Warfare of Ancient Celts


The Celts were renowned for their fierceness and skilled used of weaponry. We can infer given their once large expanse that they simply would not have been as successful otherwise. To what extent did they destroy or allow conquered people to join their communities? We will never be completely certain but historical and genetic evidence points to it being a mix of both and more of the latter. They were not ones to murder a conquered people unless provoked. The Celts became somewhat pressured by two encroaching powers, the Germanic people’s from the North and the Romans from the South. Ultimately their lack of ability to formally unite under one king or recognize themselves as one united people in general led to their downfall. Their loyalty to their individual tribes was so strong, to pledge loyalty to someone else, even for the greater good of everyone involved and what could be considered “their people” in the grand scheme, was challenging. The outright fighting that occurred amongst their own tribes likely didn’t help either and there are quite a few historical accounts of the Celts betraying their own people in exchange for having Rome as a military ally themselves. They relied heavily on their own idealisms of individual prowess and strength to lead them to victory in battle as those situations arose. The Romans were easily able to pick them off one by one. That is not to say there are not a few instances where a particular leader was successful in rousing multiple groups to battle because there certainly are. Particularly, those stories of Calgacus and Boudica come to mind. The back and forth battles between the Gauls, Britons and Rome are well known and documented.

The warriors, along with the chieftains were some of the most respected and loved members of their society. They were said by first hand accounts of even their worst enemies with reason to talk less of them to have been brave, fearless, skilled and terrifying. Although, arguably, some first hand accounts such as those of the Romans, could have also exaggerated this aspect to have made their own triumphs over the Celts seem that much more incredible. The Celts reportedly had very deep voices, kept their conversation brief and allusive with much to be left for the listener to decipher. They were renowned for their ability to launch into a condition described as manic ferocity, where they knew no fear. Although surely not equally common as men, there are instances where women have been mentioned as fighting in or leading battles. Both men and women seemingly loved a good quarrel but were still very much ruled by their heart in honor and in principle. Honor and truth were highly prized qualities. Entire wars were fought over single events of disrespect committed by a small handful of individuals. We see this echoed in the famous Battle of Allia in 390 BCE and Boudicca’s rebellion in 60 CE, both with the Romans. The Celts above all others were frequently hired as military mercenaries by the Macedonians, Greeks, Romans and even Egyptian ruler Ptolemy Philadelphus.

60 bce iron copper hilt
1st century BCE sword with copper hilt

The popular method of fighting amongst themselves was thought to be that rather than risking the loss of so many of their tribesman, they would line up facing one another and yell obscenities and insults. When they were ready, their chosen warrior from each opposing side would fight to decide the outcome verses the entire group fighting. It is unclear whether each man had to fight to the death but it is assumed so. They had a special knack for psychological warfare tactics and used similar yelling and insult tactics with the Romans which according to first hand accounts worked fairly well. Trumpets and horn instruments such as the carnyx were also used effectively as scare tactics. It is said that when leaders were defeated in battle, they often committed suicide as that was considered a more noble way to go than suffer in defeat or slavery. Consider Brennus fleeing from Delphi, Florus and Sacrovir in Gaul or Boudicca in Britain committing suicide after defeat. They considered it a great glory to die in battle in general. Some tribes had a unique practice of leaving their dead on the open battle field. This was undoubtedly met with sharp criticism and seen as barbaric. However, they believed the souls of the slain would go immediately to the Otherworld upon being eaten by vultures. This belief may have been echoed by a 7th century Irish scholar who said “the laughable tales told by the Druids, who say that their forebears flew through ages in the form of birds.”

There was a large head cult amongst the Celts and it’s thought they believed the head was where the soul or energy was held. The Greek Posidonius tells us they would collect the heads of their slain enemies after battle and hang them from their horses. When they returned home they would parade around town displaying their heads proudly and sometimes hang them over their doorframe or preserve them in cedar oil. The Celts were a very proud people and every accomplishment, every kill in battle, was a huge deal to their warriors and families. Their families often followed them in caravans to witness their bravery in battle first hand. There are countless archaeological examples of a head cult from statues and carvings to finding headless bodies on ancient battlefields. Another tribe, known as the Ambiens decapitated every single head from slain soldiers in their battle with a neighboring tribe, the Armorica. They tied them upright in lines together held up by a wooden framework and arranged their own dead soldiers in a unique framework as well.

Celts were said to sometimes go into battle naked painting various swirl patterns or animals they wished to draw strength from, mainly the bull or boar. These legends stemmed from specific tribes rather than the Celts as a whole. There may have been a ritual significance to being naked in battle, or it was simply an act of exhibiting fearlessness in general or oneness with their tribesmen. The Gaesatae, Tolistobogii and the Trocmi were all quoted as throwing off their clothes before battle with the Romans. Celts are credited with inventing the first chain mail as it was found in a chieftain’s burial located in Ciumesti, Romania. There is some speculation they also created the first helmets. It was also the Celts who first fastened horns or wings on their helmets as well as their horses’s helmets. Sometimes they attached genuine ox horns. If they weren’t wearing a helmet they spiked their hair up to look taller and more fearsome. Helmets and chain mail were most likely worn by chieftains or the wealthier, more renowned warriors. Most common warriors probably wore standard leather gear. They were exceptionally skilled in the sword, spear, dagger and chariot. Slings were also used, particularly in defensive hill forts or castles up through the middle ages. Huge stockpiles of carefully selected sling pebbles have been found behind various types of defensive walls. They carried wooden shields, sometimes covered in leather or bronze and usually patterned with various artistic swirl or animal patterns on them as well. These would have also been animals they wished to draw strength from, much like the drawings they may have painted on their bodies.

400 bce silver
4th century BCE standard silver torc

Chariot use was an important warfare method to the Celts and was very effective against the Romans. Pausanius mentions that there was a Celtic fighting unit involved with chariots called the trimarcisia, “three riders”. The main warrior was accompanied by two supporters. The driver would bring the chariot to the head of battle, at which point the warrior would leap from the chariot and engage the enemy. The driver would wheel off to the side and retrieve the warrior when he needed to retreat. If he was injured, his supporting man would take his place. Their horsemen were said to be exceptionally skilled and maneuver very well on the backs of horses. They were shorter and stockier than modern horses, raised and trained as draft animals not only for military use but agricultural and travel purposes. Many Irish and Scottish descendants commonly rode bareback and maneuvered horses very well up through the 18th century, another cultural practice lost in the sands of time.

“For the sake of honor, a virtuous man will stand his ground and perform brave deeds. But as we have noted before, there is no name for those who carry this sort of quality to the extreme, being absolutely without fear, not even being afraid of earthquakes or waves, as they say of the Celts” -Aristotle (Greek, 384 – 322 BCE)

“In the early times of their settlement they did not merely subdue the territory which they occupied, but rendered also many of the neighboring peoples subject to them, whom they overawed by their audacity.” –Polybius (Greek, 205 – 125 BCE)

“40,000 of them were slain, and some 10,000 taken prisoners, among whom was one of their kings, Concolitanus: the other king, Aneroestes, fled with a few followers; joined a few of his people in escaping to a place of security; and there put an end to his own life and that of his friends.” –Polybius (Greek, 205 – 125 BCE)

“When the Gaulish king, Cavarus, came to Byzantium and showed himself eager to put an end to the war, earnestly offering his friendly intervention, both Prusias and the Byzantines agreed to his proposals.” –Polybius (Greek, 205 – 125 BCE)

“The Insubres and the Boii wore trousers and light cloaks, but the Gaesatae, in their love of glory and defiant spirit, had thrown off their garments and taken up their position in front of the whole army naked and wearing nothing but their arms… The appearance of these naked warriors was a terrifying spectacle, for they were all men of splendid physique and in the prime of life and all in leading companies richly adorned with gold torques and armlets.” -Polybius (Roman, 200 – 118 BCE)

iberian buckle 2nd century bce
2nd century BCE Iberian belt buckle

“The Gauls cut off the heads of their enemies killed in battled and hang them from their horses necks. They take the bloodstained weapons and spoils from their dead enemies and give them to their servants while they sing a song of victory.” -Posidonius (Greek, 135 – 51 BCE)

“The Celts, even when they make war, take about with them companions to dine with them, whom they call parasites. And these men celebrate their praises before large companies assembled together, and also to private individuals who are willing to listen to them: they have also a description of people called Bards; who make them music; and these are poets, who recite their praises with songs.” -Posidonius (Greek, 135 – 51 BCE)

“In chariot fighting the Britons begin by driving all over the field hurling javelins, and generally the terror inspired by the horses and the noise of the wheels are sufficient to throw their opponent’s ranks into disorder. Then, after making their way between the squadrons of their own cavalry, they jump down from the chariots and engage on foot. In the meantime their charioteers retire a short distance form the battle and place the chariots in such a position that their masters, if hard pressed by numbers, have an easy means of retreat to their own lines. Thus they combine the mobility of cavalry with the staying power of infantry; and by daily training and practice they attain such proficiency that even on a steep incline they are able to control the horses at full gallop, and to check and turn them in a moment. They can run along the chariot pole, stand on the yoke, and get back into the chariot as quick as lightning. –Julius Caesar (Roman, 100 – 44 BCE)

“While these things are in motion, the Carnutes declare that they will willingly go into danger to protect the greater good, and promise that they will be the first of all to begin the war. Since they cannot make immediate securities by giving and receiving hostages, because that would expose their plans, they require that a solemn oath be given that they should not be deserted by the rest of the Gauls after the war starts. This oath is given on their military symbols which are brought together, for this is the manner in which their most sacred obligations are bound.” -Julius Caesar (Roman, 100 – 44 BCE)

The clothing they wear is striking — shirts which have been dyed and embroidered in varied colours, and breeches, which they call in their tongue bracae; and they wear striped coats, fastened by a fibula on the shoulder, heavy for winter wear and light for summer, in which are set checks, close together and of varied hues. For armour they use long shields, as high as a man, which are wrought in a manner peculiar to them, some of them even having the figures of animals embossed on them in bronze, and these are skillfully worked with an eye not only to beauty but also to protection. On their heads they put bronze helmets which have large embossed figures standing out from them and give an appearance of great size to those who wear them; for in some cases horns are attached to the helmet so as to form a single piece, in other cases images of the fore-parts of birds or four-footed animals. Their trumpets are of peculiar nature and such as barbarians use, for when they are blown upon they give forth a harsh sound, appropriate to the tumult of war. Some of them have iron chain-mail, but others are satisfied with the armour which Nature has given them and go into battle naked. In place of the short sword they carry long broad-swords which are hung on chains of iron or bronze and are worn along the right flank. And some of them gather up their shirts with belts plated with gold or silver. The spears they brandish, which they call lanciae, have iron heads a cubit in length and even more, and a little under two palms in breadth; for their swords are not shorter than the javelins of other peoples, and the heads of their javelins are larger than the swords of others. Some of these javelins come from the forge straight, others twist in and out in spiral shapes for their entire length, the purpose being that the thrust may not only cut the flesh, but mangle it as well, and that the withdrawal of the spear may lacerate the wound.” –Diodorus Siculus (Greek, 90 – 20 BCE)

“In their journeyings and when they go into battle the Gauls use chariots drawn by two horses, which carry the charioteer and the warrior; and when they encounter cavalry in the fighting they first hurl their javelins at the enemy and then step down from their chariots and join battle with their swords. Certain of them despise death to such a degree that they enter the perils of battle without protective armour and with no more than a girdle about their loins. They bring along to war also their free men to serve them, choosing them out from among the poor, and these attendants they use in battle as charioteers and as shield-bearers. It is also their custom, when they are formed for battle, to step out in front of the line and to challenge the most valiant men from among their opponents to single combat, brandishing their weapons in front of them to terrify their adversaries. And when any man accepts the challenge to battle, they then break forth into a song in praise of the valiant deeds of their ancestors and in boast of their own high achievements, reviling all the while and belittling their opponent, and trying, in a word, by such talk to strip him of his bold spirit before the combat. When their enemies fall they cut off their heads and fasten them about the necks of their horses; and turning over to their attendants the arms of their opponents, all covered with blood, they carry them off as booty, singing a tribute over them and striking up a song of victory, and these first-fruits of battle they fasten by nails upon their houses, just as men do, in certain kinds of hunting, with the heads of wild beasts they have mastered. The heads of their most distinguished enemies they embalm in cedar oil and carefully preserve in a chest, and these they exhibit to strangers, gravely maintaining that in exchange for this head some one of their ancestors, or their father, or the man himself, refused the offer of a great sum of money. And some men among them, we are told, boast that they have not accepted an equal weight of gold for the head they show, displaying a barbarous sort of greatness of soul; for not to sell that which constitutes a witness and proof of one’s valour is a noble thing, but to continue to fight against one of our own race, after he is dead, is to descend to the level of beasts.” -Diodorus Siculus (Greek, 90 – 20 BCE)

yr-eifl-1527081_640.jpg“All of the Gauls, who are called both Gallic and Galatian, are absolutely mad about war,  high spirited and quick to battle but otherwise straightforward and not of evil character. And so when they are stirred up they assemble in their bands for battle, quite openly and without forethought, so that they are easily handled by those who desire to outwit them. They are ready to face danger even if they have nothing on their side but their own strength and courage… their strength depends on their mighty bodies, and on their numbers… to the frankness and high-spiritedness of their temperament must be added the traits of childish boastfulness and love of decoration. They wear ornaments of gold torques on their necks, and bracelets on their arms and wrists, while people of high rank wear dyed garments besprinkled with gold. It is this vanity which makes them unbearable in victory and so completely downcast in defeat.  Strabo (Greek, 64 BCE – 24 CE)

“The king (Alexander the Great) received them kindly and asked them when drinking what it was that they most feared, thinking they would say himself, but that they replied they feared no one, unless it were that Heaven might fall on them.” –Strabo (Greek, 64 BCE – 24 CE)

“Of these people, they say, the Belgae are bravest (who have been divided into fifteen tribes, the tribes that live along the ocean between the Rhenus and the Liger); consequently they alone could hold out against the onset of the Germans, the Cimbri and Teutones. But of the Belgae themselves, they say, the Bellovaci are bravest, and after them the Suessiones. As for the largeness of the population, this is an indication: it is found upon inquiry, they say, that there are as many as three hundred thousand of those Belgae (of former times) who are able to bear arms; and I have already told the number of the Elvetii, and of the Arverni, and of their allies, — from all of which the largeness of the population is manifest, as is also the thing of which I spoke above— the excellence of the women in regard to the bearing and nursing of children. The Gallic people wear the “sagus,” let their hair grow long, and wear tight breeches; instead of tunics they wear slit tunics that have sleeves and reach as far as their private parts and the buttocks. The wool of their sheep, from which they weave the coarse “sagi” (which they call “laenae”), is not only rough, but also flocky at the surface; the Romans, however, even in the most northerly parts raise skin-clothed flocks with wool that is sufficiently fine. The Gallic armour is commensurate with the large size of their bodies: a long sabre, which hangs along the right side, and a long oblong shield, and spears in proportion, and a “madaris,” a special kind of javelin. But some of them also use bows and slings. There is also a certain wooden instrument resembling the “grosphus” (it is hurled by hand, not by thong, and ranges even farther than an arrow), which they use particularly for the purposes of bird-hunting.” –Strabo (Greek, 64 BCE – 24 CE)

“Again, in addition to their witlessness, there is also that custom, barbarous and exotic, which attends most of the northern tribes. I mean the fact that when they depart from the battle they hang the heads of their enemies from the necks of their horses, and, when they have brought them home, nail the spectacle to the entrances of their homes. At any rate, Poseidonius says that he himself saw this spectacle in many places, and that, although at first he loathed it, afterwards, through his familiarity with it, he could bear it calmly. The heads of enemies of high repute, however, they used to embalm in cedar-oil and exhibit to strangers, and they would not deign to give them back even for a ransom of an equal weight of gold.” –Strabo (Greek, 64 BCE – 24 CE)

“The Celts who have added “-iberian” to their name came as well [to the battle]. To these men death in battle is glorious; they consider it a crime to burn the body of such a warrior, for they believe that if the body is devoured on the battlefield by the hungry vulture that the soul will ascend to the gods in heaven.” -Tiberius Italicus (Roman, 28 – 103 CE)

“Rich Gaul sent her people, men who have knowledge about the entrails of beasts, the flight of birds, and the lightning strikes from heaven. While one minute they are celebrating by chanting the primitive songs of the native language, the next minute they are stamping the ground dancing and clashing their shields noisily in time to the music. That is what men do for their past-times and in solemn gatherings. All other labour is done by the women; the men think it unmanly to throw seed into the furrows and to turn the soil by working the plough; but the wife of the Gaul is never idle, for she does every task but those of war.” -Tiberius Italicus (Roman, 28 – 103 CE)

“Their strength is in infantry. Some nations fight also with the chariot. The higher in rank is the charioteer; the dependents fight. They were once ruled by kings, but are now divided under chieftains into factions and parties. Our greatest advantage in coping with nations so powerful is that they do not act in concert. Seldom is it that two or three states meet together to ward off a common danger. Thus, while they fight singly, all are conquered. […] Britain contains gold and silver and other metals, as the prize of conquest. The ocean, too, produces pearls, but of a dusky and bluish hue.” -Tacitus (Roman, 55 – 120 CE)

latene 400 bce bronze
4th century BCE arm band

“There ambassadors came to him from Syrmus, king of the Triballians, and from the other independent nations dwelling near the Ister [Danube]. Some even arrived from the Celts who dwelt near the Ionian gulf. These people are of great stature, and of a haughty disposition. All the envoys said that they had come to seek Alexander’s friendship. To all of them he gave pledges of amity, and received pledges from them in return. He then asked the Celts what thing in the world caused them special alarm, expecting that his own great fame had reached the Celts and had penetrated still further, and that they would say that they feared him most of all things. But the answer of the Celts turned out quite contrary to his expectation; for, as they dwelt so far away from Alexander, inhabiting districts difficult of access, and as they saw he was about to set out in another direction, they said they were afraid that the sky would some time or other fall down upon them. These men also he sent back, calling them friends, and ranking them as allies, only adding the remark that the Celts were braggarts.” -Flavius Arrianus (Bithynia, 86 – 160 CE)

“TITUS MANLIUS was a man of the highest birth and of exalted rank. This Manlius was given the surname Torquatus. The reason for the surname, we are told, was that he wore as a decoration a golden neck-chain, a trophy taken from an enemy whom he had slain. But who the enemy was, and what his nationality, how formidable his huge size, how insolent his challenge, and how the battle was fought all this Quintus Claudius has described in the first book of his Annals with words of the utmost purity and clearness, and with the simple and unaffected charm of the old-time style. When the philosopher Favorinus read this passage from that work, he used to say that his mind was stirred and affected by no less emotion and excitement than if he were himself an eye-witness of their contest.

I have added the words of Quintus Claudius in which that battle is pictured: In the meantime a Gaul came forward, who was naked except for a shield and two swords and the ornament of a neck-chain and bracelets; in strength and size, in youthful vigour and in courage as well, he excelled all the rest. In the very height of the battle, when the two armies were fighting with the utmost ardour, he began to make signs with his hand to both sides, to cease fighting. The combat ceased. As soon as silence was secured, he called out in a mighty voice that if anyone wished to engage him in single combat, he should come forward. This no one dared do, because of his great size and savage aspect. Then the Gaul began to laugh at them and to stick out his tongue. This at once roused the great indignation of one Titus Manlius, a youth of the highest birth, that such an insult should be offered his country, and that no one from so great an army should accept the challenge. He, as I say, stepped forth, and would not suffer Roman valour to be shamefully tarnished by a Gaul. Armed with a foot-soldier’s shield and a Spanish sword, he confronted the Gaul. Their meeting took place on the very bridge, in the presence of both armies, amid great apprehension. Thus they confronted each other, as I said before: the Gaul, according to his method of fighting, with shield advanced and awaiting an attack; Manlius, relying on courage rather than skill, struck shield against shield, and threw the Gaul off his balance. While the Gaul was trying to regain the same position, Manlius again struck shield against shield, and again forced the man to change his ground. In this fashion he slipped in under the Gaul’s sword and stabbed him in the breast with his Spanish blade. Then at once with the same mode of attack he struck his adversary’s right shoulder, and he did not give ground at all until he overthrew him, without giving the Gaul a chance to strike a blow. After he had overthrown him, he cut off his head, tore off his neck-chain, and put it, covered with blood as it was, around his own neck. Because of this act, he himself and his descendants had the surname Torquatus.” -Claudius Quadrigarius (Roman, 1st century)

“When the horsemen of Galatai were engaged, the servants remained behind the ranks and proved useful in the following way: if a horseman or his horse should fall, the slave brought him a horse to mount; if the rider was killed, the slave mounted the horse in his master’s place; if both rider and horse were killed, there was a mounted man ready. When a rider was wounded, one slave brought back to camp the wounded man, while the other took his vacant place in the ranks. I believe that the Galatai in adopting these methods copied the Persian regiment of the Ten Thousand, who were called the Immortals. There was, however, this difference: the Persians used to wait until the battle was over before replacing casualties, while the Galatai kept reinforcing the horsemen to their full number during the height of the action. This organization is called in their native speech trimarcisia, for I would have you know that marca is the Celtic name for a horse.” -Pausanias (Greek, 2nd century)

“All ages are most fit for military service, and the old man marches out on a campaign with a courage equal to that of the man in the prime of life; since his limbs are toughened by cold and constant toil, and he will make light of many formidable dangers.” -Ammianus Marcellinus (Roman, 3rd century)

“The kings of the east then carried on no wars without a mercenary army of Gauls; nor, if they were driven from their thrones, did they seek protection with any other people than the Gauls. Such indeed was the terror of the Gallic name, and the unvaried good fortune of their arms, that princes thought they could neither maintain their power in security, nor recover it if lost, without the assistance of Gallic velour.” -Marcus Justinus (Roman, 4th century)

For more information check out Celts and the Classical World by David Rankin or Celtic Consciousness by Robert O’Driscoll!

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Isla MacKinnon

Writer and Herbalist

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A founding member of Discover Druidry, Isla is a writer, photographer and avid gardener. She wrote the Celtic Druidry Handbook: An Evidence Based Guide.


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