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Celtic Warfare, Part I—Honor

Celtic Warfare, Part I—Honor

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher begins an examination of how the Celts conducted warfare, with the story of why a certain Celtic tribe conquered Rome in 390 BC.

Note that for this post we will range farther than our usual focus on Ireland alone, and include the Celts of the continent.

Unreasoning Brutes? Or Maligned Adversaries?

Were the Celts the wild, bloodthirsty, unreasoning brutes painted by the Romans? Were they really mindless barbarian hordes? Or have historians tainted the picture of the Romans’ adversaries with extreme bias? An interesting tale, summarized from The Celts, by Peter Berresford Ellis, and Wikipedia, gives us the answer. The Roman historian, Livy, provides us with the details.


Celtic Warriors

The Story of an Early Conquest of Rome

Historians have long asserted that a Celtic horde attacked and conquered Rome in July of 390 BC without reason or cause. The truth presents a far different story.

Our tale begins when a single Celtic tribe, the Senones, crosses the Apennine Mountains in central Italy looking for lands to call their own. Outside the Etruscan city of Clusium, they make camp. Brennus, the Senones leader, then asks the city fathers to grant them lands on which the tribe can settle in peace. But the Clusium elders, fearing the newcomers are invaders, send to Rome pleading for help.

The Arrogant, Powerful Fabii Brothers

The Romans have just supplanted the Etruscans as the regional power. To handle negotiations with the Senones, the Roman Senate sends the three young, arrogant, and politically powerful Fabii brothers as ambassadors. But the brothers treat the Celts so badly and with such arrogance, negotiations immediately break down.

What happens next shows us why the Roman empire eventually prevailed, while the Celts were shunted to distant places like Ireland.

A Terrible Breach of Honor

With diplomacy apparently failing, the Etruscan city marches its army out of Clusium against the Celts. But the Fabii brothers, these ambassadors of Roman peace, just can’t help themselves. As a battle ensues, they join the fracas.

But ambassadors sent to negotiate peace are supposed to be neutral, not take up arms against one’s negotiators. So the Fabii brothers have broken an unwritten law of nations. And when the Celts discover what’s happened, they are horrified. They see an unforgivable breach of honor, for the Romans have trampled on a sacred trust.

What do the Celts do? They break off the battle and hold a council to discuss what’s happened.


The Roman Senate

A Gutless Roman Senate

Then the Senones send an ambassador to Rome to plead their case before the Roman Senate. All they want is an apology. And after hearing their case, the Senate is inclined to give it to them. But the patrician Fabii brothers hold powerful sway over their peers, and the Senate backs off. Instead, they pass responsibility to the Roman people. Then, not only do the people approve of the Fabii’s actions, they make the brothers military tribunes with special powers for one year.

Now the fetiales are a college of Roman priests, chosen for life from the patrician class, and are experts in international law. When they hear what the Fabii have done, they denounce the brothers. But it makes no difference. The decision is made.

The Celts Conquer Rome

The Celtic ambassadors are indignant. Have these Romans no honor whatsoever?

The result? The Senones march down from the north, passing numerous cities on the way, but leaving them untouched and promising no harm will come to them. Their quarrel is only with the dishonorable Romans. About eleven miles north of Rome, the Senones’ army meets the Roman army in The Battle of the Allia and soundly defeats them. For the next seven months, the Celts occupy the city. When they finally receive an apology and a ransom of gold, they withdraw. It was a matter of Celtic honor.

The Celts’ goal wasn’t to conquer, but to extract an apology, to right a wrong, to uphold honor. This was one reason, among many, that eventually led to a Roman victory over the Celts on the continent: Roman treachery and lack of humanity won out over an enemy who held honor in the highest regard.

Next time we’ll look at the weaponry of the Celts.

Sources for this post were The Celts, by Peter Berresford Ellis, and Wikipedia.

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient, Celtic Ireland at the time of St. Patrick. To learn more about his book, follow the link above.

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