Warriors and Warfare


Mercenaries on the Go

The stereotype of the “wild, savage Celt” is largely the product of the Greek and Roman literary imagination, frightened by the threat of well-armed newcomers. The plunder of Rome by Gaulish warriors in 387 BCE was the stuff of legend. The use of Gaulish mercenaries by the Greek ruler Diosysius I in southern Italy at the same time made an equally strong impression. Such was their prowess, and the number of them available for hire, that Hieronymous of Cardia stated that “none of the Eastern kings would wage war without Gaulish mercenaries.”

The Greeks and Romans depicted Celts, along with the Persians, as “enemies of the civilized world.” The irony is that Greeks, Romans, and other peoples, indulged in the same violent and brutal behavior, but the Celts were a convenient target for their projections and self-deceptions.

This stereotype of the Celts (or Gauls) as a blood-thirsty people was based on the initial contact with only a small segment of Celtic society, a professional warrior class, rather than its totality (the peasantry, artisans, intellectuals, etc.). McCone has argued that the term by which Celts were known in the east – Galati – is actually an early Celtic word meaning “warrior(s),” and thus describes the professional activity of the mobile class of men.

We should, on the one hand, be cautious as always about assuming that all Celts and Celtic communities were identical. The Celtic communities in Galatia would have developed very different tactics, tools and goals for warfare than those in Ireland, given dissimilar foes, socio-political structures, and terrains.

There is, however, a growing body of evidence about social, military and economic networks that did spread practices, material culture, and beliefs across continental Europe during the heyday of the “Galatian” mercenary:

a sudden increase of archaeological finds – some of them are really exceptional – in the northeast quarter of France (in particular the Paris Basin) have improved our vision of trends regarding the circulation of ideas as well as artefacts between the eastern and western Celtic Europe areas, and the existence of related workshops. The Le Plessis-Gassot cemetery certainly offers a key for a better understanding of the mobility of the La Tène social elite network, including both warriors and craftsmen. (Ginoux, Robcis, LeRouxm and Dussere, “Metal Craft and Warrior Elites”)

The Heroic Ethos

Scholars have used the term heroic ethos to describe the social values and practices expressed by the literature of certain kinds of societies. The heroic ethos centres on the strong chieftain and his courageous band of followers who prove their prowess by heroic conduct in combat. The heroic ethos is held together by the personal loyalty of the retainers and the generosity and bold strength of the leader who strives for immortal fame in song and story.

Scholars now generally ascribe the heroic ethos to certain literatures, rather than societies, because the literature produced by a society does not necessary reflect its actual practices or institutions. It would be misleading to assume that James Bond films are an accurate portrayal of British society, for example.

Make careful note of the fact that the heroic ethos is not a specifically Celtic trait! Although the heroic ethos was remarkably long-lived in Celtic literatures (and, arguably, societies) in European terms, it can be detected in the literatures of many different societies. Here are a few examples.

In Book XII of the Iliad, composed around the 8th century BCE in ancient Greek and later attributed to Homer, Sarpedon says to his friend:

Man, supposing you and I, escaping this battle, would be able to live on forever, ageless, immortal, so neither would I myself go on fighting in the foremost nor would I urge you into the fighting where men win glory. But now, seeing that the spirits of death stand close about us in their thousands, no man can turn aside or escape them, let us go on and win glory for ourselves, or yield it to others.

The Roman writer Tacitus remarked of the early Germanic peoples:

These followers vie keenly with each other as to who shall rank first with his chief, the chiefs as to who shall have the most numerous and the bravest followers. It is an honour as well as a source of strength to be thus always surrounded by a large body of picked youths; it is an ornament in peace and a defence in war. And not only in his own tribe but also in the neighbouring states it is the renown and glory of a chief to be distinguished for the number and valour of his followers, for such a man is courted by embassies, is honoured with presents, and the very prestige of his name often settles a war.

The famous Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf describes the ideals of the Germanic peoples in a similar fashion several centuries later:

Then those brave in battle, the children of princes, twelve in all, rode round the mound, would lament their grief, bewail their king, recite a lay and speak about the man. They praised his heroism and acclaimed the nobility of his courageous deeds. […] they said that among the world’s kings he was the gentlest of men and the most courteous, the most kindly to his people and the most eager for renown.

The late eleventh-century Song of Roland, written in Old French, similarly describes the convictions of the Christian crusader:

Roland replies: “Now may God grant us that.
We know our duty: to stand here for our King.
A man must bear some hardships for his lord,
stand everything, the great heat, the great cold,
lose the hide and hair on him for his good lord.
Now let each man make sure to strike hard here:
let them [in the future] not sing a bad song about us!
Pagans are wrong and Christians are right!
They’ll make no bad example of me this day!”

These examples and others demonstrate that the heroic ethos can be found in the literature of many different societies and is not specific to the Celts, even if it was remarkably resonant and resilient amongst them.

Class Discussion

How is the heroic ethos reflected in the following passages?


Later Roman histories relay an anecdote that was supposed to have happened in 361 BCE, according to earlier sources now lost. This anecdote illustrates the Roman perceptions of the Celts as a military threat – albeit a barbaric one – but it can also be read as a parable about how Roman power benefited through being exercised by Celtic challenges and commandeering Celtic resources.

According to one version of the tale, Titus Manlius (whose father was appointed Roman dictator) was fighting in the Roman army when it was confronted by a large force of Gauls. One of the Gauls – of monstrous size and appearance – challenged the Romans to single combat as a means of resolving the conflict, apparently according to their traditional rules of engagement. Titus, though of much smaller stature, accepted the challenge. While the Gaul made a great ritual display of the match, the well-disciplined Roman reserved his energies for “serious business” and through greater cunning, killed his rival. He cut the torc from the neck of the Gaul and placed it around his own neck as a war trophy, earning him the epithet “Torquatus.” He was later appointed dictator himself.

Class Discussion

What information about about Celtic military technology and techniques can we glean from the following texts? What do they say about the terms for war and weapons in Celtic languages? What can we infer from this information?

Consider the following lexical borrowings: what do these imply about Roman military technology and interactions with the Celts?

  • The Latin lancea is derived from the Celtic term for a sling-thrown spear (see Diodorus Siculus, Library of History §5.30).
  • The Latin gladius is derived from Proto-Celtic *kladimo “sword.” (The Latin term is more familiar to English speakers in the form gladiator, referring to the sword-yielding arena fighter, and the later word “claymore” which was borrowed from claidheamh mór [Modern Scottish Gaelic “great sword”].)
  • The Latin essedum “two-wheeled chariot” is borrowed from Gaulish essedon.


Cunliffe, The Ancient Celts.

Freeman, “Elements of the Ulster Cycle.”

Ginoux, Robcis, LeRouxm, and Dussere, “Metal Craft and Warrior Elites.”

James, The World of the Celts.

McCone, “The Celtic Question.”

Vielle. “The Oldest Narrative Attestations.”