Who Were The Bastarnae ?

UD: April 2019



‘…the Bastarnæ, the bravest nation of all’.

(Appianus, Mithridatic Wars 10:69)


The most enigmatic ‘barbarian’ people to appear in southeastern Europe in the late Iron Age are undoubtedly the Bastarnae (Βαστάρναι / Βαστέρναι) tribes.

While archaeological/numismatic evidence indicates that the Bastarnae tribes had reached the Danube Delta as early as the second half of the 4th c. BC, they first appear in historical sources in connection with the events of 179 BC as allies of Philip V of Macedonia in his war with Rome (Livy 40:5, 57-58), and remain a constant factor in the history of southeastern Europe for over 500 years. Due to the fact that archaeologists have failed to associate a particular archaeological culture with the Bastarnae, the ethnic origin of this people has hitherto remained shrouded in mystery, with a lack of clarity on whether they were initially of Scythian, Germanic or Celtic origin. However, as illustrated below, a chronological analysis of the ancient sources relating to the Bastarnae in general, and archaeological, numismatic and linguistic evidence from the territory of the Bastarnae Peucini tribe in particular, enables us to finally shed some light on this question.


1 - a - Bastarnae

Celto-Scythian (Peucini Bastarnae) burial from Durankulak Island (Dobrudja), north-eastern Bulgaria (2nd c. BC)




Bastarnae ‘Huşi-Vovrieşti type’ tetradrachms from the Celtic settlement at Pelczyska, Poland (2nd c. BC)






Later authors such as Dio Cassius (3rd c. AD – Dio LI.23.3, 24.2) and Zosimus (late 5th/early 6th c. AD – Zosimus I.34) define the Bastarnae as ‘Scythians’, and to a great extent this is true. By the late Roman period the Bastarnae tribes had been living in the region vaguely referred to as ‘Scythia’ for over half a millennium, and mixing with the local tribes (‘mixed marriages are giving them to some extent the vile appearance of the Sarmatians’ – Tac. Ger. 46). Thus, they were by this stage indeed Scythians, in the same way, for example, the Celtic Scordisci in Thrace are referred to in Roman sources as ‘Thracians’, having inhabited the region of Thrace for a number of centuries. However, as with the latter case, geographical situation by no means indicates ethnic origin.


1 - a - stranger

Facial Reconstruction of a Celto-Scythian/Bastarnae woman from burial # 9 at the Celtic settlement at Pelczyska (Świętokrzyskie province), Poland

(after Rudnicki, Piasecki 2005)



Burial of a young Bastarnae horseman with La Tene weapons and bear cloak, from Mana (Orhei), Moldova

(1 c. BC)



While sources such as Strabo (early 1st c. AD – see below), and Tacitus (circa 100 AD; Tac. Ger. 43), are often cited to support the view that the Bastarnae were of Germanic origin, in fact a closer analysis of the testimony of both these sources reveals that neither is certain about who the Bastarnae were. While Strabo informs us that the Bastarnae lived mixed with the Thracian and Celtic tribes in Thrace, both north and south of the river, he also admits, ‘I know neither the Bastarnae, nor the Sarmatae nor, in a word, any of the peoples who dwell above the Pontus’ (Strabo VII, 2:4). Tacitus states the following:
Peucini, quos quidam Bastarnas, vocunt sermon cultu, sede ac domiciliis ut Germani agunt’ (Tac. op cit.), i.e. – he informs us not that the Bastarnae were Germani, but that they were ‘similar to the Germani’. In this case one should bear in mind that many of the Celts who migrated into southeastern Europe and Asia-Minor from the end of the 4th c. BC onwards originated from the Belgae group of Celtic tribes (see also ‘Galatia’ article), who are described in ancient sources as being most like the Germani.

The other ancient authors are clear on the ethnic origin of the Bastarnae. The earliest source, Polybius (200-118 BC; XXIV 9,13) refers to them as Celtic (Galatians), while Livy (59 BC – 17 AD) tells us that they had the same customs and spoke the same language as the Celtic Scordisci, and also mentions close military and political ties between the Bastarnae and Scordisci (Livy 40:57). Plutarch (46 – 120 AD; Aem. 9.6) refers to them as ‘Gauls on the Danube who are called Bastarnae’.





It was in the wake of the aforementioned events of 179 BC that the Peucini, the southern branch of the Bastarnae, were drawn south of the Danube into Thrace. They were at this stage a powerful military and political force in southeastern Europe, which is illustrated by the enthusiasm that Philip V of Macedonia showed at the prospect of being allied to them:

 ‘The envoys whom he had sent to the Bastarnae to summon assistance had returned and brought back with them some young nobles, amongst them some of royal blood. One of these promised to give his sister in marriage to Philip’s son, and the king was quite elated at the prospect of an alliance with that nation’ (Livy 40:5).

 Although Philip’s sudden death meant that the joint attack on Rome by the Macedonians and Bastarnae came to nothing, by this time a large group of the (Peucini) Bastarnae had already migrated into Thrace, and a group of 30,000 of them subsequently settled in Dardania; another larger group of Bastarnae returned eastwards and settled in the area of today’s eastern Bulgaria (Livy 40:58), where Bastarnae kingdoms were established in the Dobruja area. At the beginning of the 1st c. AD Strabo (VII, 3:2) mentions that the ethnic make-up of this area consisted of a complex mix of Thracians, Scythians, Celts and Bastarnae:

the Bastarnae tribes are mingled with the Thracians, more indeed with those beyond the Ister (Danube), but also with those this side. And mingled with them are also the Celtic tribes…”.
A thriving ‘barbarian’ culture emerged in this area (southeastern Romania/northeastern Bulgaria) during the 2nd/ 1st c. BC, based on a symbiotic relationship between these various groups and the Greek Black Sea colonies – a culture which was brought to a brutal end in the mid 1st c. BC by the destructive rampage of the Getic leader Burebista, which also paved the way for the Roman conquest of the Dobruja.



Bronze issue of the (Peucini) Bastarnae king Aelis (s. Dobruja region, Bulgaria  (180-150 BC).
– Jugate heads of the Dioskouroi right, in wreathed caps / jugate horse heads right; monogram & ΠΕ (for Peucini) below



In summary, an analysis of the ancient sources would appear to indicate that the Bastarnae tribes were initially of Celtic (Belgic) origin. This is confirmed by numismatic, archaeological, and linguistic evidence from the territory of the Bastarnae Peucini tribe in n.e. Bulgaria, s.e. Romania, Moldova and Ukraine. One should also note that the first archaeological/numismatic evidence of the presence of the Bastarnae in s.e. Europe (2nd half of the 4th c. BC) corresponds chronologically with the Celtic migration into the region.

 It would therefore appear, based on the available scientific data, that the elusive Bastarnae tribes were not some mysterious Germanic people who appeared in southeastern Europe during this period, but that they, like the Galatians, were tribes of the Belgae group who migrated into the area during the Celtic expansion at the end of the 4th / beginning of the 3rd c. BC. Scientific evidence from the Dobruja region (loc cit) further indicates that the original Celto-Germanic (Belgic) nature of this culture subsequently underwent a fundamental metamorphosis due to prolonged contact and co-existence with the Hellenistic and Scythian cultures, the resulting fusion of Celtic, Hellenistic and Scythian cultural elements culminating in a unique and distinct Bastarnae ethnicity by the Roman period.

In the later Roman period the policy of ethnic engineering further strengthened the Bastarnae presence south of the Danube. Under the Emperor Probus (276-82) 100,000 of them were settled in Thrace (Historia Augusta Probus 18), and shortly afterwards Emperor Diocletian (284-305) carried out another ‘massive’ transfer of the Bastarnae population to the south of the Danube (Eutropius IX.25; see Balkancelts ‘Ethnic Engineering’ article). Thus, the Bastarnae presence on the territory of today’s Bulgaria, already well established since the 2nd c. BC, was further reinforced by the policies of both Probus and Diocletian.










On the Bastarnae in Ukraine/Crimea:














Mac Congail
















Celtic Coinage from Ukraine






Although extensive archaeological material from western Ukraine testifies to significant Celtic settlement in the region from the 3rd c. BC onwards (Kazakevich 2012), published finds of Celtic coinage from this region has hitherto been confined to the Upper Tisza and Dneister Estuary areas….


Full Article:






Mala j.











 UD: April 2019



The area of present day Poland is not generally associated with the Celtic culture, yet in recent years the amount of Celtic archaeological material discovered in this part of Eastern Europe has increased significantly. This increasing body of evidence indicates that the role played by the Celts in shaping the culture of Poland in the late Iron Age and early Roman period is much greater than previously thought.


Beszowa - celtic sword 2011 - forest 1 c. BC -

Celtic sword with openwork scabbard discovered in 2011 in a forest near Rzeszów, southeastern Poland

(1st c. BC)


Metal artifacts, before and after restoration, from a Celtic settlement at Pakoszówka (Sanok distr.) South-Eastern Poland. (Plough, scythe, two adzes, a socketed axe and knife of the  “Dürrnberg” type ; 3/2 c. BC)

(after Bochnak T., Kotowicz P., Opielowska Z. (2016) Dwa celtyckie depozyty przedmiotów żelaznych z Pakoszówki, pow. sanocki, Materiały i Sprawozdania Rzeszowskiego Ośrodka Archeologicznego 37, 209–246)






 In the first half of the 3rd c. BC (the end of the La Têne B period), the same period as the massive expansion into the Balkans, groups of Celts began to arrive in southern Poland (Woźniak 1996). Evidence of Celtic settlement on the territory of today’s Poland has thus far been found in the Middle Silesia region, the Glubczyce Highlands, Lesser Poland, and in areas of the upper San river valley on the border with Ukraine. In Poland, as in other areas of Eastern Europe during this period, the arrival of the Celts logically brought them into contact with local cultures, quickly resulting in mutual cultural exchange, and the formation of new ethnic groups. A good example of this is to be seen at the Pelczysha site near Krakow of the so-called Tyniec group that existed between circa 270-30 BC, and which developed as a result of contact between the Celts and the local population (Rudnicki 2005).



pol bracel

Fragments of glass bracelets from the Celtic settlement at Pelczyska, southern Poland (2/1 c. BC)


KRAk. F.

Celtic one-eighth stater (1-2), stater (3-4) and painted pottery from site 2 at Modlniczka, Krakow region.

(After Bryska-Fudali et al, 2009)


Killed sword

Ritually ‘Killed’ Celtic Sword from Korytnica, (Świętokrzyskie province), south-central Poland

(see  https://balkancelts.wordpress.com/2013/06/19/killing-the-objects-3/)


3 - 3 - Pakoszówka near Sanok

Celtic hohlbuckelring (bronze anklet), one of a pair discovered at Pakoszówka near Sanok in south-eastern Poland (3/2 century BC)



Coins and metal artifacts, including zoomorphic figurines, from the large Celtic settlement at Nowa Cerekwia (Upper Silesia), southern Poland (3-1 c. BC)

(Found by Igor Murawski and Anna Brzezinska in 2005)


a - nowa cer

Excavations at the Nowa Cerekwia in 1936, and ceramic kiln discovered at the site in 1925



No photo description available.Bronze humanoid figurine – A sensational find from recent excavations at the Celtic settlement in Krzelków (Lower Silesia), Poland






Besides the aforementioned areas of Celtic settlement in southern Poland, recently published evidence has also established a significant Celtic presence in the Kalisz area of central Poland – one of the most unexpected developments in Polish archaeology in recent years (Rudnicki et al, 2009).

 The most interesting feature of Celtic settlement in the Kalisz area has been the identification of an economic and coin production centre (loc cit) – only the second such (after Rousse in n.e. Bulgaria – see ‘Mediolana’ article) to be identified in Eastern Europe. The Celtic coin discoveries in this area represent one of the largest concentrations in Poland, ranking only after the enclave at Nowa Cerekwia in the Glubczyce Highlands in terms of Celtic coins discovered.


Celtic Coins from the Kalisz Area

(after Rudnicki et al 2009)


All of the Celtic coins found at three sites in the Kalisz area belong to the minting system of the Boii tribe but, with one exception, they were not produced at the great Boii mints of Bohemia, Moravia or southwestern Slovakia, and have therefore been assigned to a new group of Polish Celtic coins – the Kalisz group (loc cit). Also noteworthy is the fact that the coinage from Kalisz was issued comparatively late, i.e. late 1st c. BC/first half of the 1st c. AD, which logically indicates that the Kalisz area was still a significant Celtic economic and political centre during the early Roman period (loc cit).

Kal g. C

(after Rudnicki et al 2009)






Also of particular interest is the discovery of coinage of the Huşi-Vovrieşti type attributed to the Bastarnae tribes (Preda  1973: 111 – 131) in southern Poland (Rudecki 2003). The typical feature of this type of coinage, as with other types of Celtic  ‘imitations’  of the coinage of Philip II of Macedonia in Eastern Europe (see numismatics section), is the wide differentiation of stylistic images on the coins, from relatively faithful imitations of the prototypes to variants with extremely schematic images. In Poland tetradrachms of this type have been found exclusively in areas of Celtic settlement in the south and southeast of the country, indicating trade and cultural contact between the Polish Celts and the Celto-Scythian Bastarnae to the southeast (on which see also: https://balkancelts.wordpress.com/2013/09/20/face-of-a-stranger-a-female-burial-from-little-poland/).


Bastarnae HVo

Bastarnae Huşi-Vovrieşti type tetradrachms from Pelczyska (55 km northeast of Krakow)

(after Rudnicki 2003)



Archaeologically confirmed areas of Celtic settlement in southern Poland










Bryska-Fudali M., Przybyla M. M., Rudnicki M. Celtic Coins Found At Site 2 In Modlniczka, Dist. Cracow. In: Sprawozdanie Archaeologiczne 61, 2009. P. 273 – 295.

Preda  C. (1973) Mondedele geto-dacilor. Bucureşti.

Rudnicki M. (2003) Celtic Coin Finds from a Settlement of the La Têne period at Pelczyska. In:

Polish Numismatic News VII, 2003. P. 1-24.

Rudnicki M. (2005) A Late La Téne Inhumation Grave from Pelczyska: Comments on the Cultural Situation in the Upland Area of Little Poland (with an analysis of the anatomical remains by Karol Piasecki). In Celts on the Margin – Studies in Euopean Cultural Interaction 7th Century BC – 1st Century AD. Krakow 2005. p. 195 – 206

Rudnicki M, Milek S., Ziabka L., Kedzierski A., (2009) Mennica Celtycka Pod Kaliszem. In: Wiadomosci Numizmatyczne, R. LIII, 2009, z. 2 (188). P. 103-145

Rudnicki M., Miłek S. (2011) New Evidence on Contacts Between Pre-Roman Dacia and Territory of Central Poland. AAC 46. P. 117–143.

Woźniak Z. (1996) Neue Forchungsergebnisse über die jüngere Laténezeit in Südpolen, Arheološki Vestnik 47, Ljubljana 1996, p. 165-172









Mac Congail










Celtic Coins from Bulgaria (8) – Zaravetz

Mac Congail


In the early 1980’s excavations carried out at the Hill of Zaravetz (Zarevetz/Tsarevetz)  (Veliko Tarnovo) turned up unexpected results. Under the medieval Bulgarian capital, in what archaeologists expected to be layers pertaining to the Thracian culture, artifacts and habitation layers relating to a completely different culture began to appear. The settlement layers from the late Iron Age yielded La Têne material (Kvinto 1985) which clearly indicated that the site had been inhabited by a Celtic population. Subsequent excavations at the site in recent years have uncovered further material which confirms the earlier findings. (see ‘New Material (2)’ article)

   In the context of the present study of most interest are a number of coins found in the Celtic habitation layers at the site. In total 5 coins were uncovered – one bronze of Alexander III (the Great) and 4 ‘barbarian’ issues – 2 bronze and 2 lead. The barbarian coins were ignored in academic circles until further publications of such coins followed over the next decades. (Lazarov 1992; Burvarov 1994; Topalov 1999; Mac Congail 2008) It has subsequently emerged that these low value barbarian emissions provide invaluable information about the culture which inhabited northeastern Bulgaria in the late Iron Age.

   The Celtic Zaravetz type coins are based on autonomous bronze emissions of the Greek colony of Odessos (Fig. 1) which had been previously dated generally to the  3rd – 1st c. BC. The fact that the Celtic ‘imitations’  (Fig. 2) have been found in an archaeological context which dates to the end of the 3rd – beginning of the 2nd c. BC logically dates the Greek prototype to the period prior to the end of the 3rd c. BC.



In terms of distribution the Zaravetz issues have been discovered in an area which includes most of present day northeastern Bulgaria, with a particularly high concentration in the Veliko Tarnovo area. (See map  n8) Besides the Zaravetz hillfort (map n8 #1), further examples have been recorded in Veliko Tarnovo itself (Lazarov 1992), the Hill(fort) at Rachovetz, 7 km. north of Veliko Tarnovo,( map n8#2; Burvarov 1994; Topalov, 1999, 160) and in the vicinity of the village of Samovodene, slightly to the west of Veliko Tarnovo (map n8 #3; Gerasimov 1934). Other finds have been recorded in northeastern Bulgaria at Byala (Russe region) (map n8 # 4; Mac Congail  2008: 46-48), Schumen (map n8 # 5; Lazarov 1992; Topalov, 1999, 260 – 270 and 310 – 313), Tutrakan (Silestra region) (map n8 #6 -Fig. 3), Razgrad (map n8 #7 – Fig. 4 ), Opaka (Targovischte region) (map n8 #8; Gerasimov 1979; Stoykov 2002-2003), as well as in large numbers from the western Varna region (map n8 #9; Lazarov 1992; Topalov 1999; Mac Congail 2008).



 The local Celtic coinage circulating in northeastern Bulgaria in the late Iron Age therefore ranged from Celtic silver tetradrachmas of the Philip II and Thasos types, drachmas of the Philip III type, while the lower value coinage consisted of the aforementioned Zaravetz bronze and lead issues. This broad spectrum of coinage of differing intrinsic and economic value indicates a highly developed and organized economic system among the ‘barbarian’ population of this area in the pre-Roman period.


  From a scientific perspective the lowest value coins – the Zaravetz lead issues are most significant. (Chemical analysis has shown a lead content of 98.25%; Lazarov 1992: 20-21) Coins minted in lead are unknown in Europe in this period, and were produced neither by the Celtic culture nor in the Greco-Roman world. The Zaravetz leads as part of the coinage system in northeastern Bulgaria in the late Iron Age would therefore appear to be a unique numismatic phenomenon. 


  As has been pointed out (Lazarov 1992), such coins would not, because of their low intrinsic value, have circulated beyond the borders of the authority which issued them. The distribution of these coins therefore logically enables us to roughly delineate the extent of the Zaravetz Culture in the III-I c. BC period. Based on the present data at our disposal (topographic, historical and archaeological as well as numismatic – see ‘The Zaravetz Culture’ article – forthcoming) the influence of this ‘state’, which was in fact probably more a confederation of tribal groups, covered an area which extended to the Jantra river in the west, the Danube in the north, and the Stara Planina (Balkan) mountains in the south. In the east the Greek Pontus cities remained autonomous, but intense trade links between the latter and the Celto-Thracian state in the interior is indicated by numismatic data. The fact that the Zaravetz issues themselves are modeled on an Odessos bronze prototype further confirms these close economic links.

  Extensive trade links between the Zaravetz Celts of northeastern Bulgaria and the ‘Scordisci’ in the northwest of the country is confirmed by the circulation of Celtic Thasos, Philip II and Philip III issues throughout northern Bulgaria during this period. (see relevant sections) A similarly close economic relationship appears to have developed between the Celto-Thracian Zaravetz culture and the Bastarnae (Peucini) in the area of Scythia Minor (corresponding roughly to today’s Dobruja region in northeastern Bulgarian and southeastern Romania). (See ‘Bastarnae’ article – forthcoming) Discoveries of Celtic coins in Bastarnae territory, particularly in the Kavarna-Balchik-Silestra area, as well as archaeological data, indicates intensive trade and cultural contacts between the Bastarnae and the Zaravetz Celts, while the minting of Hellenistic type coins by the Bastarnae on which the royal title ‘Basileus’ is used (Fig 5/6), indicates that the latter, as was the case with the Greek cities on the coast, remained economically and politically independent – these relationships being  mutually beneficial from an economic perspective.







 * Does not include Celtic Paeonia ‘imitations’, coins of the ‘Tyle’ state or Bastarnae coins