Celtic Warfare

Bret Devereaux

A Collection of Unmitigated Pedentry


“Canestrelli clearly has read a lot,3 most of the details are right and most of the errors are small (but some are big, including the central conceit that there is a thing called ‘Celtic warfare’ that we can discuss)”

“my focus is mostly going to be on Gallic arms and techniques in the third and second century BC (roughly correlated to the ‘Middle La Tène’ period)”

“The bibliography on what we might term here La Tène material culture weapons and warfare is, unsurprisingly, dominated by works in French (while works on Celtic-language speakers in Iberia are almost entirely in Spanish and works on those in the British Isles are in English)”

“The standard references, though somewhat aged, on Gallic warfare are J.-L. Brunaux, Guerre et Religion en Gaule, Essai D’Anthropologie Celtique (2004) and J.-L. Brunaux and B. Lambot, Armement et Guerre chez les Gaulois (1987)”

“Beyond that, the question goes to archaeology quite quickly, in volumes that are often very hard to get”

“The new and definitive work on mail, including La Tène mail is M.A. Wijnhoven, European Mail Armour (2022), staggeringly expensive and worth every bit of it. Probably the best single work on weapons is T. Lejars, La Tène: La Collection Schwab (Bienne, Suisse). La Tène, Un Site, Un Mythe 3 (2013), a detailed study of roughly a third or so of the total finds from La Tène, including some new typologies; there is to my knowledge a single library copy in the entire United States belonging to the Library of Congress”

“Easier to get and equally technical is Brunaux, J.-L, and A. Rapin. Gournay II: Boucliers et Lances Dépôts et Trophées (1988), notable for advancing the initial typologies for shield bosses and spearheads”

“On the La Tène shield, the essential article is Gassmann, P. “Nouvelle approche concernant les datations dendrochonologiques du site éponyme de La Tène (Marin-Epagnier, Suisse).” Annual Review of Swiss Archaeology 90 (2007): 75-88, which doesn’t sound like its about shields, but it is. On helmets, note U. Schaaff, “Keltische Helme” in Anike Helme (1988); P. Connolly, Greece and Rome at War (1981) also has a really good diagram of helmet patterns, but Schaaff is the best typological study”

“Generally on what we know of culture in this period, the Oxford Handbook of the European Iron Age, C. Haselgrove et al. eds. (?LOL?) is incredibly useful, but also still only available as an ebook via Oxford Academic, a state of affairs that has continued since 2018 (it, in theory, isn’t done yet, but many of the chapters are and are already standard citations in the field; you will probably need some kind of library access to get it)”

“the Handbook‘s chapters do a really good job of stressing how much we do not know, how enormous our guesses often are”

“Finally, on political structures in the La Tène sphere, N. Roymans, Tribal Societies in Northern Gaul: An Anthropological Perspective (1990) is a decent start, but be aware how conjectural much of it is”

“Finally, for a state-of-the-debate on Celtic identity, the recent article, R. Pope, “Re-approaching the Celts: Origins, Society and Social ChangeJAR 30 (2022) is really valuable, both for the argument it presents but also the ‘potted history’ at the beginning which walks through how this idea has evolved over time”

“there is a pretty big gap between what the Greeks meant by the word keltoi, what the keltoi may have meant by the word keltoi and most important what people today understand by the word ‘Celts.’”

“everyone gets smashed together, with all of the Celtic-language speakers mashed in under the label of ‘Celts,’ a practice that hasn’t been acceptable in serious scholarship for at least 30 years”

“Caesar reports that the folks living in what is today France (then Gaul) north of the Garonne and south of the Marne and the Seine called themselves celtae, which he takes to be equivalent to the Latin galli (Caes. BGall. 1.1)”

“Strabo, meanwhile, describes peoples in Spain as both keltoi and also keltiberes (which enters English as Celtiberians, Strabo, Geography 3.2.15) as well as those in Gaul (Geography 4.1ff), but doesn’t make the claim that they call themselves that”

“Caesar (Caes. BGall 1.1) and Strabo (Geography 4.1.1) go out of their way to stress that the folks they’re talking about do not have the same languages, institutions or mode of life, even those who are, to Strabo, galatikos – ‘Gallic’ or more precisely ‘Galatian-like’”

Galli, rendered into modern English as ‘the Gauls’ (though the latter is not a descendant of that word, but a wholly different derivation), is likewise tricky”

“We’re fairly sure that both keltoi and galli are Celtic-language words, meaning that (contrary to the video) they’re both probably ‘endonyms,’ (a thing people call themselves) but it is really common for peoples in history to take the endonym of the first group of people they meet and apply it to a much larger group of ‘similar’”

“it was common in both the Eastern Mediterranean and later in East Asia to use some derivative of ‘Frank’ or ‘Frankish’ to mean ‘Western or Central European’ – the term got applied to the Portuguese in China, and to both Germans and Sicilian Normans during the Crusades”

“It’s possible that galli in Latin is connected to the Galatai (Greek) or Galatae (Latin), the Galatians, a Celtic-language speaking La Tène material culture group who migrated into Anatolia in the 270s, but a number of etymologies have been proposed”

“assuming off the bat that all of these different tribal groups that Caesar or Strabo treat as a cultural unity thought of themselves that way is most unwise”

“The most we know is that if you called some of these folks (but not all of them, as we’ll see) keltoi or galli, they’d say, “yeah, I guess that more or less describes me,” perhaps in the same way describe a Swiss person as ‘European’ isn’t wrong, but it also isn’t quite right

“it has been shown linguistically that the various surviving Celtic languages are related to each other and also to the extinct languages of pre-Roman continental Europe that were spoken in Gaul, Noricum and parts of Spain”

“Irish, Manx, Scottish Gaelic and Welsh are all Celtic languages. But our sources are actually quite clear that at least the Romans and the Greeks did not consider these folks to be galli or keltoi

“Strabo explicitly defines the people of Britain against the keltoi as two distinct groups, making it clear he doesn’t think the inhabitants of the British Isles were ‘Celts’ (Geography 4.5.2); Caesar doesn’t either (BGall. 4.21ff)”

“Tacitus sees in the britanniae evidence of German, Iberian and Gallic influence, marking them as distinct from all three, but concludes that Gallic settlement is the most likely cause, a point on which we may be quite certain he is wrong, for reasons discussed just below (Tac. Agr. 11)”

“we have a collection of object types, artistic motifs and archaeologically visible patterns that we associate with some of the areas settled by people who our sources regard as ‘Celts’ and who were Celtic language speakers”

“The older of these two material culture groupings we call ‘Halstatt culture’ after the original type-site in Hallstatt, Austria, though we find Hallstatt culture objects (remember, these are objects, not people, a thing to be relevant in a moment) in a territorial range that forms a sort of crescent shape embracing the northern edges of the Alps, from around 1200 BC to around 500 BC”

“We then shift to a material culture pattern which may have developed out of late Hallstatt culture which we call La Tène culture after its type-site of La Tène in Switzerland; it runs from around 500 BC (very roughly) to around 50 AD, with lots of subdivisions”

“the folks in Iberia who were keltoi (according to Strabo) or Celtiberians have some elements of La Tène material culture, but are notably missing others”

“The artistic style in ‘Celtic’ Spain is also different and unsurprisingly there’s a lot of Iberian borrowing. As a result, archaeologically, the keltoi of south-western Iberia aren’t some sort of carbon-copy of the keltoi of central France. There’s not no connection here, they are Celtic-language speakers and they have some La Tène stuff, but the Iberian Celtici are quite a bit further from the Helvetii (the folks who probably inhabited the La Tène site) than, say, the Senones”

“we find some La Tène material culture objects in southern Britain, but they don’t fully penetrate the Isles (despite the general assumption that all of the people of Britain and Ireland were Celtic language speakers) and many appear to be expensive, high-status imports

Meanwhile, we find tons of La Tène material culture objects in cultural contexts that we know were neither ‘Celtic’ in any cultural sense nor filled with Celtic-language speakers. The clearest instance of these are in Illyria and Thrace, who spoke Indo-European but not Celtic language (so a language as close to Celtic languages as Latin or Greek or German), where it’s clear that folks adopted at least some La Tène material culture, including weapons and armor”

“when it came to militaria, we’d have the same problem with the Romans, who by the end of the Second Punic War, had adopted a La Tène sword (albeit from Spain and with a different suspension system), a variant of the La Tène shield, a La Tène helmet type (domestically manufactured), and La Tène body armor (mail)”

“in the third century, a Greek varient of the La Tène shield, the thureos, begins showing up everywhere in the Hellenistic East, but that doesn’t make them Celts either”

“objects of La Tène material culture aren’t the whole of archaeologically visible culture. There are building habits, burial habits, evidence for social organization and on and on. And those vary significantly within the La Tène material culture zone”

“we have Celtic-language speakers who aren’t called Celts by our sources and don’t have La Tène material culture (Ireland, N. Britain), Celtic-language speakers who are called Celts by our sources but don’t have the full La Tène material culture package (Spain, Portugal), non-Celtic language speakers who do have some of the La Tène material culture package but who are clearly not Celts to our sources (Thracians, Illyrians, Dacians, etc.), full La Tène material culture-havers who are explicitly not Celts in our sources (Caesar, specifically) and maybe speak a Celtic-language (the Belgae), and partial La Tène material-culture-havers who do speak a Celtic language but are still explicitly not Celts in our sources (S. Britain)”

“by the second century we also have La Tène material culture-havers who probably still speak a Celtic-language and are called Celts/galli by our sources but write inscriptions in Greek (the Galatians) and seem to have different religious structures and folks identified as Celts in our sources who are in the process of ditching large parts of La Tène material culture and learning Latin (Cisalpine Gaul), who might, à la Pope (op. cit.), actually be the direct, local descendants of the ‘original’ Celts”

“Crucially, ‘the Celts’ do not share a military system. Warfare among Celtic-language speakers in the British Isles isn’t necessarily based around La Tène material culture, nor is warfare in S. Portugal among peoples identified by our sources as keltoi; both areas seem to have very substantial regional variation”

“By contrast, the galli of central France and Cisalpine Gaul do seem to share at least substantial elements of a military system with the – according to Caesar – non-celtae of broader Gaul and as well as with the Galatians who live, I must repeat, in Anatolia (having migrated there in the third century)”

“There is thus no ‘Celtic’ military system which maps clearly onto either Celtic-language distribution or peoples described as keltoi by our sources”

“Often that will mean finding out that when an author says ‘Celtic’ they mean, “La Tène material culture” or perhaps even more narrowly, peoples who speak Celtic-languages and have La Tène material culture”

“that’s going to be a definition of Celt and Celtic which is going to cause you more than a little bit of trouble if you break it out in a modern social setting in Ireland, Scotland, Wales or Brittany and is going to confuse a whole bunch of other people unless you define those terms

“Meanwhile, if you use ‘Celtic’ as an ethnic, cultural, artistic or military signifier (basically anything but language) and include all Celtic-language speakers, that’s just going to be wrong in quite a few cases”

“Celtic-language speakers (which covers, surprise, all speakers of a Celtic-language)”

“La Tène material culture (which is not co-terminus with Celtic-language speakers)”

“‘Gauls’ or ‘Gallic.’ That latter term I find more useful because it has not experienced the nationalist-inspired drift of ‘Celtic’ and does not imply a huge range of Celtic language speakers”

“that captures the ‘everything lines up’ groups pretty well: La Tène material culture-having Celtic-language speakers who get called keltoi (or, of course, galli) by our sources. Those are Gauls”

“There are, admittedly, a few ‘everything lines up’ groups that don’t get captured by this term, most notably the La Tène material culture Celtic language speakers of the Danube region, so it is hardly perfect. But it at least has the benefit of being clear

“History is complicated and when you are dealing with cultures and peoples rather than states, just about any general statement is going to be some degree of wrong”

“all of our Gauls share an identifiable La Tène material culture military kit – yes, even the Galatians, half the Mediterranean away (they brought it with them).”

“the modern perception of these fellows is of unarmored barbarians swinging great big swords in an undisciplined mess. That modern perception comes, in part, from our sources, which often lean on those sorts of tropes (e.g. Polyb. 2.33.3; Plut. Cam. 41.4; Polyaenus, Strat. 8.72)”

“It is really striking, by the by, that the these tropes are much more common in the Greek literary tradition, but tend to be absent or less extreme in Latin-language sources and one wonders if familiarity is a major factor in that. Livy, after all, grew up in Cisalpine Gaul”

“in much of the La Tène material culture sphere (and indeed, beyond it in some Celt-language speaking cultures (but not others)) the deposition of weapons (but only infrequently armor) was a common ritual activity”

“it was the spear, not the sword, which was the mandatory weapon of the Gallic warrior”

“That impression is confirmed by artwork from the La Tène material culture sphere (and earlier Halstatt culture artwork too), where when we see infantry in procession they carry spears but swords may or may not be visible. Thus for instance the procession on the Gundestrup Cauldron10 all have spears and this motif of spear-carrying warriors with the distinctive large La Tène shield is not uncommon in La Tène artwork once one accounts for how rare representations of humans are”

“The La Tène sword was the next key weapon and these are quite common in deposits too. They occur in ritual deposits somewhat less than spears, but at similar rates in burial deposits, which suggests, to me at least, that while the sword was more expensive than the spear (it would have been, it uses a lot more metal), it was probably no less common and most warriors carried both”

“Early La Tène swords, as noted, come to sharp points; the Iberian variants keep this feature which then passes to the Roman gladius Hispaniensis. But in the broader La Tène cultural sphere those sharp points give way to a more rounded (but still effective) thrusting point in the Middle La Tène (third and early second centuries, roughly) and then to blunter tips and longer cutting blades in the Late La Tène (late second and first centuries)”

“Sword length increases steadily over time as well. So what we see is a design drift from early La Tène swords which seem to owe at least some of their size and shape to bronze forebears (all of these swords are in iron), but get longer as Gallic smiths get more confident with their materials”

“At the same time, they shift from multi-purpose cut-and-thrust swords to swords that can thrust but are built for the cut.

That cut-emphasis is often presented as something ‘barbaric’ but it makes good battlefield sense in the conditions these would be used”

“inside the La Tène material culture sphere, the most likely enemy was another warrior with the La Tène material culture kit. And he was probably not very well armored. A cut against an unarmored opponent is far more likely to disable them – to remove them as a threat – far quicker than a thrust, even if both produce lethal wounds”

“So if you think your opponent is going to be unarmored or lightly armored, going for a weapon that cuts well is a smart move. And these La Tène swords would have cut well”

“La Tène swords that have been examined run the gamut from some of the lowest quality swords of antiquity all the way to some of the best of the period. The notion – peddled by Polybius and Plutarch – that Gallic swords bend on the first strike is almost certainly nonsense”

“These swords worked and the Romans adopted them twice (the Roman gladius, as mentioned, is a variant of the early La Tène sword, while the Roman spatha is a variant of the late La Tène sword)”

“here, as with a lot of La Tène material culture military kit, we see a big impact of social stratification, with a huge gap between the haves and have-nots, both of whom were on the battlefield”

“The La Tène shield sits in the same family as the Roman scutum and the Greek thureos and is probably the progenitor of the other two; this is ‘daddy oval shield.’ It is flat-faced (unlike the curved scutum) and at c. 110cm by c. 53cm,11 making it a bit smaller than the Roman scutum and a bit bigger than the Greek thureos

“Unlike the scutum, which was manufactured via laminated wooden strips (‘plywood’ construction) the La Tène shield was constructed out of two wood planks, glued together, with a hide front facing, a leather strip binding the edges and a metal boss in the center”

“The wooden core had a gap dead-center of mass for the hand; this was then covered by a wooden reinforcing ridge (the Romans call it a spina) that runs down the center of the shield and is nailed into place. It widens to cover the hand-gap at the center and a metal boss (a metal plate) goes over it, and is riveted through the shield to connect to a metal bar on the back side around which is built the handgrip (in wood or leather)”

“Compared to the scutum, this shield would be a bit less useful at dealing with ranged projectiles because you can’t place your full body into the curve of the shield; that fact was noted by ancient sources (Polyb. 2.30.3; Livy 38.21.4)”

“it was probably a lot lighter than the scutum (perhaps 7kg instead of the scutum‘s 10kg), which would have made it handier in more fluid close-combat”

“it sure seems like almost everyone who encountered this shield decided in fairly short order to adopt it for at least some of their troops”

“The ubiquitous Hellenistic thureophori ‘medium infantry’ were defined by using it12 rather than the indigenous Greek aspis and pelte and the Romans adapted it whole-hog, plus it shows up in all sorts of non-state contexts in Northern/Central/Western Europe. It was a fantastically successful design”

“the ‘naked Gaul’ was both a literary and artistic trope and it seems clear that Greek and Roman artists and writers blew an unusual cultural practice out of all proportion in constructing a Gallic ‘other’ for their audiences”

“we have some reliable reports of naked Gallic warriors too. Polybius reports one of the four tribes at the Battle of Telamon (225), the Gaesatae, fought naked (Polyb. 2.28.4-8). Diodorus reports a range of Gallic clothing when fighting, from nude to clothed to armored; the referent video assumes Diodorus is talking about the Gaesatae in the first case, but he makes no such specification (Diod. Sic. 5.29ff)”

“Polybius also reports at least some of the Gauls in Hannibal’s army to be naked (Polyb. 3.114.4) but Livy, in a rare instance of breaking with Polybius, instead describes them only as naked to the navel (Livy 22.46.6), so they apparently had trousers (the Gauls wore trousers)”

“this is one of quite a few instances where Latin literary tradition sands down some of the ‘othering’ of the Greek literary tradition when it comes to Gauls”

“Caesar never describes naked Gallic warriors but does describe naked German warriors, among the Suebi (Caes. BGall. 4.1), but in training, not battle”

“The ‘naked Gaul’ is a super-duper common visual motif in Greek and Roman artwork, but quite rare in La Tène artwork. Of course the caveat that people in general are rare motifs in La Tène artwork is necessary. That said, it’s not an unknown motif either”

“most Gauls didn’t fight nude, so what sort of armor and protection did they wear? Well, if we mean most Gauls, the answer is ‘not much.’ But Gallic aristocrats were some of the best armored fellows on the ancient battlefield; the gap in protection and equipment cost is staggering

“Let’s start with the aristocrat. The wealthiest sort of Gaul – typically the kind that could afford a horse – was pretty well armored with a metal helmet and mail armor. La Tène helmets are, in English-language scholarship generally divided into two types, ‘Montefortino’ and ‘Coolus’ types, the former defined by the presence of a knob at the crest of the helmet and the latter by its absence, both of which get adopted by the Romans but at different times. This typology isn’t used outside of the English language scholarship very much and that’s because it isn’t very informative and in any case is far better suited to the Roman variants of these helmets than their La Tène originals”

“What is striking though is that we have fair reason to suppose not every Gallic warrior would have had a metal helmet. Notice, for instance, on the Gundestrup Cauldron; the cavalrymen have the distinctive knob-topped and decorated ‘Montefortino’ helmets but the infantrymen do not, instead having a head covering that looks to be the same material as their trousers (perhaps they have wrapped their head in thickened cloth). Thiery Lejars notes, in terms of prevalence, that “the use of the helmet remains exceptional. It is necessary to wait to the Late La Tène in order to find a significant trace of it.”16

“If that’s true of helmets, it is profoundly more true of mail armor”

“the La Tène mail armor is easy to describe and really hard to make. Mail is effectively a metal fabric composed of joined rings; in this case (and indeed all along the European-Mediterranean-West Asian mail tradition) alternating rows of solid rings and rings closed by a rivet.19 The rings are joined in a 4-in1 pattern (each ring intersects four others). Armor rings were exclusively produced in iron (later steel, but in this period, iron). La Tène and Roman mail was constructed (that is, the rings were put together) ‘in the flat’ without much in the way of shaping. Think of a flat sheet joined to make a rough ‘tube’ of fabric rather than a sewn and tailored garment”

“The result was a ‘tunic’ of mail (with an opening for the head), which extended to just above the knees, generally without sleeves (but sometimes with ‘false sleeves,’ which is to say a bit of mail that extended out over the shoulders to offer some upper-arm protection). In some cases, the mail was fastened in tube-and-yoke style, in other cases the shoulder elements were an entire second layer. These look really similar in artwork and it is sometimes very hard to tell them apart”

“This armor appears first in the archaeological record in the late fourth or early third centuries BC (dating is hard) and spreads rapidly, probably – but not certainly – from an origin point on the upper Danube somewhere. It reaches southern France by the 220s (if not earlier) and Rome probably around 225.20 Mail is the only preserved body armor associated with La Tène material culture; bronze breastplates were known in the earlier Halstatt period”

“Mail is really effective armor,21 particularly against cutting weapons. But it’s also really expensive.22 We don’t have any good price data from the ancient world, but the medieval comparanda suggests a good mail shirt might be at least as expensive as a specially bred warhorse”

“The thing is, good mail is made up of very small links, generally not much larger than a centimeter across and often much smaller. With rings that small, you might need something like 40,000 or so of them to make a complete shirt. Really fancy mail might use even smaller, finer rings and some mail shirts have ring-counts above 100,000. Each of those rings needs to be made individually, by hand, and then assembled, by hand”

“such armor was out of reach of all but the wealthiest of people in the La Tène material culture sphere”

“Mail finds are substantially rarer than helmet finds which, as noted, are substantially rarer than weapon finds. A quick page through Wijnhoven’s (op. cit.) catalog – an exhaustive list of all La Tène, Roman and early medieval mail finds, suggests we may have something like 40 finds of pre-Roman mail all told, in all regions”

“Pleiner’s sword study looked at 1616 La Tène culture flat graves and reports 297 burials with weapons, 33 with helmets and one with mail (the famous Ciumești burial).”

“The point here is that Gallic equipment was much more strongly stratified, as best we can tell, than their period-equivalent competitors. Gallic infantry were shock infantry (see below) but apparently often went without mail; indeed the evidence seems to imply they often went without metal helmets. In the settled societies of the Mediterranean, skirmish infantry with bows or javelins might be this lightly armored, but heavy infantry was, well, heavy”

“Though the Romans will cut it short, I think there is evidence that this a period of consolidating power – the halting, first steps of state formation – in the La Tène material culture zone”

“Caesar certainly gives the impression that by the time he is in Gaul in the 50s BC, we are seeing some truly ‘big men’ emerge in these societies who can mobilize armies of clients and supporters; that’s a pretty normal stage in state formation”

“Eventually one of those big men would consolidate power and become king (something Caesar says other Gallic elites are actively worried about, e.g. Caes. BGall. 1.3-4, 7.4) leading to the formation of a state”

“let me suggest that what we are seeing is not the egalitarian opening of the ‘warrior class’ but rather that Gallic elites are becoming strong enough to conscript their peasants en masse into tribal levies

“Now that isn’t to say that anywhere in the La Tène material culture zone was as stratified as Rome or the Hellenistic kingdoms. They weren’t, if for no other reason than no one in the La Tène material culture zone was anywhere near remotely as rich as Hellenistic kings or the sort of Romans who served in the Senate. Rather what we seem to be missing is the sort of broad afluent class – the assidui at Rome or the zeugitai in Athens – who could afford armor and heavier military equipment, but not horses”

“In so far as we can tell, a fighting system emerged around one-handed thrusting spears and large, center-grip shields focused on shock engagements in the fifth century at the latest and was still mostly structured like that in the first century”

“In the same time, the Romans ditched nearly all of their indigenous Italic equipment and adopted wholesale the Greek (or perhaps Gallic!) cavalry model (Polyb. 6.25.3), a Spanish sword, a Gallic helmet, Gallic body-armor, a Gallic or Italo-Gallic shield, introduced an new kind of light infantry (the velites), created a legion based on maniples before moving to a legion based on cohorts and also formed and perfected a system for the mass recruitment of citizen soldiers before abandoning that system in favor of a system of semi-professionals serving for pay before transmuting that system right at the end of the period into a system of long-service professionals serving as a career. They also adopted complex oared warships and learned to fight with catapults”

“Gallic warfare may not have been especially static or dynamic but it was not stupid. La Tène weaponry worked and the military system it was attached to worked which is why we see such eagerness to adopt elements of it outside of the La Tène material culture sphere”

“In favorable circumstances, Gallic armies – that is, armies with La Tène material culture stuff (remember how we’re defining ‘Gaul’ here) – could and did overwhelm and defeat Roman, Greek and Macedonian armies”

“Our sources are actually pretty clear on how Gauls fought. There’s a repeated motif of aristocratic display – challenges to one-on-one duels, that kind of thing – which may seem silly but has valuable morale and social cohesion value in these sorts of society (see below on recruitment). But the main action was generally an infanty shock action”

“Gallic infantry fought in relatively close ranks – Caesar describes the Helvetii formation as a confertissima acies, “a most dense battleline,” before it ‘made a phalanx’ (phalange facta, Caes. BGall 1.24, note also Livy 10.29.6-7, 34.46.9-10; 35.5.7, etc.)”

“So it’s pretty safe to say the main Gallic body of infantry typically fought in close order, though we shouldn’t overstate the level of discipline this implies: Greek hoplites also fought in close order and were, in the classical period, almost entirely untutored amateurs”

“A repeated motif is that Gallic armies tended to either win in the first rush or quickly come apart (e.g. Livy 10.29.8-11, but this recurs in a ton of places). That is presented, particularly by Greek authors, as a ‘barbarians” lack of courage but to be frank given how little armor these guys had, it meaks a lot of sense. That first onset of a dense-packed, well-shielded battleline often would just win the battle, but if it didn’t and the issue came down to attritional close combat, the guys wearing very little armor were going to be in a bad way. Moreover, ‘win at the first onset or fall apart’ is also probably a pretty good description of how hoplite battles might work, though of course no Greek would descibe them that way”

“we can imagine a society whose military activities are organized around a handful of economic, social and military elites who raise military force not through formal institutions but through networks of clientage or even potentially something like vassalage (but please note we’re using that term by analogy; carelessly assuming the Gauls looked like medieval Frenchmen was a common mistake in 19th century scholarship)”

“To me the most likely organization is one made up of irregular units, organized around individual aristocrats based on personal connections, both vertical (lower-class clients follow their upper-class aristocratic patron) and horizontal (clan, family and friendship ties bond aristocrats and their retinues together) forming a relatively cohesive ‘tribal’ army”

“It is a system of military organization that shows up a lot when looking at non-state societies which lack formal institutions for conscription or mobilization and what we are told is consistent with that. But we need to be really clear just how dark this room is and how little we know”

“So in conclusion on the one hand I applaud the effort to save the Gauls (and more broadly ancient Celtic-Language speakers) from the ‘mad barbarians’ tropes, but we must be careful in how we do it”

“What we should not do is reach for every scrap of ‘evidence’ no matter how weak or flimsy and pretend that we have built a secure structure out of the evidentiary twigs”

“Learning new things about Europe’s iron-age Celtic-Language speakers is possible; ever knowing a lot about them – the way we can know things about Greece or Rome or Persia or even late Bronze Age Egypt and Mesopotamia – knowing that kind of ‘a lot’ is almost certainly forever out of reach”

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