Celts in Battle

Some accounts speak of how the Celts would roar and bang on their shield taunting their enemies prior to rushing into the battle. (The Celts believed in what was called “furor” or a spiritual frenzy while in battle) They were known to be barbaric but also excellent warriors. It was once said that the Celts could be seen going into battle naked. This can be found in Roman texts about the Celts.

The Romans accounts of the Celts in Battle were gruesome, but it is, for the most part, the only traceable accounts of their warfare. It is often said that Caesar paid the Celts to war with other tribes or lands and often “played” the Celts against others as well. Celtic Woman were highly respected and treated as equal as the men. Even in battle. Some Celtic Women even ended up to be leaders such as Aife and Maeve of Ireland. Another element of war in medieval Ireland, and, as related to us by classical authors,15 among the Continental Celts, was the use of both noise and poetic performance in armed conflict. On a campaign in Gallograecia, the consul Gnaeus Manlius informs his men about the Gauls:

“Tall bodies, long reddish hair, huge shield, very long swords; in addition, songs as they go into battle and yells and leapings and the dreadful din of arms as they clash shields according to some ancestral custom all these are deliberately used to terrify their foes” (Livy XXXVIII.17.4-5 [Trans. Foster]).

The consul’s words to his forces are echoed throughout classical writing on the Celtic peoples. The most often attested sounds are the battle cry,16 songs,17 and a general din.18 Polybius adds trumpets as well:

“[The Romans] were terrified by the fine order of the Celtic host and the dreadful din, for there were innumerable horn-blowers and trumpeters, and, as the whole army were shouting their war-cries at the same time, there was such a tumult of sound that it seemed that not only the trumpets and the soldiers but all the country
round had got a voice and caught up the cry” (Histories II.29.5-7[Trans. Paton]).

This practice was effective. The Romans were known to run away simply in terror at the “unfamiliar din” (Livy X.28.8-10, and XXXVIII.17.6). On one occasion, Livy tells us that the Romans ran before they even saw the Gauls(Livy V.38.6-9).

They were known to be great forgers of iron and made their own swords and shields. They also carried long spears which they also made from findings in Nature. It is also said that they went into battle with their hair spiked with lime and blue patterns painted on their flesh. Battle was often a way of life for them and they would even sell this service to create material gains.

Cattle Raid
The main form of war among the medieval Irish was the cattle raid, which was in spirit more comparable to one urban gang “riding on” another than to our modern conception of “war.” In the literature, the story of a cattle raid was called a táin. It would be futile to attempt to assess the importance of the role played by cattle in Ireland without devoting considerable attention to cattle raiding. Nothing in Irish society is better documented over so long a period. It is the most typical and abiding event recorded in the annals down the centuries and it pervades almost every branch of Irish literature. In some cases the crech was planned as retaliation for a previous raid, for the death of someone during a previous raid, for the death of someone in a ruling family, or for slights to personal dignity. However, personal gain of cattle and prestige was generally enough motivation (Lucas 1989: 159). Another practice which sounds suspiciously like a specialized incarnation of the cattle raid is the crech ríg, literally a ‘king’s raid,’ a raid led by a newly-elected king on the herds of the traditional enemies of his people in order to celebrate his inauguration, demonstrate his suitability for office, and gain him a heroic reputation, as well as the cattle necessary to being a generous host. According to Pádraig Ó Riain, there is evidence for this practice from 1083 to c. 1600 (1973-74: 24, 29-30). Lucas notes possible records of inaugurations raids from 628 on (Lucas 1989: 146). According to Lucas, this ritual raid by the new king may have been only a specialized extension of an initiation ceremony involving all the young males of the tribe (1989: 148). He cites the following passage from the Middle Irish Cóir Anmann ‘Fitness of Names’:

Celts in Battle through Roman Eyes
Polybius, who lived between about 202 and 120 BC, gives a full account of how the Celts fought at the battle of Telamon in 225 BC; it is worth quoting at length because it highlights several recurring characteristics: ‘The Celts had drawn up the Gaesatae from the Alps to face their enemies on the rear … and behind them the Insubres …. The Insubres and the 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 would 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 shouting 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 gold torcs 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. ‘… to the Celts in the rear their trousers and cloaks afforded good protection, but to the naked men in front events turned out differently to what they had expected and caused them much discomfiture and distress. For since the Gallic shield cannot cover the whole body, because they were naked, thebigger they were, the more chance there was of missiles striking home. At length, unable to ward off the javelin throwers because of the distance and the number of javelins falling upon them, in despair and distress some rushed upon the enemy in wild rage and willingly gave up their lives; others, retreating step by step towards their comrades, threw them intoconfusion by their manifest show of cowardice.’

The ancient writers dwelt upon the terrifying effect an army of Celts had on their opponents; their great stature, their wild cries, their gesticulations and prancings, the clashing of arms and blowing of trumpets – all combined to terrify and confuse the enemy. As long as these demonstrations of enthusiasm and bravado struck terror into the foe, the Celts would drive all before them. ‘For they were always most formidable while they were fresh.’ The whole race is war-mad, says Strabo, high-spirited and quick to fight, but otherwise straightforward and not at all of evil character. When the two armies were arrayed in line, the loud voice of the Celtic chief could sometimes be heard. ‘For they were accustomed … to come forward before the front line and challenge the bravest of the enemy drawn up opposite them to single combat, brandishing their weapons and terrifying the enemy. Whenever one accepts the challenge, they praise in song the manly virtues of their ancestors, proclaiming also their own brave deeds. At the same time they abuse and belittle their opponent, trying by their words to rob him of his boldness of spirit beforehand.’ The story of how Marcus Claudius Marcellus killed a Gallic leader at Clastidium (222 BC) is typical of such encounters. Advancing with a smallish army, Marcellus met a combined force of Insubrian Gauls and Gaesatae at Clastidium. The Gallic army advanced with the usual rush and terrifying cries, and their king, Britomartus, picking out Marcellus by means of his badges of rank, made for him, shouting a challenge and brandishing his spear. Britomartus was an outstanding figure not only for his size but also for his adornments; for he was resplendent in bright colours and his armour shone with gold and silver. This armour, thought Marcellus, would be a fitting offering to the gods. He charged the Gaul, pierced his bright breastplate and cast him to the ground. It was an easy task to kill Britomartus and strip him of his armour. These spoils Marcellus offered to Jupiter. This is the only story of its kind in which the name of the Celtic chief is recorded. In their attempts to throw the enemy into confusion and terror, the Celts made great use of noise. They yelled their war cries as they advanced, howling and singing and brandishing their spears.

Livy, in two different contexts, distant in time and place, vividly depicts the noise accompanying their mad rush into battle. Describing the battle of the river Allia, he says: ‘they are given to wild outbursts and they fill  the air with hideous songs and varied shouts.’ Of the Gauls in Asia he writes: ‘their songs as they go into battle, their yells and leapings, and the dreadful noise of arms as they beat their shields in some ancestral custom – all this is done with one purpose, to terrify their enemies.’ In
sharp contrast to the wild onset of the Celts, which was evident also during their invasion of Greece, was the silent, orderly advance of the Greek army. When the Gauls defeated the Roman army at the river Allia, they marched on Rome. ‘They arrived at the city and entered at first in fear lest there should be some treachery, but then, when they saw that the city was deserted, they moved forward with equal noise and impetuosity.’

On another occasion the Romans experienced a new form of noisy warfare: ‘for standing up in chariots and wagons, the armed enemies came at them with the great noise of hooves and wheels so that the unfamiliar din terrified the horses of the Romans.’ There was also the noise of trumpets. At the battle of Telamon the number of trumpeters and horn blowers was incalculable. Diodorus Siculus says they had trumpets peculiar to barbarians: ‘for when they blow upon them, they produce a harsh sound, suitable to the tumult of war.’ The Gauls also had their shouts of victory and triumph. ‘They shouted “Victory, Victory” in their customary fashion and raised their yell of triumph (Ululatus)’, and at Alesia ‘they encouraged their men with shouts of triumph (Clamore et Ululatu)’. There are several representations of Celtic trumpets on classical sculpture, most notably at Pergamon in Asia Minor, and on the triumphal arch at Orange in  southern France, and a few fragments of actual trumpets have survived. The mouth of a trumpet shaped in the manner of a boar’s head was found in 1816 at Deskford (Banffshire, Grampian); although the trumpet itself no longer
survives, the mouth may be compared with the representations on the cauldron from Gundestrup in Denmark, where the sectional nature of the trumpet construction is clearly shown. The Deskford trumpet may originally have had ears and a mane rather like the Gundestrup examples; when first discovered, however, it retained a movable wooden ‘tongue’ which may have  added vibration to the strident sounds blown from it. The Deskford piece isusually dated to the middle of the first century AD. Among the earlier representations of trumpets are those from the temple of Athena Polias Nikephoros at Pergamon in Asia Minor dating to about 181 BC and celebrating the victories of Attalus I over the Galatian tribes in the late third century BC. Trumpets, shields, standards, indeed all the trophies are set out in a great display of spoils of war on the triumphal arch at Orange. The large number of trumpets shown at Orange underlines the impression of great noise during battle given by the classical writers. As already mentioned, Polybius describes a contingent of Gaesatae (sometimes taken as mercenaries, now more often as spearmen, which took part in the battle of Telamon; they came from beyond the Alps to help the Gauls already in north Italy (for example the Boii and the Insubres).

The Celts of north Italy wore trousers and cloaks, but the Gaesatae fought naked. At the battle of Cannae (216 BC) Polybius describes the naked Celts and the Iberians with their short linen tunics with purple borders, and Livy speaks of the Gauls naked from the navel up and of the Iberians with dazzlingly white tunics bordered with purple. The Celts in Asia Minor seem to have preserved this custom, for they too are described as naked in battle with skin white because they were never exposed except in battle. Camillus, trying to raise the morale of the Romans after the siege of the Capitol, pointed to some naked Gauls and said: ‘These are the men who rush against you in battle, who raise loud shouts, clash their arms and long swords, and toss their hair. Look at their lack of hardiness, their soft and flabby bodies, and go to it’. Dionysus of Halicarnassus expresses the same sentiments: ‘Our enemies fight bare-headed, their breasts, sides thighs, legs are all bare, and they have no protection except from their shields; their weapons of defence are thin spears and long swords. What injury could their long hair, their fierce looks, the clashing of their arms and the brandishing of their arms do us? These are mere symbols of barbarian boastfulness.’

Diodorus Siculus has given us a comprehensive description of Celtic armour and weapons: ‘For arms 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 iron 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 round their tunics. They brandish spears which are called Lanciae and which have iron heads a cubit in length and even more, and a little less than two palms in breadth: for their swords are not shorter than the spears of others, and the heads of their spears are longer than the swords of others. Some of these are forged straight, others are twisted and have a spiral form for their whole length, so that the blow may not only cut the flesh but also tear it in pieces and so that the withdrawal of the spear may lacerate the wound.’