CeLtic WaRface of La Tene

Classical writers attested to the intimidating appearance of a Celtic army in battle, describing powerful men, constant noise, warlike gestures, and a barbaric fury. But faced with disciplined Roman forces, intimidation was not enough. Accounts of Roman engagements with the Celts of Italy, Gaul, and Britain provide an impression of how the Celts fought the Romans—and invariably lost.

Gallic Warband OrganisationGaul And Celtic Tribes Europe

he Roman historian Polybius describes the sight of a Celtic army in battle, when one fought the Romans at Telamon in 225 BC: "The Insubres and Boii wore trousers and light cloaks, but the Gaesatae in their overconfidence had thrown these aside and stood in front of the whole army naked, with nothing but their arms; for they thought that thus they would be more efficient since some of the ground was overgrown with thorns which could catch on their clothes and impede the use of their weapons. On the other hand the fine order and the noise of the Celtic host terrified the Romans; for there were countless trumpeters and horn blowers and since the whole army was s/touting its war cries at the same time there was such a confused sound that the noise seemed to come not only from the trumpeters and the soldiers, but also from the countryside which was joining in the echo. No less terrifying were the appearance and gestures of the naked warriors in front, all of whom were in the prime of life and of excellent physique. All the warriors in the front ranks were adorned with golden tores and armlets. The Romans were particularly terrified by the sight of these men, but, led on by hope of gain, they were twice as keen to face the danger. "

Outdated bravado

This account provides a great insight into Celtic warfare. The reference to naked warriors (gaesatae) is repeated in accounts of other battles, although the practice seems to have ended before Caesar's invasion of Caul in the mid-first century BC. Dionysus of Halicarnassus saw this as evidence of barbarian boastfulness. The noise described by Polybius is supported by other sources, and extant examples and depictions of Celtic trumpets and horns show how these instruments appeared intimidating, having long vertical stems, ending in an animal head. Livy described the Galatians in action:

"... their yells and leapings, and the dreadful noise of arms as they beat their shields in some nm

Tene Shields

ancestral custom, all this is done with one purpose—to terrify their enemies. " One aspect of Celtic warfare left unmentioned by Polybius was the heritage of single combat, and other accounts describe warriors challenging their enemies to break ranks and fight man to man. In most cases the disciplined teamworking Romans ignored the challenge. The main battle line of Celts would usually be protected by a line of archers, javelin throwers, and slingers, and according to Polybius their absence at Telamon had dire results for the gaesatae, who were routed by missile fire.

Cavalry also played a part in Celtic warfare, and the Celts were noted horsemen. In Gaul,

Caesar recruited pro-Roman Gallic horsemen to support his army, and after the conquest of Gaul, Gallic cavalry were recruited as auxiliaries by the Romans. In Britain, chariots played a part in warfare, although they had fallen into disuse in the rest of the Celtic world before the first century BC. Archaeological reconstructions of Celtic chariots have provided useful information about how they operated, and support the accounts provided by the Romans. Usually used to augment the cavalry, chariots were utilized to harass the enemy line before it advanced, and they harried its rear afterward. The last account of chariots being used in action was at the Battle of Mons Graupius, in AD 84.

Left: Scene of Celtic horsemen and foot soldiers marching to battle, with long-necked horns, from a side panel on the Gundestrup Cauldron.

Facing: On the ramparts of a 2nd-century bc British oppidum. the alarm is sounded on a long-stemmed horn with a bell in the shape of a boar's head as a predatory tribe threatens. The chief with a horned helmet lifts the tribe's emblem while farmers seek refuge behind the walls. Trophies of human heads can be seen on poles above on the walls, a habit of Celts recorded by Diodorus.


CeLtic Acrns an ó Alamor?

Panals Gundestrup Calderon

Although the Celts relied on every type of available weaponry, the principal weapon was a long, straight sword. As for armor, their smiths combined practicality with elements of purely Celtic artistry, turning shields and helmets into objects of beauty. Although well-armed and reasonably well-protected, in the end their equipment was no match for that of the Romans.

Right: Celtic shield from the 3rd century bc, found in the River /Vitham, near Lincoln.


Cuirass, Hallstatt, probably 8th century bc.

Tene Civilization


Sword, with typical La T6ne decoration on the pommel.

I iter centuries of warfare between the I Romans and Celts, Roman writers knew a great deal about Celtic arms and armor. The historian Diodorus Siculus was one of the most descriptive:

"For aims they have man-sized shields decorated in a manner peculiar to them. Some of these have projecting figures in bronze, skilfully wrought, not only for decoration but also for protection. They wear bronze helmets, with large projecting figures which give the wearer the appearance of enormous size. In some cases horns are attached so as to form one piece, in others the foreparts of birds or quadrupeds worked in relief.. some of them have iivn breastplates, wrought in chain, while others are satisfied with the arms Nature has given them and fight naked.

"Instead of the short sword they carry long swords held by a chain of iron or bronze and hanging along their right flank. Some of them have gold or silver-plated belts around their tunics. They brandish spears that are called lanciae and which have iron heads a cubit in length and even more, and a lot less than two palms in breadtlv, fin- their swords are not shorter than the spears of others, and the heads of then-spears are longer than the swords of others. "

Cumbersome weaponry

To the Romans, the swords and spears carried by the Celts appeared exceptional. Archaeological evidence has shown that the swords were in fact about 27 inches long, although the size increased during the first century AD. They were straight-bladed, with a single ridge. They were also well-tempered, which contradicts the claim by Fblybius that they became blunt after the first blow, and bent easily. They were designed for cutting rather than for thrusting, and Dionysius of

Halicarnssus describes how they were raised up and then brought crashing down, the swordsman putting his whole weight behind the blow.

The problem was that this required space. The first century Al) Roman historian Tacitus reported that British swords were long, and unsuited to fighting in confined spaces. The opposite was true of the Roman gltulius, a short stabbing sword designed for exactly these

conditions. The other principal weapon was the spear, either a broad-bladed spear tor thrusting, or lighter javelin lor throwing. Spears were about eight feet long, with large heads and sockets, and metal spear butts to balance the weapon. Celtic skirmishers also used bows and slings, and archaeological examples of arrowheads and sling-stones survive.

As for armor, by the first century bc the more affluent members of a Celtic warband would lie equipped with mail tunics, with rings that were riveted together. Similarly helmets were worn by the wealthy, and while most of these consisted of simple bronze or iron pieces, the decorative helmets cited by Diodorus Siculus were worn by a handful of leading warriors. A unique helmet from Ciumesti in Romania was adorned with a large bird with hinged wings. Horned helmets, as has been mentioned (page 111), were rare.

The Celtic warrior's equipment was completed by a shield. Livy described them as long and oblong, and this is supported by archaeological finds. Most were long oval wooden shields, with a central boss protecting a grip. Depictions of Celtic warriors suggest that these shields were decorated with painted Celtic artwork. Although their equipment was of a high quality, the technological advantages of Roman arms, armor, and their amazing artillery meant that the Celtic warrior fought on an unequal footing with his Latin opponent.

Ancient Celtic Warrior Woman Drawing

Celtic warriors faced more than sharp steel:

The baliista (below) was the Roman army's light artillery piece, with a range for its darts of about 1,400 feet.


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The catapult (right) was the universal medium-range artillery of a besieging Roman army. Powered in the same way as the baliista by twisted skeins of sinew or hair, it hurled rounded stones, it came in a variety of sizes and power ranges, and could throw rocks weighing up to 220 pounds. The onager (top), known by several other names, such as the "wild ass," was a giant sling-shot, and its fierce action gave rise to its other nickname of the "scorpion." It could lob a 60-pound missile a distance of half a mile.

Dcessed to KiLL

Gallic Warrior

D1 iodorus Siculus described the physical

_| appearance of these warriors: "The Gauls are tall of body, with skin moist and white. Their hair is blond not only by nature but also because they practice to increase artificially the peculiar nature of their coloring. Some of them shave off their beards, but others let them grow moderately. The nobles shave their cheeks, but let their mustaches grow freely so as to cover their mouths."

This reference to hair coloring was due to the warrior practice of smearing lime paste into their hair and teasing it up, like the mane of a horse. Once again, the objective was to look terrifying to the enemy. The natural hair color of these northern F.uropean Celts was fair, ginger, or brown, the latter being the most common. To the black-haired

Mediterranean peoples, all of these colors looked strange.

The Celts were taller on average than their Mediterranean neighbors, and Roman sources suggest that the Britons were generally taller than the Gauls, while the Germans beyond the Rhine were the tallest of them all. As for physical condition, Polvbius describes the naked gaesatae as being in excellent shape, and in the prime of life. Strabo contradicts this, suggesting that the Celts had a tendency toward being overweight, and tribal laws penalized those who became too heavy. Given the demands of Celtic warfare, it seems unlikely that many warriors were overweight, especially after a season of hardened campaigning.

Colorful clothing

Roman and Greek historians described the clothing worn by these warriors. One mentioned that they: "...wear striking clothing, dyed and embroidered in many colors, and trousers that they call brae at. They wear striped cloaks, fastened by a brooch, thick in winter and light in summer, worked in a variegated, closely-set check pattern."

Others report that they wore thigh-length split tunics with sleeves. These tunics were probably simple shirt-like linen garments, reaching to mid-thigh. Strabo refers to "splits

When the Romans and Greeks first fought Celtie armies during the third century BC, they found Celtic warriors appeared terrifying to them; a tall, white-skinned race of barbarians who were unlike anything they had seen before. This appearance was accentuated by the way these warriors were dressed and groomed. The Celts did everything they eould to ereate an appearance that would dazzle and intimidate the enemy.

Below: Early La T6ne chieftan and warrior (late 5th century bc), dressed in woolen garments and wearing bronze helmets.

Celtic Longsword WarriorTene Design

and sleeves," but most depictions of Celts wearing tunics suggest a simpler design. Both long- and short-sleeved tunics are depicted in contemporary iconography. These tunics were "dyed and embroidered," making a colorful garment, similar to the Scottish Highland plaids ot the modern day. Thick winter cloaks (laenae or sap) were often made from a coarse, rough wool, with finer, thinner wool reserved for summer clothing. Once again, chequered patterns were the most common.

Other writers refer to striped trousers, (trousers were a novelty to the Romans), and Roman cavalrymen soon adopted this practical form of clothing from the Gallic cavalrymen they recruited. As with tunics, these could be chequered, striped, or made in solid colors, or produced in undyed wool or linen. Leather shoes were also worn extensively by Celtic warriors, at least during the late La Tene period. Queen Boudicca is described wearing a tunic of many colors, over which a thick cloak was fastened by a brooch. Decorative cloak pins, belts, and other forms of decoration were worn by the more wealthy warriors, while golden tores around the neck were a sign of wealth and standing in Celtic society. Other common forms of adornment were bracelets, rings, brooches, and decorative belts. Bronze and gold examples of these objects survive to this dav.

Center: Because of its perishability, there are almost no finds of Celtic cloth. These traces of clothing (c.300-100 bc) found at a gravesite at Burton Flemming, East Yorkshire. England, are actually two lumps of rust containing impressions of Iron Age Celtic cloth. The diamond twill pattern woven into the cloth can be clearly seen.

Below: Celtic warrior's casque (helmet) in the Waldalgesheim style, found near Amfreville, France, dating from the late 4th century bc.

Left: La Tène warriors (3rd-2nd centuries bc). Mounted warrior with a mail shirt and iron helmet, and infantry nude except for bronze helmets.

Late Celtic WaRfaRe

Celtic Tene Style

R-] ome began withdrawing the legions from Britain to counter threats from the east early in the fifth century AD. The Romano-Britons who remained had to lc»k after their own defense. After half a century of attempting to defend their own interests, they were forced to appeal to the Western Roman Empire for help. Rome, gripped by internecine imperial power struggles and fighting a losing battle for its own survival in the face of barbarian invasions, ignored the pleas.

Southern Britain had a limited population from which to draw fighting men, while boatloads of warlike Saxons were arriving daily. Nevertheless, evidence from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle implies larger Celtic armies than recent statistical and archaeological information suggests—although probably to make the Saxon victories seem more impressive to readers. The size of the armies that fought for dominance in Britain were in fact probably small, numbering in the hundreds or low thousands. Saxon accounts of Celtic battle losses of 2-5,000 men can be reduced by at least a factor of ten. The largest armies available to commanders in Britain during the period from the sixth to the tenth centuries AD would have been little more than 4,000 men or thereabouts.

Weaponry had changed since the La Tene period. Archaeologists have unearthed a range of late Celtic and early Saxon swords, knives, spearheads, and arrows, and discernible patterns can be traced. The Saxons favored a long straight sword, similar to that used by the La Tene Celts. The term seax, meaning "knife" has been linked to the appellation "Saxon." It was probably seen as a weapon of the nobility, and the main Saxon weapon was the spear. Daggers and axes would also have been carried into battle. The Celts of post-Roman Britain, Ireland, and the Caledonian territories relied on weapons similar to those of the Saxons, although lighter weapons predominated in southern Britain, where Roman military-weapons and methods were still used. In Ireland and Pictland, spears tended to be longer and heavier than in southern Britain, and all Celtic peoples in Britain had different types of spears for use by cavalrymen, infantrymen, and skirmishers. In the south, cavalry equipment followed the Roman model, and riders were equipped with lances and swords. Elsewhere in Britain, horsemen carried lighter and shorter spears.

Simpler strategies

The Saxons made little use of cavalry, enabling the temporary Celtic domination of the battlefield by small groups of heavily-armed cavalry. This was reputedly a military-advantage exploited by the Romano-Celtic British warlord identified as Arthur, and may

Warfare in the British Isles during the late Celtic period eannot be viewed solely from the Celtic viewpoint. All participants—Irish, Scots, Britons, Piets, Saxons, and Angles—had their own strategic- interests, hut all used very similar weaponry and taetieal doctrines. Archaeological and documentary information can be combined to provide a detailed view of warfare during the political formation of Britain.

Below: The Celts considered weapons a part of their life force, and devoted a great deal of atttention toward the decoration of the metal parts, such as this fine spearhead decorated in La T6ne "sword-style found in the River Thames in London. Dated at between 200-50 bc, it is shown two-thirds actual size here.

Tene JavelinCeltic Creation Myth

have been a significant factor in the creation of myths about his "knights" (the equestrian, or knightly, order having been a mainstay of Roman aristocracy).

Chariots were no longer used in the British Isles, while archery and slingshots were not mentioned in documentary sources, and no missiles have been recovered from archaeological sites. Warfan: in Britain during the late Celtic period was primarily a clash between units of spearmen, sometimes supported by lighter skirmishing troops and bodies of cavalry.

While at first the post-Roman Britons retained some degree of Roman auxiliary military organization, and large numbers of experienced Roman veterans were available to train the new defense forces, Roman ways waned during the decades following the withdrawal. While mail armor was worn, its use seems to have been limited to the wealthier members of the Celtic or Saxon nobility. Although helmets such as those found at the Sutton I loo or Benty Grange excavations were possibly worn by kings or the higher nobility, the bulk of armies during this period probably-lacked any form of protective headgear.

The subtleties of the Roman military system were replaced by sheer brute force, and battles were decided more by stamina and weight of numbers than by technological advantage,

Below: Celtic light infantry of the 1st centuries bc-ad, one with a typical Celtic long sword and small shield. Vercingetorix relied heavily on slingers and archers during the siege of Alesia.

organization, or training. The Celtic warrior of this period also lacked the glamor of his La Tene ancestors.

Left: This Celtic warrior's bronze helmet with ogival skull piece and wide rear peak was probably inspired by the Roman legionary's helmet. Dating from about the 1st century ad. it was found in the River Thames in London.

Boudicca London

M Lindisfarne fcj «iflamburgh

English settlements c.500

English expansion by 600

English expansion by 660

English territory by 800



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Celtic Seax










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our hundred years of Romanization had changed Celtic society in Britannia beyond recognition. The barbarians had become civilized. But when the armies of Rome were withdrawn, Celtic Britons faced many threats from across the Channel and North Sea. During the period from the late fourth until the mid-seventh centuries AD the unity of the Roman province of Britannia disintegrated into a series of Celtic kingdoms. With a return to decentralized government and the inevitable rise of separate armies and inter-tribal bickering, these Celtic kingdoms laid themselves open to attacks from coastal raiders crossing the Channel and southern North Sea.

The raids of Jutes, Angles, and Saxons (collectively referred to as Anglo-Saxons) had first begun during the final century of Roman Britain, but the presence of large, well-organized legions kept the pirates to the coasts and estuaries of the southeast. Within 50 years of the Roman withdrawal, however, unopposed raids encouraged greater penetration of Britain. By the mid-fifth century it was clear that the raids were not going to stop, and that they were in fact turning into an invasion. For the next two centuries, Celts and Anglo-Saxons became locked together in a struggle for survival and dominance; a struggle for Britain.

To the north and west, the Irish, Picts and Scots were largely involved in their own affairs, and only played a minor part in the conflict that raged in southern Britain. The struggle only involved them when the victorious Anglo-Saxons continued their dynamic expansion, and attempted to subdue the independent kingdoms of Scotland and Ireland.

Although the Celts of southern Britain put up a valiant opposition to the Anglo-Saxon invaders, there were simply too few Celts and too many Saxons. For the Celts, victory merely brought a breathing space, but for the Saxons, it brought new territory. The struggle reached a climax in the seventh century, when the defeat of Cadwallon of Gwynedd dashed any hope for an ultimate Celtic victory. Although the battle between Celts and Saxons would continue for several more centuries, the fate of the British mainland was sealed. The Celtic world was forever relegated to the outer fringes of the British Isles.




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  • rosie
    How to make a celtic sword?
    8 years ago

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