The Celts in Asia Minor, Third Century BC to Fourth Century AD

The Celts in Asia Minor, showing the principal areas of settlement and the sites of the major conflicts.

The Celts who crossed the narrow strip of water between Europe and Asia were a varied group comprising three separate tribes, the Tolistobogii, the Tectosages, and the Trocmi. They had separated from the main force which attacked Delphi and were led by Leonorios and Lutorios. What is particularly interesting is that half their total number of 20,000 were non-combatants—the women, the children, and the aged. This suggests that, unlike the warriors who chose to follow Brennos on his raid, the groups who stayed with Leonorios and Lutorios were migrant populations in search of new land to settle.

In Asia Minor the various Celtic groups were referred to collectively as Galatians and their history was recorded in the lost books of Demetrios of Byzantium, which probably served as the source used by Polybius and Livy. Nicomedes employed the Celts in his conflict with Antiochos I, settling them in disputed territory between his own kingdom of Bithynia and that ruled by Antiochos. The period of instability which followed culminated in the defeat of the Celts in 275–274 bc in the famous ‘Elephant Battle’ in which Antiochos used elephants to overwhelm his enemy. Thereafter the Celts were moved to a barren highland area flanking the Halys. From here, for the next forty-five years or so, they became a scourge to the surrounding cities, organizing frequent raids from their home base particularly against the rich Hellenized cities, where plunder or bribes could easily be had. According to Livy, each of the three Galatian tribes had their own territory to raid: the Tolistobogii raided Aeolis, the Trocmi focused on the Hellespont, while the Tectosages regarded inland Asia Minor as their sphere of activity. Eventually an alliance with Mithridates I of Pontus encouraged them to move to a new land around Ancyra (Ankara).

From the middle of the third century the Celtic raids against the cities of the Aegean coastal area began to intensify, and Eumenes I of Pergamum (263–241 bc), now the prime power in the west, decided to buy them off. His successor, Attalus I (241–197 bc), however, chose instead to stand his ground, eventually winning a decisive battle at the Springs of Kaikos about 233 bc. It was to celebrate this victory that a monument was erected on the acropolis of Pergamum, some statues of which survive in Roman copies, the most famous being the Dying Gaul.

In the latter part of the third century Celts were used extensively as mercenaries in the armies of the Seleucid and Ptolemaic rulers, though from the fragmentary accounts that survive they appear to have been unruly and somewhat unreliable. One group who became demoralized at an eclipse of the moon had to be sent back with their wives and children to the Hellespont in case they had decided to change sides. The incident is interesting, because it shows that fresh groups of mercenaries were still arriving from Europe. It was during this period that Celtic warriors were in action as far afield as Egypt. In 218 Attalus II employed a Celtic tribe from Europe, the Aigosages, to take part in his campaigns in Aeolis and Phrygia, and afterwards gave them land on the borders of Phrygia, from where, at their own initiative, they began to carry out extensive raids until the entire tribe was slaughtered by Prusias of Bithynia in 217.

In 191 bc the Romans were drawn into the political turmoil of Asia Minor as allies of Pergamum against the Seleucid king Antiochos III. At Magnesia, in 190, the Seleucid army, together with its Galatian mercenaries, was soundly defeated by a combined Roman and Pergamene force, and the next year the new Roman commander Cn. Manlius Vulso set out for central Anatolia to deal with the Galatians in their home territory. In preparation for the onslaught the Tolistobogii and the fighting men of the Trocmi rallied at Mount Olympus, three days’ travel west of Ancyra, while the Tectosages and the families of the Trocmi made for Mount Magaba just east of Ancyra. In a lightning strike Manlius defeated first the Tolistobogii and the Trocmi, selling those he captured—40,000 men, women, and children—as slaves. He then moved quickly on to defeat the Tectosages. In the peace which was concluded, the Galatians agreed to stop all raids in the western parts of Asia Minor. Apart from an abortive attempt by Ortiagon, the Tolistobogian chief, to unite Galatia in a war on Pergamum, comparative peace prevailed, the Romans ensuring that the Galatians remained free from Pergamene control. However, in 167 the Galatian attacks began again and Eumenes II was forced to engage in vigorous campaigns against them. Two years later a new peace treaty was agreed.

The Pergamene victory was widely celebrated. At Pergamum a great sculptured frieze was added to the altar of Zeus, while on the Athenian acropolis a victory monument was dedicated by the Pergamenes proclaiming, in sculptured allegory, that the rulers of Pergamum, like the Greeks, were the saviours of the civilized world.

Thereafter raiding, so necessary for the maintenance of Celtic society, was deflected away from the territory controlled by the western powers towards other states. Cappadocia was first to suffer and later Pontus, but gradually the Celtic communities—known universally as the Galatians—absorbed the ways of Greece and Rome and of their Asiatic neighbours. When, in the middle of the first century ad, the Christian apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians, he treated them no differently from any other community in the now Roman world.

A sense of ethnic identity, perhaps earlier fostered by the practice of raiding, is implied by the widespread use of the name ‘Galatian’, which reflects the deep-rooted strength of Celtic traditions. An even more impressive reminder of this is the persistence of their language. When, in the fourth century ad, St Jerome offered the observation that the language used by the Galatians around Ancyra was similar to that he had heard among the Treveri at Trier, he was recognizing, though perhaps with the hindsight of a historian, the Celtic ancestry of both people.

The Galatians

The Galatians of Asia Minor provide an interesting example of Celtic communities retaining their ethnic integrity after the initial settlement in the early third century bc. Yet they appear to have adopted the material culture of their new homeland with little or no reference to that of their roots.

The history of the Galatians has been outlined above (Chapter 6), and need not be repeated here. Suffice it to say that the historical view records the movement of some 20,000 people, only half of whom were fighting men, into Asia Minor in 278–277 bc under the leadership of Leonorios and Lutorios. They came, we are told, at the invitation of King Nicomedes of Bithynia to serve the king in his conflicts with his neighbours. After fifty years or so as mercenaries in the service of different factions and as raiders in their own right, they were eventually settled in Phrygia in the vicinity of Ancyra.

Livy, no doubt following Polybius, gives an account of the migrants at the time of their arrival. They were divided into three tribal groups, the Tolistobogii, the Trocmi, and the Tectosages, all speaking the same language, with each of them laying claim to a territory over which to rampage and raid. It was in this mobile phase of their occupation that they provided mercenary services for any Hellenistic potentate willing to employ them. After a major defeat in about 232 bc, the Celtic peoples were compelled to concentrate in Phrygia. The Tectosages were already in the Ancyra region and the other two tribes were settled nearby. An agreement with the Pergamene king, Attalus, recognized the Celts’ right to the land they now occupied in return for an agreement to cease raiding the Pergamene kingdom and other spheres of Pergamene interest. In reality this left only the lands to the east as legitimate for exploitation and it was probably at this time that some territorial expansion took place east of the river Halys. The agreement with Attalus marks the point at which Galatia—the land of the Galatae—became a recognized territory, and we can henceforth speak of the inhabitants as Galatians.

The Galatians by this time must have become ethnically mixed. The elite lineages may well have been descended from the original migrant families of two generations past, but the indigenous population of Phrygia will now have been absorbed, if only in a subservient position, into the Galatian state.

The social structure of the Galatians seems to have remained little changed from its earlier form. According to Strabo, each of the three tribes was divided into four parts, which were called tetrarchies, and each had its own overall leader, a tetrarch, to whom a judge, a war leader, and two subordinate commanders were answerable. A council, representing the twelve tetrarchies and composed of 300 men, met at Drunemeton. Among its duties was to pass judgement on murder cases. The system has interesting similarities to the organization of the Celtic Gauls described by Caesar. There is the same separation of leadership between a civil and a military leader and the recognition of a distinct judicial class. A supreme council was also a feature of Gaulish society. Originally the Gaulish council met once a year under some form of Druidic authority in the territory of the Carnutes, but Augustus refounded it as the Consilium Galliarum and required it to meet at Lugdunum on 1 August at the Altar of Rome and Augustus. The name of the meeting place of the Galatians’ council—Drunemeton—also implies a religious focus, since nemeton is a Celtic word for a sacred place and is suggestive of a controlling religious authority.

How long this essentially Celtic system of social organization lasted among the Galatians is unrecorded. Strabo, writing about the turn of the millennium, specifically mentions that in his time power had passed first to three rulers, then to two, and finally to one, in contrast to ‘the organization of Galatia long ago’. This may have been, in part, a result of Roman encouragement or duress, but there are clear signs of change earlier. In 189 bc we learn that Ortagion, a chief of the Tolistobogii, wanted to unite the Galatians under his leadership, but his attempts met with little success and a few years later a number of social units are mentioned each with its own chief.

A century later the old system of tetrarchs still appears to have been in force. The glimpse is provided by a treacherous incident orchestrated by Mithridates IV. In 88 bc, in a bid to take control of Asia Minor, he effectively destroyed Galatian opposition by inviting the Galatian chiefs to meet him at Pergamum. Of the sixty who turned up all but one were massacred. Those who did not attend were picked off in individual attacks, only three tetrarchs managing to survive.

The massacre of the tetrarchs may well have been the deciding factor in bringing about far-reaching changes in the old social order. Not only did it greatly weaken the ruling elite, but it showed that divided leadership was ineffective in dealing with the problems of the rapidly changing world. The incident drove the Galatians to the Roman side, and it was in the interests of the Roman state to encourage a more unified leadership.

Very little is known of Galatian ritual or religion. The existence of Drunemeton is a hint that there were sacred locations, presided over, perhaps, by a Druidic priesthood, but there is no direct evidence of this. What is clear is that the indigenous cults were assimilated by the Celts. Such was the case of the worship of the Mother Goddess at Pessinus. In the late second century bc the high priest, known by the ritual name of Attis, was a Celt whose brother Aiorix bore a characteristically Celtic name. A later, Roman, inscription implies that half the college of priests at the temple were probably of Celtic birth. The sanctuary at Pessinus was, however, a thoroughly Hellenized place. Strabo refers to it as having been built by the Pergamene kings ‘in a manner befitting a holy place with a sanctuary and also with porticoes of white marble’. In spite of their acceptance of native cults and practices, the Galatians could revert to a more typically barbarous practice, as they did in 165 bc when, following the conclusion of a war with Eumenes, the most important of the prisoners were sacrificed to the gods, while the less favoured were dispatched by spearing. In this incident we may be witnessing a resurgence of the Celtic belief in the need to sacrifice the spoils of war to the deities.

The fighting practices of the Galatians were, as we have seen, vividly depicted by Pergamene artists in an array of victory monuments. Their fierceness and ferocity in battle were legendary. In 189 bc a Roman army, under the command of Cn. Manlius Vulso, moved against the Tolistobogii and Trocmi and won a decisive victory at Olympus near Pessinus. Livy gives a detailed account of the engagement, using the occasion to provide his reader with a series of familiar stereotypes about the Celt as a fighting man (Hist. 38. 19–30). Thus from the mouth of the commander, in his set-piece pre-battle oration, comes direct reference to incidents from the Celtic invasion of Italy in the fourth century. That Livy should emphasize the comparison in this way shows, at the very least, that he was acutely aware of the similarities of the two peoples, even though he may have overstressed or oversimplified them. Yet even allowing for these potential distortions, several interesting points emerge. The Galatians, it appears, were still using the rather archaic type of Celtic shield, ‘long, but not wide enough for the size of their bodies and … flat in surface’, and they still adopted the practice of fighting naked, a point lovingly described by Livy: ‘Their wounds were plain to see because they fight naked and their bodies are plump and white since they are never exposed except in battle.’ There is no reason to suppose that these observations were not specific to the event. Together they show that behaviour in battle had changed little, in spite of nearly a century of acclimatization in Asia Minor. Yet, Livy could report the Roman commander as saying: ‘The Gauls here are by now degenerate, a mixed race, truly described by their name Gallogrecians.’

In his brief review of Galatian territory, Strabo (Geog. 12. 5) makes no mention of towns. The Trocmi, he says, have ‘three walled garrisons’, Tavium, Mithridatium, and Danala; the Tectosages command the fortress of Ancyra; while the fortresses of the Tolistobogii are Blucium and Peïum, the former being the royal residence of king Deïotarus and the latter where he kept his treasure. Strabo’s use of ‘fortress’ is clearly intended to imply that these sites were not towns in the classical sense. He does, however, say that Tavium was ‘the emporium of the people in that part of the country’ and he uses the same word in describing Pessinus in the border region to the west of Galatia. By ‘emporium’ he was presumably seeking to stress the market functions of the two places. If we can accept Strabo’s distinctions, the implication is of an essentially non-urban society focused on a series of fortified enclosures and with an economy articulated at a few trading centres, at least one of them sited at a major shrine. The towns of the Phrygian indigenes were left to decay but by the time of the Roman annexation in 25 bc, Ancyra, Pessinus, and Tavium were sufficiently important to become the capitals of the three tribes.

Several Galatian fortresses have been located. Blucium has been tentatively identified, and the fortifications partially excavated, at Karalar, 35 kilometres north-west of Ankara. A nearby tomb with a funerary inscription showing it to have belonged to King Deïotarus (son of the king of the same name who was an ally of Rome) provided some assurance of the identification. Peïum, the second of the Tolistobogii strongholds mentioned by Strabo, is thought to lie in the meander of the river Girmir at Tabanliog˘lu Kale. The deeply incised river provides the site with more than adequate protection on three sides, while the neck of the promontory is defended by a wall protected by multi-angular bastions built in fine Hellenistic masonry. The strength of the defences would be entirely appropriate to a fortress guarding the king’s treasure. The quality of the architecture of Peïum (if correctly identified) is a reminder that the Galatian elite were well able to use Hellenistic building techniques, even if their fortified sites were typical Celtic hillforts in size and location.

The material culture of the Galatians has not been extensively studied, but sufficient is known to suggest that indigenous styles and technologies were adopted from the beginning. Distinctive items of La Tène metalwork are at present limited to a few bracelets and some twenty or so brooches from the whole of Asia Minor. While a few of these items were found, as would be expected, in Galatia and on the Aegean coast, the densest concentration lies in the south-east of the country in Cappadocia, a pattern which might suggest that Celtic raiding parties ranged over a wider territory than might be supposed from the classical sources

The Galatians provide a fascinating example of a Celtic people who maintained a high degree of ethnic identity over several centuries, even though they must have represented a minority in their territory. Their persistence as a recognizably Celtic people is the result of elite dominance. As a powerful warlike group, thrown together by migration and periods of mercenary service, they were able to maintain their identity without recourse to the material symbols of their ethnicity.



1 thought on “The Celts in Asia Minor, Third Century BC to Fourth Century AD

  1. Pingback: The Celts in Asia Minor, Third Century BC to Fourth Century AD – faujibratsden

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