10 things you should know about the ancient Celts and their warriors

10-facts-ancient-celts-warriorsIllustration by Angus McBride.

Circa 5th century BC, the Greeks considered Celts (Keltoi) as one of the four great ‘barbarian’ people; with their independent realms extending all the way from the Iberian peninsula to the frontiers of upper Danube. From the cultural perspective, these Celtic bands posed the antithesis to the so-presumed Mediterranean ideals, with their distinctive approach to religion and warfare. But of course beyond the misleading ‘barbarian’ tag, there was more to the historical scope of the ancient Celts and their warriors.

1) High chieftains, nobles and ‘magistrates’ –

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Like most tribal scopes of ancient times, the basic framework of the Celtic society was composed of extended families and clans who were based within their particular territorial confines. These collective groups were ruled by kings or high chieftains, with power being sometimes shared by dual authorities. Over time, by circa 1st century BC, some of the Celts, especially in Gaul, were ruled by elected ‘magistrates’ (similar to Roman consuls) – though these figureheads only wielded nominal power. The real decision making was bolstered by the assembly of free-men, while the orders (like raiding and conquests) were still put forth by an even smaller group of nobles, among whom the kings and chieftains were chosen.

This brings us the basic hierarchy of the ancient Celts, where the nobles obviously formed the minority of elites. They were followed by the aforementioned free-men of the society, who often formed the warbands and retainers of their chiefs. But the majority of the common Celtic people were probably of ‘unfree’ origin, whom Julius Caesar likened to as slaves. Now from the practical perspective, this was an oversimplification, since the Celts were not really depended on slaves for the functioning of their social and economic affairs, as opposed to their Mediterranean neighbors. However the Celts (especially the elites) actually depended on the trading of slaves (whom they rounded up in raids), and these captured men and women were often bartered in return for luxury goods from Rome and distant Greece.

2) The ‘men of art’ –

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Interestingly enough, in spite of their (often misleading) ‘barbarian’ tag, the Celtic society held the so-categorized ‘men of art’ in high regard. In fact, in ancient Ireland, the Druids were called forth as ‘men of art’ and accorded special privileges from the ruling class. Similarly bards, artisans, blacksmiths and metalworkers were often heralded as men of art, given their contributions to the crafting of morale-boosting songs, ostentatious jewelry and most importantly mass weapons – ‘items’ that had high value in the Celtic society.

In fact, the categorization of ‘men of art’ was so important that the nobles often endowed themselves with similar titles. This was complemented by their patronizing of various types of craftsmen, who in turn were responsible for furnishing special apparels and accouterments for their chosen lords and leaders. In essence, the flourishing and encouragement of art was an integral part of the Celtic society, with status being used to both fuel and associate itself to the ‘men of art’.

3) The scope of clientage –

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We fleetingly mentioned how the Celtic society could be basically divided into three groups – the rich nobles, the free-men retainers and the majority of common folks (who enjoyed better standards than Mediterranean slaves). Intriguingly enough, the entire societal scope was structured in a way that allowed these three groups to be connected to each other, and the system was based on clientage. Simply put, like the later feudal times, the ambit of clients meant that the lower ranking group pledged allegiance to their political superiors in return for security (like the common folks) and employment (like the free-men). On the other hand, the number of retainers (or clients) a noble had mirrored his standing within the society; with higher number of followers obviously reflecting the elite’s greater prestige and power. It should be also noted that many nobles were depended on the free-men for support during times of war and confrontations.

Now while this interconnected system was based on practicality, it was strengthened by vows of loyalty that were not taken lightly – and thus had rigorous consequences for those who broke such established ties. Moreover, given the importance of familial ties in the Celtic society, the client system was sometimes reinforced with the exchange of hostages and fostering of children. And in desperate situations, clientage even extended to entire tribes, as was the case during Caesar’s Gaul campaign when the Aedui called upon their allied clients for battle.

4) Low intensity warfare and mercenaries –

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As one can comprehend from the earlier entries, one of the intrinsic parameters of an ancient Celtic society was based on the mutual appreciation of physical security, which in turn endowed the nobles with the power of ‘providing’ the security. And the scope of security was needed quite regularly since the Celts were often involved in ‘aggressive’ activities, ranging from cattle rustling, slave raiding and trading to even clan-based vendettas and warfare. In fact, these bunch of so-termed low intensity conflicts rather prepared the young Celtic warrior for actual warfare, not only psychologically (since courage was not seen as a virtue but rather viewed as expected behavior), but also tactically, like honing his weapon-handling, and most importantly demonstrating his martial reputation as a warrior.

One of the ways to gain such reputation was to join the mercenary bands that operated in many geographical locations dotted around ancient Europe and the Mediterranean. A pertinent example would obviously entail the Celtic mercenaries employed by the great Hannibal. Among the Carthaginian general’s Celtic contingent, the heavy horsemen were especially held in high regard due to their effectiveness in close-combat and elite status (often led by noblemen). The Celts also proved their value as mercenaries in the armies of Syracuse and even the Diadochi (Successor) Kingdoms of Alexander, with one intriguing example relating how they operated as elite infantrymen in the military of the Ptolemies of Egypt (pictured above).

Many of these mercenary bands acted as pseudo-brotherhoods, with their army fraternity codes being distinct from the ‘ordinary’ soldiers of the numerous clans and tribes. Polybius noted how the Celtic mercenaries who arrived from the north to aid their Cisalphine Gaul brethren at the Battle of Telamon (against the Romans) were called the Gaesatae or simply ‘spearmen’. However the term itself may have been derived from the Celtic word geissi, which roughly translated to bonds or sacred rules of conduct.

5) The ‘solution’ of wealth and prestige –

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Illustration by Angus McBride.

The hierarchy of the ancient Celtic society was partially inspired by the prestige of the leader or the chieftain. And this ambit of prestige in turn was determined by the wealth he had acquired through numerous endeavors, ranging from raiding, warring to even trading. In essence, the war-chiefs understood that the greater wealth they acquired, the bigger chance that they will have to retain their clients and thus wield power. One of the by-effects of this simple economic system was mentioned in the earlier entry, where selected groups of warrior Celts became mercenaries, thus gathering riches and spoils from the distant lands of Greece, Egypt and even Rome; thus enhancing their prestige in their native lands.

Another interesting example would pertain to the trading of slaves. While rounding up slaves was relatively easy for the Celtic war-bands given the loose structure of many fringe villages and settled lands (when compared to their Mediterranean counterparts), these slaves were often not integrated into the Celtic society. Instead they were traded for luxury goods like wine and gold coins. Now while for a Mediterranean merchant the deal was seen as being ‘too easy’ – since slaves were often more profitable than mere fixed commodities, the trade was practical for a Celtic warlord. That is because the acquisition of wines (and luxury goods) and their distribution among his retainers would actually reinforce his standing within the tribe structure.

6) Feasting and raiding –

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Much like their Germanic neighbors, the ancient Celts gave special significance to the scope of feasting. These social gatherings, patronized by the nobles, almost took a ritualistic route, with a variety of ceremonial features and hospitality codes. At the same time, the participants themselves often became drunk and wild, and their furor was accompanied by bard songs and even parodies that praised or made sarcastic remarks about their lineage and courage.

But beyond drunkenness and revelry such feasts also mirrored the social standing of the patrons and the guests, with seating arrangements reflecting their statuses within the community (much like the later Anglo-Saxons). Furthermore, even the meat cuts reflected the stature and prominence of the guest, with the choicest pieces being given to the favorite warriors. This champion’s portion could even be disputed by other warriors, which led to arguments and even fighting among the guests.

Furthermore the feasts also served the practical purpose entailing military planning, because such social gatherings attracted many of the notable elites and influential retainers. So while drinking and feasting, any warrior could boast of his planned raid for plundering and gathering spoils – and he could ask other followers to join him. The scope once again reverted to prestige; war-chiefs with greater social standing had more clients to support him in a quest to gather even more riches – thus alluding to a cyclic economy based on warfare.

7) Druids and the Otherworld –

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Till now we had been talking about the social aspects of the ancient Celts. However a big part of Celtic culture was based on the spiritual and supernatural scope. As a matter of fact, Celtic warriors tended to associate supernatural properties to many natural parameters, including bogs, rivers, lakes, mountains and even trees. The spiritual scope and its characteristics also extended to certain animals and birds, like horses, wild boars, dogs and ravens. To that end, many of the Celts considered the tangible realm of man to be co-existing with the Otherworld where the gods and dead resided. At times the boundary between these two realms was judged to be ‘thinned’, and as such few of the human sacrifices (like the Lindow Man) were possibly made to ‘send’ a messenger into this fantastical Otherworld.

The eminence of the Druids stemmed from their alleged capacity to ‘link’ and interpret the Otherworld. Their very name is derived from the cognate for oak trees; with the sacred grove of oak trees, known as drunemeton (in Galatia), being used for important rituals and ceremonies. In that regard, while Druids were more popular in ancient Gaul and Britain, men with high social status who acted as the guardians of tribal traditions were fairly common in the Celtic world (even in distant Galatia in Asia Minor).

8) Bearing of arms and deployment –

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All the free-men of the ancient Celtic society had the right (and sometimes duty) to bear arms, as opposed to the ‘unfree’ majority. The weapons they carried though were relatively uncomplicated with the spears and shields combination being the norm. The nobility however tended to showcase their swords as instruments of prestige, while also incorporating helmets and mail shirts as part of their battle panoply. Interestingly enough, other than sword, the spear was also viewed as an esteemed (and practical) weapon of a warrior. Greek author Strabo described how the ancient Celts often carried two types of spear – a bigger, heavier one for thrusting; and a smaller, flexible one for throwing and (sometimes) using in close combat.

With the all the talk about weapons, we must understand that warfare was an intrinsic part of the Celtic society. So while popular notions and Hollywood dismiss them as ‘barbarians’ who preferred to mass up and chaotically charge their enemies, the historicity is far more complex. In fact, Polybius himself mentioned how the Celts were no mere ‘column of mob’. Instead they probably deployed themselves in the battlefield based on tribal affiliations. And almost mirroring their societal scope, the formations of the army were inspired by the hierarchy. For example, the chosen and noble warriors boasting their reputation and courage, were positioned in the front lines, surrounded by groups of other soldiers (who had their morale boosted by these champions). These ‘super-groups’ with tribal affiliations carried forth their own standards and banners, often replete with religious symbolism (like guardian deities). And on a practical level, these standards were also used for rallying the front-line soldiers, with contingents vying for supremacy and prestige on the battlefield.

9) The contrast of rich clothes and ritual nudity –

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Illustration by Angus McBride.

Pausinias talked about the Galatians (Galatae) and how they preferred to wear embroidered tunics and breeches with rich colors, often accompanied by cloaks striped with various tints. Archaeological evidences from Celtic graves and tombs also support such a notion, with wool and linen clothing fragments often showcasing different hues. The nobles complemented by their fashionable styles with opulence, including the use of gold threads and silk. Furthermore the wealthy Celts (both men and women) also had a penchant for wearing jewelry items, like bracelets, rings, necklaces, torcs and even entire corselets made of gold.

On the other hand, Polybius had this to say about the fierce Celts, circa 2nd century BC –

The Romans…were terrified by the fine order of the Celtic host, and the dreadful din, for there were innumerable horn-blowers and trumpeters, and…the whole army were shouting their war-cries…Very terrifying too were the appearance and the gestures of the naked warriors in front, all in the prime of life and finely built men, and all in the leading companies richly adorned with gold torcs and armlets.

So in contrast to ostentatious clothing items, some Celtic warriors willingly plunged into the battlefield while being naked. Now on closer inspection of the ancient accounts, one could discern that these ‘naked warriors’ mostly belonged to the mercenary groups, which we had earlier described as being prestigious organizations. Simply put, some of the warriors in such groups, bound by codes and rituals, dedicated themselves to martial pursuits dictated by symbolism. Viewing themselves as ardent followers of gods of war (like Camulos in Gaul), these adherents possibly felt protected by divine entities, and thus boisterously eschewed the use of body armor. However the naked warrior did carry his shield because that particular item was considered as an integral part of his warrior panoply.

10) The frenzied charge and cacophony –

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Illustration by Angus McBride.

For the ancient Celts, in a sense, a battle was seen as an opportunity to proves one’s ‘value’ in front of the tribe and gods. So while the tactics of warfare evolved throughout the centuries in ancient Europe, a Celtic warrior’s psychological approach to warfare largely remained unchanged. And accompanying his psyche was the purposeful use of noise, ranging from battle-cries, songs, chants, taunts, insults to even specialized instruments like carnyx. This latter mentioned object was usually a sort of a war-horn that was shaped like an animal (often a boar), and its primary purpose was to terrify the enemy with ‘harsh sounds and tumults of war’ (as described by Diodorus Siculus).

Interestingly enough, the very word ‘slogan’ is derived from the late-Medieval term slogorne, which in turn originates from Gaelic sluagh-ghairm (sluagh meaning ‘army’; gairm pertaining to ‘cry’), the battle-cry used by the Scottish and Irish Celts. The Celtic warbands were sometimes also accompanied by Druids and ‘banshee’ women who made their presence known by shouting and screeching curses directed at their foes.

Apart from psychologically afflicting the enemy, the ‘auditory accompaniment’ significantly drummed up the courage and furor of the Celtic warriors. By this time (in the beginning phase of the battle), the challenge was issued where their champions emerged forth to duel with their opponents. And once the single combats were performed, the Celts were driven into their battle-frenzy – and thus they charged at the enemy lines with fury. As Julius Caesar himself described one of the frenzied charges made by the Nervii at the Battle of the Sambre (in Gallic War Book II)-

…they suddenly dashed out in full force and charged our cavalry, easily driving them back and throwing them into confusion. They then ran down to the river with such incredible speed that it seemed to us as if they were at the edge of the wood, in the river, and on top of us almost all in the same moment. Then with the same speed they swarmed up the opposite hill towards our camp and attacked the men who were busy fortifying it.

Honorable Mention – Lime-washed hair

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Diodorus Siculus, along with other ancient authors, also mentions how the Celts used to artificially ‘whiten’ their hair with lime-water. This practice probably alluded to a ritual where the warrior adopted the horse as his totem, and thus aspired for the blessings and protection of Eponia, the horse goddess. Interestingly enough, the lime-washing possibly even hardened the hair to some degree (though overuse caused the hair to fall out), which could have offered slight protection against the fluky slashes directed towards the head.

Sources: Ancient Encyclopedia / LiveScience / HistoryWorld / Shoreline.edu / Skyelander

Book References: Celtic Warrior 300 BC-AD 100 (By Stephen Allen) / Ancient Celts: Europe’s Tribal Ancestors (By Kathryn Hinds)

And in case we have not attributed or mis-attributed any image or artwork, please let us know via the ‘Contact Us’ link, provided both above the top bar and at the bottom bar of the page. To that end, given the vast ambit of the internet and with so many iterations of the said image (and artwork) in various channels, social media and websites; it sometimes becomes hard to track down the original artist/photographer/illustrator. 

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  • LilaR

    As a matter of interest, the modern word ‘slogan’ derives from the Gaelic word for a war cry. 🙂

    • Dattatreya Mandal

      Thank you for that fact. We will possibly incorporate it in the main article.

      • LilaR

        Here’s a short article giving its etymology, and pronunciation in Gaelic – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slogan

        • Dattatreya Mandal

          We already made the necessary changes. Thanks 🙂

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