Much of the territory occupied by the Celts in the area of todays’ Serbia / northern Bulgaria had previously been controlled by the Thracian Triballi tribe. Of all the Thracians, the Triballi had been most affected by the Celtic migrations of the 4th / 3rd c. BC. This tribe had previously inhabited an area which extended from the Morava river in the west, where Herodotus located the Triballian plain, to the Oescus (Iskar) river in the east. The Triballi appear to have been a formidable force and in 329 BC, for example, defeated Philip II’s Macedonian army as he returned from his Scythian campaign.
In the wake of the Celtic ‘invasion’ of 279/278 BC Roman authors inform us that the Triballi suffered greatly at the hands of the newly arrived Celts (Justinius XXV,1; Appian Illyr. 3) Indeed, Appianus informs us that the Thracians were ‘destroyed’ and that ‘the remnant of the Triballi took refuge with the Getæ on the other side of the Danube’ (Appian op. cit). However, the accuracy of these Roman accounts of ‘ethnic cleansing’ against the Thracians during this period has recently been called into question by a number of factors.
Firstly, the supposition that the Celts first arrived in Triballi territory at the time of the Brennos ‘invasion’ (279/278 BC) is contradicted from a chronological perspective by Celtic archaeological and numismatic material from this area dating to the second half of the 4th c. BC (for example material from Gruia in Oltenia which V. Pârvan dated to the second half of the 4th c. BC indicating that the Celts were already present in the Middle Danube area between Belgrade and Vidin during this period (Pârvan 1924, Considération sur les sépultures celtiques de Gruia , Dacia I, 1924, p. 35-50), the golden Celtic torc from nearby Gorni Tsibar, again dating to the same period (see ‘The Danube Torc’ article), or Celtic Paeonia model coins from the 4th c. BC found in northwestern Bulgaria (see ‘Paeonia’ in numismatics section – forthcoming). In addition to mounting archaeological and numismatic evidence we also have clear and direct historical testimony to the presence of Celtic tribes as far south as the Haemus (Balkan) mountains at the turn of the 4th/3rd centuries BC (Seneca nat. quaest. 3.11.3; Pliny N.H., XXXI, 53) – i.e. two decades before the ‘Great Invasion’.
Secondly, in contrast to the aforementioned Roman reports, archaeological evidence from the region indicates a symbiotic relationship between the newly arrived Celtic tribes and the Illyrian and Thracian population of this region. Celtic settlement in the aforementioned Morava river valley is well attested to by archaeological material. Thus, for example, the investigation of the flat cemetery in the region of Pecine near Kostalac, a town situated on the lower Morava valley and close to the Danube in n.e. Serbia (Jovanović 1985, 1992 – Jovanović B., Necropola na Pechinama i starije gvozdeno doba Podunavlya. Starinar n.s. 36, 13-18; 1992 – Celtic Settlements of the Balkans. In N. Tasić (ed.), Scordisci and the Native Population in the Middle Danube Region. Belgrade. P. 19-32), provides a good illustration of the ethnic changes that took place in the wake of the Celtic arrival in the region. On this site a number of Celtic cremation and inhumation graves, the earliest dating to the end of the 4th / beginning of the 3rd century BC, are situated around nine earlier graves belonging to the Illyrian Autariatae tribe. The continuity observable on this burial site clearly indicates that the new Celtic settlers did not destroy the Autariatae, but assimilated with the indigenous population and mixed ethnically with them.
Therefore, from the end of the 4th century BC onwards, the Morava river valley and the surrounding region became a Celto-Illyro-Thracian interaction zone. A similar situation existed in the Oltenia region of today’s s.w. Romania (See Nicolăescu-Plopşor 1945-1947, – Antiquités celtiques d’Olténie, Dacia XI-XII, (1948), p. 17-33; Popescu D. (1963) Două descoperiri celtice din Oltenia, SCIV 14, 2, p. 403-412; Zirra Vl., (1971) Beitrage zur Kentnnis der Keltischen Latene in Rumanien, Dacia N. S. XV, p. 171-238, Also 1976, p. 181 – Le problème des Celtes dans l’espace du Bas-Danube. Thraco-Dacica I, p.175-182.; Sîrbu V.,1993, p. 25 – Credinţe şi practici funerare, religioase şi magice în lumea geto dacilor, Brăila-Galaţi.) and northern / western Bulgaria where Celto-Thracian cultural zones developed. (On Celtic material form these areas of Bulgaria see Archaeology and Numismatics sections)
Location of the Oltenia region of Romania
Celtic material from Oltenia (after Nicolăescu – Plopşor 1945-1947)
Destruction layers pertaining to the period of the Celtic migration have not been found at Thracian settlements in Bulgaria. The only evidence of such destruction has been recorded at Macedonian fortresses in Thrace, such as Krakra and Pisteros. Therefore, if any ‘ethnic cleansing’ was carried out by Brennos’s Celts, it was directed at Macedonian forces in Thrace, rather than the native Thracians (see also ‘Behind the Golden Mask’ article).
As far as the ‘destruction’ of the Thracian Triballi by the Celts is concerned, it is interesting to note that during the Scordisci Wars of the II – I c. BC a number of Thracian tribes joined the Celts in the war with Rome. These included the Bessi, Maidi, Denteletes, and the aforementioned Triballi – who were one of the main Scordisci allies during this conflict (On the Scordisci Wars see article by the same name).
Scordisci settlements and weapon finds from N.W. Bulgaria
(see ‘Sacrificial Daggers, Swords and Settlements’ article)
By the beginning of the II c. BC the area of Celtic influence in today’s Bulgaria stretched from the Danube to the Sofia plain. Archaeological, topographic and numismatic data, as well as testimony in ancient sources, particularly pertaining to the events of 114 BC, also clearly indicate Celtic settlement in the Struma Valley / western Rhodope area of today’s s.w. Bulgaria (see especially Numismatics section 6). Whether this occurred during the initial migration or was part of the later expansion mentioned by Strabo (‘and they (the Scordisci) increased to such an extent that they advanced as far as the Illyrian, Paeonian and Thracian mountains’ – Strabo vii, 5,12) is unclear, but the Struma Valley had been the main route for the Celtic invasion of Greece at the beginning of the 3rd c. BC, and it is probable that the Celts who settled here did so during this period. This also pertains to Celtic settlement in Macedonia itself around the towns of Edessa, Pela and Beroe (Livy XLV, 30).
Inscribed cult relief bearing a dedication to the tribal God Scordus (Sofia region 4th – 3rd c. BC)
(After Manov 1993)
The relief contains a short incised inscription – ΣΚΟΡ∆Ο (= genitive: ‘belonging to Scordus’) i.e. the tribal eponym and ancestor-god Scordus, attested as Scordiscus in the sources (Appianus, Illyr. 2)
In 179 BC, as part of his campaign against Rome, Philip V of Macedonia entered into an alliance with the Celto-Germanic Bastarnae tribes. Referring to the Bastarnae, Livy (XL, 57) informs us that, ‘The way to the Adriatic and to Italy lay through the Scordisci; that was the only practical route for an army, and the Scordisci were expected to grant a passage to the Bastarnae without any difficulty, for neither in speech nor in habits were they dissimilar’. This testimony is particularly valuable because it clearly illustrates that the Bastarnae at this early stage were a predominantly Celtic people with the same language and customs as the Scordisci. This is also indicated by Plutarch who informs us, ‘He also secretly stirred up the Gauls on the Danube, who are called Bastarnae, an equestrian host and warlike’ (Plut. Aem. 9.6). From a geographical perspective Livy’s testimony (loc cit) also clearly indicates that by 179 BC the Thracian Celts controlled the Sofia Plain and the Upper Struma Valley – ‘the only practical route for an army’ from the Bulgarian Danube to the Adriatic.
Celtic control of the Struma Valley was to prove an important factor in the century which followed. The repeated failure of the empire to secure this strategic route into western Thrace was to make the Roman conquest of Thrace a slow and painful process (See main ‘Scordisci Wars’ article).