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Bronze statue torso detail of a butt-naked horseman

Fighting in the Buff: Did Celtic Warriors Really Go to War Naked?


The Celts were known in ancient times to have been ferocious warriors. According to certain written sources, some of these Celtic warriors went a step further by going into battle carrying only their weapons and shields. Apart from texts by ancient writers, the image of such a Celtic warrior is also captured in a famous sculpture known as the ‘Dying Gaul’.   

The Dying Gaul, in the Capitoline Museums, Rome. 

The Dying Gaul, in the Capitoline Museums, Rome. (Jean-Pol GRANDMONT/CC BY SA 3.0) 

Beyond "Gaul": Unveiling the Celtic World 

The Celts were a people who lived in Europe during the Iron and Medieval Ages. Whilst they are not a distinct racial or genetic group, the Celts spoke Celtic languages, and shared certain cultural similarities. There were a variety of tribes referred to as ’Celtic’ that inhabited Europe during the Iron Age. The name ‘Gaul’, for example, was given by the Romans to the Celtic tribes inhabiting the areas that are today the central, northern and eastern parts of France. 


Ancient costumes of all nations – British, Gallic and German by Albert Kretschmer, painter, and costumer to the Royal Court Theatre, 1882.  

Ancient costumes of all nations – British, Gallic and German by Albert Kretschmer, painter, and costumer to the Royal Court Theatre, 1882. (Public Domain) 

A Celtic Cult of Nudity 

Towards the end of the 3rd century BC, an attempt was made by a coalition of Celtic tribes from Cisalpine Gaul (the part of northern Italy inhabited by the Gauls) to attack the Roman Republic. This coalition included the Insubres, the Boii and the Taurisci. One of the decisive battles during this war was the Battle of Telamon, which was fought in 225 BC. From Polybius’ account of this battle, we hear about a ‘tribe’ of Celtic warriors known as the Gaesatae, whom the ancient author describes as having the habit of fighting naked. 

Celtic warriors fighting Romans at the Battle of Telamon. 

Celtic warriors fighting Romans at the Battle of Telamon. (historicafandom/CC BY-SA 3.0) 

The Gaesatae are not exactly a tribe, as they seem to have appeared in history out of the blue, and their existence is not attested prior to the Roman-Celtic Wars. Polybius wrote that the Gaesatae were “Gauls dwelling among the Alps and near the Rhone”. The ancient historian goes on to state that the name Gaesatae actually means “serve for hire”. In other words, these Celtic warriors were mercenaries. 

Enlisting the Naked Celtic Warriors 

In any event, messengers were sent to the Gaesatae urging them to join the Celtic coalition in their war against the Romans. “They urged and incited their kings Concolitanus and Aneroëstus to make war on Rome, offering them at present a large sum in gold, and as to the future, pointing out to them the great prosperity of the Romans, and the vast wealth that would be theirs if they were victorious.” 

Additionally, the Celts “pledged themselves to be loyal allies and reminded them of the achievement of their own ancestors, who had not only overcome the Romans in combat, but, after the battle, had assaulted and taken Rome itself.” 

The Gaesatae were so eager to join this endeavor that “on no occasion has that district of Gaul sent out so large a force or one composed of men so distinguished or so warlike”. Some chapters later, Polybius writes about the clothing that the Celtic warriors wore to battle. Whilst the other Celts wore trousers and light cloaks, the Gaesatae preferred to fight naked. The fact that some Celtic warriors fought naked was also pointed out by Diodorus Siculus, though this author does not name the tribe(s) whose warriors fought in such a manner. 

Psychological Warfare 

According to Polybius, the Gaesatae fought naked for two main reasons. First of all, this was meant to display their confidence, both to their allies, and to the enemy. Secondly, it seems that it was more efficient to fight this way, “thinking that thus they would be more efficient, as some of the ground was overgrown with brambles which would catch in their clothes and impede the use of their weapons.” Thirdly, the sight of naked warriors was also intended to intimidate the enemy. 

Frieze sculpture of the Gauls against the Romans 

Frieze sculpture of the Gauls against the Romans. (cascoly2/Adobe Stock) 

Unfortunately, Polybius explains the nakedness of the Gaesatae actually became a disadvantage as they faced the Roman javelin men at the Battle of Telamon: 

“For the Gaulish shield does not cover the whole body; so that their nakedness was a disadvantage, and the bigger they were the better chance had the missiles of going home. At length, unable to drive off the javelineers owing to the distance and the hail of javelins, and reduced to the utmost distress and perplexity, some of them, in their impotent rage, rushed wildly on the enemy and sacrificed their lives, while others, retreating step by step on the ranks of their comrades, threw them into disorder by their display of faint-heartedness. Thus was the spirit of the Gaesatae broken down by the javelineers.”     

Top image: Bronze statue torso detail of a butt-naked horseman, Celtic warrior, holding a spear while riding on a horse. Source: anokato/Adobe Stock 

By Wu Mingren 


Unknown. 2012.  Celtic Warriors.  
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Unknown. 2014.  The Gaesatae.  
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Diodorus Siculus. 1933-1957. Diodorus Siculus’ The Library of History. [Oldfather, C. H. (trans.) 
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Keating, F., 2015. The ancient Celts: Bloodthirsty naked warriors or lovers of fine arts?  
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Kessler Associates, 2017. Gaesatae (Gauls).  
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Polybius, The Histories  
[Paton, W. R. (trans.), 1922-27. Polybius’ The Histories.] 
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Frequently Asked Questions

The ancient Celts were fierce warriors known for their shock tactics, flexible formations, and use of weapons like spears, swords, and large shields. They also employed psychological warfare, with some warriors, such as the Gaesatae, fighting naked to intimidate enemies and move freely in battle. 

The Gaesatae were a group of Celtic warriors from the Alpine region known for their unique practice of fighting naked. They were renowned for their bravery and distinctive battle tactics, which included using their nakedness to intimidate enemies and avoid entanglement with brambles on the battlefield. The Gaesatae were prominently involved in conflicts against the Roman Republic during the 3rd century BC, most notably in the Battle of Telamon in 225 BC. 

The Celts were called "Gauls" by the Romans as a term to describe the Celtic tribes inhabiting a broad region of Western Europe, particularly in what is now France, Luxembourg, Belgium, most of Switzerland, Northern Italy, and parts of Germany and the Netherlands. The name "Gaul" comes from the Latin "Gallia," which was used by the Romans to refer to these areas and their inhabitants. The term distinguished these Celtic groups from other Celtic tribes in different regions, such as the Britons in Britain or the Celtiberians in the Iberian Peninsula. 

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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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