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Celtic Warfare, Part III—War Chariots and Cavalry

Celtic Warfare, Part III—Chariots and Cavalry

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher continues his look at Celtic warfare, with Part III—war chariots and cavalry. (Click here for Part I, Part II, or Part IV.)

What did the Romans most fear about fighting the Celts? What did the Celts have that unnerved even their best-trained troops?


A Celtic, Irish War Chariot

War Chariots

The Celts used chariots and cavalry to make their forces quick to respond to changing conditions on the battlefield. Hundreds of years before the Romans and Celts collided, most armies of the time had abandoned chariots for use in battle. But not the Celts. With their iron working skills, they actually improved the war chariot.

They added stronger wheels and made them big enough so the bed could carry both a charioteer and a warrior. Sometimes, the axles were fixed with scythes or blades. In battle, a number of Celts’ chariots could race to the flanks of their enemy, drop off warriors where they were least expected, then retreat. Used in conjunction with cavalry, this would unnerve and cause panic in an enemy used to a slower moving, less mobile antagonist.

From The Celts, by Peter Berresford Ellis:

“A thousand Celtic chariots took part in the battle of Sentium (295 BC) and also at Telamon (225 BC).

“Diodorus Siculus comments:

“When going into battle, the Celts use two-horsed chariots which carry the charioteer and the warrior. When they meet with cavalry in war, they throw their javelins at the enemy, and, dismounting from their chariots, they join battle with their swords . . . they also bring freemen as servants choosing them from among the poor, and these they use as charioteers and shield bearers.”

Thus, the cavalry and chariots would break the Romans’ front lines and the chariots would drop warriors at unexpected positions, creating a highly mobile infantry.

Chariots were used in ancient Ireland. Indeed, the bog roads that spanned the great mire across the center of Ireland were built wide enough such that two chariots could pass abreast. (See my posts on The Mysterious Bog Roads of Ancient Ireland.)

The Celtic Cavalry

Besides their chariots, the other secret weapon of the Celts was their cavalry. The Celtic cavalrymen were the best in the world. In fact, the best Roman cavalry was composed of Celtic riders. The Roman Strabo says: “Although they are all fine fighting men, yet they are better as cavalry than as infantry and the best of the Roman cavalry is recruited from among them.”

The Celtic cavalry could attack swiftly, causing panic among the enemy. They could also dismount and fight as infantry. Sometimes servants, also skilled riders, rode alongside the warrior. In battle, these assistants held back, watched, and waited for moments when they could come to the warrior’s aid. If his mount should fall, they could sweep in with a new horse. If he lost a weapon, they could provide a new one. They could even take his place if he, himself, fell.


A Four-Pommeled Roman Saddle, Based on Celtic Design

The Celtic Saddle

Another innovation was the Celtic improvement of the saddle. They created four-pommel saddles—two behind, and one on each side by the thigh. And like everything else, some of their saddles were intricately decorated.

Next week, we’ll continue our look at Celtic warfare with Part IV—The Elite Units.

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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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.

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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.