Celtic Warrior: Greek and Roman Accounts

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Their [Celtic warriors] songs as they go into battle, their yells and leaping, 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

— Livy, Roman Historian

Age of the Warriors

As discussed in a previous post on APOLLO’S RAVEN, the 3rd Century was classified as the Age of the Warriors for the Continental Celts, based upon Greek and Roman written accounts of their exploits. Burial sites also provide evidence that the warrior nobility was the dominant social group in the Celtic society, as evidenced by the stockpile of swords, lances, armor and shields in the burial sites. The emphasis on weaponry suggests a society geared for war.

Celtic Horned Helmet

Celtic Horned Helmet Found at River Thames Date 150-50BC

Many Celts searched for fame and fortune in the rich, exotic Mediterranean world, in the hope of returning home with their reputations made. Many young warriors sought mercenary service that removed them from the tribe at a time when their drive to achieve high status was most intense. The Greek historian Strabo wrote: “The whole race is war mad, high-spirited and quick to battle.”

Coastline Marseille, France

Marseille Mediterranean Coastline

The stereotypical image of the Celtic warrior was engraved onto the consciousness of Greeks and Romans after their fierce encounters with these pillagers.

Greek Accounts

Celtic groups moved southeast that took some of them through the Balkans, into Greece and across into Asia Minor. During this age, many foreign armies used Celtic mercenaries in their ranks, including Greece, Macedonia, Sicily, and Egypt. It is known that Alexander the Great had established friendly relations with Celts in the Balkans before embarking upon his campaigns in Asia.

Celtic Shield British Museum

Celtic Shield La Tène Style

What encouraged the Celts to continue their mass invasion into Macedonia in the early 3rd Century BC is uncertain, but the area was in turmoil after the break-up of Alexander’s empire. In 280 B.C., Celtic hoards led by Brennus pillaged Macedonia and, then in the middle of winter, some thirty thousand warriors attacked Greece itself. The Greek author Pausanias wrote that Brennus campaigned against Greece to take advantage of the nation’s weakness at the time and to gain even greater wealth from its great sanctuaries. The richest of these was Delphi located high on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, where a temple had been dedicated for the worship of Apollo.

Apollo-WaltersArs

Apollo, God of Sun


Brennus had initial success, but his army was ultimately defeated by forces of nature: lightning, hail, and landslides. Terrified, the Celtic leader interpreted these natural forces as punishment from the gods, and he withdrew his army. The retreating Celtic forces suffered retribution at the hands of the Greeks and subsequently,  Brennus committed suicide.

The Greek historian Polybius wrote of one encounter of how the Celtic enemies were terrified by the dreadful din of innumerable horn blowers and trumpeters, the whole army shouting their war cries. After these events, the Celtic fury was deeply etched in the Greek minds.

Celtic Carnyx War Horn

Celtic Carnyx Serpent War Horn


Roman Accounts

In 391 B.C., Celtic warriors marched on Rome and captured the entire city, except for the capital which was saved by the Roman garrison. After receiving a bribe of one thousand pounds of gold, the Celtic attackers moved northward to what would be known as Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy). From this time forward, the Celtic attacks were so numerous upon the Roman territory that it can be argued that the city was obliged to become a major military power—the first step towards becoming a world power—because of their need to crush the Celtic barbarians. During the long conflict between 390-285 B.C., the Celts were a close-range threat. The best known Celtic mercenaries were those who joined Hannibal during his invasion of Italy during the Second Punic War and helped contribute to his victories. Hence, Rome’s image of the fierce Celtic warriors was created.

Celtic Battersea Shield

Celtic Battersea Shield

In 225 B.C., another group of Celtic mercenaries came south over the Alps to fight with the Cispalpine Gauls against the Romans in the Battle of Telamon. These Celtic mercenaries were called the Gaesataetranslated as ‘spearmen’. These mercenary warriors were a distinct group outside the normal social structure of the clan and tribe. The custom of the Gaesatae was to appear naked on the field of battle, a ritual action to demonstrate their ferocity and lack of fear. The Romans threw volleys of javelins at the naked Gaesatae who fought only with small shields. Some of them rushed wildly at the Romans and were slaughtered. Others withdrew, their retreat causing disorder among their allies.

Dying Gladiator

Statue of Dying Gaul

According to Caesar, the bravery of Celts sprang from their lack of fear of death. They believed the soul did not die. The classical authors, Lucan and Diodorus Siculus, emphasized the Celt’s belief in metempsychosis—that after death the soul passes from one body to another. Welsh and Irish mythologies talk about the easy passage to and fro from the physical world to the Otherworld, the world of the dead.

In his accounts, Julius Caesar regarded only two classes of any status in the Celtic society—the druids (priests) and the knights (noble warriors)—which were evidenced in Irish and Welsh culture. Druids were recruited from the sons and daughters of free-born warriors. They officiated the worship of the gods and interpreted divine purpose and will. The druids had a strong political role in this warrior society.

Julius Caesar Statue

Statue of Julius Caesar

The next posts will further describe the Celtic warrior culture and their religious beliefs.

References:

John Davies, The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day;  2005; United States: Sterling Publishing Co., New York.
Stephen Allen, Celtic Warrior: 300 BC — AD 100; 2001 Osprey Publishing LTD., Westminster, MD, USA.
Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.

 

6 Responses to "Celtic Warrior: Greek and Roman Accounts"
  1. Luciana says:

    Going to have to re-read Pausanias works, I have forgotten about the Celtic invasion of Macedonia after Alexander the Great’s death. My bad!

    No wonder the Celts were fearsome! They didn’t fear death much like the Spartans but though for different reasons.

    Excellent article Linnea.

    • Thanks, Luciana for your comments. It is fascinating to learn of the widespread migration and invasion of Celts into the Mediterranean area, including Greece. I appreciate your support and enjoy reading your Greek Mythology posts for Eternal Atlantis http://luccav.com/

  2. Tom says:

    Very Good Job!

  3. Aquileana says:

    Such an interesting post dear Linnea. I particularly enjoyed the part when you mentioned the roman accounts regarding the lack of fear of death of of Celts thus their bravery and courage.
    And that emphasized by the belief in the immortality of the soul and the metempsychosis.
    Thanks a lot for sharing!.
    All my very best wishes to you, Aquileana 🙂

    • Thank you, Aquileana, for your comments. I’m also fascinated by the Celtic belief in the immortality of the soul and its similarity to the beliefs of the Greek Philosopher, Pythagoras. The concept of shape shifting commonly used in Celtic mythology may have been based on this philosophy that the human soul could transmigrate into other kinds of animals. I will be discussing this concept further in my next post as the power to shape shift will ultimately be one of the powers my Celtic heroine will be able to perform in the series of novels I am writing. It is always fascinating to see similarity of beliefs among the ancient philosophies. I encourage my readers also to check your website on Greek Mythology and Philosophy aquileana.wordpress.com

      Thank you for your continued support. Have a wonderful week.

      Regards,
      Linnea

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