“The other order is that of the knights. These, when there is occasion and any war occurs …, are all engaged in war. And those of them most distinguished by birth and resources, have the greatest number of vassals and dependents about them”.
(Caesar. Gallic War. 6.15)
The warrior class was a crucial element in Celtic culture and, along with the druids, formed the backbone of the social structure in Iron Age European society. Their military aptitude and ability to mobilize significant numbers of troops is evident from accounts of their struggles with the classical world, and confirmed by the profusion of weapons found in their burials. The warrior class also played a central political role as participation in tribal councils was reserved for those who bore arms (Kruta V. 2004:190).
However, what has hitherto remained unclear is exactly what proportion of Celtic society this warrior class represented. An analysis of burials sites in southeastern Europe allows us to throw some light on this question.
During the initial migration phase in the late 4th/early 3rd c. BC (see Flight of the Ravens) the proportion who bore arms was logically quite high. For example, of the 20,000 Celts who crossed into Asia-Minor in 277 BC (subsequently known as the Galatians) 10,000, or 50%, bore arms (see Galatia article). In the immediate post-migration phase this figure remains high. At the Celtic cemetery at Belgrad-Karaburma (Serbia) the percentage of warrior burials from the LT B2b period (i.e. 2nd quarter of the 3rd c. BC) is 70% – an exceptionally high proportion. However, in the subsequent decades this figure falls dramatically, and by the LT C1 period (post 250 BC) warrior burials at the site constitute only 35% of the graves:
Graves with weapons = 7
Graves without weapons = 3
Warriors = 70 %
Graves with weapons = 6
Graves without weapons = 11
Warriors = 35.29 %
(Tables adapted after Rustoiu 2006)
Similar statistics are to be observed at other Celtic burial sites in the region such as Ižkovce in eastern Slovakia or Apahida in Romania (Zirra 1976, Rustoiu 2006). An analysis of burial complexes in the Carpathian basin reveals that while warrior graves constituted 18% of the total burials (Bujna 1982), once again a rapid transition from the highly militarized society of the first quarter of the 3rd c. BC to ‘peacetime’ conditions is to be observed in the decades which follow. For example, at Remetea Mare in Transylvania in the burial complex from the LT B2b period warrior graves represented 35% of the total burials, while at Ciumeşti, also in Transylvania, by the LT C1 period – i.e. a few decades later, warrior graves constitute only 9% of the total burials:
Graves with weapons = 7
Graves without weapons = 13
Warriors = 35%
Graves with weapons = 3
Graves without weapons = 30
Warrior graves = 9.09 %
Thus, the above evidence indicates that the number of warriors in Celtic society was not fixed, and varied greatly depending on the geo-political conditions pertaining at the time. In peacetime this figure appears to have been constant at circa 10 %, which probably indicates the core warrior class in Celtic society. However, there existed an ability to expand these numbers dramatically, which illustrates an intrinsic flexibility in society capable of rapidly mobilizing a large proportion of the population in times of conflict. This also logically indicates that besides the ‘warrior elite’ substantial numbers of Celtic men, and possibly women (see Death At Salty Water ), who were normally engaged in other professions, also had basic combat training.
Grave goods from the Celtic (Scordisci) warrior burial at Montana, northwestern Bulgaria
(RGZM – Inv. # 0.42301/01-08)
Bujna J. (1982) Spiegelung der Sozialstruktur auf latenzeitlichen Grăberfeldern im Karpatenbecken. In: PamArch, 73, 1982. P. 312-431.
Kruta V. (2004) The Celts: History and Civilization. London.
Rustoiu A. (2006) A Journey to Mediterranean. Peregrinations of a Celtic Warrior from Transylvania. In: Studia Universitatis Babeş-Bolyai, Historia 51, no. 1 (June 2006). P. 42-85
Zirra V. (1976) La nécropole La Téne d’Apahida. Nouvelles considerations. Dacia N.S, 20. P 129-165