Ancient Celtic Culture: Fierce on and off the Battlefield

From the lecture series: The Celtic World

By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., The Catholic University of America

The historical view of ancient Celtic culture necessarily passes through the lens of Greek and Roman writings. Though rife with stereotypes, many of these stories are quite entertaining. Explore the many facets of the Celts as fierce warriors and fitness fanatics who may have indulged in the occasional human sacrifice.

Shot of Advancing Army of Viking Warriors. Reenactment.
(Image: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock)

Stories of the Celts

To learn about the ancient Celts, we must rely on the accounts of the Greeks and Romans, which are quite biased. These stories often depict the Celts as barbarians, drunks, and sexual deviants.

But the Celts were not all about indulging in the pleasures of the flesh without limit. One classic Celtic story comes from the so-called Histories of Ephorus, which was probably written in the early- to mid-4th century B.C., and preserved only by later writers. 

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Ephorus claimed Celtic warriors had to pass a kind of fitness test by demonstrating they had not put on too much weight. Every village had a standard size belt. If warriors could put on the belt and buckle it, they passed; if they couldn’t buckle it, they had to diet until they had lost enough weight to buckle it again.

Perceptions of the Celts varied wildly. A second tale of the Celts comes from an account about an embassy of Celts from the Adriatic that supposedly caught up with Alexander the Great in 335 B.C. Apparently, the great man was impressed by their fearlessness, and he asked if there was anything the Celts truly feared.

They replied, “Only that the sky should fall on our heads.” This was probably supposed to be kind of a joke, meaning, “There’s nothing that we fear, except the sky falling on us!”

But this story was taken literally and went into the stock of tales about the Celts. Ancient contemporaries of the European continent thought the Celts were afraid of the sky falling on them, and it pops up again and again in texts.

The story even appears in the modern French comic Astérix, which purports to describe the life of a Gaulish village during the Roman occupation of Gaul. 

Sign depicting Asterix, on a wall somewhere in Sint-Truiden
The french comic Astérix purports to describe the life of a Gaulish village during the Roman occupation of Gaul. (Image: Andrewke at nl.wikipedia/Public domain)

Touching on the topic of the Celts’ religion, an early writer named Hieronymus of Cardia reports that the Celts lived on the edge of the Ocean, presumably meaning the Atlantic Coast, and that they practiced human sacrifice.

A controversial topic, these stories circulated in the classical world, contributing to the view that the Celts were intimidating and exotic.

Learn more about Celtic religious beliefs on divination, reincarnation, and human sacrifice 

The Celts as Imposing Warriors

Bust of Poseidonius in the Museo Archeologico (Naples).
The work of Poseidonius is fundamental to our understanding of the Celts. (Image: Sailko/Public domain)

One of the most important writers who wrote about the Celts was named Poseidonius, also known as “The Athlete,” though it’s unclear why. Poseidonius was famous as a polymath, meaning he knew a bit about everything.

Determined to learn about the Celts for himself, he boarded a ship in the eastern Mediterranean and went west to explore.

He ended up traveling north from Massalia or Marseilles into the heart of Gaul, and he wrote up his findings in a work which, unfortunately, survives only in extracts.

Poseidonius was the first writer to note that the Celts displayed the severed heads of their enemies; the cult of the severed head struck people in the classical world as noteworthy. He also has some of the most extensive information about the fighting techniques of the Celts.

Photograph of a nude celtic warrior sculpture (c 1st C BC) in Museum of Brittany, Rennes taken by Paul Barlow
A nude Gallic warrior statuette, from the first century B.C. (Image: Paul Barlow/Public domain)

Supposedly, the Celts liked to fight in the nude. Julius Caesar, who relied extensively on the writings of Poseidonius, notes that they also treated their hair with a paste made of lime to make it stand up on end, which made them look intimidating to their opponents. Celts also supposedly played loud war trumpets and they were given to challenging their enemies to single combat.

The warrior’s challenge was not confined to the battlefield. Poseidonius reports that when the Celts were feasting, their natural boastfulness would often get out of hand. They would challenge one another to a fight and the winner would receive the choicest portion of the meat.

The competition for the so-called “hero’s portion” was another aspect of Celtic society that captured the imaginations of classical readers. These feasts were said to be characterized by the presence of bards, who recited many poems in praise of their chieftains.

The work of Poseidonius is fundamental to our understanding of the Celts, for the stories he told became a kind of template to which other authors would refer back.

Learn more about the Celts influence in Britain before the arrival of the Romans

Celtic Hair Color

Another interesting story reveals perceptions of the Celts’ physical appearance, and likely comes from Poseidonius’s lost text. The Celts were described as tall and blond, and sources note their children had hair that was gray when they were young that darkened with age.

This is a likely reference to the well-known phenomenon among light-skinned people in which children’s hair can be very blond when they are little and then turns brown as they age.

It’s interesting to think about the Greeks and Romans—who perhaps had a typical Mediterranean complexion—coming across the fair-skinned, fair-haired Celts, and imagining their hair traveled a reverse path from gray hair in childhood to dark hair in adulthood.

Learn more about the Celt’s millennia-old society and its La Tène art style

The Celts Enter Italy

With some basic information about some of the general characteristics the classical authors attributed to the Celts, consider their encounters with the classical world.

The Celts gradually met up with their classical counterparts, first in Italy, then in Greece and Spain. This order roughly reflects the chronology of when the Romans and Greeks faced the Celts militarily.

The Lepontic alphabet
The Lepontic alphabet. (Image: Barbax – Own work excerpted from File:Venetic Raetic Camunic Lepontic alphabets.png/Public domain)

In the Italian peninsula, the Celts were an important presence for as far back as written sources go. From early on, there seemed to have been Celtic speakers in northern Italy. Some of the earliest Celtic inscriptions are from northern Italy, from the people known as the Leponti.

The Leponti spoke a language related to Gaulish or Gallic, living in the area just north of Milan, around the great Italian lakes. This is where Lepontic inscriptions have been found, dating from as early as 550 B.C.

The inscriptions are written in a northern Italian script related to Etruscan, and their creators seem to have been a part of the landscape. They were not invaders; they had just always been there.

Learn more about Julius Caesar’s wars against the Gauls

The Beginning and End of Celtic Control in Italy

But there were other groups of Celtic speakers who seem to have appeared in northern Italy around 400 B.C., probably attracted by the wealth of the Italian peninsula. They conquered the northern Italian plains, including other Celtic speakers, before then moving south on Rome.

The Roman historian Livy, writing around the turn of the 1st century B.C. and the 1st century A.D., tells us that in 390 B.C., Celtic speakers sacked most of the city.

Supposedly, the Capitoline Hill was saved from attack when the sacred geese dedicated to Juno sounded the alarm. Historians, however, don’t believe this.

In reality, it’s clear, even from Livy, that the Celts were bribed to leave. Modern scholars have now even cast doubt on whether the sack of Rome by the Gauls happened in the way Livy describes.

Scholars note that another historian named Polybius, writing in the 2nd century B.C.—much closer to the events described by Livy—did not mention the Gaulish attack on Rome. But the story gets at a larger truth: The Gauls of northern Italy were seen as a threat for a long time.

Finally, in 225 B.C., a Celtic army was defeated by the Romans at the Battle of Telamon in Tuscany, north of Rome. This battle was the end of the Celts as an independent power in the north of Italy.

Learn more about how Brittany became a thriving Celtic province

From the Celts’ defeat onward, the Romans spoke about two “Gauls,” which were distinguished by their position to the Alps. One Gaul was on the Italian side of the Alps, called Cisalpine Gaul, from the Latin word “cis,” which means “on this side of.”

The second Gaul was called Transalpine Gaul because it was “across,” or “on the other side of” the Alps. The Cisalpine Gaul, the “Italian” part of Gaul, fell under Roman domination, but at the time, Transalpine Gaul held little interest for the Romans.

Despite the bias of ancient historians and writers at the time, the Celtic tribes of early Europe continue to fascinate the modern imagination with stories of their ferocity and culture. Traces of their impact still linger today throughout music, art, and history.

Common Questions About Ancient Celtic Culture

Q: Where are the ancient Celts from?

It is largely thought that the Celts came from a group of tribes in central Europe who all shared the same language and culture.

Q: Why were the Celts considered ferocious?

Two reasons the Celts were frightening were that they dyed their bodies blue with woad, and they used lime to stiffen their hair before battle.

Q: What type of clothing did the ancient Celts wear?

The ancient Celtic men wore cloaks over tunics with a type of trouser and belt. The ancient Celtic women wore dresses and brooches. 

Q: What kind of work did the Celts do?

The ancient Celts were largely farmers who lived in round houses. When they went to battle, they used long shields, swords and spears.

This article was updated on November 22, 2019

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