THE KINGMAKERS – Celtic Mercenary Forces in the Ancient World

UD: May 2019


“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 vital political and military factor in the Hellenistic world…
































WOLVES WAGES – The Tombs of the Macedonian Kings

UD: Mar. 2019



335 BC  – “These men also he sent back, calling them friends, and ranking them as allies, only adding the remark that the Celts were braggarts”.

(Arrianus. The Anabasis of Alexander (4)

276 BC – “Digging up the tombs of the (Macedonian) kings who had been buried there; the treasure they plundered, the bones they insolently cast to the four winds”.

(Plut. Pyrr. 26:6)



Evidence uncovered during excavations in Greek Macedonia has provided further archaeological confirmation of surreal events in 276 BC, hitherto known only from ancient sources. Excavations carried out by Dr. Angeliki Kottaridi (Director, 17th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities) have revealed a further 3 tombs in the vicinity of Vergina Town Hall (ancient Aegae/Aigai) in Greek Macedonia, which show signs of destruction in the ancient period that have been connected by the archaeologists with their having been plundered by the Celtic mercenaries in the army of Pyrrhus during the Macedonian War of Succession.


Gold shield decoration fragment found at Aegae/Aigai



Into the Vacuum

Following the destruction of 2 successive Macedonian armies by the Celtic forces of Bolgios and Brennos (II) in 280/279 BC, a political and military vacuum 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 Antigonus’  true 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, 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).

(On the Celtic defeat of Macedonia in 280/279 BC see: )


Pyrr b.

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 Antiochus’ 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).

Noteworthy 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 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 Itonis, with the following elegiac inscription:

 ‘These shields, 

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 us a slightly different,  but substantially

similar text)

wolv sh

Part of a Bronze shield, spoils from Phyrrus’ 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.



Military equipment from the burial of a Celtic (mercenary) warrior (#58) at Ohrid-Gorna Porta (Ancient Lychnidos), FYR Macedonia

(mid 3rd c. BC)



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)


Mac. tomb

Hypostyle tomb found during the recent excavations at Aegae/Aigai


Mac. skel

Skeleton found inside the hypostyle tomb

Mace Star

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…



Iron helmet with reinforced crown from a Celtic warrior/mercenary burial at Ohrid-Gorna Porta, Northern Macedonia (3rd c. BC).



It also appears that as a result of this mercenary activity Celtic groups were 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”).




















Mac Congail