The War Chariots of the Celtic Elite

Military History

The War Chariots of the Celtic Elite

The Celts neither invented nor monopolized chariots, but they ably used these weapons of war through much of the 2nd Century BC.

The Celts neither invented nor monopolized chariots, but they ably used these weapons of war through much of the 2nd Century BC.

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by Andrew Scott

To the Latins they were Gauls; to the Greeks they were the keatoi (Keltoi), or Celts. A warrior people who at one time roamed Europe from Britain to the Black Sea, Celts reached the height of their power and cultural influence around the 2nd century BC. Their prowess in battle was well known to the ancients who, after the sack of Rome in 390 BC and the plundering of Delphi in 279 BC, quickly learned to fear the terror Gallicus. Aristotle wrote, “We have no word for a man that is excessively fearless … as they say of the Celts.”

Celtic battle frenzy was documented by both the Romans and Greeks. After the raid on Delphi, the Greek Pausanias reported: “On they marched against their enemies with the unreasoning fury and passion of brutes. Slashed with axe or sword they kept their desperation while they still breathed; pierced by arrow or javelin, they did not abate of their passion so long as life remained. Some drew out of the wounds the spears, by which they had been hit, and threw them at the Greeks or used them in close fighting.”

Although not as technologically advanced in martial matters as the Greeks or Romans, the Celts nonetheless ably used the weapons of the day, including chariots.

Celts neither invented nor monopolized chariots. Likely the two-wheeled chariot was first used by the Hurrians of northern Syria, who adapted the four-wheeled Mesopotamian war-wagon into the lighter, faster vehicle around 1700 BC. The first battle in history that can be dated and located, Megiddo in 1469 BC, is also our first recorded account of the use of the battle chariot.

It is not certain when the Celts gained this valuable technology. Evidence of early Celtic chariot use is gleaned primarily from the excavation of graves of noble warriors. Around the 7th and 6th centuries BC, the Celtic elite from southern Germany to Bohemia were buried atop a four-wheeled wagon. As the use of the funeral wagon spread westward, its use in burials became somewhat more common, appearing in the graves of less affluent persons. But archaeologists do not know what role, if any, these wagons played in life, whether for war or agriculture.
 Likely the two-wheeled chariot was first used by the Hurrians of northern Syria, who adapted the four-wheeled Mesopotamian war-wagon into the lighter, faster vehicle around 1700 BC.
Beginning around the 3rd century BC, Celts of the regions around the Marne and the Moselle Rivers began burying their chieftains in light, two-wheeled chariots with their sword, shield, spears, and drinking vessels. Similar chariot graves from this era are also found in the British coastal regions of Yorkshire. The evidence for the use of these vehicles is clear. A Roman coin from 110 BC dramatically depicts the naked Gallic warrior-king Bituitus of the Averni casting spears from his chariot. And documentary evidence of the chariot in combat on the European continent is left to us by the Roman poet Propertius. In describing the fighting between the forces of Republican Rome and 30,000 howling Celtic warriors in 222 BC, Propertius depicts the chieftain Viridomar “clothed in striped trousers” hurling javelins from his chariot with deadly accuracy. In fact, many of the Latin words for chariot—carpentium, carrus, essendum—have Gaulish roots.

The use of chariots in combat in Gaul apparently died out before Caesar’s campaign of the 50s BC, because Caesar makes no mention of them—though he did of Gallic cavalry—in his Gallic Wars. But chariots certainly remained in Britain—though few have been found there—into the Caesarian era and beyond, because they are included in the writings of Caesar, Tacitus, and in the old Irish epic the Táin Bó Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) composed in part around the 2nd century AD.

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