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How Iron Age Society Worked

The Chieftain



When it comes to the structure of Iron Age society, with the exception of Druids, Chieftains were above all else.


The whole of Iron Age society, for the greater part was a client based society,  which means that the Chieftain provided you as a free man, with land, cattle, the tools to provide yourself with food and shelter. In return you gave your support at gatherings or as a warrior in a time of war.


Warfare aside,  no doubt some form of tax was paid back to the chieftain. This may have been in the form of surplus woven cloth or a percentage of the surplus crops you grew etc. Most books about the ancient Iron Age warriors, described them as living on hill forts. However, it’s more accurate to imagine the majority of the tribe living in smaller farmsteads or small clusters of houses dotted across the landscape.


Beneath the chieftain and his retinue came the most important craftsmen, the iron smith, forgers, goldsmiths etc. (This may have even included charioteers) Then the farmers and forest workers etc. and below them, the slaves.


There were many slaves in Iron Age Society. Some were captured in battle or those born into slavery. Interestingly enough, it seems that if your mum and dad were slaves, you had some chances to work your way out of their slavery and becoming an apprentice to a craftsman when you about 7 years of age was a good way to do that.


Interestingly enough, the custom of fostering your own son’s to other relatives and friends was normal for the Iron Age society, notably amongst the higher status families. Boys were fostered at around 7 years old and one can only guess that it was a way of keeping the close community or tribe strong, interconnected and informed. It was a serious matter and we know from ancient texts that it was considered an insult for a boy to approach his father in public before being acknowledged as a man in the eyes of the Society. Depending on the part of the Celtic world, manhood seem to have been bestowed on boys around the age of 14 or 15 at which time their training as warriors began in earnest.


The hill forts were the power bases of the chieftains and upper classes of Iron Age Society. The chieftain would have surrounded him or herself with full time, professional warriors. These warriors or retinue were financed from the Chieftain’s own pocket and would have been the best armed. These professional warriors most

likely were recruited from high status families, friends or relatives from some part of the tribal territory as a whole. However, this is not the only military resource that a chieftain had available to them.


We know that many young men chose to make their names and wealth as mercenaries. These warriors for hire to the highest bidder were well known all over the ancient world. We’ll find out more about them later.


A chieftain’s success was measured by the number of cattle measuring prosperity.


Or the power of the tribe was measured by their successes in armed confrontations with neighbouring tribes. To the Iron Age Society, a chieftain and the land were one.


As the Chieftain flourishes then the land flourishes too, not necessarily the other way around.


The ancient Irish texts point to the two being directly linked and bravery was sometimes not enough, it seems a successful candidate for chieftain needed to be in both excellent health and free from physical blemishes.


Though a chieftain would be the head of the tribe, there is no doubt that within the tribal territory, which could sometimes be quite large, there would have been other leaders in charge of their immediate locality. We call these client kings, and in the overall tribal area, there may have been one for each hill fort.


It would no doubt be these client kings that made up the full retinue of the chieftain and they would gather together in times of war, during religious festivals or when other important decisions had to be made.


This all paints a rather cosy picture of a tribal society working together for the people whom made up the tribe. But history is full of the petty squabbles or jealousies and individual arguments between the client kings within a tribe. It is this inability to work as a cohesive team for the greater good that is a key reason why the Romans were

able to divide and conquer the Celtic tribes one by one.


The Romans were prepared to find an argument between two client kings, or two tribes, side with one to conquer the other in battle and then they would make demands of the tribal chieftain whom they had helped which he or she could not possibly fulfil, such as repayment of loans with very high interest in a very short time.


When the tribe could not repay, it gave the Romans every reason they needed to take over the tribal territory and impose their own laws on the people.

A typical British Chieftain DSCN2993folkert50