celtic warfare

A Celtic warrior’s basic equipment consisted of a set of one to four spears. One was a 1.8 meters long fighting spear called a “lancea” that sometimes had very large spearheads of up to 50 centimetres in length. The others were shorter throwing spears called “gaesum” with relatively small, normally shorter than 10 centimetres long spearheads.

A warrior also had a large—about 1.2 meter high and 0.5 meters wide—leather-covered, wooden shield with a metal shield-boss. This was likely to have been decorated with painting and sometimes metal ornamentation. With this basic equipment, the average warrior usually wore his everyday clothing consisting of trousers, a shirt, and a mantle.

A must for the Celtic noble, besides his torc (neck ring), was a long-sword with a blade-length of about 0.8 to 1 meter. Those from the early period had definite swordpoints, enabling them to be used for slashing and piercing. In the later period, these swords often had rounded points that allowed only slashing attacks. In rare cases, especially in finds from the eastern Celtic world, such swords had anthropomorphic handles, the pommel most often cast from bronze in the form of a human head. Additionally, the typical noble warrior probably wore armor and helmet, all made from leather. Depending on how rich they were, nobles might have equipment such as helmets, made from bronze or iron, often elaborately decorated with ornamentation and inlays of coral or even gold. Occasionally, the helmet might have additional embellishments such as the one from the famous find at Ciumesti, Romania, which has a figure of a raven with mobile wings fixed to its crest. That helmet must have been an impressive sight when the owner moved down the battlefield. Chainmail suits, covering the body down to the knees and, most often, leaving the arms free, were very rare, and, obviously affordable by only the wealthiest nobles.

The Celtic Battle-Chariot was one of the most important symbols of power among the ancient Irish. Even though it was not used always and everywhere in the Celtic world, the battle-chariot is considered a very typical part of Celtic warfare. It was called a “carpentom” or similar term, and was a light, two-wheeled vehicle drawn by a pair of yoked horses, little more than four meters in length and less than two meters wide. The chariot consisted almost exclusively of organic material; the main metal parts were the iron tires and the iron fittings to strengthen the hubs. In some cases, metal rings and connectors were used to strengthen joints and flexible connections. What made the Celtic chariot so special, however, was that the chariot-platform was not fixed to the axle but hung free in a rope suspension. This made it a lot more comfortable to drive and a lot easier to fight from.

Usually two persons rode in the chariot. The charioteer sat in the open front of the chariot and actually drove. The warrior stood behind the charioteer and threw his spears from the chariot before alighting and fighting on foot. The charioteer stayed close enough to retrieve his warrior and carry him away from the battle if he were wounded or killed. This system is well documented in the Irish Ulster Cycle, as well as in the works of Roman and Greek historians.

Celtic Warrior Bands are Also quite typical among the Celts were warrior-bands like the Irish fianna or the Gaesates who fought in the Italian Wars against the Romans. Such warbands consisted mainly of young men led by charismatic leaders like the Irish Fionn Mac Cumhaill or the two kings of the Gaesates. The latter seem to have been used as high response troops in battle, according to the Roman sources. Most probably these groups had a religious dimension, requiring various initiation rituals for membership. They most probably enjoyed a special status in Celtic society. Members of these warrior bands probably were known for performing heroic feats. For example, historians recorded that the Gaesates fought naked in the battles in the Po valley in Italy where the Cisalpine Celts opposed the Romans. Most notably these warbands seem to have consisted mostly or even exclusively of infantry.

in contrast to the rigid Roman military organisation, Celtic warriors seem to have been much less used to fighting in formations and organized units. The records we have from ancient historians paint the picture of mostly unorganised groups. The ancient Celtic warriors engaged their enemy as if they would defeat them simply by overrunning them, trusting their brute force more than elaborate tactics and clever strategies. This may well be due to a trait of Celtic mentality, which valued individual prowess with arms and heroic feats more than fighting in tight groups and trusting in the combined power of many men in close military formations.

Military organisation seems to have been based, in case of the infantry, more on where one came from than the type of weapons one carried, although chariots and/or cavalry were set aside to fight together. The warbands, who were most likely the high response troops of the Celts, often formed the first line of the infantry, hurling themselves upon the enemy in the first assault.

In battles, the Celts also made use of what has been dubbed “psychological warfare.” Before actually engaging the enemy, they are said to having made a horrible noise by clashing their weapons against their shields, crying and singing, with horns (carnyx) being blown and maybe drums being beaten. In the early period, these practices, together with the wild onslaught by the first lines of warriors, seems to have shocked Roman troops so that much that they simply gave way and fled from the field in fear for their lives. Also, before the actual fight, the Celtic war leaders paraded in front of their troops, performing heroic feats, proclaiming their own deeds, belittling their enemies, and challenging enemy leaders to duels. The results of these individual combats were apparently regarded as omens of the outcome of the battle.

However fierce that first onslaught, the ancient Celts had, according to the ancient historians, little endurance. If their first assault didn’t succeed, the Celtic forces were easy to defeat, or so the historians say. On the other hand, the historians might have been perpetuating the image of the Celts as barbarians by ascribing superior physical strength but less endurance to them, especially since endurance was regarded as one of the primary Roman virtues. Evidently, to actually defeat the Celts was not as easy as the ancient historians wanted their readers to believe, since quite a number of reports tell us that the Celts continued to fight valiantly to the end, even when the battle already was lost. Often the Celts were depicted as killing themselves and their close relatives rather than surrendering and being sold into slavery.

However, the most of the battles seem to have been rather small, involving only a few warriors on both sides. Most probably they occurred as a result of raids on neighbouring tribes or in the Irish story of the cattle raid of Cooley. Raiding was a practice well-attested for the Irish as late as the 15th century CE. Of course, if such a raiding party were intercepted, a battle would result. We also should assume that raids were not limited to cattle but could well have targeted other valuables or slaves. Such raids, of course, brought retribution which could, of course, lead to larger military operations. Most such raids and military operations probably were taken up in late spring, when weather and agricultural necessities allowed for small and large military operations to take place.


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