Celts in Battle
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, the bigger 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 into confusion 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 is usually 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.’
CELTS THROUGH ROMAN EYES
To the Romans the Celts presented a terrifying sight because of their tall stature and their strange appearance. They were in many respects different from Mediterranean peoples. The Celts were by far the tallest race in the world, noticeable also for their white skin and fair hair. Although the Romans had heard about the barbarian Celts, they first encountered them as warriors, and it was in battle that their enormous size and strange appearance first struck them. The Celtic chiefs who advanced to challenge their opposing Roman leader to single combat were men of great physique, ‘of stature greater than human’; the story of the fight between Britomartus and Marcellus can be compared to that between Goliath and David. The triumphal procession awarded to Marcellus was said to be most remarkable for the riches of the spoils and the gigantic size of the prisoners. Diodorus Siculus describes the Celts at some length: ‘the Gauls are tall of body, with skin moist and white; their hair is blond not only by nature but also because they practise to increase artificially the peculiar nature of their colouring. Some of them shave off their beards but others let them grow moderately: the nobles shave their cheeks but let their moustaches grow freely so as to cover their mouths. Therefore, when they are eating, the moustaches become mixed in the food, and when they are drinking, the drink passes as if through a strainer.’ They had unusual styles of hairdressing; they used to smear their hair with limewater and then pull it back to the top of their head and over the neck to produce something like a horse’s mane. Tacitus tells of other similar treatments of hair found among the Germanic tribes. Thus the Suebi are distinguished from the other Germans by their particular hairstyle: ‘they comb their hair sideways and tie it in a knot … often on the very crown.’ All this elaborate hairdressing was intended to give them greater height and to terrify their enemies in battle. Silius Italicus mentions a warrior who had offered his golden locks and the ruddy top-knot on the crown of his head to Mars if he were victorious. The colour of the hair is usually referred to as fair, red or flaxencoloured and even ginger.
The men of Britain were taller than those of Gaul, but their hair was not so fair, while the Germans differed only slightly from other Celts in that they were wilder, taller and had redder hair. There is a story that Caligula, anxious to make his triumph in Rome more spectacular, in view of the small number of prisoners for display, picked out some very tall Gauls and made them not only grow their hair longer but also dye it red. Strabo, quoting an earlier source, makes a curious statement: ‘they try to avoid becoming stout and pot-bellied and any young man whose waist exceeds the measure of the normal girdle is fined.’ But such a weight-watching approach is contradicted by others writers who tell of the Gauls gorging themselves with food and drinking wine excessively so that their bodies soon become corpulent and flabby. Consequently, when they exercised their bodies, they suffered quickly from exhaustion and breathlessness. In the minds of classical writers the women were not only like their men in stature, but they could also rival them in strength.
Ammianus Marcellinus described how difficult it would be for a band of foreigners to deal with a Celt if he called in the help of his wife. For she was stronger than he was and could rain blows and kicks upon the assailants equal in force to the shots of a catapult. Boudicca, queen of the Iceni, was said to be ‘very tall and terrifying in appearance; her voice was very harsh and a great mass of red hair fell over her shoulders.’ According to Diodorus Siculus, the Celts ‘wear striking clothing, tunics dyed and embroidered in many colours, and trousers which they call Bracae; and they wear striped cloaks, fastened by a brooch, thick in winter and light in summer, worked in a variegated, closely set check pattern.’ Strabo says that instead of the ordinary tunics they wore ‘split tunics which have sleeves and reach down to their thighs. Their wool is rough and thin at the ends and from it they weave thick cloaks (SAGI) which they call Laenae.’ The poet Propertius tells how the huge Celtic chief Virdomarus, skilled in hurling his javelins from his chariot and ‘clothed in striped trousers’, boasted of his descent from the Rhine God. Three pieces of clothing are thus mentioned: trousers, tunics and cloaks. The trousers would certainly be noticed by the toga-wearing Romans. Trousers were worn especially by the cavalrymen, and the Romans themselves adopted them from the mercenary Gallic cavalry they enlisted. The tunic was probably a simple garment like a shirt, made of linen and reaching down to the thighs. There was also the slightly different style mentioned by Strabo – with slits and sleeves.
The Iberians were said to wear short tunics bordered with a purple stripe and dazzlingly white. The tunics were often dyed and embroidered and worn with a gold-plated or silver-plated belt. The cloaks were made of wool; they were heavy or light according to the season and were fastened at the shoulder by a brooch. A defeated Celtic barbarian is shown on a fragment of a monumental bronze statue from Volubilis in Roman Mauretania in north Africa; his Bracae have what Piggott has described as ‘loud and disparate check patterns’ and his cloak hangs loosely from his shoulders. Such an impression of woven designs is also given in a description of Queen Boudicca, who wore a tunis of many colours over which a thick cloak was fastened by a brooch.
An outstanding characteristic of the Celtic people was their love of decoration and ornament. ‘They collect a great quantity of gold and use it for decoration, not only the women but also the men. For they wear bracelets on the wrists and arms, necklaces of solid gold, rings of great worth and even gold corslets’ (body armour for the upper part of the torso). The torc was one of the most important ornaments worn by the Celts. It was a neck ring made of a rod of metal (sometimes twisted), of bronze or gold according to the wealth and status of the wearer. The two ends of the torc almost met, but the metal was pliant, for it had to open sufficiently to let it on or off. (See also: TORQUE). As with clothes, so with adornments, each man wore what he could afford and what status demanded. It is obvious, however, that the Celts liked to attract attention with flambuyant clothes and rich, decorative accessories. The Roman soldiers were well aware of the splendid ornaments worn by their opponents and before one battle they were told by their generals that soldiers should not be adorned with gold and silver but should rely on their weapons and their courage. These ornaments were more truly booty than arms, shining brightly before the battle but ugly in the midst of blood and wounds.
Athenaeus is the main authority on food; quoting Posidonius, he says: ‘Their food consists of a small quantity of bread and a large amount of meat’; and quoting Phylarchus, ‘Many loaves of bread are broken up and served lavishly on tables as well as pieces of meat taken from cauldrons. ‘Bread, meat (boiled in a cauldron or roasted on a spit) and fish were the staple foods. Fish was eaten, sometimes baked with salt, vinegar and cummin’. By contrast the Caledonians and the Maeatae, according to Dio, never ate fish, though it was in plentiful supply. Strabo speaks of large quantities of food, milk and all kinds of meat, especially fresh and salted pork, and of the Britons, who, though they had milk in abundance, did not make cheese. A certain etiquette and precedence were observed at table, and good eating habits were even noted. Though they were accustomed to eat voraciously, raising up whole limbs in both hands and biting off the meat, they did it in a cleanly fashion. No one started to eat without looking first to see if the chief had touched what was set before him. In extending hospitality to strangers they did not ask them who they were and what they wanted until they had eaten. At more formal gatherings or celebrations they sat in a circle with the chief or hero in the centre, his attendants and warriors around and behind him, each with a position according to his status. Drink was served from earthenware or bronze jugs and the meat on plates of bronze or in baskets. When the joints of meat were served, the chief or hero took the thigh piece. But if someone else claimed it, they joined in single combat to the death. Frequently they used some chance circumstance to start an argument and then a fight during dinner. They indulged in sham fights and practice feints and they would end up either wounding or even killing their opponent. This love of quarrelling and fighting even at a table was made all the easier, says Polybius, because they usually ate too much and drank too much.
The Celtic chiefs were accompanied in war and in piece by ‘parasites’ (the word means fellow diner and has no pejorative meaning), who sang their praises before the assembly; these entertainers were called bards. There are also descriptions of great banquets prepared by rich kings. The gestures of lordly prodigality and ostentation were typical of the autocratic tribal chief of the period. Louernius, king of the Arverni, in an attempt to win favour, is said to have ridden his chariot over a plain distributing gold and silver to all who followed him. He also gave a feast to all who wished to attend, in a vast enclosure, the sides of which were 1½ miles (2,4 km) long. He filled vats with liquor, prepared great quantities of food and ensured service without interruption for several days. A poet who arrived too late for the festivities composed a poem praising the king’s greatness and lamenting the fact he had arrived too late. So charmed was the king by the song that he gave the poet a purse of gold and won for himself a further poetic effusion. One feature which has attracted frequent comment was the ability of the Celts to drink great quantities of liquor, though one should not take Plutarch seriously when he says that the Celts were so enthralled by the new pleasure of wine drinking that they seized their arms, took their families and set off for Italy! Athenaeus says: ‘the drink of the wealthy is wine imported from Italy … This is unmixed, but sometimes a little water is added. The lower classes drink a beer made from wheat and prepared with honey … They drink from a common cup, a little at a time, not more than a mouthful, but they do it rather frequently.’ The Cimbri were said to be demoralised by the delights of wine, but the Nervii, a Gallic tribe famed for their indomitable ferocity, would not allow wine and other luxuries to be imported because they believed that with them the men would become too soft and effeminate to endure hardship. To Polybius the Celts were merely a band of marauders who later became mercenaries ready to join whichever side suited them in the war between the Romans and the Carthaginians. They were brave and ostentatiously courageous but reckless, impetuous and easily disheartened. Hannibal was eager to make use of their enthusiasm before it wore off; but the Carthaginians and the Romans too were apprehensive of the Celts, for they saw in them a lack of fidelity and a mutual treachery. It is reported that Hannibal so distrusted his new allies that he had a number of wigs made for himself, suitable for men of all ages. He was sure that by changing his wigs constantly he would make it difficult for the fickle Celts to recognise and perhaps kill him. Some writers tend to dwell mainly on their lawlessness and savagery. Cicero, for example, makes great use of this to rail against them. ‘They thought it right to sacrifice human beings to the immortal gods’ and ‘they find it necessary to propitiate the immortal gods and to defile their altars and temples with human victims.’ Polybius and Livy concentrate on the outrages committed by the Gauls and on the barbarous character of the Galatians. There was always a tendency for Greek or Roman writers to emphasize characteristics which did not conform to their code of morality and perhaps give too much credence to the more dramatic traveller’s tales. Strabo and Diodorus Siculus, while not ignoring the savagery of some Celtic practices, also describe some of the more pleasing
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.’ traits of their character.