The Celts regarded warfare as part of life, and, as in many societies the world over, it offered the young men an opportunity for initiation into manhood. Some primitive peoples had very elaborate and sometimes repugnant rites, but the process of growing up involved the selection of the fittest into the ranks of the mature warriors. The weak, the puny and the physically uncoordinated did not survive and so, by this ruthless selection, the tribes remained strong and healthy. This did not eliminate the highly intelligent, who were often lacking in physical strength, for there was a place for them among the priests and any child showing this aptitude would have been placed under their care. So warfare was essential to preserve the continuity of the tribe and for the youth to demonstrate their prowess and fitness to breed. Nature attempts to work in the same way today on the football terraces, as social anthropologists have recently discovered, but the elaborate rites are branded by an unsympathetic older generation as hooliganism. Now that war is not so common, means have been found by the young to prove themselves by open display. It is a pity perhaps the rival gangs of fans cannot be allowed to do it properly and battle it out on the football pitch before a match, thus providing entertainment for the older elements in the stands, who otherwise have to satisfy their natural instincts through viewing violence on film and television. An alternative is available in joining an extreme political faction, but public opinion is on the whole against physical clashes, on the unfortunate assumption that we are now a civilized society. The human creature changes very slowly and the thin veneer of sophistication merely covers the basic animal nature in us all.
The ultimate in Celtic battle was not so much a victory but the taking of enemy heads. There was almost an obsessive interest in the head, based on the belief that the whole nature and soul of the individual rested there, and in slaying a warrior and removing his head, the victor imagined he took over all the heroic qualities of his victim. Heads were thus highly prized and dedicated to temples, or kept in the family possession as trophies. To bring back a head from the wars was for a youth a qualification of manhood and acceptance as a full member of his tribe. There was thus no concept of war and peace as being philosophically undesirable or abhorrent, they were necessary states of existence. The tribes went to war every year as a matter of course, maybe for a full-scale campaign over real differences, or merely for cattle raiding and stealing of women. In the long winter nights, the tribes were regaled with long and much embroidered sagas of the heroes of the past and their exploits.
Methods of fighting and types of weapons and equipment developed as part of this concept of warfare elevated to a heroic level, fully supported by the tribal gods. The warrior was equipped in the panoply of bright and glittering accoutrements for himself, his horse and his chariot by the work of the superb Celtic metal workers and enamellers. Caesar gives an eye-witness description of the British chariots in action (iv 33). They appear suddenly and drive all over the place, the warriors in them hurling their javelins. He stated that the noise of the wheels spread terror and confusion, but he says nothing about scythes being fixed to the axles and there is in fact no supporting archaeological evidence. Yet this remains a very popular view of a British chariot. It was certainly an eastern custom and it would have been practical in an open desert for demonstration only, to demoralize an enemy unused to such a sight. In a well vegetated landscape like Britain they would seem to be more of a hindrance than use. After their sudden and terrifying appearance, the chariots withdrew, and the warriors they had carried sprang from them to join in the battle at points where they could be most effective, but when under pressure and tiring, they could leap on to the chariot and be driven away to recuperate. So the best fighters could be suddenly brought to a point of danger and as rapidly taken away. These tactics were used to some effect in the second expedition (v 15 and 16) when Caesar realized that his legionaries could not deal with such fluid and elusive units and that his cavalry were also at risk in dashing after the retreating Britons, only to find themselves cut off and surrounded. Presumably the Britons also used the German method of warriors springing off their small horses and fighting on foot, which would have given valuable support to the swordsmen from the chariots. Unfortunately for the Britons, these tactics could not be sustained since they are so tiring on men and horses, nor had they the resources for continuous replacements. It is like a boxer in the ring who relies on his speed and surprise to outwit his opponent, but if he fails in the early rounds, the other man by sheer dogged slogging will eventually wear him down.
The victories of Rome over the Celts are depicted on several monuments with sculptures showing arms and equipment piled up as trophies, the most famous being the Triumphal Arch at Orange, which has survived the centuries with very little serious loss or damage. The surface of this fine monument is covered with reliefs of Celtic wargear, and gives us splendid details, except for the lack of colour. There are two different battle scenes, the one on the friezes on the south and east faces show the Gauls in single combat with Romans, one warrior is completely nude with a long oval shield, which suggests some truth in Caesar’s statement that the Celts relied on the magic of the symbols painted on their bodies in blue woad (v, 14). But the fine armour and equipment may have been worn only by the warrior class, and that the poor levies had no protection and preferred to fight unencumbered. In the two great friezes on the south and north faces, the battle is an assorted melée of men pressed tightly together. That on the south face is a cavalry engagement and the three helmeted Gallic horsemen; most of them have sword belts, some loin-cloths and long flowing cloaks attached to the shoulders. It is possible, however, that they are also wearing tight fitting mail and leather trousers, which would originally have been picked out in colour. On the other scene, the Gauls are on foot and the Romans mounted, and here one has the impression that the Gauls are clothed, since the anatomical detail given to them on the individual combat scene is lacking; on the other hand, the sculptor may have wished to bring out the heroic quality associated with the gods themselves, a common feature of classical art.
The piles of trophies are seen on the spaces above the arches and the entablature. The fine detail of these scenes makes them worthy of close study. The shields are long and kite-shaped, some with rounded ends and the decorative patterns are all different, but whether any is meaningful is not certain. One shield has two cranes, which may have had a tribal totemic significance. There are also ten names on ansate panels and four instances of a verb indicating `made by’. Professor P. M. Duval considers that this refers to the armourers rather than the sculptors; but it seems strange that the makers’ names should occupy such a prominent position on the shields. Very few Celtic shields have actually survived, and those found in rivers may not have been for combat, but made as votive objects for appeasing the gods, as is clearly apparent in the case of the famous Battersea Shield in the British Museum.
The finest British shield is undoubtedly that found in the River Witham near Lincoln in 1826 and now in the British Museum. What has survived in the river is the thin bronze facing sheet over the wooden shield, but the superb decoration on the umbo and spine is as, Professor Jope has written, `a tour de force in beaten bronze-work’. On the face of the sheeting is the faint outline of a Celtic boar which had been presumably also in beaten bronze, but had become detached.