“the avengers of murder overwhelmed them sooner than the enemy, and the ghosts of the slain rising up before their eyes …”.
(Justinus: Epitome of Pompeius Trogus’ “Philippic histories” Book 26:2)
One of the key turning points in ancient history was the Battle of Lysimachia in 277 BC, in which the Macedonian forces of Antigonus Gonatas destroyed the Celtic armies which had been sweeping through southeastern Europe, thereby halting the barbarian expansion in the region, and saving the ’civilized’ world from destruction (Fol et al, Ancient Thrace, 2000, Delev 2003, Boteva 2010, Emilov 2010, Dimitrov 2010, Stoyanov 2010, Megaw 2004, 2005, Emilov/Megaw 2012).
Or was it?
For centuries the Battle of Lysimachia has been presented to us as one of the most important events in the ancient history of southeastern Europe. However, an analysis of the geo-political context and ancient sources on this period, in particular the text of the Roman historian Justinus, upon which modern accounts of the battle are based, clearly indicates that this ‘decisive’ battle probably never happened.
Antigonus Gonatas AR tetradrachma
In fact, Justinus actually tells of two successive victories by the Macedonian king over the barbarians at this point. Antigonus’ first victory was over a Celtic army of 15,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry. This barbarian hoard, according to the Roman, were now ‘slaughtered’ by “sailors, and a part of the army that had fled thither with their wives and children” (Justinus 25:2).
Leaving aside the plausibility of a Celtic army which had shortly before ‘destroyed’ two powerful Thracian tribes – the Getae and Triballi (Justinus 25:1), being defeated by some sailors and deserters fleeing with their wives and children, there are a number of notable contradictions in this account. The Roman also tells us that “The king had also ordered his elephants to be shown them, as monsters unknown to those barbarians” (loc cit), which is remarkable in light of the fact that the Celts had shortly before annihilated the Macedonian army of Ptolemy Ceraunos which had included battle elephants (see ‘The Thunderbolt’ article, with relevant lit). It should also be noted that no archaeological evidence of such a battle has ever been found and, more importantly, the latest archaeological evidence completely contradicts Justinus’ claim of a Celtic attack on the Thracian Getae and Triballi tribes during this period, i.e. in the territory of these tribes no destruction layers or other archaeological data has been discovered that would indicate such a devastating attack (see ‘Ethnic Cleansing?’ article).
However, the most important evidence contradicting the Roman’s account is to be found in the testimony of other classical sources (Polyaen. Strat, IV; Plutarch Pyrr. 26) who clearly tell us that during this period the Macedonian army of Antigonus Gonatas itself consisted largely of Celtic mercenaries, drawn from the same tribes whom Antigonus supposedly slaughtered at Lysimachia (on Celtic mercenaries in Antigonus’ army during this period see Mac Congail 2008).
Part of a Macedonian bronze shield, spoils of Pyrrhus’ victory over Antigonus in 274 BC, found in the Bouleuterion at Dodona. (Ioannina Archaeological Museum, inv. # 1951)
Both armies in the battle were made up of substantial numbers of Celtic mercenaries. The inscription under the shields read:
‘These shields now suspended here as a gift to Athena Itonis,
Pyrrhus the Molossian took from valiant Gauls,
After defeating the entire army of Antigonus’.
(Plut. Pyrr. 26:5)
FURIES AND THE GHOSTS OF THE DEAD …
Antigonus’ second victory over the barbarians is surely unique in European history. This time the Macedonian’s enemy was a Celtic army advancing from Galatia (Justinus 26:2) – a rather surprising development considering that at this point the Celts had not yet settled in Galatia (see main ‘Galatia’ article). Nonetheless, the Roman historian informs us that as the Macedonian army approached, the Celts “sacrificed victims to take presages for the event; and as from the entrails great slaughter and destruction of them all was portended, they were moved, not to fear, but to fury” (loc cit). At this point the Celts adopted a rather unique military tactic – instead of engaging the Macedonian army, they decided to attack their own wives and children:
“thinking that the anger of the gods might be appeased by the slaughter of their kindred, butchered their wives and children, commencing hostilities with the murder of their own people; for such rage had possessed their savage breasts, that they did not spare even that tender age which an enemy would have spared, but made deadly war on their own children and their children’s mothers” (loc cit).
It is unclear what the Macedonians were doing while the Celts were so enthusiastically butchering their families, but soon afterwards the battle began, and the barbarians ‘rushed, stained as they were with the fresh blood of their relatives, into the field of battle’. However, before they could reach the Macedonians the Celts, apparently having a particularly bad day, were now attacked by another army composed, rather surprisingly, of ghosts and demons. The Roman ‘historian’ assures us that:
“the furies, the avengers of murder, overwhelmed them sooner than the enemy, and the ghosts of the slain rising up before their eyes, they were all cut off with utter destruction” (Justinus, op cit).
This then is the account of the victories of the Macedonian king Antigonus Gonatas in 277 BC (?), when the ‘civilized’ world was saved through the intervention of the gods and the ‘Ghosts of the Dead’, and this is what has been presented to us by modern historians as historical fact (Fol et al, 2000, Delev 2003, Boteva 2010, Emilov 2010, Dimitrov 2010, Stoyanov 2010, Megaw 2004, 2005, Emilov/Megaw 2012). On such classical sources has our understanding of the indigenous peoples of Europe been based. In the 21st century it is time we took another look at the ‘barbarians’ who inhabited Europe in the pre-Roman period, instead of seeing them solely through the mist of Greek and Roman xenophobia, delivered to us by neo-classical historians unwilling or unable to distinguish fairy tales from reality.