Celtic Warrior Nobility—Hierarchical Society


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We have only to follow the thread of the hero path, and where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god. Where we had thought to travel outward, we will come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all the world—Joseph Campbell

CELTIC WARRIOR NOBILITY

The previous post in APOLLO’S RAVEN discussed how Romans viewed Celts as fierce warriors, due to their long conflict between 390-285 BC. This image had a long-lasting impact, evidenced by stereotypical comments made by Julius Caesar and Cicero in mid-1st Century BC:

  • Many Celts fought naked in battle
  • Celts had a ritual concept of warfare
  • Issues could be resolved through single combat
  • Triumphant noise and bragger were as important as the fight itself
  • For a warrior to maintain honor after a defeat in battle, he had to commit suicide
  • Attacks involved initial ferocious onslaughts, but quickly gave way to wild despair if initial charge was left unchecked
  • Celts were barbarians lacking methodological discipline, hallmark of their civilization.

However, Celts were also described as heroic, their society dominated by a warrior nobility whose lives were spent in perpetual conflict. Rich grave goods, including weapons and armor, together with later myths and legends, reinforced this image. Julius Caesar indicated that there were only two privileged classes in Celtic society: the druids [spiritual adviser] and warrior nobles. The common people were treated almost as slaves.

Dying Gladiator

Statue Dying Gaul

Warfare and conflict played an essential part of the maintenance of the very fabric of the Celtic society, itself.  Their hierarchical society perpetuated conflict with young warriors seeking their fortunes and prestige through plundering and reputations in warfare.

Hierarchical Society

Celtic society was made up of extended families and clans grouped together to form territorial-based tribes, which were ruled by a king or high chieftain, often in pairs. By mid-1st Century BC, some tribes elected magistrates to rule in Gaul (modern day France), in many ways similar to Roman consuls. Nonetheless, magistrates had limited power. Most decisions were made or endorsed by a popular assembly of all free men in the tribe. Real power was held by a smaller council of leading nobles, among whom kings and chieftains were chosen.

Celtic Roundhouse Used for Assembly

Ancient Celtic Roundhouse Used for Public Assembly

Although we know very little about the common people, they were not slaves in the classical sense. Yet slave raiding was a principal motive for Celtic warfare. Captives were traded for luxury goods from Greece and Rome.

Greek Amphorae

Greek Wine Amphorae

The role of the Celtic warrior nobility was to wage war and in doing so, increase their personal reputation in the eyes of his peers. Caesar wrote: “Whenever war broke out and the services of a king’s subjects were required…they all took field, surrounded by their retainers and dependents of whom each noble has a greater or smaller number according to his birth or fortune. The only possession of such a following was the only criterion of influence and power they recognize.”

Celtic Roundhouse of Chieftain (Interior)

Ancient Celtic Roundhouse of Chieftain (Interior)

Having a large number of attendants was a reflection of a Celtic noble’s standing in society.  The Greek historian, Polybius, wrote that comradeship was treated with the greatest importance. Those among them who were most feared and most powerful had the largest number of attendants and associates.

Clientage was an agreement of mutual obligation where the lower ranking would pledge their fealty to the king or chieftain in return for security, patronage, and employment. Hence, common people labored for free men of the tribe who were entitled to attend the popular assembly and make decisions. Free men would in turn support the king in peace and above all war. It was an agreement that was closely bound to personal honor. For those who did not meet their obligations, dire consequences could befall them. Clients also extended to other tribes and even between tribes themselves. However, the continual competition for wealth, power, and influence gave rise to a hierarchy that was inherently unstable, as freemen could aspire to a noble status.

Celtic Village of Roundhouses

Ancient Celtic Village of Roundhouses

Hostage-Taking

Clientage was often reinforced by the exchange of hostages or the foster of children in the household of a patron. A previous post in APOLLO’S RAVEN also discussed how Rome used this strategy to acculturate the people they conquered or politically influenced.

The legend of King Arthur tells how the young prince was raised secretly in the household of Sir Ector with his foster brother Cai—a relationship that oftentimes had stronger ties than blood in Celtic society. Given the significance of the number seven in Celtic myth, childhood was probably the first seven years of life. Boys reached manhood at the age of fourteen. According to their social rank, they were allowed the right to bear arms. Girls were considered eligible for marriage at the same age.

Celtic Wooden Shield

Ancient Celtic Shield

For young nobles and sons of freemen who had been fostered, reaching fourteen meant it was time to become the client of a famous lord or attempt to attract a following of their own. In Wales, such warrior retinues were called cantrefs. Junior warriors would follow experienced warriors whose success would bring them a greater chance for wealth and glory.

The next series of posts will continue to explore the Celtic warrior culture and the importance of a chieftain to display his status and power through feasting and sharing his wealth.

References:

John Davies, The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day;  2005. United States: Sterling Publishing Co., New York.
Stephen Allen, Celtic Warrior: 300 BC — AD 100; 2001. Osprey Publishing LTD., Westminster, MD, USA.
Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.
Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth; 1988; Anchor Books Doubleday, New York.

 

 

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6 thoughts on “Celtic Warrior Nobility—Hierarchical Society

  1. Hi Linnea,

    It is interesting to read how hierarchy in Celtic way of life reminds me of the Spartans and their society. A powerful and strong culture reliant on warfare and arms though the Spartans tended to avoid fighting whereas the Celts sought it out!
    Even their assemblies are similar with the Spartiates participating in the decision making process as did the Celtic freemen.
    A wonderful post!
    Thank you 😀

    Like

    • Hi Luciana,

      Thank you for your comments. I agree there were similarities between Celts and Spartans. However, the Celtic society was spurred by a warrior’s ambition to heighten his status by plundering and by showing his courage in battle. Ultimately, this was the downfall for the Celts, as tribal rulers often fought each other and could not unite against the Roman Empire. However, there were exceptions. Of note was the warrior queen Boudica who united British tribes in a revolt against the Romans. She almost succeeded in 60 AD. In future posts I’ll discuss more Celtic female rulers and warriors.

      I’ve always enjoyed your blog, Eternal Atlantis at http://luccav.com/ which provides fascinating information about ancient civilizations, particularly Greece, and mythology. Thank you for your insightful comments.

      Like

  2. Hi, was looking at the picture of the shield. I was wondering if it was one of the leather ones? Celts often made their shields out of leather, including the boss. They had elaborate metal ones, but would only use them ceremoniously because they were very expensive and only high ranking chieftains could afford to own them. They could fashion leather to look the same way and we were shown examples of such at Flag Fen. They were very durable too, but easily and cheaply replaced if mangled in conflict.

    Like

    • Hi Colin from RETRO BRIT,

      I took a photograph of this shield at Castell Henllys located in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. There is a recreated Celtic village of roundhouses build on top of the excavated remains that date back to 400 BC. This shield was probably a replica of one that was found at this site. The shield itself appeared to be made out of wood, but I didn’t closely inspect it. I agree with you that probably only high ranking chieftains could afford to own metal shields which were often found at their burial grounds. Thank you for sharing your expertise of this ancient civilisation.

      Cheers,
      Linnea

      Like

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