Celtic Warfare Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

If any word is symbolic of the Celtic culture, it is “periphery.” By the fifth century b.c.e., while civilizations battled for position along the Mediterranean basin, the Celts stood apart.

Political Considerations

If any word is symbolic of the Celtic culture, it is “periphery.” By the fifth century b.c.e., while civilizations battled for position along the Mediterranean basin, one rising civilization to the north stood apart. Hugging the fertile lands on the northern side of the Alps, the Celts flourished. Though lacking a centralized authority or literacy, the militant Celts spread. Power centers clustered around chieftains in defensive hill forts developed into oppida, or settlements, and the Celts expanded. They were known for their splendid vessels, jewelry, weapons, and armor, and the fine metalwork of Celtic craftspeople became the basis for trade routes that spread throughout Europe, even to Carthage. Although their expansion north was limited by Germanic tribes, at the height of their expansion the Celts’ territory in the east included areas of modern Atlantic Spain, France, and, by the first century b.c.e. , England and Ireland. In the west, much of the area north of the Balkan Mountains, and even a tenuous colony in what is now Turkey, was under their control.CeltsCelts

A Celt depicted in battle with a Roman on the column of Roman emperor Antoninus.

(North Wind Picture Archives via AP Images)

The Celts’ lack of a centralized authority, combined with some chieftains’ lust for Roman luxuries, led to their downfall. They were expelled from Italy by 191 b.c.e., and Julius Caesar utilized fear of the GaulsGauls to launch an invasion into Gallic Wars (58-51 b.c.e.)Gaul in 58 b.c.e. The area was pacified by 51 b.c.e. Although Caesar had made punitive expeditions into Britain in 55 b.c.e., it was not until 43 b.c.e. that Rome reached its farthest conquest in Britain. As further expansion was not profitable for Rome, a Hadrian’s Wall[Hadrians Wall]wall was built in 121 c.e. under the direction of the Roman general Hadrian to minimize the attacks of the Celtic PictsPicts. Ireland;ancientIreland, meanwhile, was largely ignored, allowing the Celtic culture to thrive there. Although Rome may have leveled the hill forts, traces of Celtic culture remained among the BritonsBritons. This culture, once converted to Christianity, replaced militaristic fervor with the fervor to convert. Thus a culture turned a geographic characteristic into something that allowed its survival: specifically, the periphery.

Military Achievement

Although the Celts’ expansion was a necessity for the acquisition of more farmland, it also led them into conflict with growing powers. Their military expansion allowed them to build a massive breadth of empire. Early victories staved off encroachment on Celtic lands by Mediterranean civilizations. However, the Celts were almost victims of their own success; their lack of unified organization led to a slow defeat and retreat of lands.

Celtic Europe, 60 b.c.e.

Early Celtic victories began around 400 b.c.e. The Celts had pushed into the Po Valley. The EtruscansEtruscans called for Rome, Sack of (389 b.c.e.)Roman emissaries, but the Celts felt the Romans took the Etruscan side and, in 387 b.c.e., declared war on Rome. They subsequently sacked Rome and left the city only after a huge ransom was paid, a slight that Rome never forgot.

Less than one hundred years later, the Celts raided Thrace and Macedonia from 298 to 278 b.c.e. They threatened Delphi. This invasion and final repulsion were likened by contemporary Greek historians to a victory rivaling that against the Persian king Xerxes almost two hundred years earlier. Celtic plundering, however, continued until 212 b.c.e.

In Spain, the CeltiberiansCeltiberians conflicted with Carthage;CeltsCarthage beginning in 237 b.c.e. By the Punic War, Second (218-201 b.c.e.)Second Punic War (218-201 b.c.e.), they served as Mercenaries;Celtsmercenaries for Carthage. The Celts, who had lost land to Rome in 225 b.c.e., fought and then supported Hannibal’s army in 218 b.c.e.

With Carthage defeated, Rome moved against the Celts. Julius Caesar invaded Gaul;Celts inGaul in 58-54 b.c.e. After a rebellion led by VercingetorixVercingetorixVercingetorix in 52 b.c.e., this was the zenith of Celtic power in Gaul. By 51 b.c.e., Gaul had been pacified. Britain was invaded in 47 b.c.e. Total resistance to Rome in the Po Valley remained until 49 b.c.e. In Spain, military resistance ended in 19 b.c.e. Although some Celtic pockets survived–in Ireland, Brittany, Wales, and Scotland–the lack of a centralizing unity and threats from Vikings weakened the culture.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

It was the iron of the Celts that allowed their incredible expansion. Once Celtic societies became proficient at the smelting of iron, the Celts rose to proficiency with the metal. The main weapon of the soldier was his iron Swords;Celticsword, complemented by a spear. These were quite ferocious weapons, as pointed out in the first century b.c.e. by Roman historian Diodorus SiculusDiodorus SiculusDiodorus Siculus:

Their swords are as long as the javelins of other peoples and their javelins have points longer than their swords. . . . Some of their javelins . . . are forged . . . so that the blow not only cuts but also tears the flesh, and the recovery of the spear tears open the wound.

Although bows, slings, and throwing clubs were also used, they were not typical. Celts were also highly regarded in their use of war Chariots;Celticchariots and cavalry.

For Armor;Celticarmor, the main item used was a shield. Most shields were made of leather and wood, although bronze ornamentation was sometimes added. In battle, many Celts wore bronze helmets and neck rings, or torcs. Although some Celts entered battle wearing tunics made of iron chain mail, the majority of Celts fought Nakedness in battlenaked. The reasons for this nakedness are unknown, but it is believed to have been part of some ritual.

Military Organization

The Celtic culture was centered on the military. Indeed, the Greek geographer StraboStrabo (Greek historian)Strabo described the whole Celtic nation as “war-mad” and “quick for battle.” He went on to state that the Celts “tend to rush to war all together, without concealment or forward planning,” and “They are willing to risk everything they have with nothing to rely on other than their sheer physical strength and courage.” War was necessary, for the Celts maintained a social structure based on the warrior elite; during boastful feasts, the warriors would regale one another with their exploits, seeking increased social position.

Celtic warfare had its own unique aspects–head-hunting, for example, and a reliance on the reckless headlong Charging;Celtic tribescharge to break an enemy line. Warriors fought for personal glory. In this quest for glory for the individual warrior, formal discipline was nonexistent, but the tactic worked often enough to justify the Celts’ faith in it. Indeed, one last item that set the Celts apart was the willingness of their Women;Celtic warriorswomen to engage in battle. Roman historian Ammianus MarcellinusAmmianus Marcellinus (Roman historian)Ammianus Marcellinus wrote the following in the fourth century c.e., on observations of the Celts during 63 b.c.e.-14 c.e.:

A whole troupe of foreigners would not be able to withstand a single Gaul if he called his wife to his assistance who is usually very strong . . . and . . . she begins to strike blows mingled with kicks, as if they were so many missiles sent from the string of a catapult.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

The warrior code of personal glory and victory seemed to define much of the Celtic doctrine in battle. Victory at any price, any cost, seemed to be the almost manic approach of many Celts in battle.

Final Roman Campaign Against Gallic Tribes, 52 b.c.e.

Much of the strategy used by the Celts in battle centered on Psychological warfare;Celticpsychological warfare. Before fighting began, the Celts would cry out their victory and prowess in battle while demeaning those who stood against them. The naked warriors, sometimes covered in War paint;Celticwar paint, would all shout at once, creating a cacophony that unsettled enemies who were used to noises having some type of significant purpose in battle.

The Celts’ most common tactic in battle, a ferocious headlong assault that was almost blind in its fury, unnerved many a foe. Although the emphasis on the individual in the Celtic army prevented coordinated action, the unpredictability of the Celts’ seemingly deranged attacks prevented a strong defense. This form of frontal assault, combined with the armaments of sword and shield, was able to deal effectively with Mediterranean armies organized on the model of the Macedonian phalanx. The Celts also used Cavalry;Celticcavalry, and they gained notoriety for their skill with horses. By the second century b.c.e., however, their use of the war chariot dropped off in continental Europe.

Ancient Sources

A difficulty arises when one consults ancient sources for information on the Celts. Because the Celts did not develop a written language of their own, all writing concerning them was left by those who fought against them, and readers should thus be aware of possible bias in these accounts. Of all the authors to address the Celts, perhaps the most famous and readable ancient source is Julius Caesar. His work on the conquest of Gaul, Gallic Wars, The (Caesar) Commentaries (Caesar) Comentarii de bello Gallico (52-51 b.c.e. ; The Gallic Wars, in his Commentaries, 1609), is a document written by an ambitious general to build his own personal power and esteem. Of the various other authors who wrote about the Celts, from Greek to Roman, their actual exposure to the Celts was limited. Authors ranging from Athenaeus (fl. c. 200 c.e .) to Diodorus Siculus (c. 80-c. 20 b.c.e. ) and Strabo (64 or 63 b.c.e. -after 23 c.e. ) relied on sensational and fantastic stories to build the mystery of a culture that was completely foreign to them, a culture that had threatened and struck fear into both civilizations.Celts

Books and Articles
  • Cunliffe, Barry. The Ancient Celts. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • _______. The Celts: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Haywood, John. Atlas of the Celtic World. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2001.
  • Kruta, Venceslas. Celts. London: Hachette, 2005.
  • Lang, Lloyd. Celtic Britain. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979.
  • Litton, Helen. The Celts: An Illustrated History. Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1997.
  • Sullivan, Karen. Glorious Treasures: The Celts. London: Brockhampton Press, 1997.
Films and Other Media
  • Boudica. Feature film. Independent Television, 2003.
  • Caesar: Conqueror of Gaul. Documentary. History Channel, 2005.
  • The Celts. Documentary. History Channel, 1997.
  • Decisive Battles: Boudicca, Warrior Queen. Documentary. History Channel, 2004.
  • Druids. Feature film. Lolistar, 2001.

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Categories: History