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The Celtic Warriors Who Faced the Romans Naked

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.

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Whenever a soldier goes on a mission, one of his basic pieces of equipment is a form of protection. Weapons aren’t just his primary carry, and the Kevlar inside his plate carrier could ensure his safe return home. A soldier I know even joked that in some cases, the difference between a body bag and medal of valor is armor. Indeed, surviving a battle to fight for another day is the primary reason why warriors wear them for millennia. Materials ranged from leather, metal, to Kevlar, while the extent of coverage may include the whole body, or just the torso.

Plus, a warrior in body armor is a frightening sight to behold.

In the modern age, plate carriers bristling with ammunitions, knives and holstered firearms add to the intimidation factors. And back in the days when men sport metal armors, even non-decorated suit would dehumanize warriors. And certain warrior cultures will customize their armor to give them the appearance of supernatural beings. As in the cases of the samurai, whereas their lacquered armors and masks made them demonic. The European knights barely strived for monstrous appearance, but their full battle armor is enough to intimidate.

The usage of armor brings a lot of advantages, but a certain warrior society in the age of antiquity never wore them. Not only that, but they rejected the wearing of clothes as well. They fought the fully armed Roman Legionnaires buff naked.

The Fearsome Celts

The Celtic warriors charging the enemy.

The Celtic warriors charging the enemy.

The Roman military was a Biblical apocalyptic terror coming to life. Like a hulking beast with fangs of metal, the soldiers of the legion fought with the precision of a well-oiled machine. Clad in armor and armed with various weapons like swords, shields and javelins, they were known to take on larger forces in set-piece battles. But even with their equipment and training, the Roman legionnaire never had an easy time taking down enemies, particularly the so-called barbarian societies. What they perceived as primitive tribes managed to put on a good fight. Nevertheless, Gaul fell to Rome under Julius Ceasar.

The Gaul region was inhabited by Celtic tribes, and Romans had a lot to say about the Celts. To begin with, the Celts were the largest group back in ancient Europe. And aside from the tribe that inhabited Gaul, Britons, Boii, Celtiberians, Gaels and Gallaeci also fall under the Celtic group. Written accounts of the Celts came from the Greeks and Romans, while Barry Cunliffe writes that Roman sources are "likely to be ill-observed" and meant to portray the Celts as outlandish "barbarians". Nevertheless, the Celts often came in conflict with Rome in various wars and proved to be a dangerous adversary before finally falling to Rome.

Going to Battle

Modern reproduction of Celtic battle equipment.

Modern reproduction of Celtic battle equipment.

To begin with, the Celts are battle hardened people. Their society seemed to feature tribal wars, though unlike the ancient superpowers like Rome, their wars were mostly raids and hunts. Nevertheless, it was Julius Ceasar himself who recorded how the Celts fought when he engaged. In his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, he offered descriptions on the Gallic and Briton’s method of warfare.

Unlike the contemporary barbaric and primitive perceptions of the Celts, Ceasar observed the Gauls as more organized. They fought in formations, and even utilized phalanxes to defend against cavalry charges. Celts also employed archers in their ranks, though the usage of swords en masses was never mentioned. The Britons on the other hand were wilder, and closer to the description of the classic barbarian. They wore animal skins, sported tattoos, painted themselves blue and used a sort of guerilla style tactics, unlike the Gauls.

For weapons, the Gauls wielded shields, polearms, and wore mail armor as in the case of the heavy infantry. They were also expert equestrians and even used chariots, much to the shock of the Romans.

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The Gauls’ sophisticated method of fighting evolved due to their contacts with neighboring kingdoms, whereas the Britons stayed isolated. Yet accounts of Polybius described a group of Gallic mercenaries that behaved differently. Unlike the armored and organized Gauls, the Gaesatea shocked the enemy by going naked.

The Nudist Brigade

Statue of the Dying Gaul.

Statue of the Dying Gaul.

It was in 225 BC at the Battle of Telamon, when a group of Gallic mercenaries fought Rome. They lived in the alps near the river Rhône, and they are named after a weapon. In Celtic tongue, gaisos means spear or javelin. Hence, this group of mercenaries were called Gaisatai, which means spear men. But as the Greek historian Polybius described them, these warriors were not known through their prowess with the spear. According to Polybius, these men fought at the front, and they did this without wearing any clothes or armor. The men in the leading companies did sport gold jewelries, like armlets and torques. The naked men, all in the best shape of their lives contrasted the other Gallic warriors, clad in light clothes or mail.

These armed nudists got involved in the war after their kings Concolitanus and Aneroëstus were offered large sums of gold, and the promise of prosperity in the conquered Rome, if they allied themselves with the Celtic coalition. Indeed, the kings responded by sending large numbers of mercenaries, all willing to fight. But one might wonder why they chose to go naked.

It was a combination of practicality (according to them), belief and pure shock value. They thought that wearing clothes will get in the way of fighting, hence going naked will free them of anything that will hamper their combat worthiness. Not wearing anything was also a loud display of confidence, and they trust the power of nature to protect their nude bodies.

Unfortunately, common sense dictated that charging into battle with minimal protection is a virtual suicide. And that’s exactly how the naked warriors ended up.

But They Were Massacred

Reenactors demonstrating the usage of pila.

Reenactors demonstrating the usage of pila.

Again, Polybius' account of the Battle of Telamon explained how nakedness became the undoing of the Gaesatae. The Romans were indeed shocked to see well-built nude men charging towards them. At the same time, the gold jewelry they wore motivated the Romans to win such spoils. And even the ferocity of the naked warriors was no match to the Roman javelin. The pilum, the javelin used by the Roman army, was made to defeat a shield bearing foe. But aside from being naked, the Gaesatae used smaller shields, which offered little protection against a rain of Pila. Hence, some of the mercenaries who charged wildly perished in hail of javelins, while the rest lost their nerves. In the end, they did nothing to stop the Roman advance, while their kings Concolitanus were captured while Aneroëstes committed suicide.

References

1. Waldman & Mason 2006, p. 144. "CELTS location: Greater Europe time period: Second millennium B.C.E. to present ancestry: Celtic.

2. Polybius, The Histories, Book 2.

3. Celtic Warrior, 300 BC–AD 100 by Stephen Allen, 2001, ISBN 1841761435, page 45.

4. Fighting in the Buff: Did Celtic Warriors Really Go to War Naked? (07 April 2017). Retrieved from Fighting in the Buff: Did Celtic Warriors Really Go to War Naked? | Ancient Origins (ancient-origins.net).

5. 8 Facts About the Celts (n.d.). Retrieved from 8 Facts About the Celts - HISTORY.

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