Historical Ancient Celtic Warriors


Introduction & Part One

CELTIC WARRIORS: The Ancient Celts of Europe, Part One

Brief Background & the Hallstatt Culture

This history of the Ancient Celts, Warriors, weapons and their early society, including their battles, is intended as an overview, not a complete history. These mini-articles about the Ancient Celtic Warriors, their arms, armor and their historical development over time. The first example comes from the early Celtic Hallstatt culture. I thought it might be helpful to all to first very briefly summarize Celtic development and give a concise explanation of the various Celtic periods before giving examples of their equipment, battles and exploits. So what follows first is a short summary of early Celtic culture and terminology. Coming chapters will give details on Celtic warriors, battles and migration to all areas. In later chapters, we will learn of Celtic warriors in Greece, Egypt, Rome, Gaul, Britain, the Picts, Scots, Irish and Romano-Britons (Welsh realted) and some of their decisive moments in history and battle.This, I believe, will get even more interesting as we get deeper into the chapters. Please feel free to explore ahead.

Beginnings - general background

[Hallstatt warrior etchings]
The Celts dominated mid and Western Europe for a thousand years. But it is only recently that the importance of Celtic influence on the cultural, linguistic and artistic development of Europe. The Celts as an identifiable race or ethnic group have long since disappeared, except in places such as Ireland and the Scottish Highlands, and to an extent in Wales and Brittany. The image at right shows an ancient engraving from the period of three Hallstatt era warriors and was found in Austria.

The Celts transmitted their culture orally, never writing down history or facts. This accounts for the extreme lack of knowledge about them prior to their contact with the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome. They were generally well educated in metalworking, husbandry and other life pursuits, even on topics such as religion, philosophy, geography and astronomy. The Romans often employed Celtic tutors for their sons according to one Roman historian. This must have bristled the Roman pride and as the Roman Empire grew in power and prestige, these tutors were replaced with other cultures, the Romans considering the Celts too barbaric to be educating their young.

The bravery of the Celts in battle is legendary. They often spurned body armour, going naked into battle. Celtic society was typically more equal in terms of gender roles. Women were on more or less equal footing as men, being accomplished warriors, merchants and rulers.

Early Europe

The first human settlers in Europe were Paleolithic hunter/gatherer tribes. At the end of the last ice age (some 10000 years ago) they began adopting an agrarian lifestyle. This occurred over 2500 years during the Mesolithic era. These agricultural societies began making clay pots around the year 5000 BC, the beginning of the Neolithic period. The Neolithic lasts until about 2500 BC (until this is revised). During this time we have no knowledge of the race or language of these early Europeans. It is not known if they spoke an Indo-European language or still the pre-Indo-European tongues. Little is known of the Bronze Age (2500 - 800 BC) either, the race character of the people is unknown, but since the first Greek migration occurred in 1800 BC at least some of the people now spoke an Indo-European language. It is not known if this was motivated by Indo-European migrations out of Russia, or if Europe as a whole underwent cultural evolution at the same time to become Indo-European. Many theories, and that is all they can be, account for the influx of people speaking what we classify as Indo-European tongues, the mother languages of most all, if not all, European languages. Whatever the make up of the Bronze Age population, they formed the basis of the early Iron Age cultures. The first of these was the Hallstatt Culture, now clearly viewed as one of the earliest Celtic cultures.

The Hallstatt Culture

Hallstatt in Austria
[Hallstatt scene]
This was the first of the Iron Age cultures. The western regions of this culture, between France and West Germany, already spoke a Celtic language. Circa 600 BC the Greek geographer Herodotus writes of the Celts dwelling beyond "the pillars of Hercules" (i.e. Gibraltar, Spain) and the Upper Danube. The name "Celt" possibly comes from the dominant tribe of the Hallstatt, or the dominant word for their language, and became a unifying concept for the whole culture. "Celt" is what the people called themselves, or what has been suggested that they referred to themselves as when talking to the Greeks as the "Keltoi". There are some varying opinions on this; some experts taking the position that the name 'Celt' was given to them by the Greeks, and not visa-versa. However, at least one Greek historian himself claims this is what they called themselves. Perhaps we will never be certain. Regardless of who called whom 'Celt' initially, that is now the accepted generic name for the peoples that inhabited much of Europe before Rome was more than a tiny trading town.

Warriors & equipment of the Hallstatt Culture.

Hallstatt Domain
[Hallstatt Culture]

Hallstatt is a village near Salzburg in Austria, and the ancient Celtic burial places discovered there in the 19th century have given their name to this earliest period of Celtic domination in Europe, which lasted from the 7th to early 5th centuries BC. The name of the village, like many other European sites, such as Halle and Hallein, indicates the presence of a salt mine and underscores the importance this played in prehistoric trading. Salt was a great source of wealth to the prehistoric warlord and his community. It preserved food, made it taste better, and could be traded across Europe for other goods. The impressive preservative quality of the mineral was clearly demonstrated when the body of a dead salt miner, after being excavated from an old collapsed tunnel, showed little trace of decay.

Hallstatt settlement at Hochhugel
[Hallstatt settlement]
The Celtic warriors of central Europe grew rich through the salt trade, and their power and influence expanded from the Danube along the Rhine into France and southern Germany. Bronze, made of easily combined tin and copper, was the dominant metal in the early part of this period, being superseded by the locally available iron that added to Celtic wealth. Farming was fully developed, but raiding was regularly carried out. This behavior was reflected much later in Irish and Highland Scottish society with cattle raids and counter raids. The southern Scots, generally known as the Borderer's, developed 'reiving' to a fine and sometimes bloody art, although it is usually the Highlanders that get tagged with the dubious honor of cattle thieves. These early Celtic raids brought in additional livestock, as well as slaves, which could be traded (along with salt and iron) to the sophisticated city-cultures of Italy and Greece to the south, providing the Celts with wine and luxury goods. It was an era of expansion for the Celts, one in which their martial culture had little serious opposition, and they soon come to dominate much of western Europe, though their constant intertribal feuding prevented them from forming any kind of organised empire. Another factor that hampered the Celts from forming empires to compete with Greece and later Rome was the simplicity of Celtic life. They didn't build grand cities that would accommodate large populations and generate vast amounts of trade. Rather, they preferred a rural lifestyle and trade was sufficient enough to keep them supplied with exotic goods from the south. In plain terms, the Celts were not inclined to be grand city builders - not because they did not have the technology - because they didn't seem to want it. They lived a very free and ranging lifestyle and the wide-open spaces of Europe were keener to their preferences than a large metropolis.

Hallstatt Warrior chieftains
[Halstatt warriors]

The affluent warriors of the Hallstatt period of this Celtic age, especially warlords and their followers, were opulent and extravagant. Bronze and iron are combined for both decoration and strengthening weapons. Examples of ornate helmets of such warriors wore crested, domed bronze helmets that is typical of the earliest Celtic helmets found in central Europe, such as near Possou in Bavaria, and which are associated with the Urnfield culture of about 1000 BC. This type of helmet changed little over subsequent centuries and influenced other cultures such as the Etruscans. Armour could be a bronze breastplate decorated with repousse studs, and a ranking warrior's bronze sword had the distinctive 'sloping shoulders' cross guard typical of all Celtic swords in this early period.

Early classical writers describe the woolen clothes of the Celts as 'checkered' or 'multi-colored' and this has been interpreted as almost an early form of tartan, although the word 'tartan' itself has a much more modern connotation. A much more accurate term might be the early plaid. A fur pouch, purse or 'sporran' further foreshadows Celtic cultures to come.

[Hallstatt warrior] In one such grave-find from this period, a warlord wore a bronze band of armour around his waist, protecting his entire lower mid-section at the cost of some mobility. Wide battle belts are often featured in Celtic myth, as are battle aprons. Certainly it is a development similar to the belt hangings later worn by the Roman soldiers of the early Imperial period, but the Celtic variety was apparently a decorative object that served little protective purpose. His sword had an iron blade that swells out towards the tip. Hallstatt swords could be very big and long, suggesting they were mainly used as slashing weapons, largely from horseback or chariots. This is quite different from the traditional short stabbing swords of the Romans and even the Greeks. A bronze dagger found bears a hilt with two rounded horns, typical of 'spiral antennae'; common decorations of the period.

In another find the warrior carried a boar standard, a familiar emblem throughout the ancient Celtic period, and his iron helmet bore feather wings. Animal myths featured strongly in Celtic legend and clearly some association with the powers of animals is intended here. Leading warriors were believed to transform from their human form into that of a monster that possessed animalistic powers as a result of a battle rage. This belief was also found in later cultures such as that of the Vikings, with their infamous 'Berserkers', from which we get the modern word - berserk. There is also a long tradition of feathers being worn by hunter warriors in eastern Europe, culminating in the Polish Winged Hussars of the 17th and 18th centuries. He also wore a padded tunic (later called quilted tunic - simple armour) decorated with bronze studs, and a hexagonal shield was resting against his leg bones. Long body shields appear to have been inspired by early Italian examples, but no one is quite certain who inspired the Italian examples.

Next, in Part 2 of
  • Celtic Warriors: La Tene Culture, the Celtic Culture expands in the La Tene Period

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