Apart from the famous Queen Boudicca and Queen Cartimandua, very little is known about women at war in Celtic times. Nonetheless, contrary to what Brunaux maintains,1464 some texts do allude to the fact that Gaulish women took part in the fighting and probably played a significant role in times of conflict. In The Library of History, Diodorus Sicilius evokes the courage of Gaulish women, who are said to be as brave as men: “The women of the Gauls are not only like the men in their great stature but they are a match for them in courage as well.”1465 In Historiae, Ammianus Marcellinus, a 4th-century AD Roman historian – using earlier sources - specifies that Gaulish women could come to their husbands’ aid in time of war. He describes them as fierce, ferocious and terrifying fighters of impressive size and strength. This passage could evidence that women were present on the battlefield, fighting side by side with their husbands:‘Celsioris staturae et candidi paene Galli sunt omnes et rutili luminumque torvitate terribiles, avidi iurgiorum et sublatius insolentes. nec enim eorum quemquam adhibita uxore rixantem, multo fortiore et glauca, peregrinorum ferre poterit globus, tum maxime cum illa inflata cervice suffrendens ponderansque niveas ulnas et vastas admixtis calcibus emittere coeperit pugnos ut catapultas tortilibus nervis excussas.
In his Life of Marius, Plutarch relates the war between the probably Celtic tribe of the Ambrones and the Roman army, led by Marius, who defeated them at Aix-en-Provence in 102 BC. He explains that the women, witnessing the rout of their soldiers, took up arms (swords and axes) and went to their assistance. They mixed with the warriors and fiercely fought the Romans, crying out in rage, braving the assaults of the foes and undergoing blows and injuries:‘Well, then, the Ambrones became separated by the stream; for they did not all succeed in getting across and forming an array, but upon the foremost of them the Ligurians at once fell with a rush, and the fighting was hand-to‑hand. Then the Romans came to the aid of the Ligurians, and charging down from the heights upon the Barbarians overwhelmed and turned them back. Most of the Ambrones were cut down there in the stream where they were all crowded together, and the river was filled with their blood and their dead bodies; the rest, after the Romans had crossed, did not dare to face about, and the Romans kept slaying them until they came in their flight to their camp and waggons. Here the women met them, swords and axes in their hands, and with hideous shrieks of rage tried to drive back fugitives and pursuers alike, the fugitives as traitors, and the pursuers as foes; they mixed themselves up with the combatants, with bare hands tore away the shields of the Romans or grasped their swords, and endured wounds and mutilations, their fierce spirits unvanquished to the end. So, then, as we are told, the battle at the river was brought on by accident rather than by the intention of the commander.1467 ’
A passage in Tacitus’ Annals is also worth mentioning here, for it alludes to women who could have fulfilled ritual and religious roles on the battlefield, possibly in chanting curses, spells or conjurations for the safety of their own and for the defeat of the foes. It recounts that the Roman Corbulon, to vie with the commander of Britain Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, renowned for his courage and military actions, decided to invade the Isle of Mona (Anglesey), situated to the north-west of Wales. On the shore, battalions of soldiers were waiting for them. A troop of terrifying, frenzied women, with ruffled hair and black dresses, dashed among the ranks of the warriors, brandishing burning torches, while druids recited incantations:‘Stabat pro litore diversa acies, densa armis virisque, intercursantibus feminis; in modum Furiarum veste ferali, crinibus deiectis faces praeferebant; Druidaeque circum, preces diras sublatis ad caelum manibus fundentes, novitate aspectus perculere militem ut quasi haerentibus membris immobile corpus vulneribus praeberent. dein cohortationibus ducis et se ipsi stimulantes ne muliebre et fanaticum agmen pavescerent, inferunt signa sternuntque obvios et igni suo involvunt. praesidium posthac impositum victis excisique luci saevis superstitionibus sacri: nam cruore captivo adolere aras et hominum fibris consulere deos fas habebant. haec agenti Suetonio repentina defectio provinciae nuntiatur.
Other texts tend to prove that women had a role of protection and encouragement in time of war. They are described standing in the rear of the army or on the edge of the battlefield. They must have witnessed the valiant deeds of their warriors, brought them good luck and roused them. In Tacitus’ Annals - which relate the 60 AD rebellion of the Celtic tribe of the Iceni, led by Queen Boudicca, against the Romans, led by the commander Gaius Suetonius Paulinus -, the wives of the soldiers are said to have been standing in carts on the edge of the battlefield to witness the victory, encourage the soldiers by their presence and bring good luck to them:‘Iam Suetonio quarta decima legio cum vexillariis vicesimanis et proximis auxiliares, decem ferme milia armatorum erant, cum omittere cunctationem et congredi acie parat. deligitque locum artis faucibus et a tergo silva clausum, satis cognito nihil hostium nisi in fronte et apertam planitiem esse sine metu insidiarum. igitur legionarius frequens ordinibus, levis circum armatura, conglobatus pro cornibus eques adstitit. at Britannorum copiae passim per catervas et turmas exultabant, quanta non alias multitudo, et animo adeo feroci ut coniuges quoque testis victoriae secum traherent plaustrisque imponerent quae super extremum ambitum campi posuerant.
Although it concerns a Germanic sept*, a similar account related by Tacitus in The Histories, is interesting to refer to here - Germanic and Celtic peoples were of different origin and culture, but they had practices and customs in common, on account of their proximity. Tacitus, reporting the 69-70 AD revolt of the Germanic tribe of the Batavians against Roman rule, recounts that their leader, Gaius Julius Civilis, asked the women to stand in the rear of the army to rouse the warriors. The text mentions the powerful shrieks of women:‘Civilis captarum cohortium signis circumdatus, ut suo militi recens gloria ante oculos et hostes memoria cladis terrerentur, matrem suam sororesque, simul omnium coniuges parvosque liberos consistere a tergo iubet, hortamenta victoriae vel pulsis pudorem. ut virorum cantu, feminarum ululatu sonuit acies, nequaquam par a legionibus cohortibusque redditur clamor.
From this, it follows that Celtic women were not left out in time of conflict and were seen on or in the vicinity of the battlefield. Even though one of the texts mentions that women could have had recourse to weapons and fighting, it is difficult to assert that women directly took part in the conflict with arms, for no archaeological evidence attests such an idea. Anyhow, the Classical texts never tell of naked female charioteers or riders brandishing weapons and fighting the foes. Consequently, the texts do not provide conclusive evidence that the figurations on the coins of the Teurones, Ambiani and Redones are representations of human warrioresses. The role of women in time of war was certainly more linked to the ritual and religious sphere. Being seen on the edge of the battlefield or at the rear of the army, women could have participated not physically but spiritually in the fighting by chanting incantations to stimulate their army and bring them good luck or by cursing the enemies to weaken them. This is very likely, for the Irish war-goddesses are said to fulfil such a role. They do not take part in the fighting, but recite conjurations, cast terrible spells and pronounce magic formulas to overwhelm the foes and motivate their troops. They are fearsome magicians and death prophetesses rather than fighting women in the proper sense.
If therefore those figurations on coins are not the portrayals of real warrioresses, could they have been representations of divine war-goddesses? Is there any evidence in the archaeology of Gaul and Britain which could produce proof of the existence of Gallo-British war-goddesses?
Brunaux, 1987, p. 84: “Les femmes sont absentes de cette histoire militaire des Gaulois, comme si elles étaient exclues du monde guerrier. Aucun texte ne mentionne leur présence dans l’armée et sur les champs de bataille. Il est encore moins question de leur place.”
Book V, 32, 2.
Book XV, 12, 1; Yonge, 1862, Book 15, pp.45-82.
Book 19, 9 ; Perrin, 1988 ; Kruta, 2000, p. 410 ; Green, 2005, p. 29. Plutarch was a Greek essayist and biographer ( c. 46 AD to c. 127 AD), who wrote numerous treatises and dialogues on philosophical, religious, scientific and literary subject (the Moralia), and twenty-three pairs of Parallels Lives, biographies of Greeks and Romans (both mythical and historical).
Book 14, 30 ; Church & Brodribb, 1891.
Book 14, 34 ; Church & Brodribb, 1891.
Book 4, 18 ; Church & Brodribb, 1898.