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Celtic presence in the Imperial Roman Army

Posted August 6th, 2014 at 06:56 AM by Salah

Peoples speaking Celtic languages were prolific throughout the Roman Empire. Apart from their obvious 'heartland' in Britain and Gaul, they could be found throughout northern Italy, Spain, and the Balkans. A Gaulish-speaking community existed in central Asia minor (the 'Galatians') and there was (or historically had been) a small Celtic community in northern Africa, including Egypt. Several Roman emperors, including the Antonines, the Severans, several 3rd Century usurpers, and possibly even Trajan and Hadrian all had partly Celtic roots.

Individuals who were Celtic by culture and language were common recruits into both the legions and the auxiliary units of Imperial Rome - in fact, if we count persons hailing from Celtic-influenced regions, they were the single largest contributor of recruits.

The following are a couple of basic figures supporting the stance that Celtic-speaking peoples were prominent in the Imperial Roman Army:

Ann Hyland, in Equus: The Horse in the Roman World, provides a chart describing the recruitment of auxiliary cavalry during the Flavian Dynasty. She claims that 33% of all recruits hailed from Gallia Lugdunensis ("longhaired Gaul"), with another 9% from Gallia Belgica, 4% from Brittanica, and 2.5% from Gallia Narbonensis. Another 11.5% of recruits came from Thrace, 10% more from Pannonia, and 2.5% from Moesia.

In other words, in the Flavian period 49% of all auxiliary cavalrymen were recruited in exclusively Celtic-speaking provinces, and 74% of all auxiliary cavalrymen came from provinces that were under large degrees of Celtic cultural, linguistic, and military influence.

At least 25% of all personal names recorded from the Roman garrisons of the Balkans provinces are clearly Gaulish. Another 29% are Latin-Italic, but could very easily still indicate Celtic origins - Gauls attempting to move up in Roman society tended to use a formal Latin name, and then a private Gaulish name. My source for these percentages is:

HOUNDS OF THE EMPIRE ? Celtic Roman Legions on the Balkans | balkancelts

At least two entire Roman legions - the V Alaudae and the XXII Deiotariana - began as an entirely Celtic formations. Both were 'fighting legions', and both were eventually annihilated on the battlefield. The original men of the V Alaudae were Gauls that Caesar recruited from friendly tribes, and they served with distinction throughout the following civil wars.

Strabo (who was a child when Caesar conquered Gaul), writes of the Gaulish 'warrior spirit' in a present tense.

"The whole race which is now called both "Gallic" and "Galatic" is war-mad, and both high-spirited and quick for battle, although otherwise simple and not ill-mannered."

"Now although they are all fighters by nature, they are better as cavalry than as infantry; and the best cavalry-force the Romans have comes from these people. However, it is always those who live more to the north and along the ocean-coast that are the more warlike."

He also suggests that the Romans conquered Gaul more easily than Spain because the Gauls faced Rome in open warfare, rather than specializing in guerilla tactics.

Suetonius claims that Caesar recruited the V Alaudae Legion in Transalpine Gaul, and later went through the trouble of awarding every man Roman citizenship - something that was both unprecedented and illegal at the time.

That alone speaks volumes about the fighting potential of Gaulish warriors.
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