‘Then verily, having crossed the narrow strait of the Hellespont,
The devastating host of the Gauls shall pipe’.
(Paus. X, 15: 2-3)
In 278 BC a group of Celts broke off from Brennos’ main force in the Balkans and, under two chieftains called Leonnorius and Lutarius, crossed into Asia-Minor (277 BC), where a Celtic state was founded which subsequently became known as Galatia.
Despite the popular misconception that these ‘Galatians’ represented a large proportion of the Celts who had migrated into southeastern Europe in the previous decades, they were originally a relatively small group consisting of 20,000 people (Livy 38.16:9). Indeed, while historians have traditionally translated the testimony of Livy as 20,000 men (latest Delev 2003:108), the Roman author actually speaks of ‘homines’ not ‘viri’ – i.e. people, not men (see Boteva 2010: 37), and we are further told that ‘of these 20,000 people, not more than 10,000 were armed’ (Livy op cit). Thus, the Celts who migrated into Asia-Minor in 277 BC consisted of no more than 10,000 warriors, accompanied by their families. To put this into context, the central Celtic army in the Balkans in 279 BC had consisted of 150,000 infantry and at least 10,000 – 15,000 cavalry (on the statistics pertaining to these Celtic armies see ‘The Thunderbolt’ article). Nonetheless, the small Celtic force who migrated into Asia-Minor was to have a significant geo-political impact on the region.
The head of a Galatian as depicted on a gold objet d’art.
(Istanbul Archaeological Museum)
One question which has never been satisfactorily addressed is the exact ethnic origin of the ‘Celts’ who migrated into southeastern Europe and Asia-Minor at the end of the 4th / beginning of the 3rd c. BC. In the case of the Galatian tribes this answer to this question is clearly given in ancient sources. Of the 3 tribal groups which broke off from the main Celtic force on the Balkans – the Tolostobogi (-boii), the Trocmi (/Trogmi) and the Volcae Tectosages – the latter are the key to identifying the exact ethnic origin of the Celts who would become the Galatians.
The Volcae Tectosages, one of the Belgae tribes (see Mac Congail 2007), ‘were named after the tribe in Celtica’ (Strabo xii, 5:1). Of this tribe, Caesar tells us that they had originally been settled north-east of the Rhine, in what is now western and central Germany in the basin of the river Weser, and he mentions that the Volcae Tectosages still remained in western Germany in his day (Caesar BG 6.24):
“And there was formerly a time when the Gauls excelled the Germans in prowess, and waged war on them offensively, and, on account of the great number of their people and the insufficiency of their land, sent colonies over the Rhine.”
“Accordingly, the Volcae Tectosages, seized on those parts of Germany which are the most fruitful [and lie] around the Hercynian forest (which, I perceive, was known by report to Eratosthenes and some other Greeks, and which they call Orcynia), and settled there. Which nation to this time retains its position in those settlements, and has a very high character for justice and military merit; now also they continue in the same scarcity, indigence, hardihood, as the Germani.”
This similarity between the Celtic Belgae tribes and the Germani in the eyes of classical authors is also crucial to our understanding of another ethnic group who appear in southeastern Europe in the late Iron Age – the Bastarnae (see Bastarnae article). By the 3rd c. BC the Volcae had also expanded into southeastern Gaul where we find them in the province of Gallia Narbonensis occupying the district between the Garumna, Cerbenna Mons and the Rhodanus. They were divided into two groups – the Volcae Arecomici and the Volcae Tectosages (whose territory included that of the Tolosate tribe) in the west separated by the river Arauris or a line between the Arauris and Orbis. The chief town of the Tectosages was Tolosa (Mac Congail op cit: 298; on further topographical links between the Tectosages in Gaul and those in Galatia see also Mac Congail 2004: 171-176).
The other two groups who accompanied the Volcae in the Galatian migration of 277 BC – the Tolistobogi and Trocmi are otherwise unknown and we learn that they ‘took their names from their leaders’ (Strabo vii, 5:1), indicating that these were mixed tribal groups. Of vital importance is Strabo’s testimony (loc cit) that ‘all three spoke the same language and differed from each other in no respect’. As the Trocmi and Tolistobogi ‘differed in no respect’ from the Volcae Tectosages, it logically follows that these were also Belgae. Thus, one may conclude that the tribal groups who migrated into Asia-Minor in 277 BC, and subsequently became the Galatians, originated from the Belgae branch of the Celtic group.
Ethnogenesis and migrations of the Volcae
However prolific they may have been (see below) the Galatians could not hold the large territory which they initially occupied (Mac Congail 2008:95-96), and appear to have overextended themselves. They subsequently fought with various success against the Syrian king Antiochus I who gained the title Soter (Saviour – Αντίοχος Α’ Σωτήρ) after defeating them at the ‘Battle of the Elephants’ in 275 BC. Following this defeat, the Galatians settled astride the Halys river and on the Phrygian plain – the poorest and least populated part of the region (Kilburn 1959:165-167; Mac Congail 2008:104).
Pliny the Elder gives us the most detailed account of the geographic dispersion of the Galatian tribes:
‘Galatia, which lies above Phrygia and includes the greater part of the territory taken from that province, as also its former capital Gordium. The Gauls who are settled in these parts are called the Tolistobogi, the Voturi and the Ambitouti; those who dwell in Maeonia and Paphlagonia are called the Trocmi. Cappadocia stretches along to the north-west of Galatia, its most fertile parts being possessed by the Tectosages and the Teutobodiaci. These are the nations by which these parts are occupied; and they are divided into people and tetrarchies, 195 in number. Its towns are, among the Tectosages, Ancyra, among the Trocmi, Tavium, and among the Tolistobogi, Pessinius’ (Pliny V,42).
There is disagreement in the sources on whether the Celts founded these towns or ‘adopted’ them from the previous population. Memnon tells us that, ‘They each founded cities, the Trogmi at Ancyra, the Tolistobogi at Tabia and the Tectosages at Pessinus’ (Memnon 11,7). However, Pausanias testifies that the town of Ancyra had been a Phrygian settlement before the Celts arrived – ‘Now this people occupied the country on the far side of the river Sangarius capturing Ancyra, a city of the Phrygians which Midas son of Gordius had founded in former times’ (Paus I, 4:5).
SOCIAL/ POLITICAL STRUCTURE
Each Galatian tribe was sub-divided into 4 groups, the 12 sub-divisions being sub-tribes similar to the Pagi in Gaul (Hubert II:48). They had an organized and highly developed political and legal system. Each tribe was divided up into 4 administrative portions called tetrarchies, which had its own ruling tetrarch. Each of these units also had its own judge and military commander, both subject to the tetrarch, and also 2 subordinate commanders. A council, consisting of 300 men, met at Drynemeton and passed judgement in murder cases, but the tetrarch and the judges had jurisdiction over all other cases (Strabo vii, 5:1). The mass of the Galatian population lived in villages and they intermarried with the local population (Livy 38:17-18; Strabo 13, 4,3).
Earlier interpretations of Galatian settlements as poor farming villages have changed in recent years. Excavations such as those at Gordion (above) indicate that some houses contained evidence of considerable wealth, including gold coins and stone sculptures. Moreover, some of these people could at least read Greek, the language used to inscribe some of their possessions, and favored items made in Greek style.
(after Dandoy et al 2002)
Galatian bracelets and earrings – 3rd c. BC
Bolu Hidirsihlar tumulus.
(Istanbul Archaeological Museum)
One phenomenon which is remarked on in a number of sources is that the Galatians were an exceptionally prolific people (Justin. xxv, 2). An analysis of the statistics would appear to confirm the veracity of these accounts. Although only 20,000 Celts had migrated into Asia-Minor in 277 BC by the beginning of the 2nd c. BC their population had increased radically. This is clearly illustrated by the fact that during the Galatian genocide carried out by the Romans under Gnaeus Manlius Vulso in 189 BC, 40,000 Galatians were massacred on one day at Olympus (Livy 38:23) and another 8,000 a few days later at Ancyra (App. Syr. Vii, 42; on the Vulso campaign see Mac Congail 2008: 114-119; also the ‘Galatian Genocide’ article).
The destruction layer at the Celtic settlement at Gordion left after the Roman massacres in 189 BC
(After Dandoy et al 2002)
Undoubtedly, considering the longevity of the Galatian state, the Celtic culture not only influenced, but was influenced by, the surrounding cultures – Hellenistic, Phrygian etc. The Galatian Celts adopted the local religious practices in some cases – we are told, for example, that the Celt Camma was a priestess of the Phrygian Artemis (Polyaen. Strat. Viii, 39). In later Galatian coins we see the busts of Hermes, Artemis, Minerva, Jupiter and Hercules, and in addition Cybele, the local Phyrigian deity (see ‘Galatian Coins’ article).
Galatian coin from Pessinius (1st century BC). On the obverse are the busts of Cybele (Sibel) and Attis. On the reverse side is a lion sitting with its left paw on a tympanum. Two stars (attributed to Dioskouroi?) visible on either side of the lion. A fragmentary “PESSINUS” is visible to the left
What is striking is the juxtaposition of Greek and Celtic customs illustrated by new evidence for Galatian religious practices at settlements such as that at Gordion. On the mound at that site, the workshop next to a monumental building produced figurines totally Greek in style; figures of Greek deities such as Nike and Kybele were also found. But near the mound archaeologists also found remains left by very different rituals – chilling evidence of strangulation, decapitation, and bizarre arrangements of human and animal bones, similar to practices well known from Celtic sites in Europe.
At the Gordion site, several of the people whose remains were found in area A died violently, with strangulation the most common cause of death, whether by hanging or garotting. All of these people were presumably “sacrificed”, but the exact circumstances have not been determined (Dandov et al 2002).
The uppermost of these two women had suffered blows to the head and a broken neck; large grinding stones had been placed on top of the lower woman
(After Dandoy et al 2002)
Excavation in area B, in the western part of the lower town at Gordion, revealed clusters of human bones from bodies that had been dismembered. The remains, co-mingled with animal bones, were then carefully rearranged, sometimes in symmetrical patterns, on an outside ground surface with shallow depressions. The ceramic material dates it to the 3rd c. BC. Similar placing of animal bones in burials is to be observed at Celtic burials on the Balkans such as those at Kalnovo in eastern Bulgaria, which date to the beginning of the 2nd c. BC. (See ‘New Material 2′ article).
This skull of a teenager (12-17 years old) was carefully placed alongside the skull, pelvis, and upper leg bone of a dog. Beneath these was the pelvic bone of another person.
(After Dandoy et al 2002)
The largest deposit at Gordion, bone cluster 3 (below), consists of a few human bones, and over 2,100 animal bones and fragments. Three humans are present. A 4-8-year-old child is represented by a lower jaw and some cranial fragments. A fragmentary right pelvic bone came from an adult female aged 35-39, and a pair of pelvic bones represent an adult male aged 40-44. A sacrum (the fused vertebrae forming the back of the pelvis) and several long bones could belong to either adult. The human bones are cracked from weathering and the pelvic bones were gnawed by carnivores-signs that they were exposed on the surface for some time (Dandoy et al 2002).
While many of these human remains have been correctly interpreted as examples of human sacrifice, there is another explanation for some of the rituals to be observed at the Galatian settlement. Evidence of weathering and dismemberment of the dead is consistent with the well documented Celtic religious practice of exposing corpses after death to be devoured by birds of prey and carnivores. The removal of flesh from corpses, which is well documented in the Celtic world, had a mortuary significance that differed greatly from the Greco-Roman practices (Soprena Genzor 1995: 198 ff.). The last 25 years of research have revealed how interments were the culmination of previous very complex rituals. The removal of flesh before interment is clearly attested at Celtic sanctuaries like Ribemont (Brunaux 2004: 103-24), but the enormous deficit of interments, especially in the late La Têne period, can be partially explained by the exposure of corpses with the consequent destruction of most of the skeleton. Such practices are recorded among the Balkan Celts (Churchin 1995) and were particularly common among the Belgae tribes, from whom the Galatians originated (on these Celtic rituals see Soprena Genzor 1995; Brunaux 2004: 118-24; also ‘Birds of Prey’ article).
Bone cluster 3 at Gordion, consists of human bones from 3 individuals, and over 2,100 animal bones and fragments.
In the first century AD the Galatians initially received St. Paul as an angel from heaven (Galatians 4:14). However, the message of Christianity appears not to have been fully understood by the Celts of Asia-Minor. Acts (xiii-xiv) gives indications that, even at this late stage, old traditions were still strong in Galatia – at Lystra they had to be restrained from sacrificing to St. Paul, and shortly afterwards they stoned ‘the Angel of God’ , and left him for dead …
(Modern) Literature cited
Boteva D. (2010) The Ancient Historians on the Celtic Kingdom in South-Eastern Thrace. In: In Search of Celtic Tylis in Thrace (III c. BC). Proceedings of the Interdisciplinary Colloqium Arranged by the National Archaeological Institute and Museum at Sofia and the Welsh Department, Aberystwyth University. Held at the National Archaeological Institute and Museum. Sofia 2010. p. 33-50
Brunaux J.L. (2004) Guerre et religion en Gaule. Essai d’anthropologie celtique. Paris: Errance.
Churchin L.A. (1995) The Unburied Dead at Thermopylae (279 BC) In: The Ancient History Bulletin 9: 68-71
Dandoy J., Selinsky P, Voight M. Celtic Sacrifice. In: Archaeology. Volume 55 Number 1, January/February 2002.
Delev P. (2003) From Corupedion towards Pydna: Thrace in the Third Century. In: Thracia 15, 2003, 107-120.
Hubert H. The History of the Celtic People. London 1934 (Rep. 1992).
Kilburn K. (1959) Lucian. Harvard.
Mac Congail B. (2004) Observations on Inscriptions from the Plovdiv/Pazardjik Districts Containing the Element Tiuta-. Ann. Arch. Mus. Plovdiv IX/2 2004. P. 171-176.
Mac Congail B.(2007) Belgae expansion into South Eastern Europe and Asia-Minor (4th – 3rd c. BC.) In: PRAE. In Honorem Henrieta Todorova. National Archaeological Institute With Museum, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. Sofia 2007. p. 295 – 302.
Mac Congail B. (2008) Kingdoms of the Forgotten. Plovdiv. (attached Pdf.)
Soprena Genzor G. (1995) Ética y ritual. Aproximación al estudio de la religiosidad de los pueblos celtibéricos. Zaragosa