Ancient Warfare
Dr. G. Hughes

'One must remember we are dealing with Barbarians...'
- Tacitus, Agricola, Sect. II, Line 2 (on the origins of the inhabitants of Britain)quoted


Amongst the Celts of the bronze and iron ages, warfare was a way of life. It was a rite of passage, an established industry and a test of political and moral power. Whilst the era of Celtic 'heroic warfare' covers a vast period of history (and deals with many controversial topics), tribal warfare in the Britain Isles remained unchanged for centuries. It was a stylised, ritual business of not only securing territory but social esteem, respect and rank.

Sadly, little remains in recorded history regarding the exact details of British tribal wars. Yet, there is a rich hint of these internal conflicts from the Roman perspective, that can give us an idea of just how widespread these power struggles were. They were motivated by dynastic struggles within tribes, with factions vying for control, or aggressive tribal expansion with communities encroaching upon their neighbours. The latter may even have been direct warfare between pre-Celtic and Celtic peoples but, as the origins of tribes are rarely noted, we cannot be sure. For example, Tacitus (who was quite sympathetic to the Britons) reflected a popular attitude when he wrote that there was little point in wondering about the cultural or ethnic origins of the peoples of the British Isles as they were all 'barbarians'. In a sense, this is quite understandable. To most Romans, the barbarians on the fringes of their Empire were simply a mass of uncivilised peoples; a menagerie of violent, warring tribes that blurred into a brutal and unruly whole. Consequently, many of the following issues relating to the Celts are equally true for the pre-Celtic tribes of Britain. For example, the area referred to by Tacitus as Caledonia was roughly the modern-day Highland region which lies north of the Firths of Clyde and Forth. Here, the four main tribes of the Venicones, Vacomagi, Caledonii and Taezali are believed to have been of pre-Celtic origin but still joined with their Celtic neighbours against Rome. Calgacus, the Caledonian war-leader who led the famous 'last stand' against Agricola at Mons Graupius in 84 AD., is thought to have been from either the Votadini or the Venicones; neighbouring tribes on the Firth of Forth, the first of which was Celtic, the latter pre-Celtic.

Exactly how the such tribes chose their leaders was a significant part of understanding their culture of war. In Germany, barbarian tribes elected their kings or Chieftains from a select group of noble birth and this also seems to have been a common Celtic trait. However, the selection of war leaders was based purely on the qualities of the warrior. In an age when the ability to fight well could mean the difference between survival or utter defeat for a tribal king, most were capable warriors. Some, like Cassivellaunus, Cunobelin or Caractacus of the Catuvellauni, or Venutius of the Brigantes, became exceptional war leaders. In times of danger, when tribes bound themselves together against a common enemy, such warrior kings were elected as the overall commander. Such great chieftains were accompanied by their household bards (also known as parasites) who literally sang their praises before battle and recounted the stories of their deeds in full view of the enemy.

As such, Celtic war-leaders' were expected to lead their armies conspicuously from the front. Not to do so would be an insult to the courage of the tribe and reflect badly on their honour. Failure or defeat in war was publicly unacceptable and tantamount to cowardice, the only honourable remedy for which was suicide. Given this social pressure, it is unsurprising that many Celtic leaders thrived on the opportunity to challenge their opposite numbers to single combat. This was done to bolster their own credentials as a warrior and belittle the abilities and bravery of their opponent. Throughout these opening 'posturing phases' of combat the warriors on either side would shout insults and gesticulate rudely at their foes. Sometimes, the warriors and leaders of a tribe would issue these challenges en masse, the results of which decided the outcome of a battle before it even truly began. Other times, the increasing hostility and tension fermented as these single combats were fought, guaranteeing that the battle would escalate. The constant use of the carnyx, or battle trumpet, was an effective psychological weapon too as it terrified an enemy by its harsh tones. In fact, the mass use of noise on a Celtic battlefield was of primary importance and may have been a factor in the retention of the chariot in warfare.

Whilst chariots were considered antiquated on the continent, they were still used by the Celts of Britain during this period. The confusion spread by the rumble of the wheels, neighing and hooves of the horses or the cries of the mounted warriors could easily make an enemy break and run. During Caesar's invasions of Britain in 55 and 54 BC, the use of chariots caused initial terror and shock. The British had mastered the use of this weapon and the skill, dexterity and offensive capability of expert chariot warfare was a quick, decisive way of inflicting casualties on a surprised enemy. Chariot-mounted nobles, armed with javelins, would balance themselves on the yoke as the chariot tore into enemy ranks. In many ways, Celtic noble warriors were the last exponents of true 'ancient' heroic warfare and comparisons were frequently made between them and the heroes of Homer. Like them, they rode into battle on chariots, using them as a form of 'weapon delivery system', from which they jumped into battle and fought hand-to-hand combats. The Greek writer, Diodorus Siculus, vividly described Gaulish nobles using chariots in this way, their charioteers chosen from amongst the poor and acting as their retainers and 'shield-bearers'. Once the noble warriors were in the fray, the chariots would withdraw to safety, ready to rescue their master should it be needed or bear him away if he fell in battle.

The Celts were also famed for their horsemanship, although the cavalry of the British Isles was not as widespread as it had been amongst Celts on the continent. It remained, for the most part, the privilege of those nobles or war leaders who chose not to fight in a chariot. Even at this, horses were mostly used to transfer their rider to the battle quickly, whereupon he would dismount and fight on foot. Whilst there is considerable evidence that Celts fought on horseback, it seems as if they did so in small elite squadrons. The Greek writer Pausanias noted that the Celtic cavalry of the 3rd century BC often fought in units of three; one nobleman and two 'grooms'. It seems likely that in the British Isles this 'heroic' practice of warfare was still commonplace. These war-servants had very specific duties in battle and remained behind the main battle-line until they were needed. The first groom was there to replace his master's horse should it be wounded or killed, or to bear the noble away to safety should he be injured in the fight. The second was to take his master's place in the battle should either of these occur. Supporting the cavalry, were the older warriors armed with bows or slings. They were combined with javelin armed skirmishers and dispersed amongst the mounted warriors to cover them should they be forced to retreat.

Yet, the strength of any Celtic tribal warband was undoubtedly in its infantry. Comprised of every able bodied warrior, their ferocity in battle was legendary. They were proud of their campaign scars and, it is said, that where a wound was not significant enough some Celts would 'open it up' to make it look more spectacular and gruesome. In the front ranks were the younger warriors, completely naked except for their weaponry and shields. Some sources suggest that this was to aid their movement, whilst others say that they were contemptuous of armour as a poor reflection on their valour. The warband's fierce reputation was largely down to their tactic of a headlong charge that was meant to be the deciding factor in any battle. Its sheer impetus, with the maddened yells and war-songs of the warriors, was designed to carry all before it. For this reason, if it failed, their morale quickly dissolved and the advance could suddenly turn to a panicked rout. When two such Celtic warbands clashed, the shock and brutality of the fighting must have been a terrible sight. This, combined with the practice of decapitating their enemies, made a Celtic battlefield more like a charnel house. There are many Classical accounts (notably Diodorus Siculus, Strabo and Posidonius) where a slain enemy's head would be cut off and displayed on horse bridles or above entrances to huts or halls. In some warrior's homes, such heads would be embalmed in cedar oil and kept in chests, to be shown to guests as a sign of the warrior's, or his antecedents', martial prowess. The action also had religious significance and heads were also known to have been brought to the sacred groves and temples; some skulls were even gilded and used as cups.

With such a warlike nature, it is predictable that when not fighting others, they quickly turned against themselves. The rivalry between these independent Celtic communities could stem from many areas, any one of which could swiftly lead to a savage inter-tribal war. This could be motivated by tribal expansion, with communities growing larger and encroaching upon their neighbours, or dynastic struggles within tribes with factions vying for control. This frequently extended to Celtic leaders or monarchs asking their neighbours to help them militarily in these disputes and, as time progressed, this unwisely included the powerful legions of Rome. As this power-play was an essential part of Celtic political and military life, the thought of approaching Rome to assist in domestic squabbles seemed entirely safe and natural.

In this uncertain atmosphere, exiled or allied Celtic chiefs were frequent visitors to Roman military commanders. During the first invasion, in 55 BC, Caesar was accompanied on the expedition by the king of the Atrebates, Commius. At this stage, Commius even acted as Caesar's emissary, as he was a respected figure amongst the Belgae tribal grouping of which the Atrebates were a part. Soon afterwards, however, Commius saw his opportunity and turned against Rome, eventually fleeing from Gaul and bringing his Celtic supporters with him. In 81 AD, an Irish 'prince' came to Britain to seek aid from the Roman Governor Agricola, who had established legionary posts along the western coast. This anonymous Celtic chief had been exiled following a violent tribal rebellion and, like many before him, he had come to solicit Rome's might to exact his revenge. Although we know neither his name nor tribe, it illustrates the uncertainty of retaining power within the Celtic kingdoms and the frequent battles within them. To Rome, however, any inside information they could use to end troublesome tribes on their borders was actively encouraged.

However, for as long as the Celtic and pre-Celtic peoples still possessed their warlike social structure and culture, the prospect of troublesome tribes on Roman borders was a never-ending one. To many Classical writers, it was this characteristic that made the Celtic tribes both doughty allies and fearsome enemies. The Greek observer, Ephorus, writing in the fourth century BC, believed that the Celts were one of the great four barbarian peoples in the known World. With something approaching admiration, he ranked them alongside the Libyans, the Scythians and even the mighty Persians. This bellicose reputation was still accurate in the first century AD, when the Romans fought their way through the tribal territories of Britain. The tribal wars against them, and the vicious civil wars between each other, only confirmed their status as one of the most ferocious warrior peoples of the Classical World.

As might be thought, scenario suggestions for games in this period are both colourful and unlimited. Small skirmishes, large tribal wars, campaigns for power and domination over the fertile lands of the south or beyond can all be recreated. The Celtic tactics of the iron age lend themselves well to a very fluid and exciting game of champions, challenges and mass hand-to-hand combat. So, gather your warbands to the cries of the carnyx and unleash the maelstrom of your tribe on your unsuspecting neighbours - and never forget that you are 'dealing with barbarians...'

Sources and suggested further reading:

There is a mass of published information on Celtic warfare from archaeological, historical and even mythological perspectives. Whilst the following works are excellent examples on the subject, this is in no way a comprehensive list:

  • Birley, A. - People of Roman Britain (Batsford, 1979)
  • Connolly, P. - Hannibal and the enemies of Rome (MacDonald, 1978)
  • Connolly,P. - Greece and Rome at War (MacDonald, 1981)
  • Cunliffe, B. - Iron Age Communities in Britain (Routledge, 1991),
  • Cunliffe, B. - Ancient Celts (Oxford University Press, 1997)
  • Ritchie, W.F. & R.N.G. - Celtic Warriors (Shire Archaeology, 1990)
  • Wacher, J. - Roman Britain (Dent, 1980)
  • Webster, G. & Dudley, D. - Roman Conquest of Britain (Pan, 1973)

For a near contemporary look at the Celts, the following are very highly recommended:

  • Koch, J.T. & Carey, J. (eds), - Celtic Heroic Age: Literary Sources for Ancient Celtic Europe and Early Ireland and Wales (Malden, Mass. 1995)
  • Caesar - Commentaries on the Gallic War (De Bello Gallico) Trans. A & P Wiseman (Penguin, 1980)
  • Tacitus - On Britain and Germany Trans. H. Mattingley (Penguin, 1964)
  • Tacitus - Annals of Imperial Rome, Trans. M. Grant (Guild, 1990)

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