Celtic Military Traditions

The Celts (Urnfeild Celts) formed about 1000 BC and spread across France from Middle Europe. By 400 BC there are the Spanish Celts (Celtiberians), Gallic Celts, and from the Halstatt Celtic areas, La Tene Celts pushing down into Italy from the Alps. The Gauls actually move into the Balkans and become the Galatians about 250 BC. Others, the Belgic Gauls, push into Britain and fought/mixed with the native Picts. Every area forms it own culture to some extent, mixing with the indigenous peoples, and depending on period, different mixes of religions and military traditions. Germanic tribes move in from the east and north behind the Celts and mix with them (Teutones and Cimbri.) This whole swath of northern Europe, from the Alps to France and Spain was seen as a loose, ‘Celtic Empire’ that proved to be very much a mix of very different and independent cultures that fell apart piecemeal fighting Rome, especially against Julius Caesar. In many ways, to say that these many tribes were the same culture is the same as saying the Athenian, Syracuse, and Punic cultures were all Greek. It’s true, but they were very different too, both culturally and militarily–again depending on the century we are discussing. Duncan Head has a clear description of the various Celt armies in his “the Armies of the Macedonian and Punic Wars 359BC to 146BC” As he says, “The picture of the Celts as wild, ferocious, but erratic, disorganised and lacking in tactical sense, while popular with Greek and Roman writers, is not the whole truth.” [page 58]

When all the Belgic Celts were conquered, the Picts were not. Moreover, the Romans did not describe them as the same. Picts were darker, less well armed and more inclined to raid. Even the Belgic Celtic tribes considered them barbaric. and the British Celts were different in their own ways. In 61 AD Britain, Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni led a revolt, unheard among the continental Celts before or after. Unlike them, the British tribes are still using chariots to the exclusion of cavalry and charging in one solid mass.

Terrain and mixing with indigenous peoples changed Celtic military practices. The Celts in Spain took up the Spanish weapons and use of light infantry, which the Northern, Germanic tribes did not. Unlike many Celtic tactics, which relied on mass attacks over open terrain, the German tribes used ambush in their heavy forested country, such as the Battles of Orange and Teutoburg. Celts in the mountains of the Alps and Greece fought differently than those on the plains of France and Spain.

As to the issue of discipline or fighting style. The Wedge attack formation, used by some tribes, but not all. A fairly disciplined form of combat, by any measure. Celts were known to lock shields in what the Romans described as a ‘testudo’ on the defensive. Livy describes this for the battle of Sentinum. While they were known for their wild, ferocious charges, they were also known to attack in close order too. Certainly, the mindless frontal assault was not universal Celtic behavior in battle. Unlike their western relatives, the Galatians calmly waited the Roman attacks in 189 BC, which was different from their ancestors only a hundred years before. Even the idea of a mindless, uncontrollable assault at first sight of the enemy, is belied by evidence.

Duncan Head writes, “As early as 386 Gauls decisively outgeneralled the Romans at Allia, seizing a key hill and turning the flank. At Telamon the allied Gallic army, caught between two fires, formed up calmly and in good order facing both directions in a position which greatly impressed observers, and the Romans ‘were terrified of the fine order of the Celtic host.” The Celts often demonstrated a number of tactics beyond a headlong charge, such as at Sentinum, or Mount Magaba. And this was before any long term contact with Roman and other indigenous peoples amended the Celts’ ‘heroic’ approach to battle. Certainly, the berserker assaults were a characteristic of Celtic battle–but not to the exclusion of all else, nor were they necessarily “out-of-control” even when frenzied.

The wild charges could be ‘controllable.’ The Galatian attack at Thermopylae is described thus: “They rushed at their adversaries like wild beasts, full of rage and . . . even with arrows and javelins sticking through them they were carried on by sheer spirit while their life lasted.” Yet Duncan says, ” . . .the Galatians kept up this almost berserk enthusiasm, despite making no headway, till their leaders called them off;” The end, ’till leaders called them off’ is an interesting one after describing the wild, animal-like fighting. Many descriptions make the frenzied Celts sound as though they were on a leash. For example, we see none of this uncontrollable behavior in the descriptions of Gauls fighting with/for the Carthaginians, even when deployed as independent units during any of the Punic Wars–and a number of these troops were tribes from the relative primitive Alpine regions.

There are many reasons debated for the differences between tribal styles of fighting, tactics and discipline. The Romans thought the Celts coming into the hotter climates of Italy and Greece became sluggish and slow-witted, or became soft with civilized living.

Whatever the reasons, there were distinct differences between tribes, over time, in different terrain, from mixing with other peoples, as well as differences in leaders. For instance, Vercingetorix actually led huge Gallic forces and committed them to a siege–something unheard of before or after.

The universal, frenzied, mindless charges of the Celts are in some ways the ‘propaganda’ of the Greeks and Romans of Livy’s time, rather than an accurate description of Celtic battle behavior practiced by hundreds of tribes, covering most of Europe, over more than a five hundred year period.

Though the Romans did eventually conquer them, even the most anti-Celtic writers in Roman history would acknowledge the Celts as masters of warfare and as brave fighters. Though neither as organized nor as well equipped as the legions of Rome, Celtic armies were a force to be reckoned with in the field, as demonstrated by the extent of the forces that Julius Caesar had to bring to bear against them and the sheer amount of effort and resources that went into the Roman conquests of Gaul and Britain.

The Celts, thanks to their frequent internal tribal warfare, had developed martial traditions long before they engaged in combat with Rome. Indeed, archaeological finds from the Hallstat Culture period show that most of the military technologies associated with the Celts were more or less fully developed at a fairly early time in Celtic history. Some technologies, however, would continue to develop into the La Tene period. Among these, the most notable example is the longsword that is thought to have been the primary weapon of the Celtic warrior. These longswords were designed almost exclusively for wide slashing motions, which could be devastating with a sufficiently long sword wielded by an experienced fighter. This put the primary sword of the Celts in a position of stark contrast to one of its more frequent opponents, the Roman gladius. The legionnaires of Rome were equipped with these much shorter swords, which were designed for more precise thrusting motions.

Certain Roman accounts mention Celtic warriors going into battle nearly or even completely naked. To military historians, these accounts have long been a matter of debate. Certainly, it could be argued that these records were merely an attempt on the part of the Romans to portray the Celts as barbaric. However, there are certain problems with this theory. The first is that even in the accounts that mention nudity in battle, it is clearly stated that some Celtic warriors did wear armor, whereas others chose to fight without it. This, combined with the fact that a decision to fight without clothing or armor would have been seen as indicative of bravery in the ancient world, seems to rule out the concept that these accounts are mere propaganda. Archaeological finds of well-crafted armor at Celtic sites confirm that the Celts were not without the ability to protect themselves in battle with armor and shields. If some Celtic warriors did choose to fight nude, there are two primary explanations that could justify this decision from a standpoint of military practicality. The first is simply that a soldier fighting without bulky armor gains an increase in both mobility and speed over a heavily armored opponent, such as a Roman legionnaire. The other possibility is that the Celts who fought in this manner were engaging in a type of psychological warfare, attempting to shake the Romans with an overt display of physical courage. Whatever the case may have been, it is likely that we will never know the exact reasoning behind this tactic or how common it really was in battle.

Though the Celts fought mainly with infantry, cavalry forces were used by many of the tribes. In most cases, these cavalry forces were most likely made up simply of horse-mounted infantrymen. Many Celtic archaeological sites, however, have yielded remains of chariots, which would have been more effective in most battles and would also have required somewhat more skilled handling to use to their fullest advantage. Roman accounts indicate an intriguing tactic employed by the Celts in their chariot warfare of using chariots to deposit soldiers riding on board into enemy ranks. Though such use of chariots was not unheard of in the ancient world, it was much more standard for soldiers to remain on board the chariot while the charioteer drove it through the enemy ranks, rather than jumping off to engage on the ground.

In many cases, warfare would become the occupation of entire tribes for periods of time. In these instances, the tribes would actually find themselves moving with their armies, as in the case of Boudicca’s army or the Helvetii of Gaul, both of which moved with far larger numbers of non-combatants than actual warriors. For this reason, large numbers of four-wheeled wagons would often be brought along on campaigns, as sufficient food to sustain both the army and non-combatant population would be required. This practice proved to be detrimental to Celtic armies in many instances, particularly in their fights against the Romans. Celtic armies, when burdened with thousands of people who were not warriors, often could not move as quickly as the highly trained Roman legions. As can be seen in the case of the Battle of Watling Street, this massive group of non-military personnel could also restrict the movements of the Celts on an active battlefield.

We know relatively little about Celtic battlefield tactics. While individual accounts of battles recorded by the Romans exist and are even fairly thorough, they have two notable weaknesses. The first is that the Romans seem to have constantly sought to make the Celtic tribes out as barbarians. In military matters, they did this by portraying Celtic armies as more or less disorganized hordes of soldiers, rather than cohesive militaries. However, there is much doubt about whether or not this is accurate. Even Roman accounts acknowledge the Celts using complex tactics, such as the plan of separating legions by attacking the baggage train in the middle of Caesar’s column at the Battle of the Sabis. This, combined with the fact the Celts engaged in frequent warfare and therefore would have had ample opportunity to develop effective battlefield tactics, calls the Roman accounts of disorganized hordes into question. Lending further weight to the argument that the Romans embellished battle accounts to make the Celts seem like a more primitive people is the fact that Celtic tribes had invaded both Italy and Greece long before Caesar invaded Gaul and Britain and had fought relatively successfully in both theaters of combat. It is difficult to believe that, no matter how brave Celtic warriors may have been, the armies of these tribes could have fought peoples with such illustrious military traditions without having developed complex and cohesive military strategies and tactics of their own.

In Celtic defensive actions, fortifications were always an important element. Not having the same heavy shields and armor as the Romans equipped their legions with, the Celts would have had a very difficult time creating a defensive line on an open battlefield that could effectively stand against the Romans. Celtic hill forts and the larger oppida, therefore, took on a special significance in places the Celts wished to defend. Under most circumstances, however, Celtic armies seem to have preferred offensive campaigns, resorting to defensive positions only when no other option readily presented itself.

A common custom among Celtic tribes, according to Roman sources, was to cut off the heads of fallen enemies for display in their own communities. Celtic religious custom seems to have held that the head was the part of the body that housed the soul or spirit, meaning that ritual decapitation allowed the Celts to bring the spirits of their foes back with them as captives. An account left to us by Diodorus Siculus indicates that, when a battle was finished, a victorious Celtic army would decapitate the bodies of its enemies and hang them around the necks of horses for the journey back to their settlement. Unlike most of the more barbaric practices of the Celts that are mentioned by the Romans, there is significant archaeological evidence to suggest that headhunting was a real custom of the Celtic tribes, and Roman accounts are corroborated by Greek writers, who were generally less biased against the Celts.

Duncan Head – The Armies of the Macedonian and Punic Wars 359BC to 146BC

  Duncan Ryan – The Celts: The Enigmatic Peoples of Iron Age Europe