THE LAST FORTRESS – Battle for the Balkan Mountains (26 AD)

UD: November 2018

“…if they were sentenced to slavery as a vanquished race, they had steel and young men, and souls for freedom or for death”.

(Tacitus Ann. iv, 46:1)

The struggle between the Roman legions and the (Thraco-) Celtic Artacoi tribe in the Haemus (Balkan) mountains of Thrace in the summer of 26 AD is undoubtedly one of the most heroic and desperate examples of ‘barbarian’ resistance in ancient history.


 The Artacoi (/ Artacii)* are first mentioned in historical sources together with the Celtic Serdi tribe (Cassius Dio, Roman History. 51:25), i.e. in connection with M. Crassus’ campaign in Thrace in 28 BC, when the Romans carrried out ‘punitive’ attacks on the Celtic Scordisci tribes who had aided the Bastarnae the previous year:

while he himself made a campaign against the Artacii and a few other tribes who had never been captured and would not acknowledge his authority, priding themselves greatly upon this point and at the same time inspiring in the others both anger and a disposition to rebel. He brought them to terms, partly by force, after they had made no little trouble, and partly by fear for their countrymen who were being captured’ (Cassius Dio, 51:27).


It is only when the Romans enter Thrace in force during the latter half of the I c. BC that tribes such as the Serdi and Artacoi are mentioned individually in classical sources. Prior to this they had been grouped under the generic term ‘Scordisci’ used by the Romans to indicate all Thracian Celts. Archaeological evidence from the Balkan mountains indicates that during the Roman conquest of western Thrace, culminating with the Crassus campaigns of 29/28 BC, much of the Celtic population migrated into the Thracian mountains (loc cit).

The Taja river where it flows out of its canyon in the Balkan Mountain range. In the vicinity of the village excavations during the communist period (1973-1983) identified the remains of a Celtic settlement and tumular necropolis in the Atanastsa area, 2 km. west of the modern village. This site, dated to between the 1st c. BC and the early Christian period (Домарадски М., (1993), represents one of the most significant late Celtic sites in eastern Europe.

26 AD

The Celts of the Balkan mountains posed no direct military threat to Rome in the 1st century AD. The barren areas which they now inhabited were the most inhospitable and least desirable parts of Thrace. The real danger which they posed to Rome was symbolic – their steadfast refusal to acknowledge Rome’s rule, adhere to her laws, and send their young men to serve in the Roman army (Tacitus. Ann. iv, 46:1), presented a serious threat to the empire’s authority in Thrace. The Roman solution to this problem was to ethnically cleanse the area. Mass deportations and demographic engineering were common imperial practices in Thrace. For example, twice during the 1st c. AD the Roman authorities undertook mass deportations of the Transdanubian population to the south of the river (Strabo vii, 3:10; Probus, History Agusta, Vol. III, 18; see also Pippidi 1955, Mac Congail 2008:31).

However, deporting a sizeable population from an area such as the Balkan Mountains would have required some level of cooperation from the local leaders, which was not forthcoming in this case. On the contrary, the Celtic leader, Dinas (Cf. Celtic P.N. – Dinuus (Holder AC 1, 1287), sent a delegation to the Roman military Governor of Thrace, G. Poppaeus Sabinus, promising loyalty and friendship – if the Romans left them alone. But, the message continued, ‘if they were sentenced to slavery as a vanquished race, they had steel and young men, and souls for freedom or for death’ (Tacitus Ann. iv, 46:1).

1 - SCORD Jakimovo

Depiction of a Celtic (Scordisci) chieftain on a sliver/gilt plate from the Jakimovo treasure

(Northern Bulgaria; II/I c. BC)

The Roman commander reassured the barbarian delegation that the empire had no malicious intentions towards them, but as negotiations continued Sabinus was secretly gathering his forces. When another Roman legion, led by Pomponius Labeo, arrived from Moesia, Sabinus summoned the Thracian king Rhoemetalces who, with a body of auxiliaries from the Odrysae tribe, joined the Roman force. As Tacitus (iv, 48) later talks of ‘legions’ i.e. plural, it would appear that Sabinus’ army now consisted of 2 Roman legions, including Sugumbrian cohorts (Germani), as well as the Thracian auxiliaries – a massive force to deal with a few ‘uncivilized barbarians’. It seems that the Roman commander had decided that if the Celts would not be deported, they would have to be annihilated…


Central Balkan mountains

In the spring of 26 AD Sabinus’ army entered the Haemus (Balkan) mountains. As they advanced, the local population melted into the surrounding forests and ‘little barbarian blood was spilled’ (Tac. iv, 47:3). Shortly afterwards the first tribal fortress was sighted, and Sabinus established a fortified camp on a narrow mountain ridge overlooking the Celtic position.

Some of the barbarian warriors emerged from the fortifications and taunted the Romans ‘with songs and dances in front of the rampart’. The response was predictable – Sabinus ordered his archers to fire, and they ‘inflicted many wounds with impunity’. When the deadly hail of arrows had ceased, the Roman general dispatched his infantry to finish the job. However, as they approached the fortress, the Romans were in for a shock – a ferocious counter-attack by the barbarians broke the Roman ranks, and they fled in disarray back to the defensive lines which had been established by Sabinus’ Germanic cohorts (loc cit).

The Battle for the Balkan Mountains had begun…


After the failure of the assault on the fortress, the Romans advanced more cautiously, building an earthwork to defend themselves from counter-attacks. As the two Roman legions advanced in this manner, the rear was placed under the control of the Thracian king Rhoemetalces  – ‘a loyal ally of Rome’ (Tac. iv, 48:1).

 The role of the Thracians in this conflict is a sordid and shameful one. Their ‘king’, Rhoemetalces (Ρωμητάλκης) II, came from the Thraco-Macedonian Sapaioi dynasty of the Odrysae tribe, who had ruled large parts of Thrace until the arrival of the Celts. After the Roman conquest of Thrace, members of this dynasty were again installed by Rome as ‘Kings of Thrace’ in an attempt to legitimize her rule in the region. However, they were despised by the local population, and a number of them were killed during uprisings by their ‘subjects’ between 16 BC and 44 AD, when the last Thracian king, Rhoemetalces III, was murdered by his countrymen (or possibly by his wife/cousin Pythodoris II), and Thrace finally became a Roman province. Sabinus’ ally in the Balkans in 26 AD, Rhoemetalces II, had himself been besieged in his capital at Philipopolis (Plovdiv) a few years earlier by the local population, intent on executing him as a traitor, but had been rescued by a Roman legion who arrived at the last minute and massacred the ‘rebels’. As mentioned, the Thracian king is referred to by the Romans as ‘a loyal friend and ally’.  

Rhoemetalces II, with Tiberius.

Jugate heads of Rhoemetalkes II, diademed, and his mother Antonia Tryphaena right / Bare head of Tiberius right. (Circa AD 19-36. Æ 23mm. RPC I 1721)

The Thracian troops had been given permission by the Romans to murder, rape, and plunder the local population, and to burn their settlements – ‘so long as their depredations were limited to the daylight, and the night spent wakefully behind the entrenchments’ (Tac. iv, 48:1). At first, the Thracians obeyed the Roman orders, but Rhoemetalces’ soldiers soon lost all sense of discipline and – ‘turning to luxury and enriched by their booty, they began to leave their posts for some wild orgy, or lay tumbled in drunken slumber’ (loc cit). It appears that the Thracians believed that they could carry out these atrocities with impunity, protected as they were by the Roman legions positioned between them and the barbarians. This was not the case…

Tacitus informs us that the Celts had received information on what was occurring behind the Roman lines, and the murder and destruction being wrought on their fellow tribesmen. Under the cover of darkness, an attack was launched on the Roman encampment, which was easily repelled by Sabinus’ troops. However, under cover of this attack a second band of Celtic warriors slipped past the Roman flanks and, emerging from the forests, took the Thracians completely by surprise. ‘The Thracian auxiliaries, a few of whom were lying along their lines, while the majority were straggling outside, lost their nerve at the sudden onset’. In their drunken condition, and without Roman help, they were easy prey. As they slaughtered them, the Celts branded the Thracians ‘traitors carrying arms for the enslavement of themselves and their fatherland’ (loc cit).


After the defeat of the Thracians there is no further mentioned of King Rhoemetalces, who himself had escaped. The conflict now entered a new phase. If Sabinus had hoped for a quick victory, he was disappointed, and as the Balkan summer approached, a prolonged and bloody siege began.

 On the day following the massacre of the Thracians, Sabinus paraded his army in the plain, in the hope that the barbarians, elated by the previous night’s success, would engage in open battle. When this produced no reaction from the Celts except jeers and abuse, the Roman general began the construction of siege positions. Fortified posts were constructed, and a 4 mile long fosse was dug around the area to prevent the barbarians from breaking out. Step by step, Sabinus contracted and tightened the Roman lines, closing the noose around the Celtic fortress, and cutting off the supplies of food and water. An earthen embankment was built close to the fortress from which the Romans began a continuous shower of stones, spears and firebrands on the men women and children inside (Tac. iv, 49:1).

 In the hot Balkan summer, the animals died first of lack of fodder, the corpses of cattle, horses and other domestic animals rotting in the heat. Soon the people began to perish of thirst and before long the situation inside the Celtic fortress resembled a scene from hell – ‘side by side with them (the animals) lay the bodies of men, victims of wounds or thirst, and the whole place was an abomination of rotting blood, stench and infection’ (loc cit).

 The situation of the barbarians had become intolerable, and surrender appeared only a matter of time. As autumn set in, the doors of the fortress finally opened and the old chieftain, Dinas, accompanied by his wife, led the sick and elderly into the plain where they surrendered to Sabinus’ troops. However, behind them the doors of the fortress closed once more. The remaining defenders were now led by two young warriors – Tarsa and Turesis, who had chosen two very different fates. 

 Rather than surrender and slavery, Tarsa and his followers chose an escape well documented among Celtic warriors. Tacitus informs us that Tarsa gave the example, plunging his sword into his breast, and many others chose his fate – ‘a quietus to hope and fear alike’ (Tac. iv, 50:1). However, the remaining chieftain, Turesis, had decided that in his journey to the afterlife he was going to have company.

 1 - Gaul and his wife. Marble, Roman copy after an Hellenistic original from a monument built by Attalus I of Pergamon after his victory over Gauls, ca. 220 BC

Ritual suicide of a Celtic (Galatian) warrior after killing his wife

(Marble, Roman copy after an Hellenistic original from a monument built by Attalus I of Pergamon after his victory over the Celts ca. 220 BC). Such mass ritual suicide among the Celts is also recorded, for example, in 276 BC among Celtic warriors besieged on an island on the Nile by the forces of the Egyptian king Ptolemy II,  where rather than surrender the majority of the Celts took their own lives (Paus. I, 7:2).


 It was clear to the Romans that the remaining Celtic leader Turesis (cf. Celtic p.n.’s – Turesis – Holder AC 2, 1996; Turaesius – Lambert P., Pinault G., Gaulois et Celtique continental. Paris 2007. P. 261) and his people intended to break through their lines, and escape into the dense surrounding forests (Tac. iv, 50:1). However, as the days passed no such attack was forthcoming. From inside the fortress wild shouting could be heard, alternating with deathly silence, which began to perplex the Romans. It was obvious that the barbarians were waiting for something, but what ?


And then it came…

As night was falling, a massive thunderstorm hit the Balkans, and out of the darkness came the Celts. Although the Romans had been expecting an attack, the ferocity of the assault shocked them – ‘the barbarians, speeding down in their bands battered the palisade with hand-flung stones, stakes pointed in the fire, and oak boughs hewn from the tree’ (Tac. iv, 51:1).

Wood and dead bodies were thrown into the Roman ditch, allowing the barbarians to reach the Roman lines and the siege towers, which they attacked ‘with bridges and ladders, fabricated beforehand, advanced against the turrets, clutching them, tearing them down’ (loc cit).  In the darkness and torrential rain the fight was now man to man – or not quite, for Tacitus tells us that along with the warriors were their ‘wives and mothers close at hand’, screaming and killing alongside their men.  In the ensuing chaos – ‘blows dealt at random, wounds unforeseen, the impossibility of distinguishing friend from foe’, the Roman lines collapsed, and in the confusion that followed the barbarians escaped into the surrounding forests (loc cit).                      

The Celtic fortress had finally fallen and was subsequently burnt by Sabinus’ men, only ashes and bones remaining. For months its defenders, who the Romans had described as ‘a wild, uncivilized rabble’, had held back two imperial legions. In the end their resistance had been enough for, although Sabinus was later given triumphal honors in Rome for his victory, in reality his campaign had failed. It had taken the Roman general so long to capture this one fortress that his time had run out and now, as Sabinus regrouped his legions to advance on the other Celtic settlements, it began to snow…

The Balkans were quickly covered by a deep layer of snow which made further advance impossible, and for the Roman commander, on the verge of final victory, it was a tactical nightmare. As a fresh blanket of snow slowly covered the death and destruction that they had wrought, the legions began their retreat to the civilization of the Thracian valleys below. Before the conflict had begun, the Balkan Celts had threatened Rome with ‘a war, intricate, arduous and bloody’ (Tac. iv 46.1). They had kept their promise…



* The name Artacoi (Άρτάχοι) comes from the Celtic elements ardu- ‘high’ (from Proto-Celtic *ardwo- ‘high’ [Adj] Matasovic R. Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Celtic. Leiden-Boston 2009. Well attested in G. LNN; cf. OIr ard, OB ard, art LEIA A-87, DGVB: 72; – in Thrace present, for example, in the name of the Celtic settlement Ardicenus (Plovdiv region) – Detschew, 1957:23; Neroznak 1974, 43; Mac Congail 2008:40), and –āko, a very well attested Celtic suffix with the meaning ‘pertaining to’ (see Russell P. The suffix –āko in Continental Celtic, in Études celtiques 25 (1988) 131-173; OW –aug, W –og, OB –oc). The name of the tribe – ‘The High Ones’ – is particularly apt when one considers that they were settled in the heights of the Stara Planina (Balkan) mountains of today’s Bulgaria.

The tribal name is later mentioned in a Latin inscription from Nova Zagora – Fl(avius) Moco domesticus de patria Artasia de vico Calso. A district in the Haemus mountains between Nicopol and Cabyle – Artacia (Georgiev (1978) V.I Tendinţe convergente în limbile vechi din Peninsula Balcanică şi din Asia Mică de nord-vest In: 1978 – Noi Tracii, Supplement 2/1978; Pippidi D. M., Tiberius Plautius Aelianus şi frontier Dunârii de Jos în secolul I al erie noastre, SCIV VI 3-4 (1955) p. 355 – 380), is also derived from the name of the Artacoi tribe.

The Celtic settlements of Goloi, Orkelis (Oρχελίς) (Ptol., III, 11,7; Tomaschek I: 91-92; Holder II, 868; Kazarov 1919:67; Detschew 1957, 344; Duridanov 1997, 139), and Δίνγιον in the Haemus mountains (see Celtic Settlements in Bulgaria (1) article) as well as the Rimesica area in Haemus, again of Celtic origin, (Tomaschek I,91; Holder II, 1190; Kazarov 1919:67; Duridanov 1997: 139; Mac Congail 2008: 38) may also be related to the Artacoi, and one may therefore also associate the Celtic material from the central Haemus region and particularly the concentrations around the Tadzha, Panagurischte Kolonii, Nova Zagora and Kazanlak areas with this tribe. It remains unclear whether recorded Celtic settlements to the east of Sofia – Burgaraca (Duridanov 1997:138), and Magaris (Detschew 1957: 279), as well as the settlement of Brentopara (Hisar, Karlovo district)(Detschew 1957:138; see also Celtic Settlements in n. Bulgaria article with relevant lit.) should also be associated with the Artacoi, or with the Celtic Serdi  tribe. The possibility that Artacoi was not initially a tribal name per se, but a collective term for the Thracian Celts (Scordisci) who migrated from western Thrace eastwards into the central Thracian mountains during this period, should also be considered.

See also:

Mac Congail



2 thoughts on “THE LAST FORTRESS – Battle for the Balkan Mountains (26 AD)

  1. Hello, my name is Rebecca and I’m a writer and this website really helped me. I’m motivated! Thanks very much!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.