The Celts at War
As was mentioned previously, most people today only know the Celts as mighty warriors. And, were they ever! They were greatly feared by other people because of their fierceness in battle. They painted their faces and bodies to appear grotesque. They yelled fiercely and gave blood-curdling screams as they attacked. They also used ferocious dogs trained to attack alongside them. All of this combined to instill fear in the enemy.
The Celts become great enemies of the Romans when they sacked the city in 390 BC. They stayed only seven months but controlled Rome for forty years. During this period the Roman army, which consisted of normal citizens who only became soldiers when necessary, was disbanded by one of the generals, Caius Marius. (1) Marius recruited professional soldiers. Unlike the citizen army of the past, these men trained as a coordinated fighting machine. This army, under Julius Caesar, would later conquer most of the known world and, after eight years, finally defeat the Celts.
The Celts invaded Greece in the third century BC and sacked Delphi, a city that was not only important, but to some, a holy place. Though they may have raided Delphi, it was not an easy battle. They were pushed back out of the city by Greek soldiers and suffered heavy losses. (2)
Celtic fighters were highly regarded and respected by other armies, to the extent that some of them hired themselves out as mercenaries by other countries. The Greeks, Macedonians, Carthaginians and Egyptians hired Celtic Cavalry. Even though the Romans hated the Celts and could not forgive them for sacking Rome, they hired Celtic mercenaries. (3)
The Celts were innovative even in war. Usually thought of as a medieval weapon, the lance was used by Celts as early as the seventh century BC. First used as a hunting weapon to kill wild animals from chariots and horseback, the Celts were quick to see the advantage this weapon would have over an infantry unit.
The use of iron wheel rims and horseshoes, which gave the Celts longer range in combat, coupled with the use of the lance made them a formidable enemy. Thus the Celtic Cavalry was born.
A group of Galatian Celts, who lived in an area that is now part of Turkey, were defeated in a minor battle by the king of Pergamum, Attalus I. Pergamum was a Greek city near the Celtic settlement in Turkey. In honor of his victory, Attalus had several sculptures done depicting Celts in defeat. Many copies of these statues were made and distributed throughout Greece and Rome. (4)
Two statues remain today in a museum in Rome. One depicts a naked wounded Celt awaiting death. The other is of a Celtic soldier stabbing himself to avoid capture. Both of these statues show the men naked except for a torque or ring worn around the neck. This has given the false impression that the Celts fought in the nude. There was a small group of Celtic warriors who fought that way, but it was done for religious purposes. Besides, in earlier times the Greek armies were known to fight naked. (5)
Clothing was worn by the warrior and most wore some form of armor. The armor may have been leather padding or metal plates similar to that worn by the Romans. About 300 BC chain-mail appeared. It was a series of small metal circles inter-linked to form a shirt-like covering. This form of armor which was quite heavy, approximately 35 pounds, was also very difficult to make because of the intricacies of making and linking the rings. It was not very common because of the expense of making it. (6)
It is thought by many that women were members of the Celtic armies. The classic Greek and Roman historians have claimed the women fought as strongly and bravely as the men and were their equal in battle. (7) There does not seem to be any hard evidence to support this. Though women were known to watch the battles and, when in council, to vote for war, there seems to have been only a few who actually participated in the actual fighting. (8)