Naked Warriors: Celtic Mercenaries Went to War in the Buff
It would take a lot of confidence and courage to face up to a heavily-armored Roman army with neither armor nor clothing. But this is precisely what a band of Celtic mercenaries known as the Gaesatae did. These courageous naked warriors employed a tactic that allowed them to be highly mobile, demonstrate their bravery, and intimidate their enemy with their muscular physiques. But it was, of course, at their peril!
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.
Greek historian Polybius ( Histories 2:28, 2nd Century BC) gave a detailed account of the battle, in which he described the Gaesatae mercenaries fighting naked:
“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 front of the army naked, with nothing but their arms”.
Celtic warriors in “The Battle of Telamon, 225 BC.” Credit: Angus McBride
Their nakedness, Polybius reported, was firstly for practical reasons – “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.” Secondly, the sight of naked warriors was intended to intimidate the enemy and demonstrate their confidence.
Unfortunately, the nakedness of the Gaesatae became their 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.”
Roman victory in the Battle of Telamon marked the watershed of Celtic dominance in northern Italy and the Balkans and was followed by a period of rapid expansion of Roman influence towards the East.
By Joanna Gillan