“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)
Although 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), 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 Hellenistic world – a phenomenon which is well attested to in ancient sources, and of which there is growing archaeological evidence.
Following the destruction of 2 successive Macedonian armies by the Celtic forces of Bolgios and Brennos (II) in 280/279 BC (see THUNDERBOLT), a political and military vaccum had been created in Macedonia, and two main pretenders to the Macedonian throne emerged – Antigonus Gonatus and Pyrrhus. Ironically, in the subsequent power struggle for control of Macedonia both kings relied largely on the very people who had shortly before destroyed it – the Celts.
Antigonus was the first to ‘employ’ a large Celtic force, led by a chieftain called Cidêrios. The subsequent relationship between him and his mercenaries also provides valuable information into the balance of power in Macedonia at this time. Having entered into negotiations with the Celts, Antigonus not only promised to pay each of them with Macedonian gold, but gave aristocratic hostages as security (Polyaen., Strat., IV, 6,17), and the ensuing saga over payment illustrates the true nature of Antigonus’ relationship with them.
The Macedonian duly offered to pay each who had ‘carried a shield’. They refused, demanding payment for all of them – the women and children included. The Celts withdrew and threatened to kill the hostages, at which point Antigonus agreed to their terms. When the Celts sent high ranking leaders to collect the payment, however, they were in turn taken hostage by the Macedonian. The stand-off was eventually solved by the mutual exchange of hostages and Antigonus paying his Celtic mercenaries in full (loc cit). It should also be noted that here the description is of a tribal unit, i.e. not simply mercenaries in a conventional sense, but whole tribes, or at least sub-tribes, including women and children – a reoccurring theme among the Celtic mercenaries not only in the Balkans, but also in Galatia where they fought in tribal units.
Shortly after these events Antigonus’ main rival, Pyrrhus, arrived in the region – and promptly hired his own Celtic mercenaries. Perhaps ‘hired’ here is the wrong term. Plutarch states that ‘some Gauls joined him’ and as he has already stated that Pyrrhus had ‘no money’ we may assume that they joined him for the promise of plunder (“Some Gauls joined him, and he thereupon made an incursion into Macedonia, where Antigonus the son of Demetrius was reigning, designing to strip and plunder the country” – Plut. Pyrr. 26,2).
Pyrrhus of Epirus. Museo Archeologico Nazionale (Naples)
Pyrrhus marched into Macedonia and a number of cities, as well as some Macedonian soldiers, joined him. Antigonus met him with an army, but was defeated in battle and put to flight. We are told that he met Antigonus in a narrow pass (the Aoüs Gorge), and threw his whole army into confusion.
The clash between Pyrrhus and Antigonus here is worthy of further consideration. In the battle we are told that ‘the Gauls formed Antigonus’ rearguard’ and that they were ‘a numerous body’ who ‘made a sturdy resistance’ (Plut., Pyrr., 26, 3). When his Celtic forces had been defeated, Antigonus’ army quickly fell apart – ‘Then Pyrrhus, thus greatly strengthened, and consulting his good fortune rather than his judgement, advanced upon the phalanx of the Macedonians, which was filled with confusion and fear because of their previous defeat. For this reason they refrained from engagement or battle with him, whereupon Pyrrhus stretching out his right hand and calling on the generals and captains brought over to him all the infantry of Antigonus in a body’ (Plut., Pyrr., 26, 4).
Interesting here from a psychological perspective is Pyrrhus’ reaction to his victory over the Macedonian. He celebrated not, as would be expected, his defeat of Antigonus himself, but moreso the fact that he had defeated Celtic forces – “Pyrrhus, thinking that amid so many successes his achievements against the Gauls conduced most to his glory, dedicated the most beautiful and splendid of his spoils in the temple of Athena, with the following elegiac inscription:
now suspended here as a gift to Athena Itonis,
Pyrrhus the Molossian took from valiant Gauls,
After defeating the entire army of Antigonus;
Which is no great wonder;
For now, as well as in olden time,
The Aeacidae are brave spearmen’.
( Plut., Pyrr., 26, 5; Paus., I, 13, 2-3, gives a substantially similar text)
Part of a Bronze shield, spoils from Pyrrhus’ victory over Antigonus and his Celtic forces in 274 BC, found in the Bouleuterion at Dodona.
(Ioannina Archaelogical Museum, inv. No. 1951)
It seems that Pyrrhus had allowed the Macedonians to surrender on terms and – ‘Antigonus, divesting himself at once of all the marks of royalty, repaired with a few horsemen, that attended him in his flight, to Thessalonica, there to watch what would follow on the loss of his throne, and to renew the war with a hired army of Gauls’ (Just., XXV,3). At this point it appears that Antigonus relied almost entirely on Celtic mercenaries.
Inventory from a Celtic mercenary burial (no. 58) at Ohrid Gorna-Porta (Republic of Macedonia)
(after Guštin et al, 2012; see Balkancelts ‘Lychnidos’ article)
Celtic burials such as those at Lychnidos provide valuable archaeological evidence that Celtic warriors held high positions in the Greek world during this period, becoming an intrinsic part of the military and social structure of the Hellenistic city states. It also appears that as a result of this mercenary activity Celtic groups were also granted land in Macedonia in payment for their services. Livy (XLV:30) subsequently informs us of Celtic enclaves in Macedonia itself, specifically around the towns of Edessa, Beroe and Pella – “tertia regio nobilis urbes Edessam et Beroeam et Pellam habet et Uettiorum bellicosam gentem, incolas quoque permultos Gallos et Illyrios, inpigros cultores”.
No matter how much he had glorified in the defeat of Antigonus’ Celtic warriors, Pyrrhus himself relied heavily on them. At Aegae this is clearly illustrated. Having won the battle against the Macedonian and sending his rival to flight, Pyrrhus began to occupy the cities. Securing Aegae, he proceeded to garrison it with his Celtic forces. The lack of control that he had over his mercenaries is clearly illustrated by the events which followed. The Celts who formed the garrison –
‘set themselves to digging up the tombs of the kings who had been buried there; the treasure they plundered, the bones they insolently cast to the four winds’.
(Plut. Pyrr. 26:6)
Hypostyle tomb found during the recent excavations at Aegae/Aigai
Skeleton found inside the hypostyle tomb
A golden disc with the characteristic Macedonian star, discovered during the recent excavations, which survived the Celtic looting at Aegae
In the wake of Antigonus’ final victory over Pyrrhus, the Macedonian army continued to consist of substantial numbers of Celtic mercenaries. At Megara in 265 BC we find them still with him (Trog. Prol. XXVI). Apparently the years had not tamed them and, being ‘ill paid’, they mutinied…
Greaves from the Celtic Warrior Burial at Ciumeşti, Romania
(Baia Mare History and Archaeology Museum)
Manufacture of such greaves logically requires the exact measurement of the warrior’s legs. Two golden greaves from the so-called Philip II grave at Vergina, which are of different sizes and designed for a crippled man, are a significant example (Andronicos 1984:186-189). It therefore appears that the Ciumeşti warrior had these made at a Greek workshop in the Mediterranean area, which is only possible if the warrior was himself present there, and we can conclude with a great degree of certainty that the Transylvanian chieftain had fought as a mercenary in the aforementioned conflicts (see Balkancelts ‘Prince of Transylvania’ article with relevant lit.).
Ritually ‘killed’ Macedonian helmet from a Celtic burial at Sevtopolis/Kazanlak
(‘Valley of the Thracian Kings’, Bulgaria)
(after Getov 1962 – see Balkancelts ‘Spoils of Battle’ article)
The Macedonian War of Succession was by no means an exception in terms of Celtic participation. 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 Thracian Celts who had recently defeated and decapitated the king of Macedonia – Ptolemy’s own half-brother – Ptolemy Keraunos (see THUNDERBOLT).
Ptolemy II (Philadelphos) and his wife / sister Arsinoe II.
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.).
In the ‘War of the Brothers’ (241-236 BC) in Asia-Minor between Antiochus Hierax and his brother Seleucus II Callinicus, Antiochus’ forces also consisted to a great extent of Celtic mercenaries. His relationship with them is clearly indicated by the events surrounding Antiochus’ victory over his brother at the Battle of Ancyra in 235 BC:
‘In the battle that followed Antiochus was victor, indeed, through the prowess of the Gauls; but they, thinking that Seleucus had fallen on the field, began to turn their arms against Antiochus himself, in the hope of ravaging Asia with greater freedom, if they destroyed the whole royal family. Antiochus, seeing their design, purchased peace from them, as from robbers, with a sum of money, and formed an alliance with his own mercenaries’.
Antiochus’ ill-fated relationship with the Celts was finally terminated when, in 226 BC, they killed him. (Polyb. Hist 74; Trog. Prol. 27).
Antiochus Hierax was by no means the only Hellenistic ruler to fall at the hands of the Celts during this period. His father-in-law, King Ziaelas of Bithynia, had also been killed by them two years earlier (Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae, ii. 58; Pompeius Trogus, Prologi, 27), and his nephew, Seleucus III Ceraunos, was to suffer the same fate shortly afterwards. In 223 BC Seluecus assembled a great army against Attalus I of Pergamon, a campaign which ended prematurely when during the march his Celtic officers turned on the king, and assassinated him (Polyb. IV, 48:8).
AR tetradrachma of Seleucus III Ceraunos, King of the Seleukid Empire of Syria, assassinated by his Celtic mercenaries in 223 BC.
Two years later (221 BC) Seleucus’ successor, Antiochus III (the Great), marched east to put down a rebellion by two satraps, Molon and Alexander, who had declared independence in Babylon and Persis. The subsequent battle between Antiochus and Molon, after the king had crossed the Tigris, once again illustrates the central role played by Celtic forces in the regions conflicts. Despite the fact that his predecessor had been murdered by them, Antiochus’ army consisted of large numbers of Celtic warriors (Poly. V:53, 2-3), while facing him at the ‘Battle of Babylon’ the rebel army also contained large numbers of ‘heavily armed’ Celts (Poly. V:53,8).
Bust of Antiochus III (the Great) from the Louvre
At the Battle of Raphia in 217 BC, between Antiochus III and Ptolemy IV Philopator , Antiochus still employed Celts in leadership positions (Poly. V:79), while the pharaoh’ s army also contained thousands of Celtic warriors (Poly. V:82).
EASTERN PONTUS/ SCYTHIA
In the eastern Pontus/ Scythia Celtic forces were also a vital military component in the armies of the regions leaders, as is testified to by extensive archaeological evidence from the territory of today’s Ukraine (see GALLO-SCYTHIANS, with relevant lit.). The earliest depiction of Celtic oval shields appears in the second to third quarter of the 3rd century BC, i.e. the period of Celtic migration into the region. It was used, for example, as an emblem on the obverse of bronze coins issued by Leucon II, the king of Bosporus (Zogrof 1977).
Oval shields depicted on coinage of Leucon II, king of Bosporus (Circa 240 – 220 BC)
A unique find was made in 1982 at Nymphaeum, a wall-painting showing a ship named Isis with four Celtic shields on board, which provides the opportunity to establish the date of the oval shields’ appearance in Bosporus to the beginning of the second quarter of the 3rd century BC (Grach 1984). Starting with the late 3rd- early 2nd century BC, oval shields are carved on Bosporan grave reliefs, and from the 2nd century BC onwards a series of terracotta figurines of warriors with the same shields appear (Denisova 1981:91-92). All the known finds of terracotta figurines with oval shields in the Northern Black Sea area are in the Bosporan Kingdom, mainly in the capital, Panticapaeum (Eichberg 1987: maps 4-5). Finds of silver umbos for oval shields, also came in excavations of 1983 and 1985 at the sanctuary in Gurzufskoje Sedlo in the Crimea, near Yalta.
Further evidence of Celtic mercenary presence in the armies of the Bospor Kingdom comes in the form of two late La Têne swords discovered in royal burials in the area. The first was discovered in Scythian Neapolis in the burial of Skilurus (late 2nd c. BC), the king of Crimean Scythia Minor (Zaitsev 2003: 54-55, fig. 76). The sword in the Skilurus burial had been ritually ‘killed’ according to the well documented Celtic practice. Another Celtic sword (LTD1) was found in the mausoleum at Neapolis.
In addition, circa 20 helmets of the Montefortino type, associated with Celtic mercenary activity, have been found in the North Pontic and Azov area. While many of such helmets probably penetrated into eastern Europe due to contact with Rome during the 1st c BC/ 1st c. AD, earlier examples, such as that from Bilen’ke, dated to the 4th / 3rd c. BC, should be attributed to the earliest Celtic presence in this area. Two Celtic Montefortino type helmets (from Mar’yivka Domanivs’kyj, Mykolayivska reg, and Vesela Dolyna Bilgorod-Dnistrovs’kyj, Odes’ka reg.) come from votive hoards which also contained Scythian artifacts and Hellenistic bronze vessels. The funeral rite exhibited in such complexes originates in the Balkan and Danubian region (Zaycev 2007:266), and thus these votive hoards should be attributed to the Celto-Scythian Bastarnae tribes, as should the easternmost finds of Celtic Novo Mesto type Celtic helmets from southern Russia, also found in a mixed Celto-Scythian context, such as those from Boiko-Ponura (Krasnodar), and another from Yashkul (Kalmykia) which most resembles the Novo Mesto type helmets from Slovenia and Croatia (see Balkancelts ‘The Power of 3’ article, with relevant lit.).
During the Mithridatic Wars of the 1st c. BC, the Pontic King Mithridates VI had a bittersweet relationship with the Celtic groups in the region. At the beginning of the conflict the Galatians, like the Bastarnae and Scordisci in Thrace, supported the Pontic King against Rome and, despite the fact that the Galatians later turned against Mithridates, Celtic forces remained with the Pontic king until his final defeat in 63 BC:
‘’Seeing a certain Bituitus there, an officer of the Gauls, he said to him, “I have profited much from your right arm against my enemies. I shall profit from it most of all if you will kill me, and save from the danger of being led in a Roman triumph one who has been an autocrat so many years, the ruler of so great a kingdom, but who is now unable to die by poison because, like a fool, he has fortified himself against the poison of others. Although I have kept watch and ward against all the poisons that one takes with his food, I have not provided against that domestic poison, always the most dangerous to kings, the treachery of army, children, and friends.” Bituitus, thus appealed to, rendered the king the service that he desired’’ (App. Mith. 111; On Bituitus see also Balkancelts ‘The Thracian Myth’).
JUST PLAIN BAD
No discussion of Celtic mercenaries would be complete without mentioning one particular group who operated in the 2nd half of the 3rd c. BC. 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 and banish them from Italy forever (loc. cit.). 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.).
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 in her army. 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 (Josephus. The Wars of the Jews. Book 1, 20.3).
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 kings and generals discovered to their cost, the Celts served no masters but themselves.
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