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Yes, this of-repeated tale was reported by the Romans all the time, but it sounds a lot like rumor. Stuff the victors write about their former enemies, "they were so stupid, they went into battle naked" etc. As historians, we need to look at history with a critical eye and should seek verification from multiple sources before making an firm conclusions.

So, are there any non-Roman sources that mention Celts going into battle naked? Any Celtic records or oral histories, artistic depictions, etc?

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Welcome to the site. This is an interesting question but could you add some references as to a Roman source claiming that some Celts went into battle naked? – Sardathrion Jan 22 '13 at 9:38
I know this is an older post, but this concept boggles my mind. No man alive is going to allow his twigs and berries to just flop in the wind; a loincloth alone would at least provide the (mental) wraps needed to concentrate on the battle. – CGCampbell Nov 23 '15 at 20:25
@CGCampbell - the Celts, however, aren't currently alive... you're comparing cultures literally millennia apart. – Jon Story Nov 24 '15 at 15:53
It's not as stupid as it sounds if you compare to wool clothes. There is nothing to restrict your movements, there is less for the enemy to grab hold of and it may also have a demoralising/distracting effect on the enemy. – S Vilcans Jan 21 at 9:01
up vote 20 down vote accepted

We have essentially three references on this topic. Of these, only Caesar's could have had political motivations, as he was engaged in a campaign against the Britons. His account, however, is only marginal compared to the others, in that he does not clearly state that the Celts went to battle naked. On the other hand, both Polybius and Diodourus Siculus look like reliable sources; they were Greek, not Romans. It is clear from their account that going in battle naked was uncommon between the Celts (see, in particular, the italicized part in the following passages).

We have references in Polybius, Histories, II-28 (emphasis added):

The Insubres and Boii wore their trousers and light cloaks, 8 but the Gaesatae had discarded these garments owing to their proud confidence in themselves, and stood naked, with nothing but their arms, in front of the whole army, thinking that thus they would be more efficient, as some of the ground was overgrown with bramblesb which would catch in their clothes and impede the use of their weapons.

In Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, V-30 (emphasis added):

The clothing they wear is striking — shirts which have been dyed and embroidered in varied colours, and breeches, which they call in their tongue bracae; and they wear striped coats, fastened by a buckle on the shoulder, heavy for winter wear and light for summer, in which are set checks, close together and of varied hues. For armour they use long shields, as high as a man, which are wrought in a manner peculiar to them, some of them even having the figures of animals embossed on them in bronze, and these are skilfully worked with an eye not only to beauty but also to protection. On their heads they put bronze helmets which have large embossed figures standing out from them and give an appearance of great size to those who wear them; for in some cases horns are attached to the helmet so as to form a single piece, in other cases images of the fore-parts of birds or four-footed animals. [...] Some of them have iron cuirasses, chain-wrought, but others are satisfied with the armour which Nature has given them and go into battle naked.

And finally in Caesar's de Bello Gallico, IV, 1, we learn that the Britons:

even in the coldest parts they wear no clothing whatever except skins, by reason of the scantiness of which, a great portion of their body is bare, and besides they bathe in open rivers.

There is plenty of archeological evidence for Celtic armor, especially helmets. Contemporary art (Dying Gaul, Ludovisi Gaul and Kneeling Gaul) has them always naked, but this is most likely due to either stylistic reasons, or because of the impression that accounts of naked warriors would have made on the artist.

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I doubt a whole army would have gone into battle en masse naked, but there is enough hearsay to assume that there were some naked warriors. I think it almost impossible to prove or disprove this, but I believe it likely that there were celtic warriors who fought naked. Where they Viking style beserkers who had too many hallucinogens, or where they slaves forced into battle. The naturistic religion of the Celts imo makes this a reasonably believeable.

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Welcome to history@se! Please improve your answer by citing sources, especially regarding "Where they Viking style berserk who had too many hallucinogens, or where they slaves forced into battle." – astabada Jan 28 '13 at 9:05

If indeed they did go into battle naked, it may not have been entirely stupid since dirty clothing pushed into a wound by pointy objects are more likely to cause septicaemia. The Celts did however have warriors who vowed to die in battle called "gesetae"- who were under an oath or a spell called a "gesa" and these may have been the naked warriors referred to. To break the gesa would have been shameful, so it could be thought iof as a magic spell - although without requiring any magic as such.

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I doubt it, for the Celts knew how to prepare protective armor, and they would have been foolish (if occasionally forced to do so by circumstances) not to use it in battle.

A couple of years ago there was a wonderful exhibition in Berne, Switzerland, which showed some specimen of Celtic arms and insignia, such as this one:

enter image description here

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You're showing a ceremonial or decorative item. Those were 1) not generally worn in combat, 2) the average warrior would not be able to afford them, 3) nothing says every warrior would have had protection from the fact that protection existed. Cultural references do suggest that some of them, at some occasions, would go into battle (nearly) naked. Same with other cultures (like ancient Greeks, mostly during duels), possibly as a sign of contempt for the enemy and/or (in duels) to level the playing field. – jwenting Apr 2 '13 at 6:11
@jwenting you have a point there: the poster clearly shows the exhibition's master piece, clearly more a badge of honor than a protective armor. The exhibition e.g. also a reconstruction of the Fürstengrab in Kappel-Grafenhausen (princely burial site): it showed the ruler in robes. Now whether this is archeologically accurate or adjusted to the (perhaps) sensitivities of, say, visiting families I cannot say. – Drux Apr 2 '13 at 7:52

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