Ancient Celtic Warriors - La Tene Hillforts


Part Three

CELTIC WARRIORS: Ancient Celtic Warriors, La Tene Hillforts & Celts v Etruscans

La Tene Hillforts

Celtic helmet of the period
Hillforts were the centers of power of the great Celtic tribes and their warriors. Existing in Western Europe before the arrival of the Celts, they nevertheless made these awesome defensive positions very much their own. The building of hillforts accelerated and the fortifications became more complex. To simple ramparts of earth and wood were added facing walls of sheer stone, the rubble infilling being braced with cross-timbers. On top of this were placed timber palisades with walkways and platforms from which they could fight. Also, towers were located at regular intervals. Sometimes, whether by accident or intentionally, the wood and rubble interior of the ramparts would be set on fire. This resulted in a kind of vitrification of the stone by which it fused into one solid mass.

The biggest hillforts had several ramparts and palisades ringing the community inside with a complex entrance of gateways cut through the earth mounds. These were sometimes protected by additional flanking guard chambers, wooden bridges overhead, or outworks to prevent a direct attack on the gate.

In Britain, the most impressive surviving Iron Age hill fort, which is now called Maiden Castle, is located near Dorchester.

A 47-acre site defended by three massive oval ramparts, its history began 5,000 years ago as a Neolithic camp. As the centuries passed, more and more earth was dug up and piled into ramparts. The hillfort reached its present giant state in the first century B.C.E. when the Celtic tribe of the Durotriges occupied it. A hundred years later, the Romans invaded Britain and the Second Augustan Legion under Vespasian assaulted it. A tremendous battle followed, and the remains of weapons and burnt timbers have been uncovered there. Many skeletons, which have also been unearthed, reveal bones cut with swords and, in one case, a backbone with an arrowhead inserted in it.

Celts, with fort in background

The most famous Celtic hill fort, however, must be that of Alesia near Dijon in central France. It was here in 52 B.C.E. that Caesar confronted Vercingetorix, the great Gallic warlord. Alesia was an impregnable hill fort on a plateau above the countryside, surrounded on three sides by deep ravines with rivers running through them. Wooden palisades on top of earth mounds completed the defense. Caesar could see it would be impossible to take this awesome fortress by assault. Instead, he decided on a siege, but Vercingetorix could call upon other Celtic tribes to support him and lead counterattacks, crushing the Romans between two forces. Therefore, Caesar embarked on a massive building project of his own, erecting one ring of fortifications eleven miles long aimed at Vercingetorix and another bigger ring of fortifications to protect himself against any relief force. With this in place, Caesar settled into a siege. Though Celtic forces came to Vercingetorix's aide, Caesar defeated them piece by piece until eventually the Gallic warlord was forced to concede defeat. With this end, Caesar had effectively conquered Celtic France. Thus, Celtic hill forts symbolized the power of the Celts but also proved their eventual downfall. For more detail on Vercingetorix, please see:

Vercingetorix: Gallic Warrior

The senior warriors of this time wore typical arms and armour of the La Tene period. The chieftain might wear a bronze cone helmet similar to that found in Berru in Marne in France. It features an opening for a plume at the top and a slight neckguard at the rear. His scabbard was attached by an iron chain like those found in Champagne in France. In another find, one chieftain wore decorative brooches to secure his cloak. Typical of La Tene metalwork, they could be either cut-out metal, inlaid with enamel, or gilded. Aside from native-made decoration, the Celts also had access to Greek or Latin objects, or some from even further afield like those made by the steppe peoples, through their extensive trade networks. The Celts favoured plumes and crests for their metal helmets, but they also wore helmets made of softer materials, such as leather, which have not survived.

The Celts & the Etruscans collide

Celts attacking Etruscan warrior
The Celts were at the peak of their power in central Europe in the 4th century BC, and their warriors were hungry for conquests. One potential area that attracted their interest was the rich agricultural land beyond the Alps in northern Italy that was watered by the Po river, but this region was held by the Etruscons. The Etruscans themselves were a martial race who had expanded over much of Italy, attacking the Greek settlements in the south and adopting many aspects of Greek warfare. Celtic penetration of northern Italy had begun peaceably as trade grew between the two cultures, but by the early 4th century their interest had turned into raiding, and then full-scale invasion. The picture above right (by Angus McBride) shows Celtic warriors attacking an Etruscan soldier.

The lnsubres grabbed territory in Lombardy where the town of Melpum, near Milan, fell to them around 396 BC. The Boli drove further into Italy, giving their name to Bononia, now known as Bologna. The Etruscan settlement of Marzabotto was sacked, and in its cemetery have been found iron swords typical of the La Tene period. Felsina held out until 350 BC when it too fell after a struggle between its Etruscan defenders and the Celtic raiders. Commemorated on a tombstone, this battle is depicted as combat between Etruscons on horseback dressed in Greek fashion against naked Celts on foot, who are armed with swords and large oval shields. By the end of the century, Etruscan power had been shattered in northern Italy, and the region became known in Latin as Cisalpine Gaul. But the Celts had not finished. Their warriors rode even further south to confront the Romans, who were not yet a major military power. At Allia, a Roman army was overwhelmed by the wild charge of a band of Celts. With their formations broken up, the Romans found themselves outclassed by the bigger, stronger Celts, whose long swords outreached their short stabbing blades. Following the collapse of the Roman force, the Celts advanced on Rome and sacked the city. The Celt leader, Brennus, demanded his weight in gold. It was an outrage the Romans would never forget or forgive.

The Romans learned much from the Celts and transformed their warfare as a result. They adopted Celtic mail armor, oval shields and Celtic helmet types, such as the peaked coolus. They learned to weaken the Celtic charge with a volley of javelins and then use their shields to take the full weight of the Celtic slashing swords, while they stabbed at their enemies guts. Eventually, a hundred years later, the Romans turned the tables on the Celts and invaded northern Italy. In one confrontation, a Roman general was challenged to single combat by the leader of the lnsubres, a traditional Celtic form of heroic warfare. The Roman general rode forward into the killing zone between the two assembled armies. Virdomarus, the north Italian Celtic leader, bellowed that he had been born from the waters of the Rhine and would make quick work of the Roman invader. He kicked his horse into action and hurled his spear at the Roman who threw his javelin as the Celt charged towards him. Both spears missed their targets, and the two warlords clashed with sword and shield, each side cheering their leader on, but the duel came to a sudden end. The Roman's sword slashed the Celt's throat, and his bent, golden torc fell to the ground. By 225 BC, at the battle of Telamon, the last independent Celtic tribe in northern Italy had been defeated, and the region became part of the emerging Roman Empire.

Next: Brennos the Celts sacks Greece

Next, in Part 4 of
  • Celtic Warriors: Brennos of the Celts - attacks the Greek site of Delphi.

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