Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.12.54

Erich Kistler, Funktionalisierte Keltenbilder: die Indienstnahme der Kelten zur Vermittlung von Normen und Werten in der hellenistischen Welt.   Berlin:  Verlag Antike, 2009.  Pp. 432; 46 p. of plates.  ISBN 9783938032367.  €79.90.  

Reviewed by Aurel Rustoiu, Institute of Archaeology and History of Art Cluj Napoca (

Table of Contents

This is a well written and thoroughly documented book which engages with a widely investigated subject, the construction of social and ethnic identity in antiquity. Kistler focuses on the incorporation of various images of the Celts into the identitarian ideologies of the Hellenistic world. However, he aims to go beyond the peremptory opposition Greeks-Barbarians, instead trying to reveal how moral, social or political conflicts of the Hellenistic societies influenced the different constructed images, negative or positive, of the Celts. The book itself resulted from a Habilitation project concerning the Greek imaginary and consists of five essays and a ‘micro-history’, preceded by a methodological introduction.

The introduction (‘Zum Einstieg: die Kelten als Mittel zum Zweck’, pp. 11-29) begins by presenting the contemporary image of the ancient Celts and its modern social meanings, and continues with an interesting critique of the binary concept of ‘identity-alterity’. This approach helps Kistler to define his own methodology and set of problems. His analysis is mainly based on iconographic and literary sources. He identifies five imaginary constructions of the Celts, each discussed in a detailed essay.

Chapter two (‘Keltomachien: im Zeichen kriegerischer Tüchtigkeit und panhellenischer Retterleistung’, pp. 30-87) investigates the so-called Celtomachia, an iconographic construction following the template set by the Classical Gigantomachia, that was often used in the Hellenistic East. Kistler rightly observes that the new image of the ontological struggle represents much more than the conflict between civilizations, being very often used to underline the outstanding warlike qualities of various Hellenistic rulers saving the civilized world. In time, the fight against the Celts was assimilated to the proof of personal warlike ability and courage of the aristocracy; it thus became a standard scene on funerary monuments and an important element in the construction of deceased’s identity.

The third chapter (‘Satyreske Kelten und die Maske der Hybristai’, pp. 88-191) analyses the image of the Celts as deviant, excessive figures in opposition to the balanced, moral Greeks. The origin of this imaginary construction lies in the ethnographic application of the theory of the climate influencing the appearance and disposition of the people that was favoured by a series of ancient medical and philosophical writers. Moreover Kistler observes that the image of satyr-like Celts was included, alongside other elements of the symposium, in the larger social debate of the time concerning excess in general that reflected the moral conflict between the idealised moderation of the metrioi and the hedonism of the young aristocrats. Perhaps this function has more to do with the transformation of the culture of symposium during the Hellenistic period and of its perception in the wider society, than with the ways in which the Greek identitarian ideology evolved.

Chapter four (‘Gigantisierte Kelten: die dämonisierung der Kelten zu Hypostasen der dunklen Kräfte der Chaos’, pp. 192-243) returns once more to the mythical dichotomy between the wild inhabitants of the limits of the known world and the balanced people of the civilized Mediterranean shores. The supposed anthropophagy of the Celts, as well as their frugality, is used to build the image of an animal-like world, primitive and aggressive, which again derives from the above-mentioned determinist theory of the human character. This imaginary construct of the wild Celts was reinforced by the overwhelming shock of the Great Celtic Invasion of 279 BC, leading to the assimilation of these barbarians with the forces of chaos, trying to destroy the legitimate order. As a consequence they were depicted, in art or literature, as furious, untamed giants, who had to be confronted and defeated by men having exceptional qualities. The hyperbolic presentation of an enemy is a quite common narrative technique of Hellenistic and Roman times, often aiming to create or enforce the saviour image of certain individuals.

The fifth chapter (‘Plündernde Kelten-Strafende Götter’, pp. 244-297) analyses the way that the above-mentioned image of the Celts as the furious forces of chaos punished by divinity was deployed in moral and political writings, as well as in artistic representations, of the middle and late Hellenistic period and early Roman imperial times. In the context of the Stoic debate concerning the immanence of divine justice, certain historical episodes, like the Celtic attack against Delphi or the plundering of the gold of the Tectosagi, were manipulated and became artistic and literary topoi. Kistler begins by analysing the ideological transformation of these historical themes in literature and then discusses their use in arts, especially in those connected with essential aspects of the public life. He also points out that this image of the Celts as anexemplum of divine justice was also integrated in the early imperial propaganda presenting the Romans in general, and their leaders in particular, as instrumental factors in re-establishing the social and moral equilibrium.

Chapter six (‘Nobilitierte und heroisierte Kelten’, pp. 298-350) is the only one dealing with a positive imaginary construct regarding the Celts. Its roots lie in a favourite concept of the ancient moralists, that of the ‘noble savage’ contrasting with his perverted fellow citizens. Still this image is more than a moral example. Kistler carefully compares the approaches of Diodorus and Posidonius, both authors presenting the Celtic warlike elites as heroes of Homeric dimensions, displaying dramatic and extreme behaviours and confronting death with stoic dignity. His analysis again turns to the image of the Celts as worthy enemies, whose defeat elevates the victor. Particular attention is also given to the idealisation of heroic death on the battlefield, a preferred theme in the artistic iconography of the early imperial times. Perhaps this would have been the place to also discuss a bit more the problem of the presumed warlike nudity of the Celts. The author rightfully concludes that the imaginary construct of the noble Celtic warrior has more to do with Stoic moral debate than with confrontations with real contemporary Celts.

The seventh and last chapter (‘Hellenisierte Kelten versus satyreske Kelten im ptolemäischen Ägypten’, pp. 351-372), despite its brevity, is rather eclectic in comparison with the previous ones. In his ‘micro-history’ Kistler investigates both the use of certain imaginary constructions of the Celts already mentioned and the ways in which the identity of the non-Greeks, including the Celts, was constructed and perceived in Ptolemaic Egypt. The chosen period is itself interesting thanks to its mixed cultural character that adopted and transformed Greek practices and mentalities in a variety of ways. This case-study involves the Celtic mercenaries and their descendants who colonised Ptolemaic Egypt, and their surprisingly fast integration. In their case the author explores, although rather briefly, the paradoxical situation of these people aiming to integrate and facing the range of imaginary constructions regarding them used by the very same society.

In summary the book is an engaging and detailed analysis of how various imaginary characteristics ascribed to the Celts were used as arguments or exempla in the formative moral and political debates of Hellenistic and early Roman imperial societies. Thus it can be seen as an important contribution to current discussion concerning the interactions between temperate Europe and the Mediterranean, and of its reflection in identitarian ideologies.

The text is accompanied by a generous bibliography and a helpful index containing primary and secondary sources, people and places, as well as several keywords and themes. The illustrations consists of 46 black-and-white plates, including mostly pictures and some reconstructive drawings. Unfortunately the quality of the pictures varies, some of them being rather small and unclear. Still, they consistently support the argumentation. This reviewer detected no typographic errors.

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