Celts, Iberians, and Libyans: Polybios on the mixed composition of Hannibal of Carthage’s army and on military equipment (second century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Celts, Iberians, and Libyans: Polybios on the mixed composition of Hannibal of Carthage’s army and on military equipment (second century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 4, 2024, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=16113.

Ancient authors: Polybios, Histories 3.113-114 (link) and Polybios fragments on Celtiberians as cited by Suda lexicon (link).

Comments: Writing after 146 BCE, Polybios (or: Polybius) of Megalopolis outlines the ethnic composition of Hannibal of Carthage’s army at the battle of Cannae in southeast Italy (ca. 216 BCE). Polybios claims the army was composed primarily of Celts, Iberians, Libyans and Numidians, alongside Carthagians.

Polybios also outlines some details about the military garb and weapons of the Iberians and Celts. Also included here is Polybios’ discussion of the Celtiberians (an alliance of Celtic or Iberian peoples opposed to the Romans) where he once again describes military techniques and equipment (fragments as preserved in the Suda lexicon).

Mixed ethnic composition of armies series:

  • Herodotos on the Persian king Xerxes’ army (link)
  • Curtius Rufus on the Persian king Darius III’s army (link)
  • Polybios on Hannibal’s army at the battle of Cannae and on military equipment (link)
  • Polybios on Italian armies and the Celtic invasion of 225 BCE (link)
  • Polybios on Ptolemy IV’s and Antiochos III’s armies (link)
  • Polybios on Antiochos IV’s army (link)


[Mixed composition of Hannibal’s army, ca. 216 BCE]

(3.113-114) On Hannibal’s left wing, close to the river, he stationed the Iberian and Celtic horsemen opposite the Roman horsemen, then next were half the Libyan heavy-armed foot-soldiers, then next the Iberian and Celtic foot-soldiers, and then next the other half of the Libyans. On the right wing were the Numidian horsemen. After getting them all into line, Hannibal advanced with the central companies of the Iberians and Celts. He arranged the other companies next to these in regular gradations so that the whole line became crescent-shaped, diminishing in depth towards its extremities. Hannibal’s objective was to have his Libyans as a reserve in the battle, and to commence the action with his Iberians and Celts.

The armour of the Libyans was Roman, for Hannibal had armed them with a selection of the spoils taken in previous battles. The shield of the Iberians and Celts was about the same size, but their swords were quite different. For that of the Romans can thrust with as deadly effect as it can cut, while the sword of the Gauls can only cut, and that requires some room. With the companies coming alternately – the naked Celts and the Iberians with their short linen tunics bordered with purple stripes – the whole appearance of the line was strange and terrifying. The whole strength of the Carthaginian horsemen was ten thousand, but that of their foot-soldiers was not more than forty thousand, including the Celts.


[Celtiberian military customs and equipment, ca. second century BCE, from citations by the Suda lexicon]

(at ἴδιον: 166 (163) in LCL / fragment 95 in Shuckburgh)

The Celtiberians have a peculiar manoeuvre in war. When they see their infantry hard pressed, they dismount and leave their horses standing in their places. They have small pegs attached to their leading reins, and having fixed them carefully into the ground, they train their horses to keep their places obediently in line until they come back and pull up the pegs.

(at μάχαιρα: 182 (179) in LCL / fragment 96 in Shuckburgh)

The Celtiberians excel the rest of the world in the construction of their swords. The point of their sword is strong and serviceable and they can deliver a cut with both edges. Therefore the Romans abandoned their ancestral swords after the Hannibalian war and adopted those of the Iberians. They adopted, I say, the construction of the swords, but they can by no means imitate the excellence of the steel or the other points in which they are so elaborately finished.


Source of the translation: E.S. Shuckburgh, The Histories of Polybius, 2 vols. (London: Macmillan and Company, 1889), public domain, adapted by Harland.

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