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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
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
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.