UD: September 2016
“The kings of the east then carried on no wars without a mercenary army of Gauls; nor, if they were driven from their thrones, did they seek protection with any other people than the Gauls. Such indeed was the terror of the Gallic name, and the unvaried good fortune of their arms, that princes thought they could neither maintain their power in security, nor recover it if lost, without the assistance of Gallic valour”
(Marcus Junianus Justinus. Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus XXV, 2)
The first Celtic mercenary activity in southeastern Europe is recorded in 367 BC when Dionysios of Syracuse took a band of them into his service and sent them to the aid of the Macedonians against Thebes (Justin. XX, 5,6; Diod. XV, 70,1). However, it is not until the expansion into the Balkans and Asia-Minor at the end of the 4th / beginning of the 3rd c. BC that Celtic mercenary forces become a major political and military factor in the region.
THE RAT PACK
Mercenaries in general, and Celtic mercenaries in particular, are not associated with traits such as loyalty and morality, but one particular group who operated in the 2nd half of the 3rd c. BC deserve special mention. This force, originally 3,000 strong, had apparently been expelled by their own tribe, a rare ‘honor’ for Celtic warriors. They were initially hired by the Carthaginians to protect the town of Agrigentum – which they immediately pillaged. They were subsequently dispatched to defend the town of Eryx, which was under Roman siege at the time. No sooner had they arrived than the Celts betrayed the city and ‘those who were suffering in their company’, and deserted to the Romans (Polybius Hist. II, 7).
Welcoming their new allies, the Romans entrusted them with the guardianship of the prestigious temple of Venus Erycina – which the Celts immediately desecrated and plundered. As soon as the conflict with Carthage had ended, Rome took the first opportunity to disarm them and banished then from Italy forever (loc. cit.).
Helmet from the burial of a Celtic mercenary at Lychnidos-Ohrid, (FYR) Macedonia (3rd c. BC)
Shortly afterwards, this same group turns up in the western Balkans in the service of the city of Phoenice in Epirus. The city was besieged by the Illyrians led by Queen Teuta, who had taken over after the death of her husband Pleuratos in 230/229 BC. When Teuta approached the Celts who were defending the city, a deal was quickly struck and the Illyrians ‘landed and captured the town and all its inhabitants by assault with the help from within of the Gauls’ (loc cit.) .
Although a particularly unscrupulous bunch, this Celtic force was by no means the exception. For example, in 277-276 BC four thousand Celtic mercenaries had been taken into service by Ptolemy II (Philadelphus) king of Egypt. It is ironic to note that these were from the same Balkan Celts who had recently defeated and decapitated the king of Macedonia – Ptolemy’s own half-brother – Ptolemy Keraunos.
Ptolemy II (Philadelphos) and his wife / sister Arsinoe II. (Celtic shield behind/AV Tetradrachm)
After helping Ptolemy to a crushing victory over his brother Magus in a civil war, his Celtic warriors promptly mutinied. Pausanias says that they were engaged in a conspiracy to take control of Egypt (Paus. I, 7:2), but more likely is the testimony of the scholiast Callimachos who tells us that they were simply trying to steal Ptolemy’s treasures (Callim. Hymn to Delos, 185-8). In the end the Egyptian king besieged them on an island on the river Nile, where rather than surrender the majority of the Celts committed ritual suicide (Paus. op cit.).
Terracotta statuette of a Celtic warrior – from Fayum, Egypt
(late 3rd early 2 c. BC)
Despite all this, during this period Celtic warriors were a ‘necessary evil’ for any ruler in the region who had aspirations to power, and they were a vital element in all the major military conflicts from Thrace to Babylon, from the Danube to the Nile – sometimes forming substantial parts of both armies in the battles. This continued right up till the 1st c. AD. For example, the Egyptian queen Cleopatra had Celtic mercenaries who formed her personal bodyguard. After her death 400 of them entered the service of the Jewish king Herod the Great, forming part of Herod’s personal bodyguard, and figuring prominently in his funeral service in 4 BC.
However, employing Celtic mercenaries was a double edged sword. They were quick to enter the service of any ruler who could pay them, and fearless in battle. But ultimately, as many generals and kings were to discover to their cost, the Celts served no masters but themselves…