“Their Swords are as Long as the Javelins of Other Peoples, and Their Javelins have Points Longer than Swords”: Celtic Weapons in Greek and Roman Iconography and Historiography





Iron Age Celts, warfare, weapons, Classical sources, iconography, gaesum, matara


The studies on the Iron Age Celtic warfare usually tend to put together three types of data: Greek and Roman literary sources, iconographic artefacts as well as the archaeological materials. In reality, we have at least two different images of the Celtic warfare. The Classical historians and artisans who pursued some political aims describing the Celtic warriors had constructed the first one. Another one had been created by the Celts themselves, who practiced their burial rite in accordance with the Iron Age religious beliefs. While the “real” Celtic warfare can hardly be reconstructed, the author focuses on the comparison of the two “ideal” images just outlined.

According to the Classical sources, dozens of thousands of the Celtic warriors had attacked the civilized nations. In case of victory, the Celts used to cut off heads of their vanquished enemies and made mass suicides in case of their own defeat. They went into battle naked to demonstrate their rage and fearlessness, but they were unable to countervail the light infantry armed with missiles. The Celtic weapons had been huge, but poorly made. While the archaeology attests the usage of war chariots by the Celts, the Greek historiographers avoided to mention this type of military equipment for it had been considered an attribute of gods and epic heroes. While the Celtic war-bands were usually described as the disordered hordes, some passing remarks by Livy and Caesar give reason to suggest that the Celtic infantry was versatile enough to fight in both close formation and open order. The image of the Celts as the nomadic warrior people seems to be no more than the historiographic cliché. Recent strontium and oxygen isotope analysis of the La Tène cemeteries suggests that only a small part of the community took part in the population movements.

The Greek and Roman artists embodied the above-mentioned stereotypes in their works. They used to depict the Celts as the men with athletic figures, specific “barbarian” haircuts and the moustache. Typical Celtic warrior in the Greek and Roman iconography had been depicted as the naked infantryman, armed with the sword and the shield, who stood against either the fully armed hoplite or cavalryman. The artists rarely reproduced the authentic appearance of the Celtic weapons, with exception of the oval shields and sword-belts, which were considered as the ethnographic markers of the Celts. The author argues that while the Celtic military equipment fitted mainly for the hand-to-hand clashes, the findings of the javelins in the La Tène burials are far from being seldom. Similarly, large amount of the fibulae in the male graves may indicate that the nudity in combat was exotic custom not only for the Greeks and Romans, but also for the Celts themselves. Judging from the archaeological finds, the typical Celtic warrior was an infantryman armed with a single multipurpose spear and an oval shield. The sword was an elite weapon of the chieftains, high-ranked warriors, equestrians etc.

Special attention in the article is paid to the nomenclature of the Celtic weapons used in the Classical sources. The author comes to a conclusion that the words of the Celtic origin gaesum and matara (mandaris) widely used by the Greek and Roman authors originally referred to the multipurpose spear designed for the hand-to-hand fight. While the Greeks used a specific term thureos to define the Celtic shield, the Romans used the word scutum for both their own semi-cylindrical composite rectangular shield and the simply constructed Celtic oval shield. Similarly, both Greeks and Romans had not developed a specific term to define the Celtic long slashing sword, although the swords used by the Greeks and Romans themselves differed significantly from their Celtic counterparts.



How to Cite

Kazakevych Г. (2021). “Their Swords are as Long as the Javelins of Other Peoples, and Their Javelins have Points Longer than Swords”: Celtic Weapons in Greek and Roman Iconography and Historiography. TEXT AND IMAGE: ESSENTIAL PROBLEMS IN ART HISTORY, 1(1). https://doi.org/10.17721/2519-4801.2016.1.06