Ancient Celtic Warriors - La Tene Culture


__Part Two__

CELTIC WARRIORS: Ancient Celtic Warriors of the La Tene

The La Tene Culture

The classic Celtic culture, the La Tene, is named after Lake Neuchatel, Switzerland where a large amount of weaponry from this culture was found last century. This culture began around 450 BCE.

The Celtic Homelands

The original Celtic homeland was an area of Austria, near southern Germany. From here they expanded over much of continental Europe and Britain.

At their peak, the Celts ranged from Ireland and Spain to Turkey. A brief rundown on some of the regions is helpful here:

England, Scotland and Ireland

Iron Age Celtic home
Celtic Iron Age village
The name Britain derives from Celtic. The Greek author Pytheas called them the "Pretanic Isles" which derived from the inhabitants name for them, Pritani. This was mistranslated into Latin as "Britannia" or "Brittani". The Celts migrated to Ireland from Europe, conquering whoever where the original inhabitants. In clashes with the Romans around the River Clyde (Scotland) a tribe called the "Scotti" came to prominence. Later the Scotti moved from Northern Island to establish the Kingdom of Dalriada in Argyll, on the West coast of Scotland. From here the Scots expanded and supplanted the Picts, a Celtic people who arrived in Scotland earlier. Ireland was never invaded by the Romans and retains what some believe is probably the language closest to the original Q-Celtic, Irish Gaelic. There is much disagreement on any one language representing "Celtic" since the Celts were so widespread and varied in not only area but in some cases race. The Celts of Spain are said to have been darker skinned, suggesting a mixture of Celtic culture with a local one. Most, however, are described a fair-haired and large. The average Roman warrior was about 5' 7, the Celts tended to be closer to 6' tall.


Modern France is a composite of many earlier peoples. The Celts settled there and the largest tribe, called the "Galli" by the Romans, gave their name to the region and people, the Gauls. The Gauls were heavily involved in the invasions of Northern Italy. When the Roman Empire expanded, many of the Gaulish (the preferred spelling is now 'Gallic', not to be confused with the language, Gaelic), tribes fled, but some stayed and became romanised, losing the Celtic language.

Later a Germanic tribe, the Franks, invaded the area and settled. The Franks gave their name to the region but adopted the language and customs of the people. Thus France was primarily a Celtic people, speaking a Romance language in a country with a Germanic name. The ethnic make-up of the French people is varied and certainly the Celtic strain is still present, but much overrun by other, later Germanic tribes.


Belgium is similar in situation to France. The dominant tribe, the Belgae, gave their name to the region. The Romans later conquered them.


There is much speculation about these distant Celts, and is summarized as follows: The Galatians of the New Testament (as mentioned in the Bible) may have been a Celtic tribe that migrated through the Balkans. They pillaged as they moved and attacked, but were defeated by the Greeks and eventually moved into what is now modern Turkey, founding Galatia. They were destroyed and assimilated by the Turks early in the first millennium AD or CE.

La Tene Origins and Warriors

La Tene means 'the shallows', and it was in the shallow part of Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland that Celtic warriors made offerings to the gods in the shape of swords and other weapons. (Human skeletons have also been found, suggesting perhaps that the gods wanted human sacrifices as well). Between 1906 and 1917, many of these objects were uncovered, giving the name of La Tene to the period of Celtic activity from the 5th to the lst centuries BCE.

Map of Celtic migrations and tribes (Click to see larger)
Map of the celtic Europe

[Click the Map to see in full, with details]

The main difference between the Celts of this period and those of the earlier Halstatt era is a change in their burial rites and a rise and the development of mail. Warlords were now buried in light two-wheeled chariots rather than heavy four-wheeled wagons. The use of chariots is somewhat of a puzzle in Celtic warfare. The terrain of central Europe is not suited for chariot warfare as practiced in the ancient Middle East, when lines of chariots would be used to break masses of foot soldiers, with archers and light infantry using them as mobile platforms. Caesar describes them taking part in battle, but more as demonstrations of military prowess in the prelude to contact, with chariot teams dismounting to fight. It also seems likely that chariots were used by leading warriors and warlords in a similar manner to that of the heroic warriors of Homeric Greece, who would use them for a grand arrival on the battlefield but would dismount to fight, or in the case of the Celts, mount their horses to fight. These chariots were then used at the end of the conflict for either a speedy pursuit of a defeated enemy or a rapid flight. Cuchulainn, ancient Irish hero of "The Tain", used chariot covered with spikes and barbs to burst upon his enemies 'like a thunderstorm'. But they are mentioned by some Roman historians as having run up and down the front lines of the Celtic warriors (such as at Mons Grapius - see battle history), the driver intent on showing off Celtic bravado while another warrior would run up and down the axel hurling insults and javelins at the enemy.

Celtic Warlords of the La Tene
by Angus McBride
Celtic chieftains of the La Tene Period

The Celtic warriors of the La Tene period, as visualized by Angus McBride, are armed with weapons similar to those found in Lake Neuchatel, including broad-bladed spears and long, iron slashing swords. Bronze body Armour and helmets were worn alongside large oval shields made of oak planks reinforced with a central wooden spine and bronze or iron bosses. The remains of such shields have been found in the shallows of the lakes. While the bronze armour worn by early Celts is thought to have been influenced by southern cultures such as the Mycenaean Greeks, the Romans credited the Celts with the invention of mail armour (in reality a form of mail known as ring armour). Iron rings were fixed together to form an interlocking tunic, with extra layers of mail secured across the shoulders to reinforce it and protect it from the downward blows of swords. Examples of Celtic mail are very rare, and it is only through the Romans, who copied its use widely, that the Celtic origin for this breakthrough in armor can be sustained.

From a decorative, artistic rendering of Celtic warriors of this period by artist, Angus McBride, the Celts wore very distinctive helmets. One can only be described as looking Persian in that it comes from a conical shape to a sharp point, similar to an upside down "V". Another has a less severe point on top and has even covered his metal helm with a fringed leather covering. The "Leaf-bladed" swords are long, about 3 feet, the shields longer. The artist includes and hunting (war dog) tagging the small party and two sport large bronze cuirass's, a bronze covering of crude plate armour which fits entirely around the torso giving maximum protection at the expense of mobility. The social elite of the tribes, including the local chiefs, would only have used this. Ring armour as described above is also shown and all wear leather or animal skin leggings to about knee height, wrapped and tied the length of the calf. One even wears a leather "purse" around his waist, an early type of sporran.

Often armed with strong iron swords and spears, La Tene Celts swept across Europe, supplanting their own earlier cultures and taking by storm almost every corner of the ancient Mediterranean world. They rode into Spain, Italy, and Greece and even passed into Asia, where they established the Celtic state of Galatia in Asia Minor, present-day Turkey. Celts continued westward and also took control of France, Britain, and Ireland, devastating the aboriginal inhabitants with their superior military technology and use of horses. The stage was now set for their conflict with the only other military culture that matched them for ferocity and efficiency --the armies of Rome.

Next, in Part 3 of
  • Celtic Warriors: La Tene Hillforts, a description of their fortresses and warriors.

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