The Gaesatae were a Celtic mercenary force derived from ‘about the Alps and on to the Rhone’ (i.e. – Transalpine Gaul) who were recorded as joining the combined armies of Cisalpine Gauls including the Boii, Taurisci and Insubres in an attempted attack on the Roman Republic in the late stages of the 3rdC BCE. Like the other Celtic ‘tribes’ seen in the post-4thC BCE Europe (during the ‘La-Téne’ material culture period) they were a group based around military exploits rather than of familial and geo-cultural origins. Of particular interest was their tendency (like the later Norse Berserkr warriors) to go into battle naked, except for their weapons and shields. This tactic – also noted to be practised by the Galatians and other factions of central European Celts following the 4th/3rdC expansion. It was likely to have allowed them to be highly mobile, to demonstrate their apparent bravery (or fanaticism) to their enemies, and no doubt to intimidate with their magnificent physiques – a point not lost upon Greek historian Polybius. The image of the naked Gaesatae or Galatian warrior has therefore been a romantic and enduring one, not in the least because of the powerful statuary image of a dying Gaulish warrior, naked except for his neck torc, that survives from ancient Rome – possibly being a copy of a Hellenistic original from the 3rdC BCE.
Although linked to the 3rdC BCE Gaulish campaigns against the crumbling Macedonian Empire, the image of the ‘Dying Gaul’ may in fact derive from the Battle of Telamon of 225BCE, fought between the Romans and invading factions of federated Celtic tribes in northern Italy. The Greco-Roman historian Polybius (Histories 2:28 2ndC BCE) recalled the fighting style of the Gaesatae during this event:
“… The Celts had stationed the Alpine tribe of the Gaesatae to face their enemies on the rear, and behind them the Insubres; on their front they had placed the Taurisci, and the Cispadane tribe of the Boii, facing the legions of Gaius. Their waggons and chariots they placed on the extremity of either wing, while the booty they massed upon one of the hills that skirted the road, under the protection of a guard. The army of the Celts was thus double-faced, and their mode of marshalling their forces was effective as well as calculated to inspire terror. The Insubres and Boii were clothed in their breeches and light cloaks; but the Gaesatae from vanity and bravado threw these garments away, and fell in in front of the army naked, with nothing but their arms; believing that, as the ground was in parts encumbered with brambles, which might possibly catch in their clothes and impede the use of their weapons, they would be more effective in this state. At first the only actual fighting was that for the possession of the hill: and the numbers of the cavalry, from all three armies, that had joined in the struggle made it a conspicuous sight to all. In the midst of it the Consul Gaius fell, fighting with reckless bravery in the thick of the battle, and his head was brought to the king of the Celts. The Roman cavalry, however, continued the struggle with spirit, and finally won the position and overpowered their opponents. Then the foot also came to close quarters…”
The Romans had good cause to worry about this army – not in the least because of the success of the Celts in the Balkans, Macedonia, Greece and Anatolia within the last 100 years, but perhaps more so because of the successful attack on Rome by Brennus of the Senones during the 4thC BCE, and the support of Celtic tribes which did so much for Hannibal’s success in the Punic Wars. The Gaulish warbands had a reputation for military fanaticism and bravery born from their religious ideologies. The naked and fearsome Gaesatae, perhaps more prepared for man-to-man combat, were – however – ultimately no match for the javelins, arrows and darts that rained down upon them at Telamon, and ultimately fell before this onslaught. Just like in 279BCE their ‘king’ or leader (who had, like his men, no doubt pledged his life to the Otherworld Lord, Belenos) committed suicide rather than face capture or defeat. Rome’s eventual success at the battle marked the watershed of Celtic hegemony in northern Italy and the Balkans and would lead to a period of rapid extension of Roman influence towards the East, during which Celtic tribes would more frequently find their fortunes fighting on the winning side as auxiliaries. As Rome became more powerful and wealthy, the Celtic warrior followed the gold, and his religious outlook became Romanised…
Thoughts on the Gaesatae:
Polybius – like other Greek and Roman authors before and after him – commented upon the proud nature of the Celtic warrior in order to both honour them as enemies, but also to magnify the Roman soldiers who overcame the worthy adversary. The Gaesatae were evidently not a tribal ethnic group, but – like the Scoridisci and other central and ‘Belgic’ groups – a ‘fighting nation’ drawn from diverse backgrounds. This must have been a particular ‘La Téne’ era phenomenon: Warband groups had attracted young males (and females) from the 4thC BCE, to participate in such exploits as the Punic Wars, the invasion of Rome led by Brennus of the Senones, and the invasions of the Balkans, Macedonia, Greece and Anatolia by the combined armies of the 3rdC BCE. These had specific impacts upon the outlook and fighting style of European barbarian (Celtic) warriors and their subsequent cultural evolutions, not in the least due to the cash injections that their success provided to specific areas of industry:
1. The promotion of a warrior cult which saw death as a brief transition through the Otherworld, or a permanent place in the Celtic notion of ‘Elysium’ as a future ‘hero-helper’ of the people. This promoted a fearlessness and fanaticism which gave these warriors a widespread reputation without which the Roman Republic and Empire (who employed them as mercenaries and allies) would not have succeeded.
2. The stimulation of a weapons and armour industry and tradition within the Balkans and Eastern Europe (e.g. – chainmail and the longsword) which would give birth to the future armoury traditions of the middle ages, supplying technology to both Europe and the East.
3. The idea of the highly-mobile, rapid-response infantry and cavalry army created from across tribal boundaries. These warbands – like the legendary Irish Fianna – provided Celtic society with an outlet for their warlike ways which could remove aggression and conflict from home-soil and export it to bring back wealth and plunder. The Roman Empire thrived upon its ability to deploy legions of Celts and other similarly-motivated foreigners to do their ‘dirty-work’ and relied upon the military developments of Celtic Europe between the 5th and 1stC BCE in determining the format of its conquering armies. In a way, it is possible to consider that the Roman legions took their lead (as well as many of their men) from the militarist fanaticism of the Celtic world.
4. The wealth from the 4th and 3rdC BCE Celtic warband conquests was a potent stimulus to culture and trade, as well as migration and mobility of cultural groups. The ‘Scoridisci’ culture of Eastern Europe was a remnant of the 3rdC BCE wars and expansions, as was the Galatae Celtic groups in Anatolia (modern Turkey). The Belgae of northern Europe, the Volcae-Tectosages, and the Boii people of northern Europe and Cisalpine Gaul were all important trans-ethnic groups who had cultural origins in such martial exploits during the La-Téne period.
The supposed ethnic-tribal group (according to the Romans) of northern Europe known as the ‘Belgae’ were almost certainly a part of this movement which blurred ethnic and linguistic boundaries, and whose cultural influence extended from west of the Rhine to the Atlantic and the British Isles. However, these fell into decline after the 1stC CE following on from the Roman conquests, their identities dissolving with Romanisation, and their warlike culture (like that of the Scottish Highlanders after the 18thC) being employed in the imperial army in a cunning piece of cultural engineering. However, there is no reason to suspect that the culture did not continue beyond the limits of Roman influence in Scandinavia, Germany, northern Britain and Ireland. Due to linguistic and other reasons, the Romans did not identify these peoples with the potent ‘Gaulish’ Celts and their fanatical druid-led religious system. There are many reasons to suspect that they held the same religious and cultural views, however – the powerful image posed by the naked Viking Era Odinist Berserker being one such reason, along with the many parallels I have already discussed.