Celtic Civilization & Warfare

The Tectosages, the Trocmii, and Tolistobogii belongs to a vast "celtic" civilization, which never was united, but divided into multiple small nations spread around Europe, from Romania to the British Isles or Spain. They all shared common beliefs and language, and shared a relatively similar approach to warfare.


Collage of various references, mostly Anfus Mc Bride's Celts.

Origins of the Celts

Everybody agrees today to the Indo-Aryan ancestry of ancient Celtic tribes. If the Indo-European ethnolinguistic group is well defined, there is still much uncertaintly and debate over Pre-Celtic roots of this population. All we know is that the Bronze Age Urnfield culture of Central Europe's own proto-Celtic had strong bonds with the ancient Indo-Aryan language tree, shared vocabulary and some societal similarities, like the social division between priests, warriors and the commoners.

Archaic Celtic culture started to evolve as early as 1200 B.C. And Celts spread throughout western Europe from the first central European, clearly identified "arrival point" spreading into modern Britain, Ireland, France and Spain. There, they gradually settled during the beaker culture and afterwards in a slow migration southwards and westwards.

In ancient days there was one great culture, "from India to Ireland". The Wise class acted as healer, counselor and priest. Men and Women devoted their lives to learning and working the accumulated lore of their peoples. They spent years in study, ritual and meditation. They spoke to and with Goddesses and Spirits, made magic and taught wisdom. They were the memory and Justice of the folk. These Wise were known under many names, in the many tongues of the ancient world. "Brahman" among the Aryans, "Alamen" and "Alamenca" among the Latins, "Gothi" among the Germannic tribes, and among the Celts, "Druidh".

These ancient Celts did not categorize these elements as earth, air, fire, and water as the ancient Greeks, but instead preserved a much older tradition of the early Indo European list of elements. It has long been a cliche that Celtic ancestors worshipped rocks, trees and "senseless" things. There were a seperate people wistful old wizards who either pined mystically in the misty glades or butchered everyone who wandered into their gruesome groves. They are popular misconceptions. Sacred grounds or places are common to most religions, and there is no exception with Celtic forebears, this sacred ground was called a nemeton in Gaulish, later declined into Brythonic, meaning "sacred place".

About Celtic warfare: It is obvious that the Celts bring with them a social class stratification which included a warriors class, which was still instrumental in shaping the Celtic armies, but also loyalty bonds, lords and their "clients", bodyguards, champions (in the Homeric tradition) and degrees of vassality. They also bring with them cavalry skills, although it is possible they were reintroduced at some point from the east.

About Celtic clothing: Indeed depictions by modern Historians of late bronze age celts and ealry iron age showed Celts wearing tunics, although they could have worn narrow body trousers or leggins such as those used by the Indians and Persians. It is said that the Bracca, the gallic trousers, were reintroduced from the East by Scythians and linked with horsemanship. Whatever the case, Gallic cavalrymen were reputed during the Imperial age. According to Diodorus Siculus, "They wear brightly coloured and embroidered shirts, with trousers called bracae and cloaks fastened at the shoulder with a brooch, heavy in winter, light in summer.

These cloaks are striped or checkered in design, with the separate checks close together and in various colours". This is the alpha and omega of today's depiction of the Celts. The thick cloak was also worn by the Germans, Dacians, Getic and Thracian people (and boots) whose winters were more severe than milder Italy and Greece. There is also a general acception that in battle (between Gauls), nobles and warriors in generals wore their cloak wrapped around their chest rather than free-flowing for ease of movements and a recoigination pattern based on colors and motives which was transmitted through time to the Scots and Irish (The famous Tartan that identified clans).

Hallstatt culture (c.800–450 BC)

This period saw the appearance of a predominant Western and Central European Celtic culture in the Late Bronze Age (Hallstatt A, Hallstatt B) 12th-8th Centuries BC (Urnfield culture) and Early encompassing the Iron Age (Hallstatt C, Hallstatt D), and 8th-6th centuries BC and followed by the La Tène culture. This was about the Proto-Celtic and Celtic populations in Western Europe but also encompassed the (pre-)Illyrians (eastern Hallstatt). These early Celtic were depicted wearing tunics with no trousers, or leggins, armed with metal axes and spears.

Halstatt swords
Halstatt swords were no longer bronze-made, but still small and relatively brittle given the fundry tech of the time. Their designed proceeded from Bronze swords and were generally small in lenght, precisely due to limitations in iron-making, overall quality and forging techniques. The discovery of carbon to mix in the process was introduced relatively later. By simple logic it is clear that status weaponry like swords and daggers were reserved to the warrior class, whereas peasant levies were armed with cheaper weapons, spears and axes wich required less material, and work tools, hammers and falx (the peasant sica of the Getics and Thracians).

Protection-wise, we known little about the gear of Celtic warriors of the time, notably because of primitive and unreliable depiction of ancient wariors - both in the shape of standing statues (Like the warrior of Hirschlanden) and metal work that survived (Like the Detail from the Vače situla, Slovenia, details on the Vix vase, the Slovenian belt plate, Gunderstrup cauldron). But also because only iron and bronze survived, leaving us with an idea of the gear used by Nobles and Warriors, supposed to be wealthy enough to afford metallic armor.

Helmet wise, Halstatt left us with a modernized version of the Negau helmet (many were discovered in Slovenia, dating back from 450 BC–350 BC, so La Tène era); Also commonly called the "pot helmet" it was supposed to have been widely adopted due to its ease of manufacturing. The idea of neck guards and cheek guards was not yet there. The Illyrians still kept it across centuries, just like they kept an obsolete early type of pre-Corinthian helmet. The "pot helmet" could have been a simple cooking pot used had oc as an helmet and used for both purposes, although a proper military model was derived from it.

Crest Negau type

The Villanovan Etruscan helmet. A famous type of early helmet emerged, based on the simple pot style, adorned with a large metallic "sail" for psychological effect, to make the wearer look taller and more impressive. This psychological aspect went a long way, through the Greek crests (also used by the Celts), plumes in horse hair and feathers (such as the Romans Monteforino models). Another proper military helmet derived from the Negau was the Kleinklein, supporting a double rim, probably used to lock a crest on top. It was widely used both by Halstatt Celts and the Illyrians. Celtic helmet Left: The "Berru" or "Marne" pointed helmet is typical of the Gauls around 500 BC, so late Haslatt/transitional La Tène. More elaborated but still without cheekguards (some reconstitutions shows leather ones), and a primitive neck guard. These impressive pieces of headgear however tended to disappear with time, as more functional models takes precedence. It is likely they survived in more elborated shapes and finitions for chieftains (for reconnaissance on the battlefield) and a prestige marker or for ceremonial purposes.

Body Armor: A wide and still much discusses topic, as we are left with few clues about what kind of armour Celtic warriors used. The only surviving examples, are bronze breastplates, comparable to the Greek ones, used by Hoplites in the seventh to fourth Century BC. They are often decorated with primitive anamorphic patterns, and simple embossed motives. These cuirasses has been around throughout Europe, also wore by Illyrian, Thracian and Getic elites or Italian peoples. There are several theories about their abandon in the La Tène period, bu the more likely explanation is the widespread adoption of chanmail (Like the Imperia era Vachères Gallic warrior) on one hand, and composite armours in the Greek style (as shown by rare statues found in South France like for the 'seated warrior' of Roquepertuse), which shows clearly influence of the Hellenic Linothorax.

The fact we have found few metallic armour only shows that more flexible models, in leather, perhaps a kind of northern multi-layered fabric like Linen, even wood, were more widespread. Of coirse none survived. Perhaps one day we will find a well preserved example in a northern bog, but it's unlikely as these body armour were considered les valuable for sacrifice than swords (bended). Future will tell. Another important aspect was about Celtic warfare, which tended to more mobility and flexibility (see later), and therefore getting rid of rigid or heavy armor.

La Tène culture (c. 450 BC to the Roman conquest)

This is the best known of Celtic and Gallic warfare. Long iron swords tended to steel, forge skills improved by the discovery of carbon mixed into the process, and the multiplication of metallic tooling.

Body Armor
We have only found fragments of chainmail, rusted by preserved, to confirm the invention of this form of flexible armour that endured up to the 19th century. The oldest preserved mail example was found in the Carpathian Basin, in Horný Jatov burial site in Slovakia (3rd century BC), and another in a chieftain's burial near Ciumești, Romania. They are attributed to the Celts, athough there could have been used by Dacians. Some reliefs shows patterns resembling mail in Etruscan art dating back from the 4th Century, and it is likely an evolution of the earlier scale armor. It has been theorized leather/composite armor survived when light enough to not hamper movements, but it has been linked to mobility, central in the evolution of Celtic warriors.

Simple leather jacket could have been worn also below a tunic also. However the general image we have is that only a small fraction of the warriors that can afford these, Chieftains, nobles and their retinue, bodyguards, Soldurii, so wealthy client warriors, constrasting with those using simpler leather or composite armors, such as the Ambactos and Cingetos. The latter, the core of professional warriors, would have been equipped with a simple leather jacket as said above.

There is an impact of Mobility on helmets as well, linked also to encounters with other armies during far away expeditions such as the great Balkan invasion of 280 BC by three massive Gallic armies. It also came with the fact these settled warriors near Hellenistic Kingdoms and Empires made pools of valuable mercenaries. With time, they tended to more professionalism and could afford better equipments. The tendency was towards more functional helmets. Not tall and heavily decorated but smaller, lighters, but better protecting. The best possible example is the "Coolus" helmet, from where the best preserved example was found in north-eastern France. Also called the "jockey cap" since it resembled it, this simple and unadorned model likely wore by Cingetoi, was characterized by its generous neck guard. Wide cheeguards (not found) were probably atached to it. The best hommage to this technology was the Roman use of this type about 50 years after, widespread among legionaries, replacing the old Montefortino model (also used by the Gauls around 300 BC).

The Romans borrowed the coolus model and added some extra features: Better shaped, larger and more protective cheek guards, broader neck guard, and frontal rim, which was deligned to break sword slashes, designed after the experience of the Trajanic wars. This particular model evolved into the later Imperial model, in which the cheekguard shape covered almost entirely the face. There is no example however of a face mask used by the Gauls, like the Thracians. Despite of this, Gallic (and barbarian at large) auxiliaries in the Roman army were given metallic masks to wear in addition to their helmet (hide this barbarian face!).

There is also a depiction of the same practice in the Hellenistic world, with a depiction of a masked "thorakitai", a Galatian mercenary is Hellenistic gear. However in a battle line, the Gauls stroke the ancient Latin and Greek writers for the complete lack of protection of some frontline warriors, through the famous "naked warriors" such as the Gaesatae. This has more to do with psychological warfare, the Gauls were very fond of (see later) than a practical -dubious- purpose, such as described by Polybius at Telamon (220 BC), so "not to be encumbered by their clothes in bushes and low vegetation". The reult of which was their decimation by Velites.

With growing metallurgy skills, excellent swords were forged, long, sharp, flexible, solid and symetric as to be used both for slashing and thrusting. The workmanship associated was recoignised through the Mediterranean, and Celtic metallurgy goods had an excellent reputation, imported by Greeks and Latins especially. Typical celtic swords were about 60 cm long, so much longer than the original bronze/Halstatt age leaf-shape or straight swords, 18 and 24 inches long. The size was more the result of better metallurgy capabilities than military purposes, although longer swords allowed a long reach of the enemy and seemed on paper superior to the Gladius, not a sword but it's own type, about 15 to 25 cm shorter.

However it revealed superior to the way it was used -(see later). Larger bended swords has been discovered, about 80 to 90 cm long, to the point some authors expressed the idea of some "champions" (cavaroi) fought double-handed. However since the handle was rather short it was unlikely to be used that way, and a consensus emerged among authors which now consider these extra long swords (which steel quality was quite low) were used purely for ceremonial uses: They were found ritually bended in bogs, lakes and rivers. Shorter swords were likely cheaper and simpler to make and therefore more widespread among lower-status troops (possibly lower than Cingetoi). They were likely close contact auxiliary weapons for ranged warfare units, skirmishers, javelineers, archers, slingers and the like. They were related also the Germannic ancestor of the Seaxe, barely longer than a common knife and utilitarian in nature, but still more warlike than the Roman Pugio.

Swords were attached traditionally to the warrior class. Just like the helmet, they were commonplace to those who can afford it by status and wealth, most of the Cingetoi and warriors-servants such as the Ambacts and bodyguards like Devotio and Soldures. Lenght, age and quality could have varied considerably. But alonsgide these, the spear was king. Indeed, it was certainly more common, at any level, but used mostly in the early La Tène period, whereas the sword tended to be predominant at the latter period. The best culprit was the particular suspension system of the sword scabbards and quivers. As studied by searchers they clearly showed an evolution towards a more mobile warfare, perhaps linked to long range invasions. This is linked to Gallic tactics (see later).

In early period, around 400-300 BC, Gallic warfare was more static. Torc-bearer, chieftains, nobles and warriors, took place in the center, the place of honor, close their ranks and all used a lancia, a three meters spear (which gave Lance and lancer in French and English). The particular fact about the Gallic Lancia was the size of its spearhead: Quite long, up to 50 cm from the hilt. The wooden staff was about 2,50-70 for a total lenght of about three meters, the best practical size to stay one-handed in the ancient world. Also this impressive spearhead was often leaf-shaped with inner refinements, partly decorative and utilitarian features. In any case, they could cause immense damage. The Lancia went with a form of relatively static warfare, inspire by Greek hoplites, and stayed very much in some part of Europe, as shown by Caesar's dealing with the Helvetii phalanx.

Whereas the Lancia declined, the Gaeso was certainly commonplace. In its simpler form, it was a simple, light, two meters spear. Quite versatile it could have be used for thrust as well as launched. The term "gae-" was quite ancient in origin and related to all forms of spears. "Gaesatae" came from it. The very name of "German" also derived from the "gêr", contrasted to the lighter Framea, a man-size versatile javelin. The term "Gael" seems to be related, as the same "land of the spear(men)". Gaesoi could have been used by a very large array of warriors, including those not part of the warrior class, more likely to use the heavier and more difficult to master Lancia, which came on par with wearing armor.

Trading speed for protection was also mirrored by the use of a simpler and more versatile Gaeso for non-professional troops of young Cingetoi learning their trade. Hence the "Gaisatoi", a gae-bearer literraly, which formed the bulk of Celtic armies, and possible delinations such as the "Acugaisatoi", or fast javelineer, likely a javelineer (and invention with gallic terms). Another term and weapon was the Gaballo, a kind of heavy javelin. It is not unlikely that these javelins had some influence on Roman warfare and the design of the famous Pilum. However it is more likely an adaptation of the Celtiberian Soliferum, an all-metal heavy javelin.

Lighter troops, mustered in the battle line to bolster numbers outside the warrior class used a large variety of weapons, many utilitarians like the bow, axe, mace, crude javelin, falx, and knife. Bowmen used straight bows and were hunters, usually foresters, whereas peasants used more likely simple hunting spears, sickles, maces, hammers, and axes. Like in other cultures slingers were often shepherds. Axe and maces warriors were by default "batoroi" or "battlers", "strikers", picked-up to breakthough a shieldwall. The needed to be at the same time agressive, tall, strong and brave. The rear-line infantry and baggage train protection was likely to be spear-armed peasants. The spear was a good choice as to not require intensive training and was mostly use to keep a more professional melee infantry at a distance, acting as an active protection.

Celts or Gauls ?

Detailed map of ancient Gallic tribes.

If these terms somewhat appeared intermingled they are not, both in meaning and use: The "Celts" or "Keltoi" in Greek are assimilated to a larger group of peoples that we understand includes homogenous groups such as the Gauls, Britons, Celtiberians, and Germannic Tribes (of Celtic stock). Therefore it is commonly accepted that the "Gauls" are known inhabitants of what is now roughly modern France. However modern Historians diving in Greek and Latin writings tend to separate "Celts" and "Gauls" in Gaul, proper, as they were separately called by the Greco-Roman sources. It is important to note the fastest-developing city in ancient Gaul was Massilia, founded by Greek Colonists from Asia Minor (Western Anatolia) (Phocaea) in 600 BC. From this ancient city-state, merchant traffic developed in the Rhône Valley which became in time the giant waterway going inside Gaul, driving all the good coming from northern routes, going as far as the Baltic and Briton lands.

The "Gauls" living along the banks of the Rhodanian valley and living frm this trade were soon called "Celts" and distinguished from their supposedly less civilized neighbours, the "Gauls" living further inland and not having contacts with the trading "Celts". Later these ancient trading bonds would resurface during Caesar's Gallic Campaign. Several tribes indeed took the party of Rome and Caesar, as did Massilia, such as the Aedui, settled at Bibracte and by far the richest and more powerful "allied" tribe in central Gaul. Lugdunum (now Lyon), further south on the Rodanus, was probably the largest trading port and city of Gaul at that time.

'Gauls' whatever the case would invade both northern Italy, famously sacking Rome in 390 BC, and they also lanched a great campaign in the Balkans roughly 100 years after in 280 BC. This campaign ended badly and the "Gauls" in question were driven in Thrace, where they settled in Tylis, while other came back home or settled in north Italy, and the last were driven to the tip of eastern Greece, besieging Byzantion (Modern Istanbul, former Constantinople). They were apparently driven across the Hellespont by ships sent by a petty king of Asia Minor called by Nicomedes I of Bithynia to help him secure his throne during a dynastic struggle. The peoples settled in central Anatolia, from now on called "Galatia", the famous "Galatians" of the bible.

Ancient Gaul.

Society classes

According to Caesar, there were two governing classes in Gaul, the warlike Aristocracy and the Druids, and both could be nobles. They came from afar, the old classes systems related to the indo-Aryan roots of the Celts. The warrior class is believed to be a far away link to the Indian Kshatryia class and the warrior nobility of the Parthians and Scythians. Celtic Social classes. The society order was relatively rigid, and widespread in "Barbarian Europe". The spiritual power came from the priests, the Druids which were also healers and teachers, guardians of the local history and nature. Others were judges and lawgivers. Bards were assimilated to the Druids but apparently more storytellers and the memory of the deeds of a chieftain and its tribe. The tradition wen on with a twist of language in the medieval era, with the "troubadours".

Below the two major classes were the immense majority of the population, a thord class, ranging from skilled smiths attached to a chieftain and enjoying great status, to large farm holders (like the Lady of Vix, at the head of what looked like a "Latifundia"). Rich traders of the Rhône valley were also part of this upper society, but did not formed an identified separate class. Below were peasants, foresters, hunters, the backbone of the working class, and of course, slaves, often used in these great farms. The Skilled professional class comprised the blacksmiths, metal workers, genealogists, historians, lawyers and physicians, mentioned by Roman and Greek authors. They were wealthy and respected and the combination of skills gave a special elevated status leading to more power and wealth.

Below them all were the slaves and outcasts. The first were numerous, although less than in Greek-Latin societies. Slaves went from conquered tribes and neighbouring peoples, more usually from another "exotic" culture (non-celtic). They were used as currency to pay debts or honor agreements and naturally were traded. Female slaves were the most popular, and children. They were used at many tasks and especially numerous in large households, from the Nobility and Chieftains. The outcasts or outlaws were not only “outside of the law”, they lived in wilderness areas between tribes. They were exiled for many reasons, judiciary for the most, as an alternative to death penalty. Some authors argued that they acted as some kind of police force. Many were foresters and hunters, mountaineers, which can be useful in war (they were used as archers). To "earn" this status they had been shunned by society, and therefore no longer existed in the regular society. Runaway slaves would have been also part of this lot.

Gallic Food, Tech and Wear

It is often forgotten, and was shown relatively recently by numerous archaeological surveys, but the Celtic world was all but primitive, certainly not as described by Greek and Latin authors. The image of the mustache bearing, braided blond hair, tall, muscular, loving feasting, drinking and in-fighting, and living in small huts, transpired through the XIXth Century but is now largely replaced by a more complete and complex image, not tarnished by the victors. The Gauls were innovative and skilled craftsmen. It is largely believed they invented a very precise solar calendar (which was discovered at Coligny), and improved greatly food industry and transport by inventing the barrel, the iron-rimmed wheel, the combined harvester, the plow, the wheat mill (and all sorts of water mills apparatus).

Gallic medecine was certainly not primitive either. A great deal of modern-looking instruments used for various surgery procedure were found in some Oppida and the Druids also knew well about Greek and Latin medical science of the time. Food was good and varied, so upper classes could hope to live 70 years and more. There was at least a description of a Gallic Chieftain 90 years old. Another aspect of Celtic society, preserved by Irish ancient texts, tells about care, to the poor, young or elderly as a moral duty from the Society. In many aspects this care was much greater than in the so-called civilized Latina nd Greek city states. Gender equality also existed, like the wealth and staus of the "Lady of Vix" shown, and women enjoyed a status that Greek and Latin women, secluded and framed by the Pater Familias, could dream of. Sexuality also was relatively more free than in the Greek-Roman society.

Wearing habits of the Celts were also richer and more complex the traditional image of the XIXth Century was about. Thanks to electronic microscopes and recent finds, crossed with decriptions, we can now portay more accutately Gauls or Celts in general. As it was said above, the most characteristic trousers (braccae) were not that widespread nor ancient. Early celts were likely to have worn tunics instead, like the Thracians, Ligurians, Veneti or Taurisci peoples. However the Chiton, the great, thick cape was always part of this gear. There was an alternative to the braccae, which were relatively large and possibly influenced by Scythian warfare, the leggins, of which a few examples were found. Also as depicted in some artwoks some kind of "short" worn notably by the Celtiberians and later adopted by the Romans as they extended their prsence in Northern Europe.

Weaving techniques were quite advanced and fabrics were of a refined quality, with intricate patterns of vivid colors. The difficulty to produce these colors and fabric complexity and finesse would have been also a marker of social status as well as jewelry, which can be exquisite in craftsmanship as well. Outside the famous Torque, which was a sociat status symbol only worn by the upper class (warriors, druids and nobles in general), a large array of goldern jewelry was used. Gaul was known to be an intensive gold producer, and Gauls liked to show their wealth in all social occasions; This alone could have well influenced Caesar before he choosed to commit himself to the conquest of the "Gauls", playing on divisions.

Gallic military tech was impressive as well. Gauls were generally credited to have invented chainmail, largely adopted by the Romans, as well as their standard helmets, first the Montefortino model (republican era) and later the simpler Coolus model that they improved in many ways. The large Legionary shield which was rimmed, is also a Celtic invention, to prevent sword blows. Another innovation which seemed to the contrary and obsolete addition to the battlefield was the chariot. It was in no way related to the ancient bronze age chariot that dominated the battlefield before the cavalry replaced it, but it's own concept. The Celtic chariot indeed was a way to carry a noble on the battlefield, in and out of the thick of the action, throwing javelins and slashing on their way (see tactics). The innovative part was both in the rimmed wheels, and the suspension system, which allowed the noble charioteer to stand at all times, while the chariot was launched at full gallop, on all terrains.

The Druids

What is Druidry? There is nothing to go on from a scholarly point of view besides the written books of lore, archeology, anthropology, and sociology. Modern takes on the subject are a starting point, presenting a vast, romantic, point of view differring from a more scholarly tradition. There was a "Celtic Twilight" movement at the turn of the Century, when all things Celtic has resurfaced again during the great social upheavals of the 1960s. Modern inheritance are the new Age and Earth mysteries movements. Modern studies includes modern takes such as the study of surviving Celtic, Eastern, native American traditions. Modernized, repackaged and reexported in a form acceptable to our own society. Mysticism and paganism are part of this view of the Celts, the druids are still seen as the guardians of this ancient wisdom, along with enigmatic standing stones and other megalithic monuments as their temples.

Due to a strong demand, Celtic Religion, reinterpreted, used a variety of sources, ancient and modern. However despite the books promising what were the gods and goddesses, festivals, the rituals, Tolkien himself admitted *Celtic* is actually a magic bag where anything can be put in. The two actual sources of potential evidence for the Druids then are the comments of the classical writers, and to a very much lesser degree, the inferences which can be drawn from the evidence of prehistory. Professor Tierney 1960 was one of the first to gather a considerable source material. It seems the available contemporary evidence presents a complex picture. Druids were involved in politics, sacricial ritual, prophecy and the control of the supernatural world. They were teachers, keepers of oral tradition, royal advisors and, ambassadors, in some instances, provisional rulers.

No doubt that the Celts carried on an active spiritual life, marked by apparitions, cults, talismans, and supernatural symbolism. The Romans added their own filter to the mix, including coldblooded human sacrices and superstitious taboos, but recoignised the important role played by the druidic elite. They are known to have acted as Judges, compiling and using calendars, display great medical knowledge and practice surgery, using ogam writing, teaching young chiefs and warriors, giving them in the end a considerable political influence. The essential base material came from Classical writers such as Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, Caesar in "De Bello Gallico", and all derived their material from a lost singled shared source, Posidonius. This Stoic philosopher who lived in the 1rst century provides the deepest insight into Celtic society, describing detailed ethnographic account of the Celts as a prelude to discussing the First transalpine war (125-131 BC). These sources disappeared but have been retaken and enriched by Diodorus, Siculus, Strabo, and Athenaeus (Barry Cunliffe). It seems also the Celtic priesthood had much more power in the Celtic world than Religious authorities in the Greco-Roman world.

The name 'druid' derives from a plural form in the Latin sources, but this word in Gaulish was singular, "druis" and plural, "druides". The other priests were the uates, the gutuater, and the uelis or ueleda, all Gallic names. Were collectively they were part of the druids, but the druid proper was the chief priest, judge and advisor of chieftains or king (Rix). According to Strabo, "Three classes were held in special honour in the Celtic society, Bards, Vates and Druids. The Bards were singers, poets, storytellers. Vates were interpreters of sacrice and natural philosophers.

The Druids were masters in science of nature, study moral philosophy. They are believed to be the most just of men, and are therefore entrusted with the decision of cases affecting either individuals or the public; indeed in former times they arbitrated in war and brought to a standstill the opponents when about to draw up in line of battle; and murder cases have been mostly entrusted to their decision... These men, as well as other authorities , have pronounced that men's souls and the universe are indestructible, although at times fire or water may temporarily prevail. The Druids were believed to be extremely wealthy, free from taxes and able to demand certain types of exorbitant payment for their services. It is very likely that high priests were surrounded by their own bodyguards just like Chieftains did. It was also not uncommon for druids to teach warfare and warrior skills, as shown by Vercingetorix youth.

Warrior class and Oppida

The most revered of the Gallic society workd on a client basis. The Chieftain represented a tribe (up to a thousand families) over a territory centered around a village. So basically the Village chieftain was the bedrock of local aristocracy, and own his position to merit only, thanks to its pas deeds. Challenging him could have been part of it. There were "higher" Chieftains which lived in important proto-urban communities in what was called the Oppida. These were fortresses placed in strategic locations and on high ground, often quite large, were surrounded by formidabe defenses of earthrworks, ditches and palissades. And for the larger ones, the famous "murus gallicus" mixing trunks, earth and stones for better rigidity.

They played the role of military strongpoints inside a wide areas, surrounded by villages, a bit like castles in medieval era; Inside were found the traditional "great house" of a chieftain (possibly called Touto-ueramos or assimilated, "People's superior"). In general this Oppida was also the place to find armaments, Chieftain's own smiths and craftsmaker, granaries and reserve in case of war or a siege, and gold. The place naturally attracted all sorts of traders and craftsmen that were not found in smaller villages and nearby populations probably ventured there for special occasions and festivities.

The range of ancient Oppida sites found throughout Gaul showed a geographical coherence as no Oppida was father from a village than a day's march and a fraction of that on horseback. Many Oppida became cities over time, and were quite large. Like the one created on an island of the Sequana (Seine river), the Oppida of the Parisii. The Manching Oppida for example (Ingolstadt, in Bavaria), emerged in the 3rd century BC and existed until c. 50-30 BC, extended over 380 hectares. Oppida could be very large but still only counting a fraction of a true urban population. There was enough surface to allow some cultures to develop for example.

The client system was everything for the warrior class. Tribal loyalty indeed often took precedence over battle tactics and therefore it was not uncommon to see in a battleline several leaders Chieftain leaving the battle at any moment. Also, the entire battleline underlined this client structure: At the head of a "nation" (an extended tribe) was either a "king" (Rix) elected to lead it, a "Brennus" to lead chieftains in a campaign, or a supreme military chief, "Vercingetorix". The Vergobret was elected by fellow Nobles but his function was sacred under the aegis of the druids, to lead his nation, with full magistrate power, and "strategos" in the Greek sense.

This was the incarnation of the executive power for a year. Laws and great political decisions linked to the life of the nation were to be executed by him. The Romans decribed it as the Princeps civitatis, the principatus, or the magistratus. The title was honored by a presence on coins made during that era, and Aedui and Remi vergobrets were displayed. Other nations, such as the Arverni rather had "Kings" (Rix) which power was much higher as they ruled for years, until they died or their power was challenged. Whatever the case, there was a hierachical pyramid within the warrior cast based on loyalty, like the medieval era with the systems of Dukes, Counts and Barons.

The Rix or Vergobret was protected by noble bodyguards on foot or mounted, including a small band of "devotio" warriors loyal to the death (Soldures). Lesser noble leaders were surrounded by a close guard of "Ambactos", "servants" but which must be understood as "sergeants". There was also often a "champion" (Cavaros) attached or chosen by the King. His presence was both an insurance for the chief to survive, and a way to avoid bloodshed, the old way, defying and winning over the rival champion, in the Homeric tradition.


The Druids were apparently using the greek grammar in Gallic. Therefore the singular "os" and "oi" was used apparently. Reconstruction of the language is difficult but not impossible, as shown by the website L'Arbre Celtique and on Verbix. Of course being a dead language partly reconstructed from other posterior written sources, it could only be a close approximation. This does not prevented Gaulish to be attractive enough for a Swiss metal bans (Eluvetie) which allows to familiarize phonetically with the language. Gaulish is known from about 800 inscriptions, short and fragmentary from calendars, accounts, funeral memorials, dedications to gods, curse tablets and coins. It was written in the Greek alphabet in southern France, with an Old Italic script similar to Etruscan of northern Italy, both under the influence of the Etruscans and Greeks from Massilia.

References to Gaulish people and place names in ancient writers texts, and several hundred Gaulish loanwords which survived in French (like "soldier", from "Soldurie"). Its main variants were the Noric (Eastern Europe) and Galatian (Turkey). Military vocabulary can be reconstructed thanks to these 800 words and prefixes. A reltively close language also was Lepontic, an Alpine language spoken by the Taurisci, Rhaeti and Veneti, and possibly also the Ligurians, which spoke their own Gallo-Italic language, an Italic base influenced by Gaulish.

Ancient Celtic Warfare

The Celtic battle line, by Genava (as Swiss specialist of Gallic warfare). This is a recreation of a typical Gallic battle line in around the 3th Century BC. It is showing by order and traduced: This is basically a "citizen army" with the difference a part of it is made of hardcore professionals and nobles. Proportiosn reflect social classes and the value of these soldiers was gradual, topping with the warrior artitocracy and their clients down to the servants of the Cingetoi (ambacts). But more than 50% was made by non-professional levies, which for a part were trained for war and another part were just here to bolster the ranks. The latter were given a simple mass-produced spear, generally distributed in the Oppida arsenal, some having their own tools to fight (falxes, hammers, sickles, and so on). Mercenaries also were part of the mix. These could have been those outcasts, as a revenue source, having little to lose. We have no idea if slaves were also enlisted. But this was a current practice, notably with the Illyrians.

A Celtic battle (Gallic Nations fighting each others, like the Arverni vs the Aedui) could be quite massive, fought on open ground, easy on the relatively flat territory of modern France. This allowed cavalry and mobile infantry tactics as well as a close formation to work well (the Celtic Phalanx). The largest battles (for which we have no writings nor any trace) could have mobilized over 50,000 men from both sides, counting not only the dominant Nation (Hegemon) and its client-states, like the Aedui confederation which also comprised the Parisii, Ambarri, Brannovices, Bellovaci, Bituriges, Segusiavi and Senones. Each nation sent its warbands, each one organized around a chieftain, about 100 to 500 men and more, as it comprised a solid core of true warriors (10%) and levies, some well trained and equipped.

Visually, of course ther was no uniform, both lines were very colorful and diverse. So how recoignising friend from foe in the Melee ? It was theorized that they could have worn their cape or caracallus around their waist. These were not randomly decorated or colored but each tribe and nation had its own patterns or colors. Colors which culd have been also be worn on plumes, crests and feathers on top of the helmets, and of course, the shields. Due to this colorized uniformity there was some recoignition on the battlefield, probably specific war cries and local accents.

Another aspect of Celtic warfare was clearly psychological: The sound level and provocations. The "Tumutus Gallicus" Caesar talked about was the reunion of several Carnyx, the typical Gallic war trumpet which sound was deep and impressive. Added to this we can guess war cries, defiance cries, provocations and shield-battering. This was particularly true towards non-Gallic troops, Latins and Greeks which were more likely to be impressed and scared. One of these tactics were naked warriors on the frontline, provoking a static enemy into a charge if needed, shouting profanities and insults if needed, or seeking duels, which were all part of the building up of a kind of "War Frenzy". This was efficient in many occasions as well as the Gallic charge which followed this "frenzy", both against the Latins (at the Allia in 390 BC for example) and Greek (beating the Macedonian King in 279 BC). But it failed at Telamon in 223 BC against a much more professionalized Roman infantry.

About the Galatians

This topic would of course be studied separately as it is quite intensive: The term was adopted retrospectively from Greek sources "Galatoi" meaning Gauls. These were a band of warriors which origins are relatively difficult to pinpoint precisely, sources are diverging and linked to the final names of the three tribes observed in Galatia later: The Tectosages (which as Volques, SE France), Trocmii and TolistoBogii. For the latter we have a clue, they could have been related to the ancient Boians (Bavarians and ancestors of the Austrian Celts) which could have joined the group. In any cases this number three falls again when speaking of the three armies that invaded the Balkans in 280 BC. One was led by Acichorios and the two others, according to Greek chroniclers, by xxx and ss.

Overpopulation and a scarcity of resources was probably behind their departures, as these were not only marauding warbands, but entire populations. In the end, one army raided Delphi but was beaten, the expedition leader, "Brennos" killing himself in shame. Another group settled in Thrace after trying to besiege Byzantium, funding the Gallo-Thracian Tylis kingdom. The third group was offered a mercenary job for the King of Bitynia Nicomedes II to help him during a dynastic struggle. After a while, this population, wether its job was done or not, paid or not, was lost, to be found again around Ancyra (now Ankara), in central Anatolia (Turkey).

They settled in these relatively arid lands, funded villages and possibly an oppida, a sacred grove and a political system, the Tetrarchia. It is known also that they fought over their neighbours and met their stauncher enemy as Pergamum under Attalus and their Roman ally Gnaeus Manlius Vulso, in the 189 BC Galatian War. An epic battle with around 90,000 men on the battlefield. The Galatians were beaten but not eliminated. They soon fell under Pontic influence, and later rule. Galaria however has been a constant pool of mercenaries for the Hellenistic powers of the time. They were freed from Pontus at the end of the Mithidatic wars and joined Rome. The Galatians survived, probably with a lot of intermarriages, until the Imperial era, and passed in the Bible as the first Christians.

The Gallo-Thracian Kingdom of Tylis

The other army whih was beaten by the Macedonian king Antigonus II Gonatas in the Battle of Lysimachia in 277 BC did not returned home or joined those crossing the Hellespont. They choosed to stay in Thrace, where they probably expelled and killed at first, but soon colonized the region and created an oppidum called Tylis. It was was founded by Comontorius, a "Verrix", in the 3rd century BC. This was located near the eastern edge of the Haemus (Balkan) Mountains (eastern Bulgaria). This was a short-lived kingdom: The last king of Tylis named "Cavarus" ("Champion") maintained good relations with Byzantium but Tylis was destroyed by the Thracians in 212 BC.

About Gallic mercenaries

The Gauls were known as formidable warriors, not only for their appearance, they one head were taller than the average Greek-Latin man, tattoed, some fought naked, and they used a intimidating psychological warfare. It seemed they were seen by some Helenistic rulers and the Carthaginians, always short of troops oto wage their wars as more valuable than the Thracians for example. The latter had a firce reputation as well, but their use as skirmishers was limited. Alongside these other known specialized mercenaries such as the Tarentines cavalrymen, the Cretan archers, the Balearic and Rhodian slingers, secured their place on any army.

The generic thureophoroi were also reputed and quite a common and versatile infantry, replacing the ancient hoplite mercenaries ("Mistophoroi"). But the Gauls bring with them skills with a sword that made them formidable melee warriors, something which was not common. Gallic swordsmen (which used relatively long swords of excellent quality) soon were in high demand. They were also found Loyal to a fault and valued honor, qualities that were much appreciated by their master.

An interesting aspect was the Galatian pool of mercenaries. Galatians were soon recruited by nearby Pontus, and the Seleucid Empire. They were opposed naturally in Coele-Syria to the Ptolemaic Empire, and impressed them so much the latter soon sent envoys in Galatia to secure their venue. They were settled in Egypt, just like Thracians and other mercenaries ("Katoikoi"). They were found in many actions over time, and eventually settled wherever they served. A famous statue indeed showed what was described as a "Galatian" looked Hellenized, with no trousers but laced boots, a Chiton, Phrygian helmet, anamorphic breastplate, and a mask, perhaps in the same way as the Romans to hide "their barbarian face". It is likely they mixed in the Army. In 166 BC, at the Daphne Parade under Antiochus IV, 5,000 Galatians were displayed naked, probably more in line with their reputation than reflecting their gear in battle.

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