Ancient Celtic Warfare
Updated: Jun 15, 2019
The Celts were a linguistic group which spanned across a wide geographic area, and included numerous cultures and ethnicities. Because of this fact, the traditions, practices, and lifestyles of Celtic speaking peoples varied considerably. The importance of warfare and the traditions surrounding war were one common thread of similarities throughout Celtic societies and cultures, from the earliest emergence of the proto-Celtic Halstatt culture (12th - 6th Century BC) and the Celtic La Tene culture (5th - 1st Century BC)
Warfare was interwoven into Celtic social structures, art, religion, and lifestyle, and the Celts acquired a warrior reputation among their neighbours in the ancient world. While Celtic societies tended to be less well organized than their Mediterranean counterparts, Celtic craftsmen worked iron, bronze, and gold with tremendous skill, and many technological innovations related to metal working originated with the Celts.
Warfare & Celtic Society
Relatively little is known about Celtic society given the bias of Classical sources describing the Celts, and the ambiguity of archaeological evidence. It is even apparent that the structure of Celtic societies were quite diverse, with sacral kingship, tribal coalitions, and even Republican political structures existing in different times and places.
Archaeological evidence has shown that there was hierarchical structuring, with some graves containing much more valuable goods than others. It is postulated that there was an aristocracy which placed a heavy emphasis on warrior status and prestige. Early Irish literature also attests to the presence of several different social classes, including nobles, free people, and slaves.
Clientship was an important part of this society, as the aristocracy used the bonds of patronage they had with their followers to maintain their own social status. A patron would offer hospitality, legal protection, economic support, and other rewards to their followers in exchange for loyalty and service. Their followers were expected to repay them with the products of their farms, to labour for them, and to follow them into battle when called. Celts of sufficiently high status to have clients might themselves have a patron of higher status, with chieftains and even kings being clients of more powerful rulers.
Warfare and raiding offered an opportunity for individuals to improve their social standing and acquire loot with which to provide their clients. Many raids were carried out to steal cattle or treasure, the two most important sources of wealth in Celtic society. However, some raids were attempts to conquer nearby groups or polities. The competition for political power in Celtic Europe was at times violent, and kings or chieftains might attempt to forcibly subjugate other groups to increase their prestige. At other times, the defeated were compelled to offer up tribute and hostages to the victors.
Status & Funerary Rites
Proto-Celtic and Celtic burials can tell us a lot about the development of warrior culture among these burials. The practice of burying important individuals with objects related to warfare and status dates back to the 12th Century BC “Urnfield People” of Central Europe. So-called “warrior burials” are distinguished from the mass of more ordinary burials in prehistoric cemeteries by the richness and significance of their burial rites.
Important individuals were distinguished by the inclusion of items like horse gear and weapons, especially swords. Vehicles such as carts or wagons were also included in high-status burials, offering a precursor to the role that the chariot played in later Celtic warfare and burial rites. These objects may have been owned by the individuals in life, but the selection of items to include in a burial might also be influenced by local traditions and beliefs.
The importance of horse ownership and warrior status was shared by the Halstatt Culture which developed in the same region and lasted from around the 12th Century BC to the 6th Century BC when it was succeeded by the La Tene Culture. Treasures such as drinking cups and horns also played an important role in Halstatt burial rites, and the ability to provide sumptuous feasts became a primary method of signalling power and status. This mode of distinguishing elites quickly spread, and burials with Halstatt weapons and horse gear have been found as far afield as Britain and Ireland. On the other hand, the practice of burying elites with vehicles remained localized in Central Europe, particularly Germany and Bohemia.
The warrior burials of the La Tene period date to roughly between the 6th Century BC to the 1st Century BC. La Tene warrior burials contain objects related to warfare such as swords, spears, and helmets, as well as drinking ware related to feasting. More important individuals were buried with horses or chariots.
A kind of hierarchy of warriors appears on the Gundestrup Cauldron from Jutland, Denmark. This scene is often interpreted as portraying a belief in an afterlife where individuals could advance in social status. As the warriors are reborn into the next life, they ascend a few social rungs. On the bottom register, a line of spearmen march on foot towards a giant figure, probably a god related to war. A man with a boar-crested helmet and a sword follows the spearmen, and behind him are three carnyx players. At the far left, the oversized god dips a man into a cauldron of rebirth. In the top register, a bunch of warriors or chieftains on horseback ride away from the god.
Horses & Chariots in Celtic Warfare
“[The Britons] mode of fighting with their chariots is this: firstly, they drive about in all directions and throw their weapons and generally break the ranks of the enemy with the very dread of their horses and the noise of their wheels; and when they have worked themselves in between the troops of horse, leap from their chariots and engage on foot.” (Caesar, Gal., 4.33)
The Celts were renowned for their skill on horseback, and horses played an important role in Celtic culture. The importance of horse ownership and charioteering to social status and wealth in Celtic culture is a testament to the role of mounted warfare in Celtic Europe.
Pausanias describes a tactic called trimarcisia in his Description of Greece, in which each mounted warrior would be accompanied by two grooms who each had a horse in case their master’s horse was wounded. If the warrior was wounded, one of the grooms would return him to their camp, while the other one remained to fight in his place. (Pausanias, 10.19.6)
Roman sources describe the Celts bringing both wagons and chariots into battle, and these vehicles have been found in Iron Age Celtic burials associated with warriors. Two-wheeled chariots drawn by a team of two horses are known from both archaeological and artistic evidence such as coins and burials. According to Romans, the Celts used their chariots to get into the fray and intimidate their enemies before jumping off and fighting on foot.
Roman authors like Lucan (39-65 AD), Pomponius Mela (c. 43 AD), and Silius Italicus (c. 28 – c. 103 AD) describes the Celts as riding scythed chariots into battle. The Byzantine historian Jordanes (c. 6th Century AD) claimed that the Britons used in his Getica. Although there is no evidence that the Celts used scythed chariots, the use of similar chariots are described in the 8th Century AD Irish epic The Cattle Raid of Cooley (Táin Bó Cúailnge), which is set in the 1st Century AD.
“When the spasm had run through the high hero Cúchulainn he stepped into his sickle war-chariot that bristled with points of iron and narrow blades, with hooks and hard prongs, and heroic frontal spikes, with ripping instruments and tearing nails on its shafts and straps and loops and cords. The body of the chariot was spare and slight and erect, fitted for the feats of a champion, with space for the lordly warrior's eight weapons, speedy as the wind or as a swallow or a deer darting over the level plain. The chariot was settled down on two fast steeds, wild and wicked, neat-headed and narrow bodied, with slender quarters and roan breast, firm in hoof and harness—a notable sight in the trim chariot-shafts.” (p. 153, Kinsella and Le Brocquy)
By the 1st Century BC, chariots had begun to phase out of use in Continental Europe, gradually being replaced by mounted soldiers. Britain and Ireland were more isolated from the changes in warfare which affected the continent, and British tribes continued to use chariots well into the Roman period. War chariots are attested to during the invasion of Britain by Julius Caesar (100 - 44 BC) in 54 BC, and the Caledonians of modern day Scotland are described as using war chariots at the Battle of Mons Graupius in 83 AD. The noise and clamor of Celtic chariots is remarked upon by both Caesar and Tacitus (c. 55 - 120 AD).
The Evolution of Celtic Arms & Armour
The Celtic panoply generally consisted of a sword, spears, and a shield. The main sources of evidence about ancient Celtic arms and armour come from archaeological finds, Greek and Roman literary accounts, and art depicting Celtic warriors.
The Celts are known for having used long oval shields which were long enough to protect the greater part of the body. These were decorated with bronze or iron bosses, some of which were quite ornate such as the “Battersea Shield”. Swords were worn on the hip or side, hanging from a bronze or iron chain. Different types of spears were used, with some lighter javelins being thrown from horseback, while larger spears were used as lances.
“The spears they brandish, which they call lanciae, have iron heads a cubit in length and even more, and a little under two palms in breadth; for their swords are not shorter than the javelins of other peoples, and the heads of their javelins are larger than the swords of others.” (Diod. Sic. 5.30.3)
Composite armor, made of fabric or leather, was used by Celtic warriors as it was in Greece. From at least the 4th Century BC onwards, chainmail armor was prevalent among Celtic warriors, and many Classical depictions of Celts portray them wearing mail shirts. Chainmail has been found in Late Iron Age burials from Western, Central, and especially Eastern Europe. The Romans likely first encountered chainmail armour in areas with Celtic presences like northern Italy, and chainmail may have originated among the Celts before spreading to Europe and Asia Minor. The Roman author Varro (116 - 27 BC) claimed that the Celts invented mail armour.
These shirts were made with thousands of interlocking iron circles, and allowed the wearer more freedom of movement than solid bronze or iron cuirasses. Surviving examples of Celtic mail shirts are typically long, falling just below the waist and they would have weighed more than 14 kg (about 32 pounds). To help redistribute the weight of the iron mail, these chainmail shirts were made with broad shoulder straps which had the benefit of adding extra protection.
A few surviving examples of breastplates have also been found in Halstatt and La Tene graves, although these were far from common. The Stična Breastplate is a riveted bronze cuirass from a 6th Century BC Halstatt warrior’s grave in modern day Slovenia. Similar cuirasses have been found in 8th Century BC Halstatt burials in Marmesse, France. These cuirasses bear some similarity to Greek and Etruscan “bell cuirasses” produced in the Mediterranean during the Archaic Period (8th to 5th Century BC), and to the “muscle cuirass” of the 5th Century BC. The 1st Century BC “Warrior of Grezan”, one of the oldest and best examples of Celtic art depicting a warrior, also depicts the figure wearing a breastplate.
La Tene helmets of various shapes and designs appear in graves in the 5th Century BC and later. However, Celtic helmets are more rare than would be expected and it is likely that helmets were not widely used by some tribes. The scarcity of Celtic helmets backs up Greek and Roman claims that some Celtic tribes scorned the use of helmets. The only area where significant numbers of Celtic helmets have been found is Italy.
Many surviving examples of Celtic helmets are ceremonial helms which were not intended for use in actual combat. These ceremonial helmets were status symbols, and were made with expensive materials like gold and coral in addition to bronze and iron. The often impractical designs indicate that they were intended to make the wearer more visible in parades or processions, rather than protecting the wearer in actual combat. Celtic helmets began to be less ornate and more practical in the later La Tene period, perhaps indicating that their use was becoming more important.
Celtic Warriors in the Greco-Roman Imagination
Celtic warriors played an increasingly prominent role in the art and literature of the the Greeks and Romans from the 4th Century BC onwards. A coalition of Celtic tribes under a high-king known as Brennus invaded Italy and sacked Rome in 390 BC, and another ruler called Brennus helped to lead an invasion of Southeastern Europe with a coalition of tribes which culminated in the invasion of Greece c. 280 BC. “Brennus” was probably originally a Celtic title which became corrupted and misinterpreted as a name by Greek and Roman writers. The aggressive migration of the Celts into the Mediterranean led to increasingly intense conflicts with the Hellenistic kingdoms and the Roman Republic.
Greek and Roman authors describing conflicts with Celtic tribes noted the differences in Celtic tactics and equipment. However, these accounts are heavily coloured by bias and exaggeration. Celtic tactics were generally denigrated as inferior, feeding into Greco-Roman stereotypes about northern peoples being wild and unintelligent. Celtic warriors were considered to have foolhardy courage in battle which could quickly turn to panic when the battle turned against them. Greek and Roman authors accused the Celts of barbarous and brutal behaviour such as human sacrifice and even cannibalism. While human sacrifice was practiced in Celtic cultures, stories like Pausanias’ account of Celts eating Greek babies when they sacked Callium in 279 BC are fiction.
Celtic arms and armour were adopted by the groups they came into conflict with in the Mediterranean, such as the Thracians and the Romans. The Roman gladius is an important example of this, as it was descended from Celtic or Celtiberian swords which could be used for both cutting and thrusting. The gladius replaced the more pointed, blunt-edged swords that Romans had used until its adoption in the 3rd Century BC. There are several theories about this adoption, including the idea that the gladius was introduced by Celtiberian tribes in the Iberian Peninsula, from Celtic or CeltIberian mercenaries fighting for Hannibal in the Second Punic War, or from Gallic tribes in Europe.
The later adoption of the spatha, a longer sword than the gladius, was largely due to the increasing numbers of Celtic cavalry auxiliaries in the 2nd to 3rd Century AD Roman army, and changes in Roman tactics. Other examples of Celtic arms adopted by the Romans are the Montefortino and Coolus helmet-types.
The image of undisciplined, savage hordes massing on the edges of the empire were cultivated by Greco-Roman authors who wanted to contrast their own self-proclaimed civility with the barbarism of foreign peoples. Many of the more famous examples of Classical art depict Celts in the nude, signifying their supposed barbarity. The “Dying Gaul” and the “Ludovisi Gaul Killing His Wife” are two examples of Classical art which use nudity to express the barbarity of their subjects, although they also idealize their nobility in defeat. Some ancient Roman authors claimed that they charged into battle fully naked, rumours which probably inspired artistic representations of nude Celtic warriors.
“Some of them have iron cuirasses, chain-wrought, but others are satisfied with the armour which Nature has given them and go into battle naked.” (Diod. Sic., 5.30.3)
These Classical stereotypes of the Celts were the underpinnings of early historical scholarship, and still inform public perception of the Celts to a great degree. Although archaeological evidence has disproven many of these ideas, they still linger on in the modern imagination.
Sources & Bibliography
Green, Miranda J. The Celtic World. Routledge.
Cunliffe, Barry and Chadwick, Nora. The Celts: 2nd Edition. Penguin UK.
Cunliffe, Barry. The Ancient Celts. Oxford University Press.
Rankin, David. Celts and the Classical World. Routledge.
Kinsella, Thomas and Le Brocquy, Louis. The Táin: From the Irish Epic Táin Bó Cualinge. Oxford University Press.
Campbell, Brian, and Tritle, Lawrence A.. The Oxford Handbook of Warfare in the Classical World. Oxford University Press.
Gabriel, Richard A.. The Ancient World: Volume 1 of Soldiers' lives through history. Greenwood Publishing Group.