Galatian Celts

The historical reality of Galatian history and culture as it entered into contact with the hellenized world bore little resemblance to the way they were represented by their enemies. A perspective that comes much closer to this reality than those of the propagandist sources reviewed so far is provided by the local historian, Memnon of Herakleia, who describes how the newcomers were brought across to Asia after they had been exerting pressure on the last city of Europe, Byzantion:

(Nikomedes, king of Bithynia) arranged to bring them across on friendly terms. The terms were: the barbarians would always maintain a friendly attitude toward Nikomedes and his descendants, and without the approval of Nikomedes they would ally with none of those who sent embassies to them, but they would be friends with his friends and enemies to those who were not his friends; and also they would ally with the Byzantines, if by chance there were need, and with the Tians and the Herakleotes and the Chalkedonians and the citizens of Kieros and with some other rulers of peoples. On these terms Nikomedes brought the Galatian hordes into Asia. There were seventeen prominent leaders, and of these the most eminent and chief were Leonnorios and Luturios. At first the crossing of the Galatians to Asia was believed to have led to harm for the inhabitants, but the result proved it to have been to their advantage. For, while the (Seleukid) kings were eager to deprive the cities of democracy, the Galatians especially secured it by opposing those attacking it. (MemnonFGrH 434 F11; trans. Burstein 16, modified)

The first implication of this passage is that the Galatians, far from being a tumultuous horde, were disciplined warrior bands with responsible and effective leaders. This impression, which is also implicit in Pausanias’ account of the invasion of Greece, is fully borne out by detailed analysis of the social organization of the successful and aggressive La Tene cultures of Europe. As these Celtic populations grew and expanded in search of new lands, they formed smaller, specialized bands of warriors, to exert military and diplomatic pressure on target areas, thus forming the advance guard of an aggressive colonial enterprise. The process has many parallels with the formation of new and aggressive Gothic and Germanic groupings on the north frontier of the Roman Empire in the third and fourth centuries AD, and their creation of `barbarian’ kingdoms in the former Roman provinces (Strobel 1996). The actual name Galatai, which seems to derive from a Celtic root which denoted military capacity, was adopted by the Celts themselves to describe these warrior groups (Schmidt 1994). They also provided a formidable resource of fighting men for anyone in search of military reinforcement. Celtic mercenaries had been employed in the Classical world since the early fourth century. Thus in reality their presence was an opportunity, rather than a threat, for the Hellenistic monarchies.

As Memnon reveals, Nikomedes struck a treaty of alliance with the Galatians. The advantages for the king were those which the passage expounds: a fighting force capable of protecting the Greek cities of northern Asia Minor and his own kingdom from the major power in Asia Minor, the Seleukids. The Galatian side of the bargain, which was doubtless spelled out in the original treaty, becomes clear in the narrative which follows: they took a major share of the war booty, but above all they obtained their primary objective, land for settlement in the central areas of Asia Minor which lay south-east of Bithynia and also formed a buffer against Seleukid territories, namely the new Galatia. The northern parts of central Anatolia in the early third century, after the decline of the Phrygians, had no natural overlords, and contained land of excellent agricultural potential, whose inhabitants could easily be subjected to new masters (Strobel 1996). As its subsequent history showed, the region offered an ideal environment for the creation of a new Celtic state. The Galatians maintained their distinctive cultural and political groupings in central Anatolia for 250 years, before they were incorporated into a Roman province, which even then retained many distinctive marks of Galatian cultural identity. A form of the Celtic language was spoken in the region until the sixth century AD (Mitchell 1993: I. 42-58).

Despite the attempt by Nikomedes to reserve Galatian military assistance for himself, in practice they at once played a significant role in the military calculations of all the Hellenistic monarchies. Galatians served as mercenaries in virtually every major campaign from the 270s until the battle of Actium in 31 (Launey 1949-50). According to Livy, Nikomedes of Bithynia had initially introduced 10,000 Galatian warriors to Asia Minor. The rulers who had made the greatest capital from having defeated them were the first to enlist Galatian contingents to their forces. Antigonos Gonatas, after his victory at Lysimacheia, hired 9000 Galatians to help suppress his Macedonian rival Antipater Etesias. The Seleukid Antiochos Hierax formed an alliance with the Galatians in his rebellious war against his brother Seleukos II, whom he defeated at a battle near Ankyra. The location of the battle is clear evidence for the significance of the Galatian role in this war. Ptolemy II hired a contingent of 4000 Gauls to reinforce his control of Alexandria and the Delta, and grave monuments of Galatian warriors are a feature of the epigraphic record of Egypt. The eastern Anatolian dynasties of Ariobarzanes I in Cappadocia and Mithradates II in the Pontic region used the help of Galatian contingents to repel a Ptolemaic naval incursion into the Black Sea. In 218 BC, five years after the end of the long struggle with the Galatians and Seleukids for control of Lydia and Mysia, Attalos I settled a new Galatian tribe, the Aigosages, in the neighbourhood of Abydos on the Hellespont, doubtless to strengthen his hand in the contest for control of north-west Asia Minor with the Bithynian king Prusias I. Prusias reacted with a pre-emptive strike by destroying the Galatian force a year later (Polyb. 5.77-8, 5.111).

Thus the military activities of the Galatians should only exceptionally be explained as wars or raids undertaken at their own initiative. In the majority of these actions they were serving as major, but subordinate, players in the contests of Hellenistic kings for control of Anatolia (Strobel 1991). The victories of Antigonos Gonatas, Antiochos I, Attalos I and Prusias I demonstrated clearly that they could be decisively defeated by large, well-organized Hellenistic armies, and it would probably have been within the capacity of any of the kings to drive the Galatians definitively from their new settlements and bring an end to the Celtic occupation in Asia Minor, had they chosen to do so. However, they were too useful and important as a source of military manpower for this step to be contemplated, and periodic victories over the Galatians were too important a source of prestige to be neglected.

The Roman defeat of Antiochos III at the battle of Magnesia in 190, and the subsequent treaty of Apameia, which excluded the Seleukids from Anatolia north of the Tauros, and reinforced the authority of the Attalids as the main force in the region, fundamentally redefined power relationships in Asia Minor. Rome was now potentially or actually the strongest player in regional politics, and its capacity for action was underlined immediately after Magnesia by the expedition of Manlius Vulso in 189, who made his way through former Seleukid territory in Karia, Pisidia and Phrygia and ended his campaign with two successful battles against the Galatians in their own territory. The historical tradition about this war, principally derived from a long account in Livy, represents the Galatians as the main target of Manlius’ expedition. The two battles were described as major Roman victories over a deadly foe, although the details suggest that Galatian forces were no match for the legions opposed to them, and the outcome can never have been in any doubt. This tradition doubtless began with Manlius himself, who sought to gain maximum prestige and recognition for having destroyed another source of `Gallic terror’. However, this Roman triumph over the Galatians was in fact exploited for propaganda reasons just as surely as the earlier victories of Hellenistic kings had been. Moreover, a close look at the details of the campaign has shown that its real aim was not to extirpate the Galatians, but to harry and put pressure on remaining Seleukid forces in Asia Minor, as Roman negotiators thrashed out the uncompromising terms of the treaty of Apameia (Grainger 1995b).

In fact at least until the middle of the second century the Galatians remained what they had been before, a significant but subordinate player in the power struggles of the region. Although they clearly fell within the Pergamene sphere of influence and authority, they remained an independent force. They formed alliances with the kings of Bithynia and of the Pontic region, in their continuing wars with the Attalids. There are hints that this was not to the dislike of the Romans who preferred not to intervene in these regional wars and were happy that the competing forces balanced one another. Equilibrium was preserved until the next major alignment of political forces was initiated by the creation of the Roman province of Asia out of the former Pergamene kingdom after 133, and the steady growth of the power in the Pontic region under Mithradates V and Rome’s great enemy, Mithradates VI Eupator.


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