The Celtic Cavalry

Evidence of Celtic horsemanship and the use of the horse in battle comes from iconography and, above all, from the comments of classical writers, of whom Caesar is our most informative source (pp. 77-9). Strabo— echoes the sentiments of many authors in his remark that the Gauls and the Germans excelled in cavalry and that the best Roman horse was recruited from them. It is highly probable that Celtic horsemen (like those of Numidia and Spain - both also noted for their cavalry) had ridden from childhood. It was in 390 BC that the Romans first encountered Celtic cavalry, when they were faced by invasion from the area of the Po Valley and Rome was sacked by a huge Celtic army with thousands of horsemen. In 218 BC the Carthaginian Hannibal, invading Italy, had a large cavalry force which was composed of Spanish, Celtic and North African horse. We are told that the Celts fought in the Hannibalic wars as mercenaries, for whichever side (Roman or Carthaginian) offered the best pay and prospects at any given time. At the Battle of Cannae (a disastrous defeat for the Romans), the Phoenicians won, although they were inferior in numbers, because of the superb quality of their cavalry.62

Figure 4.8 Romano-Celtic stone relief of a mounted warrior, Margidunum, Nottinghamshire. Maximum width: c.10cm. Paul Jenkins.

The deployment of cavalry can be extremely effective, but its use is constrained by a number of factors. Because of the varying seasonal availability of forage, cavalry naturally operate best in the period of late spring to late autumn. However, forage alone is not sufficient; a supply of corn is also needed.63 A second important factor concerns the choice and training of the horses. Animals would be selected for their character and temperament: they must have high spirits but not be too individualistic; they must be amenable to training and obedient. Cavalry horses would be trained not to react to the smell of blood or to noise, and to manage the crossing of both rivers and rough ground.64 Tacitus recounts the fate of a Roman officer Aulus Atticus, at the battle between the Roman forces and the Caledonian Celts at Mons Graupius in AD 84. Atticus's horse panicked and bolted straight into the enemy lines.65 Ann Hyland speaks of the danger of a frightened rider transmitting his fear to his mount.66

Figure 4.9 Celtic silver coin decorated with triple-phallused horse and solar wheel, Bratislava, Czechoslovakia. Paul Jenkins.

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