeared, as well as the other paleohispanic languages, since they were all replaced by Latin.
To learn about the Iberian peoples, we need to rely more on archeology rather than literature, because all the literature about them is Greco-Roman and is biased. I mean, it’s not like the Romans or Carthaginians made an anthropological study about them before their conquests. So yeah, this episode will not be narrative, just like the previous one.
Anyway, let’s get started. Iberians usually settled and built their towns on heights to easily defend the territory, and their towns could have walls too. This kind of urbanism is called oppidum and was found all over Europe. A very interesting fact is that cities that had an influence over their region controlled the area nearby by founding small towns or building disperse houses. Cities even used sculptures that represented heroic acts to justify their expansion and influence. Their architecture and urbanism were not as advanced as the earlier Tartessian urbanism, but compared to their neighbors, the Celts, they were more urbanized and less pastoralist.
They didn’t have advanced military technology like catapults until the Second Punic War, but Iberians were known as ferocious warriors that attracted the attention of foreign powers looking for mercenaries. Iberian warfare was endemic and made between tribes, to raid and pillage. Iberians stood out for their ambushes and guerrilla tactics, and the infantry used hit-and-run tactics. Now talking about their weapons, the falcata stands out as it’s the characteristic Pre-Roman sword of the Iberian tribes. The falcata has a single-edged blade that pitches forwards towards the point, the edge being concave near the hilt, but convex near the point, and they don’t only surprise by their shape, but also by the quality of the iron. The famous Gladius Hispaniensis inspired the Roman military to adopt those swords after the Punic Wars in their Republican Army. See an image of a falcata in your podcast player, on thehistoryofspain.com or looking it up on Google. Iberian soldiers also used spears, javelins, they had both small and large shields, and Iberian horsemen were highly regarded.
On another note, Iberian society was as stratified as any other urbanized society at the time, with its kings or chieftains, nobles, priests, artisans, peasants and slaves. The nobles met in councils and chieftains maintained their power through a system of vassalage and servitude. The nobility was a warrior class, as it’s evidenced by the sculptures and necropolis found that idealize aristocratic values. Iberian societies were extremely divided politically and led by caudillos, and only some united in confederacies to defend the territory from the Carthaginian and Roman invaders.
Among their customs, we find the Iberian devotio, a pact of vassalage where the devoti or clients swore to protect their caudillo or king, in exchange for protection and a higher social status. If the leader died, the devoti had to commit suicide as they also vowed to protect their leader to the gods. This social institution played a major role in some heroic last stands seen during the Roman conquest of Hispania, and it served Roman interests later because Iberians quickly embraced the cult to the emperor. The Romans had a similar institution, but their devotio was radically different, since in their case the Romans devoted to gods to guarantee a military victory in exchange for their life, while Iberians offered their life to protect a person.
Archeologists haven’t found any big sanctuary, instead religious rites seem to have been performed domestically and in the open. Iberians didn’t like to represent their divinities like Greeks did, therefore we know very little about their religious beliefs. Nonetheless both the Greeks and Phoenicians influenced their religious practices, as some of their deities were known and worshiped. On the other hand, they used ex-vote figurines that were unique, which means that they represented a different individual each time. Iberians offered the ex-vote figurines to the gods in open air sanctuaries, usually for health issues, and animal ritual sacrifice was commonly performed as well.
About their burial methods, Iberians always incinerated the bodies of the dead, using a funeral pyre structure. In their necropolis we can observe how stratified their society was, with bigger tombs for the aristocratic families. Two good examples of their aristocratic burials are the Lady of Baza and the Lady of Elche. Both are beautiful sculptures that represented noble women, and they both had a hole in the back that contained the ashes of the women the sculptures represented. Therefore, thus sculptures functioned as funerary urns, and I encourage you to Google the precious works that are the Lady of Baza and Lady of Elche or to visit in thehistoryofspain.com the post of this episode, because I will post their images there as well as in a meta mark compatible podcast player.
On the other hand, Iberians traded extensively with other Mediterranean people, as Iberian pottery and metalwork can be found in France, Italy, Greece or North Africa. Horse breeding was important for the nobility, and the mining and metalwork activities were important in the Ebro Valley and the region of Murcia. Grain-producing agriculture was the most important economic activity though, and it was the base that sustained a demographic growth from the 5th century BC onwards. They also had livestock of small animals like sheep, goats and pigs, and again, Iberian pottery was demanded for its quality. Iberians imported luxury items, especially from the Greeks, like pottery, jewels and perfumes. It’s interesting to see how it’s almost impossible to find Athenian coins considering the amounts of Athenian pottery found in Iberia, something that indicates that trade with these items was done through intermediaries from the Greek colonies of southern Italy or France. From the 3rd century BC on, Iberians from areas near Greek or Punic colonies coined their own currency, which signals their increasing direct involvement in trade.
Focusing on a particular group of Iberians, we have the Turdetani that succeeded the Tartessians. They were Iberians, in the sense that they descend from the Neolithic settlers, but their language was quite different from those spoken by the Iberians. Instead, the Turdetani spoke a language closely related to the Tartessian language and they lived in the Guadalquivir Valley just as the Tartessians did. The Turdetani were the most urbanized and least warlike people of the Iberian Peninsula, as described by Greek geographer and historian Strabo. This is a quote from him about the Turdetani: “The Turdetanians are ranked as the wisest of the Iberians; and they make use of an alphabet, and possess records of their ancient history, poems, and laws written in verse that are six thousand years old, as they assert.” Every ancient geographer praised the wealth and fertility of the region of the Turdetani, even though they weren’t as wealthy as the Tartessians used to be. The Turdetani exported wheat, wine, oil, salt and of course they kept exporting silver, copper, gold and iron, although presumably not in the same magnitude seen with Tartessos. The era of Carthaginian and then Roman presence further developed the Guadalquivir Valley. In relation to their political organization, they seem to have been politically divided in monarchical city-states before the Carthaginians and Romans arrived. Even though they weren’t warlike, the political power was based on military power, as it happened in other Iberian societies. The Turdetani society was very unequal, with an aristocracy that lived the good life while most of the people lived in a state of servitude, working in agricultural and mining activities. That explains why Carthaginians easily used native slaves when they conquered southern Spain.
Moving on, we have the Celtic tribes of Indo-European origin that migrated to the center, north and west of the Iberian Peninsula during the first half of the 1st millennium BC and mixed with the natives that were already there. The development of those Celts was lower than that of the Iberians, primarily because they didn’t interact directly with Phoenician or Greek colonizers. Some tribes were predominantly agriculturalists, growing almost exclusively wheat, but the majority were semi-pastoralists. Something that really demonstrates how their society was is that the property of the terrain was communal, but the livestock was private. They had social institutions like the hospitium or devotio with the hospitium being a pact between equals and the devotio being a pact between unequals. Their basic social organization were the gens, which means relationships based on kinship. The gens represented a larger and more important group for the Celts than the nuclear family. We see the manifestation of this social institution in their homes, where they had big family meals and every relative slept under the same roof. That changed with the Roman conquest though, and the belonging to a city or the parentage mattered more.
The Celts were bellicose, therefore many served as mercenaries in foreign armies. Romans linked their belligerent society with their poverty, and they justified their conquests by saying that there was the need to pacify those barbarian and warlike peoples. We know that they shared some gods with the rest of the Celts of Europe, like Lug, the god of war, Cernunnos, the god of fertility, or Epona, goddess of horses that you may know because of Zelda. Celts had many local deities, and they either had druids or the aristocracy performed the religious rituals. To end with the general description of the Celts, I wanted to add that their urbanization was based on the Castro culture, which means that they built walled oppida and hillforts known as ‘castros’.
In the west, Lusitanians and Vettones were the most notorious peoples. They lived in the area that is Portugal today, in addition to Extremadura and the western provinces of Castile. It’s not clear whether they were Celts with strong indigenous traits, or Pre-Celts heavily influenced by Celtic cultures. The Vettones had a differentiated culture, the culture of the verracos, which consisted in erecting monuments and sculptures portraying animals like bulls or pigs. The meaning of their symbolism isn’t clear, it could have been religious, economic or funerary. The Lusitanians lived in more fertile lands than the Vettones, therefore agriculture had a more important role, and the mining sector was relevant too. Trade, metalwork and craft activities were marginal prior to the Roman conquest though, while fishing and hunting constituted important economic activities, as well as horse-breeding. The size of one’s livestock showed the power and prestige of a person. Due to social inequalities, some of the poor lived as bandits, and brigandage wasn’t precisely a minor problem in Lusitania or Celtiberia, especially during the instability of the Roman conquest.
The northern Celts of the Iberian Peninsula were the poorest of all. They drank water or beer instead of wine, they slept on the ground, men grew long hair like women, they ate acorn and chestnuts for half a year and they didn’t use coins. That’s understandable, since they were very far from the focuses of developed and urbanized civilizations. Apart from gathering fruits, they relied mostly on ranching to feed themselves, and there are some good mines in the north so northern tribes extracted some raw materials like gold, tin or iron and sold them. The social organization and costumes of the northern Celts have been an object of study, because Latin texts said that the Cantabri and Astures had matriarchal societies. The fact that Northern Celtic women farmed, inherited land and had the power to arrange marriages for their brothers shocked the Romans.
Now let’s talk about the mix of Iberians and Celts, the Celtiberians. When I say a mix here, it’s not a genetic mix in general, but a cultural mix. The Celtiberians were Celts, aka Indo-European, but with a culture influenced by that of the Iberians. They shared the same social institutions and religion with the rest of the Celts, but their material culture was strongly influenced by that of the Iberians. Ancient sources diverge while delimiting the region of Celtiberia, but they lived around the Sistema Ibérico or Iberian System that it’s located in the eastern part of the Meseta Central. The area apparently experienced a demographic and economic growth that also provoked a higher degree of urbanization and the emergence of walled towns in Celtiberia. Celtiberians were more pastoralists than agriculturalists, a particularity that has to do with the ecological conditions of their lands. I know that I have said the same about the others, but Celtiberians were especially famous for being ferocious and brave warriors, and archeological findings suggest that as early as the 7th or 6th century BC the area that corresponds to the Celtiberians developed a warrior and stratified society. The Celtiberians played a major role in the native resistance against the Roman conquest, but we will see that in an upcoming episode.
The last natives that need to be mentioned are the proto-Basques. The ancient Basques were called Vascones, and they lived a bit more eastwards than today, occupying the Western Pyrenees as well as the eastern half of modern-day Basque Country. Those people were related to the Aquitanians that lived in southwestern France, but we know very few details about their culture and even today the Basques are an object of study because their genetic and linguistic origins are a mystery. What archeologists and ancient sources say is that their culture was influenced by the Celtic cultures, so consider all the points I mentioned about the Celts and the majority of the characteristics would apply to the Vascones.
THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I want to discuss the historic manipulation done by Basque nationalists in relation to who they are. To talk about this issue, I must first define what an ethnicity is. An ethnicity is a complex issue, because it has much to do with how we perceive first ourselves as belonging to a certain group and then how the others perceive us. The identity of an ethnicity is built around multiple factors, where each factor can be considered of different importance according to each ethnicity. As factors, we have race, language, religion, material culture, ideology, among others. The thing with the Basques is that nationalism created an image of the Basques as an ancient, isolated and distinct race, and two important problems that create nationalism are the national myth that has little to do with actual, scientific history, and the fact that nationalism presents nations as fixed groups that don’t change, which of course it’s false. People interact with each other and no human ethnicity is isolated, therefore we can’t understand cultures or nations as fixed entities. Remember this, and this applies to all nationalisms, cultures are dynamic and that’s how humanity has advanced. And with that, The Verdict ends.
As we have seen, the Pre-Roman peoples of the Iberian Peninsula were quite heterogenous. We have the pre-Indo-European Iberians and Vascones, the Celts and the Greek and Phoenician colonies that heavily influenced the natives. It wasn’t until the Roman conquest of Hispania that all those people were unified. To end this episode, let me remind you that the podcast has a website, thehistoryofspain.com, where you can find the scripts of the episodes and a list of books about the history of Spain available on Amazon and you can also subscribe to the weekly newsletter. Please subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube and more, review the podcast, and follow the social media accounts of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. I hope you learned something and enjoyed today’s episode, thank you for listening!
DE IBERIA A HISPANIA. Francisco Gracia Alonso
LOS PUEBLOS PRERROMANOS DE LA PENÍNSULA IBÉRICA. Manuel Salinas de Frías
HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA. DESDELA PREHISTORIA HASTA LA CONQUISTA ROMANA. Planeta
HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA. HISPANIA ANTIGUA. Domingo Plácido
NOTE: Credit for the intro and outro music to Jeris and Clarence Simpsons, the song is called ‘Conquistador’and it’s under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license