“The cruelest of all the Thracians were the Scordisci…”.
(Florus, Epitome XXXVIIII (The Thracian War) III. 4)
Towards the end of the 2nd century BC relentless attacks from the north by the Celtic Scordisci and the Free Thracian tribes, notably the Maidi (the tribe of Spartacus) and Denteletes, threatened to overrun the Roman province of Macedonia. By 115 BC the situation had become so chronic that Quintus Fabius Maximus Eburnus, who had been consul in 116 BC, was sent to Macedonia. Eburnus was renowned as a strict authoritarian figure who had sentenced his own son to death for ‘immorality’, and it appears that it was he who drew up the plans for the eradication of the ‘barbarian’ threat and the Roman conquest of Thrace (Valerius Maximus 6.1.5–6; Pseudo-Quintilian, Decl. 3.17; Orosius 5.16.8).
As part of this strategy a Roman fortress was established at the old Hellenistic settlement of Heraclea Sintica (at today’s Rupite near Petritch in s.w. Bulgaria) under a commander called Lucullus. This garrison was situated in the strategic Struma river valley, the only practical route for a large military force to move into western Thrace. The culmination of the Roman strategy was the invasion of Thrace in 114 BC by a Roman army led by the Consul Gaius Porcius Cato.
Silver denarius of the consul Gaius Porcius Cato, who led the first major Roman invasion of Thrace in 114 BC.
Location of Heraclea Sintica/Rupite
Roman Terracotta mask from Heraclea Sintica
The events of 114 BC were to prove catastrophic for Rome. As mentioned, a Roman fortress had been established on the upper Struma River at Heraclea Sintica, and two cohorts of Roman soldiers were stationed there under a commander called Lucullus (Front. Strat. 3,10,7). This fortress was on the border of, or even possibly within, the territory of the Celtic tribes in Thrace, and appears to have been intended as a staging post for further Roman expansion northwards.
Ruins of the Roman Settlement at Heraclea Sintica
Roman stone projectile, (7.5 kg in weight), discovered at Heraclea Sintica
In 114 BC the army of Gaius Porcius Cato marched along the Struma river valley into Thrace (Liv. Per. 63′a; Flor. 1.39, 1-4; Dio Cass fr. 88’1; Eutrop. 4.24.1; Amm. Marc. 27.4.4). The purpose of Cato’s campaign appears to have been twofold – to eradicate the threat of the Celtic and Free Thracian tribes to Roman Macedonia, and to expand the empires power into the territory of today’s western/southern Bulgaria.
The western Rhodope mountains
This heavily afforested and mountainous area of the western Rhodope mountains is ill suited for the conventional military tactics of a Roman army, but perfect terrain for the surprise attacks and ambush tactics used by the Balkan Celts in this period. It would appear that the Roman consul completely underestimated the situation both in terms of the terrain, and the military potential of his enemy. Instead of expanding Roman power into the central Balkans, the invading Roman army was wiped out, and the Celts counterattacked.
Material from the burial of a Scordisci Cavalry Officer at Montana (N.W. Bulgaria)
(RGZM – Inv. # 0.42301/01-08; late 2nd / 1st c. BC)
THE BATTLE OF HERACLEA SINTICA
After the destruction of Cato’s army the Scordisci advanced along the Struma river towards the Roman garrison at Heraclea Sintica. In light of the fact that a large Roman army had just invaded Thrace, it appears that the last thing the garrison was expecting was a Celtic attack. The subsequent events are described by the Roman historian Frontinius (40 – 103 AD) in his work Strategemata (3,19,7):
“Scordisci equites, cum Heracleae diversarum partium praesidio praepositus esset Lucullus, pecora abigere simulantes provocaverunt eruptionem; fugam deinde mentiti sequentem Lucullum in insidias deduxerunt et octingentos cum eo milites occiderunt”.
Thus, the attack on the Roman fortress at Heraclea was marked, not by the headlong barbarian charge often associated with the Celts, but by a much more subtle and successful tactic. A small group of Celtic horsemen were first dispatched and, pretending to drive off the livestock, provoked Lucullus into a fatal error. No sooner had the Roman force emerged from their defenses to hunt down the ‘barbarians’, than the main body of the Celtic cavalry charged out of the forest. What followed was less a battle than a massacre, in the aftermath of which the Roman commander and 800 of his soldiers lay dead.
In a series of devastating attacks, the Thracian Celts had brought Roman expansion on the Balkans to a brutal halt…