Roman Auxiliaries: The Celtic Headhunters

The Roman Army in Britain contained many locals, and among them the most feared were the Celts.
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In 2005 a dramatic discovery was made in Lancaster, northwest England, of a massive stone bearing the image of a triumphant horseman and his fallen foe. Of itself this is not surprising given that it is known that there were cavalry units based at the nearby Roman fort throughout the centuries of its existence.

Several such monuments have been found in the former province of Britannia (8 complete and 14 partial), especially prevalent in the northwest. However, what was unusual about this discovery was that instead of the scene of an auxiliary cavalryman spearing his victim with a lance from horseback. This one carried a sword and the severed head of his victim. The commemoration was dedicated to: Insus son of Vodullus, citizen of the Treveri, cavalryman of the ala Augusta.

 The Treveri were a Celtic (Gaulish) tribe from the Trier area of modern day western Germany. Gaulish cavalry units were used extensively throughout the Roman Empire because of their skills on horseback and fierceness in battle. But it appears too, that they also brought with them another martial tradition. Trophy hunting.

The 1st century BC commentator Diodoros, reported in his Bibliotheca Historia how ‘The Gauls cut off the heads of enemies slain in battle and fasten them about the necks of their horses.’

Archaeological evidence, combined with literary texts, suggests that Celtic headhunting served a number of functions for the Celts, such as; providing tangible proof of their fighting prowess. In 295 BC, Livy wrote that, the consuls received no news of the disaster that had befallen one of their legions ‘till some Gallic horsemen came in sight, with heads hanging at their horses’ breasts or fixed on their spears, singing their customary song of triumph.’

But additionally, to the Celts the concept of the immortal soul, located in the head, was a fundamental belief that made the head a symbol of divine powers. By controlling the decapitated heads of their enemies the spirits of the dead were also controlled and the takers’ own soul was greatly enhanced.

It seems apparent that the practice of headhunting within the Celtic units of Roman cavalry was accepted by the military establishment and continued for centuries. Trajan’s column shows Trajan himself with members of the auxilia, dismounted horsemen of Celtic origins, offering their ‘chieftain’ the freshly severed heads of slain Dacian warriors.

Forty years later, the Bridgeness Stone, a piece of Roman propaganda, was set up by the Second Legion Augusta on completion of the Antonine Wall between the Clyde and Forth estuaries. The left hand panel shows an auxiliary cavalryman running down a ‘barbarian’ who is shown in four phases of defeat. The final stage reveals his severed head bouncing away from its torso.

But what did the cavalrymen do with their grizzly trophies? Would they have displayed them outside of their barrack blocks much as their tribal forebears did, by hanging them outside of their roundhouses. Did this give them bragging rights with their mates as a tangible demonstration of their bravery and martial prowess? Was the practice adopted by other non-Celtic cavalry units? We may never know. But perhaps one day a new dramatic archaeological discovery will be made and a new light will be shone and these fiercest to troops.

Alistair Tosh is the author of Hunt, part of the Edge of Empire series.