One of the most tragic tales in ancient history is surely that of the Aegosages, a tribe whose dream of a new home drew them into a vortex of treachery, war and ultimately doom.
The Aegosages (Αἰγοσάγες) were originally one of the tribes which had settled in today’s eastern Bulgaria at the beginning of the 3rd c. BC, forming part of the Celtic ‘Tyle’ state in that region. In 218 BC they received an invitation from Attalus I Soter (Σωτὴρ), King of Pergamon, who promised them rich lands to settle in Asia-Minor (Poly. Hist. V 78.1). However, having crossed over from Thrace it soon became clear to the Aegosages that Attalus’ offer was a double edged sword. The King of Pergamon intended to use the Celtic tribe in his ongoing war against Seleucus III, because of ‘their reputation for valor’ (Poly. V 111.1).
Attalus I, King of Pergamon. (Berlin, Pergamonmuseum).
However, there was one major flaw in Attalus’ plan – the Aegosages had come to Asia to live, and not to die for Attalus. Tricked into participating in the King’s campaign of terror against the cities in Aeolis, the Aegosages proved to be less than enthusiastic about a war in which they had no interest. The Celts steadfastly refused to participate in the conflict, and ‘detached themselves from the column on the march and encamped by themselves, and were altogether most insubordinate and self-assertive’ (Pol. V 78 3-5). Finally, when they were camped by the river Megistus, ‘an eclipse of the moon took place, and the Gauls who had all along been aggrieved by the hardships of the march – since they made the campaign accompanied by their wives and children who followed them in wagons – considering this a bad omen, refused to go any further’ (Poly. V. 77).
This eclipse of the moon provides us with valuable information in pinpointing the exact date of these events as it occurred precisely on September 1, 218 BC (Taking Bucak, Turkey as an approximation to the ancient Selge, at latitude f 37N28 = +37.47°, longitude l 30E36 = 30.60°. From NASA’s Catalog of Lunar Eclipses, -0299 to -0200 for Sep 1, 218 B.C. (-217): p -0217 Sep 01 16:26 T+ 63 -0.179 2.559 1.533 109m 47m 22.4 22.43 -10.2 Time of Greatest Eclipse t 16:26 = 16.43. Greenwich Sidereal Time at 00.00 UT GSTO 22.4, Right ascension of the Moon ra 22.43, Declination of the Moon d -10.2).
When it became clear that the Celts would not fight for him, Attalus quickly abandoned them near the Hellespont, where they had no choice but to scavenge from the surrounding towns. At Illium an army was sent against them by Prusias Cholus (Προυσίας Α’ ὁ Χωλός “the Lame“), King of Bithynia, led by a general called Themistes. Subsequently the Aegosages were expelled from the area, and cut off from supplies and food in the apparent hope that they would starve to death. Finally they wandered to the Abydas area, hoping to make this area their new home. It was not to be.
Prusias I Cholus, King of Bithynia (AR TEtradrachm)
The Aegosages tribe had now become an inconvenience. Cut off from the Thracian Celts, and lacking the military strength of the Celtic tribes who had preceded them into Asia-Minor (see main ‘Galatia’ article), they were easy prey for a Hellenistic army. Finally, at Abydas the Bithynian king decided to resolve the problem ‘once and for all’. The men of the tribe attempted to defend their camp against the Bithynian army, and were slaughtered. The events which followed are described by the Greek historian Polybius (Hist. V 111 6-7) as Prusias’ greatest victory:
‘Prusias, therefore, led an army against them, and after destroying all the men in a pitched battle, put to death all the women and children in their camp, and allowed his soldiers who had taken part in the battle to plunder the baggage’.
For the Aegosages tribe the dream had begun almost 100 years before, and had taken them thousands of miles through southeastern Europe and Asia-Minor. Drawn into Asia by promises of a new home, their refusal to go to war had sealed their fate, and their journey finally came to an end.