Gioal Canestrelli, Celtic Warfare (Pen & Sword, 2022)
Gioal Canestrelli opens his book on Celtic Warfare with the oft-cited idea of Celtic warriors as wild beasts as seen by their ‘civilized’ enemies. He rejects this view, arguing that Celtic warfare developed over time and through contact with other cultures, peaceful and otherwise. To support that, Canestrelli deploys a multi-disciplinary approach to examine Celtic warfare across its temporal and geographical variances.
Celtic Warfare is divided into four chronological chapters, beginning in c480 BC and ending in the 1st Century BC, and two geographic chapters covering Alpine and British Celts and the Celts in Iberia. He starts each chronological chapter with a brief background on the period in question and how that affected Celtic warfare. Then he is straight into the archaeological evidence, introducing the panoply: the helmet, armour, shield, pole weapons, swords, knives and daggers, ranged weapons, and the war chariot. Canestrelli follows with a survey of how all this was used in combat, and for the first chapter, how warriors trained. This is an effective scheme, if a bit repetitive, that allows Canestrelli’s readers to follow his evidence quite clearly.
As the chapters progress, Canestrelli introduces new elements, such as new weapons and the cavalry for the La Tene B1 period from 400-320 BC, and greater unit specialization from 320 to 180 BC. There are also more archaeological finds and written sources, particularly Roman, for Canestrelli to build his analysis. In Chapter 5, Canestrelli notes that the British Celts were outliers maintaining archaic structures. which he proceeds to analyse using the same scheme as the chronological chapters. That applies to the Alpine Celts too, though they receive only a cursory survey. The final chapter examines the Iberian Celts as a particular group and Canestrelli makes his case quite comfortably. A brief overview of siege warfare concludes Canestrelli’s study.
By refusing to lump together the phases of Celtic warfare as some surveys do, Canestrelli has produced a more nuanced picture of a culture that had obvious developmental similarities but also significant geographical differences. He also firmly embeds this in the archaeological and written sources and is supported by illuminating monochrome illustrations and colour plates. While I wouldn’t go so far to argue that Canestrelli’s work is definitive, he certainly makes a good case for a continuing development of Celtic warfare far removed from the ‘hairy, savage barbarians’ popular image of these resolute and tactically adept warriors.