The Gaesatae

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.

The 'Dying Gaul' or 'Dying Galatian' from the Capitoline Museum.

The ‘Dying Gaul’ or ‘Dying Galatian’ from the Capitoline Museum.

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.


Who were the Belgae?

The Belgae (originators of the name of the modern country of Belgium) were a fascinating and influential ethnic-cultural group of tribes with a dominant political and ideological presence among northern Europe’s ‘Celtic’ peoples before and after Romanisation, in the period spanning the 2ndC BCE to the 4thC CE. Their territories at the time of Julius Caesar’s Gallic conquest extended in an area covering roughly the lands between the Seine and the mouth of the Rhine – parts of modern day France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. In Book 5, Chapter 12 of his Comentarii de Bello Gallico, Caesar states that the southeastern British tribes were ruled by descendants of the Belgae, explaining the fact that Belgic tribal names were found in Britain, for instance the Atrebates, and even the Menapii who were recorded in Ireland by 2ndC CE by Greco-Egyptian geographer Ptolemy as the Manapi and from whom Co. Fermanagh is possibly named, possibly even also the Isle of Man (once known as Menapia/Monavia):

The interior portion of Britain is inhabited by those of whom they say that it is handed down by tradition that they were born in the island itself: the maritime portion by those who had passed over from the country of the Belgae for the purpose of plunder and making war; almost all of whom are called by the names of those states from which being sprung they went thither, and having waged war, continued there and began to cultivate the lands. The number of the people is countless, and their buildings exceedingly numerous, for the most part very like those of the Gauls: the number of cattle is great. They use either brass or iron rings, determined at a certain weight, as their money. (trans. W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn.)

Caesar states that the Belgae, in particular the western branch known as Bellovaci, were of a particularly fearsome and unsympathetic nature in regard to the Romans. Indeed, their resistance played an important part in the final stages of his conquest of northern Gaul, when they formed an alliance with both the British and Armorican tribes, whose cross-channel neighbours were again ‘Belgae’, according to Ptolemy. Influential 20thC Irish scholar T.F. O’Rahilly even suggested that the Fir Bolg mentioned in the Lebor Gabála Érenn might be a branch of this widely-spread Iron Age ‘tribal group’ supplanted by Goidelic peoples from Spain in the 1stC BCE. It appears that the ‘Belgae’ were an influential bunch!

In assessing the origins of tribes calling themselves ‘Belgae’, however, there is an important cultural movement among Iron Age Europeans that needs to be examined. This hinges on the events in the immediate aftermath of the death of Alexander The Great, perhaps also triggered by displacements caused by tribal movements from northern Europe. The culmination of this was the (infamous if you were Greek) events of 279BCE, which saw an invasion by a federation of massed Gaulish war-bands through the Balkans and the homelands of the Macedonian-Greek Empire of Alexander, penetrating right down into the Greek and Anatolian heartlands. This movement appears to have had a fundamental impact upon the warrior-culture of western Europe’s Celtic elites who absorbed the iconography of deified Alexander as Apollo, Mars/Ares and Ammon/Zeus/Jupiter and spread it back into NW Europe, famously represented in their magnificent coinage. The leaders and heroes of this famous invasion included the theophorically named Bolgios, who – as far as we know – survived the campaign and would have had sufficient prestige to then rule as a tribal dynast. The Gaulish tribe known as the Volcae-Tectosages were one of several whose creation appears to have resulted from this pan-Gallic enterprise, and who returned to the Gaulish homelands in the west, so it is possible that the Belgae might have been another cultural group or part of a Pan-Gallic movement who participated in this great warrior event. The names Volcae and Belgae/Bolgae in fact appear to be synonyms or variants of the same tribal designation, incorporating the name of the Pan-European god Belenos or Volos/Veles/Velnias who appears to have shared the same solar-martial aspects as the deified (at least by the Celts) Macedonian Warrior-King who conquered most of the known world… The Romans and Greeks would hereafter comment upon a fanatical, boastful and decapitation-obsessed faction when talking about Celtic barbarians – something akin to the modern Sunni Muslim ISIS/ISIL and Al-Qaeda movements.

From Galatia to Galway: The NW thrust of 'Belgic' culture after 279.

From Galatia to Galway: The NW thrust of ‘Belgic’ culture after 279.

By Caesar’s time (1stC BCE), he was able to identify separate Belgae and Volcae, the latter being placed in the Hercynian forest, as well as Gallia Narbonensis (the Volcae Tectosages and Volcae Arecomici):

“… And there was formerly a time when the Gauls excelled the Germans in prowess, and waged war on them offensively, and, on account of the great number of their people and the insufficiency of their land, sent colonies over the Rhine. Accordingly, the Volcae Tectosages, seized on those parts of Germany which are the most fruitful around the Hercynian forest, (which, I perceive, was known by report to Eratosthenes and some other Greeks, and which they call Orcynia), and settled there. Which nation to this time retains its position in those settlements, and has a very high character for justice and military merit; now also they continue in the same scarcity, indigence, hardihood, as the Germans, and use the same food and dress.. ” Comentarii de Bellum Gallicum, Book 6.

The Hercynian forest described by Caesar stretched from the lands of the Helvetii, eastward along the Danube into Dacia and Pannonia – modern Romania. This was a kind of Roman mental ‘event horizon’ which they failed to gather the will to cross after a history of disastrous military campaigns, resulting in the development of something of a ‘pseudo-ethnicity’ of ‘Germanii’ to describe the peoples living beyond it, even though contemporary sources such as Posidonius considered tribes such as the Boii (whose homelands included parts of Germania as far as the Baltic) to be ‘Celts’ – a belief supported by archaeological evidence. I might also add my own observations on the aspects of the Celtic solar war-god, Belenos, found in later Germanic, Slavic and Baltic cultures…

In short, my theory is this: The ‘Belgae’ were a manifestation of a cultural-religious movement that was an expression of the Celtic ‘war-band’ culture which sought the glory of Alexander and Delphic Apollo (who they identified with their main god, Belenos) and invaded and settled in Greece and Anatolia in the 3rdC BCE. This internationalist and warrior-centric culture transcended local ethnicity and introduced a fundamental ideological change among the Celtic/Germanic peoples of NW Europe which subsequently influenced their religious, military and philosophical outlook and had great influence upon their mercantile and numismatic culture. ‘Bel’, ‘Vel’ or ‘Belenos’ was the god most venerated in this culture who gave his name to this cultural movement which spread from Greece and the Balkans, up through the La Tene heartlands, up the Rhine and into Britain and Ireland over the next 4 centuries….

This ‘southeast-northwest cultural corridor’ of influence appears to have been the fostering ground of both religious and secular power in the post-Roman era, as the Belgic territories of the Suessiones (focussed on modern Soissons) eventually became a heartland of the Germanic Frankish kingdoms, the Christianisation of which Irish missionaries were to play such an important role in, sowing the seeds of the superb Carolingian Empire and thus medieval European Christendom…

The Belgae were possibly the main reason that Julius Caesar and the subsequent Roman Emperors invaded northern Europe. They were promoters of a religious system which was fanatical: it knew no fear, promised reincarnation and had a distinct warrior-cult which enticed men to challenge the temporal authority of Rome. This movement had (for the Romans at least) a historical root in the humiliating sack of Rome by Brennus of the Senones and his army of Cisalpine Gauls in the 4thC BCE. That this cultural movement extended well into the very much un-Romanised Germania Superior regions where the very ‘Belgic’ (and Thracian) ‘Gundestrup Cauldron’ was discovered must surely make us examine why ‘Germanic’ paganism is not considered similar to the religions of Europe’s Atlantic pagan Celts…

Warband culture and the Celtic Iron Age

The dynamic stylistic and cultural impact of ‘celtic’ civilisation on Europe during the Iron Age was driven initially by trade among peoples with geocultural commonality as well as the emerging Greek and Phoenecian mercantile powers, and later by the highly mobile warfare practised by many of its peoples, which often led to permanent migration. A cultural shift at the advent of what became known as the La Tène period, from the 5thC BCE, saw a change in the habits of central Europe’s celtic peoples. It was marked by an increase of burials indicating a higher status of warrior elites and a change in attitudes towards warfare, and with this came a new excitingly fluid and dynamic style of decorative art that most of us today recognise as ‘typically celtic’. Use of iron swords, chainmail armour and better fighting horses all marked this shift from the former ‘Halstatt‘ styled cultures seen before the 5thC BCE. The La Tène period also marked that when Mediterranean people started to write things down about the Celts…

Although existing largely as loose tribal federations, from the 5thC these would occasionally organise en masse into highly organised war parties or armies, such as that led by Brennus of the Senones (Alpine Gaul) against Rome in the 4thC BCE. These would cause no end of trouble to the Roman Republic’s northern borders and interests.

The most notable of these massed military movements, however, was the invasions of a Gallic tribal confederacy through the Balkans in the 3rdC BCE, led by characters such as Bolgius, Brennus and Acichorius. It was directed at the unstable kingdom of Alexander’s recently dead successor Lysimachus, which included Macedonia, Thrace, Greece and Anatolia. The gains for those Gauls who invested their time and effort into this adventure were manifold – some returned home with plunder, some took land for themselves and settled in ethnic communities, some were paid off to desist from their attacks, and some found service as mercenaries in Macedonian empire’s internal disputes, of which there were many. Many, including Brennus, died: this was also acceptable outcome to Gauls, believers as they were in reincarnation, as having acquitted themselves in glorious battle, they could earn themselves better fortune in their next life.

The impact of such a well-organised campaign against an enemy with such an impressive empire would have sent cultural shockwaves through the Celtic world, and would have important implications. Rumours of vast wealth plundered from the 279BCE assault of Delphi in Greece became attached to the Tectosages tribe, based at what is now Toulouse. There was an explosion in the issue of coins throughout the Celtic world initially copying the style of those of Lysimachus, but which would eventually transform and incorporate indigenous designs with mysterious meanings, and a totemic power invoking military success. New tribes and confederations formed (eg – the Scordisci and the ‘Volcae’ – perhaps from Bolgius’ faction) and settled the Balkans, Thrace and Carpathia, and at least as far east as Anatolia (Galatians) as  well as returning to the more western Gallic heartlands.

How the waves of migration and invasion culminating in the invasion of Greece in 279 affected or interacted with Celtic religious ideology is hinted at in the coinage of the period which followed in its stead: This combined the image of the world’s most famous campaigning military leader with designs hinting at a complex view of spirituality, astronomy, the afterlife and reincarnation.

This organised mobile ‘warband culture’ of continental Celtic tribes was reflected to varying degrees among the Celtic peoples of the ‘Atlantic fringe’. Many of these were  coastal seafaring peoples and islanders perhaps not so much inclined towards such grand expeditions of conquest, and more likely engaged in commerce as a source of livelihood. The insular Celts were possibly something of an ‘old nobility’, slower to take up the manners and trappings of continental ‘La Tène’ culture. It is possible that they were religiously more conservative too with Britain and Ireland remaining to history as the last outposts of the Druid religion following the Romanisation of Celtic culture and religion from the 1stC BC…