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Celtic Warfare, Part II-Celtic Weaponry

Celtic Warfare, Part II–Celtic Weaponry

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher continues his examination of Celtic warfare, with Part II. What weapons made the Celts such successful warriors? Click here for Part I.

Last time, we told the story of how the Romans broke international law during peace negotiations. The Celtic Senones tribe responded by conquering and occupying the city of Rome for seven months. Our story was meant to show that the Celts were not mindless barbarians, but held to strict code of honor.

Fearsome Irish Warriors

Yet Irish mythology paints a fearsome picture of the Celtic warrior. We learn this about one pagan Ulster hero:

“I swear by that by which my people swear, since I took spear in my hand I have never been without slaying a Connachtman every day and plundering by fire every night, and I have never slept without a Connachtman’s head beneath my knee.”

Such a fighter would indeed be a respected and worthy adversary. Part of his success was due to his weaponry.

The Romans, who always thought quite highly of themselves, were fond of disparaging their enemies. They regarded the Celtic weapons as inferior. Yet, as we will soon learn, it was the Romans who borrowed much of their armament from the Celts, not the other way around.


A Celtic Helmet With Owner

Superior Iron Helmets

The Celts were expert iron workers, and they created iron helmets that were far superior to their softer bronze predecessors. Even in the fourth century BC, we find Celtic iron helmets in graves that are exquisitely inlaid or covered with gold, colored glass, and coral. Some had high crests, neck guards, and cheek protection. It was the Etruscans, the precursors of the Romans, who borrowed the neck and cheek guards from the helmets of the Celts on the continent.

Taller, Better Shields

Not only were the Celtic helmets innovative, so were their shields. They were larger, with a central handle, and covered most of the body. Archaeologists have found Celtic shields up to 4 ½ feet long. These, too, the Celts decorated with extensive designs. Indeed, the Latin word for shield, scutum, derives from the Gaelic word sciath. Their shields served not only for defense, but also as a weapon.

The Celts Invented Chain Mail

Roman drawings from 300 BC show Celts in battle. From these we learn that Celts also developed the first chain mail. Shirts of interlocking iron rings have been also unearthed from Celtic sites. Since such a shirt was labor-intensive, only the highest, wealthiest nobles or kings probably wore them.

Chain mail shirts are heavy, weighing up to 33 pounds. I can personally vouch for this, as when my wife and I visited France last summer, I tried one on. I now have new respect for ancient fighters who could carry around all that weight and fight effectively. Their soldiers must have been in far better shape than your author from Minnesota!


Celtic Sword Collection

Fearsome Swords

The Celtic warriors on the continent soon taught the Romans to also fear their shorter swords. In response, the Romans developed new helmets and better shields. The Celts used their swords more to cut rather than thrust. The Roman short sword derived from the Celtic version.

Celtic Javelins and Spears

As if this list of borrowed Celtic weaponry was not enough, the Romans also took words for different kinds of javelins and spears from the Celts—lancea, for the lance, a light spear; mataris, for a kind of pike; and tragula, for a light javelin. One asks: Why did the Romans borrow these words if  their weapons were so superior? Whose weapons came first?

Archers Protected the Calvary

The Celts used archers and slings defensively, not for an attack. If their cavalry needed to fall back, archers and men with slings gave cover to their retreating horsemen. And in their cavalry and chariots, the Celts taught the Romans much.

Next time, we’ll continue looking at Celtic warfare, with Part III, war chariots and cavalry.

Sources for this post were The Celts, by Peter Beresford Ellis, and The Course of Irish History, by T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin.

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.