We seem to know a lot about the Romans and how they lived in the army, mainly because they wrote a lot down. But what was it like to be a Celt during the Iron Age? and how did they manage to become warriors? Here at The Áed we know emulating Conor McGregor isn’t easy these days so here is a breakdown of what it might have been like to either be a Celtic warrior, or face one during the Iron Age!
The warriors were not a social class of people. All the ancient Celtic people were warriors if they needed to be. Although most women stayed home, looking after the crops and the children, when their men went off to war, women could choose to train and fight as warriors if they wished. There were warrior schools in the world of the ancient Celts. A couple of those schools were run by women. But they were the exceptions. Most of the warriors were well trained men.
You might hear tales of warriors running naked into battle with only a shield and a sword for protection. There was one tribe that painted their body blue and ran naked into battle. But most warriors wore some protection. The nobles wore chain mail, and carried a shield and a sword. Peasant’s shields might be made of wood instead of iron, but they were covered in leather. Their weapons were made of iron.
Celtic warriors used many tricks to scare their opponents. The Celts were naturally tall, with blonde or red hair. They rode horses into battle, which not only gave them a fighting advantage, but made them look even taller. Many warriors wore bronze or wood helmets shaped with two horns, that made them look taller yet.
Men put lime in their hair before a battle. Lime burns and acts as a bleach. It lightened their hair so it was even more blonde. The lime also stiffened as it dried. This gave the men a protective glowing crown. Just before entering a battle, musical horns were blown. Men beat their swords against their shields and screamed battle cries and insults at their opponents.
The Celts like to chop off the head of the leader of their enemies. That head was cured and rubbed with oil, and nailed over the doorway, somewhat like modern hunters do with deer heads.
If you were facing an army of Celtic warriors, you would see a seemingly endless field of tall, screaming scary looking god-like creatures with lime spiked hair glowing brightly in the sun, and severed heads hanging from their belts and wagons. It would have been a most terrifying sight. The Celts were not only fierce fighters. They looked and sounded like fierce fighters. They often won, sometimes without even entering into battle. Between trading and raiding, the Celts soon became rich.
Before long, the Celts had taken over nearly all of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and the Isle of Man. The other tribes in these areas either moved away, were killed in battle, or joined the Celts. When the ancient Celts ran out of other tribes to fight, they began to fight each other. Close relationships between clans did not stop them from raiding each other – stealing cattle and other wealth. This led to many a battle.
Various clans rarely went into full battle with each other. What they would do is show up in full battle dress at a pre-arranged location. Each side would line up at some distance from the other, and scream insults at each other. Each side made as much racket as they could. They beat their shields and screamed and shouted and blew horns. Finally, when they had just about exhausted themselves from all their noise, each side would send a predetermined number of men – one or two or a handful – forth to fight for them. These fights were usually to the death. The outcome of the fight determined who was the winner. Goods or lands were distributed accordingly. Then, the two sides went home.
As you may have guessed, the Iron Age got its name from the fact that these people used Iron tools and weapons. Iron ore was easier to obtain than copper was, Iron was also harder than bronze and so it became the better option, although bronze was still used for ornamental purposes. Iron was smelted in small furnaces. The liquid was then placed into a mould where it was left to be cooled.
Feasting was important in the life of the nobles and warriors. They were held to celebrate their victory in battle and give warriors a chance to boast about their skills and really to be big show-offs! A Hero’s Portion was the name given to the meal which was granted to the bravest warrior of the day. This usually included the best of the meat such as pig along with ale.
The ancient Celts had always fought as a clan, not as a people. Clans might team up against another clan or two, but they had never banded together totally to defeat one common foe. When the Roman army arrived, the Celts did not band together to fight them. The well organized Roman army found them easy prey. The Romans did not wipe out the Celts. But they did rule the Celts for many years.
When we look at the impact of the Romans we would see that they made their way (roughly) up to the border of Scotland and never came to Ireland. A few reasons for this was that the Romans could not defeat the Celts in Scotland. These people were known as the Caledonians later to be known as the Picts. Many movies portrayed these people as naked and completely painted in blue!
Ireland & The Romans
The Romans did not invade Ireland because..well,,,Ireland was pretty miserable at the time! However, an invasion was on the cards but for a large Caledonian uprising in Scotland that became a war of attrition. By the time it was finished, Ireland was not a priority anymore. Besides this, factors such as the weather and perhaps the fact that many thought the Irish to be even more savage than the Britons. Here is a passage for the Greek geographer Strabo:
He generously considered the inhabitants more savage than the Britons, since they are man-eaters as well as heavy-eaters, and since they count it an honourable thing when their fathers die to devour them, and openly to have intercourse not only with other women, but with their mothers and sisters as well; but I say this only with the understanding that I have no trustworthy witnesses for it.
So there you have it, to be a Celtic Warrior you had to be one tough looking mudder! I should say “Down with that sort of thing” about what Strabo said but to be honest, he’s not all that wrong…man eaters? maybe not but heavy eaters? I could see that, you only need to see KC’s in Douglas on a Friday eve to know Strabo is speaking the truth!
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