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Celtic settlement of Eastern Europe


Celtic settlement of Eastern Europe

A Galatian's head as depicted on a gold Thracian objet d'art, 3rd century BC.

Gallic groups, originating from the various La Tène chiefdoms, began a southeastern movement into the Balkan peninsula from the 4th century BC. Although Celtic settlements were concentrated in the western half of the Carpathian basin, there were notable incursions, and settlements, within the Balkan peninsula itself.

From their new bases in northern Illyria and Pannonia, the Gallic invasions climaxed in the early 3rd century BC, with the invasion of Greece. The 279 BC invasion of Greece proper was preceded by a series of other military campaigns waged toward the southern Balkans and against the kingdom of Macedonia, favoured by the state of confusion ensuing from the intricated succession to Alexander. A part of the invasion crossed over to Anatolia and eventually settled in the area that came to be named after them, Galatia.


  • Settlement of Southeastern Europe 1
  • Early expeditions 2
  • Invasions of Greece 3
    • Great expedition of 279 BC 3.1
    • Battle of Thermopylae (279 BC) 3.2
    • Attack on Delphi 3.3
      • Cursed Gold of Delphi 3.3.1
  • After the Greek campaigns 4
  • See also 5
  • Notes 6

Settlement of Southeastern Europe

Celtic expansion in Europe (in grey), 6th-3rd century B.C.

From the 4th century BC, Celtic groups pushed into the Carpathian region and the Danube basin, coinciding with their movement into Italy. The Boii and Volcae were two large Celtic confederacies who generally cooperated in their campaigns. Splinter groups moved south via two major routes: one following the Danube river, another eastward from Italy. According to legend, 300,000 Celts moved into Italy and Illyria.[1] By the 3rd century, the native inhabitants of Pannonia were almost completely Celticized.[2] La Tène remains are found widely in Pannonia, but finds westward beyond the Tisza river and south beyond the Sava are rather sparse.[2] These finds are deemed to have been locally produced Norican-Pannonian variation of Celtic culture. Nevertheless, features are encountered which suggest ongoing contacts with distant provinces such as Iberia. The fertile lands around the Pannonian rivers enabled the Celts to establish themselves easily, developing their agriculture and pottery, and at the same time exploiting the rich mines of modern Slovenia. Thus it appears that the Celts had created a new homeland for themselves in southern part of Central Europe; in a region stretching from Vienna to the river Tisa.

Early expeditions

The political situation in the northern Balkans was in constant flux with various tribes dominant over their neighbors at any one time. Within tribes, military expeditions were conducted by "an enterprising and mobile warrior class able from time to time to conquer large areas and to exploit their population".[2] The political situation in the Balkans during 4th century BC played to the Celts' advantage. The Illyrians had been waging war against the Greeks, leaving their western flank weak. While Alexander ruled Greece, the Celts dared not to push south near Greece. Therefore, early Celtic expeditions were concentrated against Illyrian tribes.[3]

The first Balkan tribe to be defeated by the Celts was the Illyric Autariatae, who, during the 4th century BC, had enjoyed a hegemony over much of the central Balkans, centred on the Morava valley.[2] An account of Celtic tactics is revealed in their attacks on the Ardiaei.

In 335 BC, the Celts sent representatives to pay homage to Alexander the Great, while Macedon was engaged in wars against Thracians on its northern border. Some historians suggest that this 'diplomatic' act was actually an evaluation of Macedonian military might.[3] After the death of Alexander the Great, Celtic armies began to bear down on the southern regions, threatening the Greek kingdom of Macedonia and the rest of Greece. In 310 BC, Celtic general Molistomos attacked deep into Illyrian territory, subduing the Dardanians, Paeonians and Triballi. The new Macedonian king Cassander felt compelled to take his old Illyrian enemies under his protection.[3] In 298 BC, the Celts attempted a penetrating attack into Thrace and Macedon where they suffered a heavy defeat near Haemus Mons at the hands of Cassander. However, another body of Celts led by the general Cambaules marched on Thrace, capturing large areas.[1]

Invasions of Greece

Great expedition of 279 BC

The routes taken by the Gauls

The Celtic military pressure toward Greece in the southern Balkans reached its turning point in 281 BC. The collapse of Lysimachus' successor kingdom in Thrace opened the way for the migration.[4] The cause for this is explained by Pausanias as greed for loot,[5] by Justin as a result of overpopulation,[6] and by Memnon as the result of famine.[7] According to Pausanias, an initial probing raid led by Cambaules withdrew when they realized they were too few in numbers.[5] In 280 BC a great army, comprising about 85,000 warriors,[8] coming from Pannonia and split into three divisions, marched South in a great expedition[9][10] to Macedon and central Greece. Under the leadership of Cerethrius, 20,000 men moved against the Thracians and Triballi. Another division, led by Brennus[11] and Acichorius[12][13] moved against Paionians while a third division, headed by Bolgios, aimed for Macedonians and Illyrians.[5]

The Dying Gaul, a Roman copy of a Greek statue commemorating the victory over the Galatians

Bolgios inflicted heavy losses on the Macedonians, whose young king, Ptolemy Keraunos, was captured and decapitated. However, Bolgios' contingent was repulsed by the Macedonian nobleman Sosthenes, and satisfied with the loot they had won, Bolgios' contingents turned back. Sosthenes, in turn, was attacked and defeated by Brennus and his division, who were then free to ravage the country.

After these expeditions returned home, Brennus urged and persuaded them to mount a third united expedition against central Greece, led by himself and Acichorius.[5] The reported strength of the army of 152,000 infantry and 24,400 cavalry is impossibly large.[14] The actual number of horsemen has to be intended half as big: Pausanias describes how they used a tactic called trimarcisia, where each cavalryman was supported by two mounted servants, who could supply him with a spare horse should he have to be dismounted, or take his place in the battle, should he be killed or wounded.[15][16]

Battle of Thermopylae (279 BC)

A Greek coalition made up of Aetolians, Boeotians, Athenians, Phocians, and other Greeks north of Corinth took up quarters at the narrow pass of Thermopylae, on the east coast of central Greece. During the initial assault, Brennus' forces suffered heavy losses. Hence he decided to send a large force under Acichorius against Aetolia. The Aetolian detachment, as Brennus hoped, left Thermopylae to defend their homes. The Aetolians joined the defense en masse – the old and women joining the fight.[17] Realizing that the Gallic sword was dangerous only at close quarters, the Aetolians resorted to skirmishing tactics.[4] According to Pausanias, only half the number that had set out for Aetolia returned.[5]

Eventually Brennus found a way around the pass at Thermopylae but the Greeks escaped by sea.

Attack on Delphi


Brennus pushed on to Delphi where he was defeated and forced to retreat, after which he died of wounds sustained in the battle. His army fell back to the river Spercheios where it was routed by the Thessalians and Malians.

Both historians who relate the attack on Delphi, Pausanias and Junianus Justinus, say the Gauls were defeated and driven off. They were overtaken by a violent thunderstorm which made it impossible to manoeuvre or even hear their orders. The night that followed was frosty, and in the morning the Greeks attacked them from both sides. Brennus was wounded and the Gauls fell back, killing their own wounded who were unable to retreat. That night a panic fell on the camp, as the Gauls divided into factions and fought amongst themselves. They were joined by Acichorius and the rest of the army, but the Greeks forced them into a full-scale retreat. Brennus took his own life, by drinking neat wine according to Pausanias, by stabbing himself according to Justinus. Pressed by the Aetolians, the Gauls fell back to the Spercheios, where the waiting Thessalians and Malians destroyed them.[15][18]

Cursed Gold of Delphi

In spite of the Greek accounts about the defeat of the Gauls, the Roman literary tradition liked best a far different version. Strabo reports a story told in his time of a semi-legendary treasure – the aurum Tolosanum, fifteen thousand talents of gold and silver – supposed to have been the cursed gold looted during the sack of Delphi and brought back to Tolosa (modern Toulouse, France) by the Tectosages, who were said to have been part of the invading army.

More than a century and a half past the alleged sack, Romans will rule the Gallia Narbonensis. In 105 BC, while marching to Arausio, the Proconsul of Cisalpine Gaul Quintus Servilius Caepio plundered the sanctuaries of the town of Tolosa, whose inhabitants had joined the Cimbri, finding over 50,000 15 lb. bars of gold and 10,000 15 lb. bars of silver. The riches of Tolosa were shipped back to Rome, but only the silver made it: the gold was stolen by a band of marauders, who were believed to have been hired by Caepio himself and to have killed the legion guarding it. The Gold of Tolosa was never found, and was said to have been passed all the way down to the last heir of the Servilii Caepiones, Marcus Junius Brutus.

In 105 BC, Caepio refused to co-operate with his superior officer, Gnaeus Mallius Maximus, because he thought of him as a novus homo, deciding by himself to engage in battle against the Cimbri, on the Rhone. There the Roman army suffered a crushing defeat and complete destruction, in the so-called Battle of Arausio (modern Orange).

Upon his return to Rome, Caepio was tried for "the loss of his Army" and embezzlement. He was convicted and given the harshest sentence allowable; he was stripped of his Roman citizenship, forbidden fire and water within eight hundred miles of Rome, fined 15,000 talents (about 825,000 lb) of gold, and forbidden from seeing or speaking to his friends or family until he had left for exile.

He spent the rest of his life exiled in Smyrna in Asia Minor. His defeat and the ensuing ruin were looked upon as a punishment for his sacrilege theft.

Strabo distances himself from this account, arguing that the defeated Gauls were in no position to carry off such spoils, and that, in any case, Delphi had already been despoiled of its treasure by the Phocians during the Third Sacred War in the previous century.[19] However, Brennus' legendary pillage of Delphi is presented as fact by some popular modern historians.[20]

After the Greek campaigns

Ethnogenesis and migrations of the Volcae.

Most scholars have deemed the Greek campaign a disaster for the Celts. However, others claim that permanent occupation was not their aim, rather they were intent on plundering the riches of the Greeks – which they did. Moreover, although they were expelled from Greece, their power in southeastern Europe was not at an end.

Some of the survivors of the Greek campaign, led by Comontoris (one of Brennus' generals) settled in Thrace. In 277 BC Antigonus II Gonatas defeated the Gauls at the Battle of Lysimachia and the survivors retreated founding a short-lived city-state named Tyle.[21] Another group of Gauls, who split off from Brennus' army in 281, were transported over to Asia Minor by Nicomedes I to help him defeat his brother and secure the throne of Bithynia. They eventually settled in the region that came to be named after them as Galatia. They were defeated by Antiochus I, and as a result, they were confined to barren highlands in the center of Anatolia.[22]

Celtic groups were still the preeminent political units in the northern Balkans from the fourth to the 1st century BC. The Boii controlled most of northern Pannonia during the 2nd century BC, and are also mentioned to have occupied the territory of modern Slovakia. We learn of other tribes inhabiting Pannonia, belonging to the Boian confederation. There were the Taurisci in the upper Sava valley, west of Sisak, as well as the Anarti, Osi and Cotini in the Carpathian basin. In the lower Sava valley, the Scordisci wielded much power over their neighbours for over a century.

Tribes in Pannonia and western Dacia, c. 50 BC

The later half of the 1st century BC brought much change to the power relations of barbarian tribes in Pannonia. The defeat of the Boian confederation by the Geto-Dacian king Burebista significantly curtailed Celtic control of the Carpathian basin, and some of the Celticization was reversed. Yet, more Celtic tribes appear in sources. The Hercuniates and Latobici migrated from the northern regions (Germania). Altogether new tribes are encountered, bearing Latin names (such as the Arabiates), possibly representing new creations carved out of the defeated Boian confederation. To further weaken Celtic hegemony in Pannonia, the Romans moved the Pannonian-Illyrian Azali to northern Pannonia. The political dominance previously enjoyed by the Celts was overshadowed by newer barbarian confederations, such the Marcomanni and Iazyges. Their ethnic independence was gradually lost as they were absorbed by the surrounding Dacian, Illyrian and Germanic peoples, although Celtic names survive until the 3rd century AD.[23]

See also


  1. ^ a b Ó hÓgáin, Daithí. The Celts. A history. Boydell Press.  
  2. ^ a b c d Mócsy, András (1974). Pannonia and Upper Moesia. A History of the Middle Danube Provinces of the Roman Empire. Translated by S. Frere.  
  3. ^ a b c  
  4. ^ a b Green, Peter. Alexander to Actium. p. 133. 
  5. ^ a b c d e  
  6. ^ "Justin Book XXIV". Justin. Retrieved 2008-09-21. 
  7. ^ "Memnon: History of Heracleia". 2011. Retrieved 12 August 2013. 
  8. ^ Kruta, Venceslas. Les Celtes, histoire et dictionnaire. p. 493. 
  9. ^  
  10. ^ The term is a calque of the parallel French Grande expédition, that indicates, in French scholarly usage, the 279 BC surge of military campaigns on Greece.
  11. ^ Brennus is said to have belonged to an otherwise unknown tribe called the Prausi. See: Strabo, Geography 4:1.13. Not to be confused with the Brennus of the previous century, who sacked Rome in 387 BC.
  12. ^ Some writers suppose that Brennus and Acichorius are the same persons, the former being only a title and the latter the real name. Schmidt, "De fontibus veterum auctorum in enarrandis expeditionibus a Gallis in Macedoniania susceptis," Berol. 1834
  13. ^  
  14. ^  
  15. ^ a b Pausanias (1918). Description of Greece: 10.23.1. Translation by W.H.S. Jones & H.A. Ormerod. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. Retrieved 12 August 2013. 
  16. ^ 24.4-6 "Epitome of Pompeius Trogus' Histories". Junianus Justinus. Retrieved 2008-09-21. 
  17. ^ Pausanias (2013). "Description of Greece". Translated by Peter Levi. Retrieved 12 August 2013. 
  18. ^ 24.7-8 "Junianus Justinus, Epitome of Pompeius Trogus' Philippic Histories". Retrieved 2008-09-21. 
  19. ^ 4:1.13 "Strabo, Geography". Retrieved 2008-09-21. 
  20. ^ As did, for example, Peter Berresford Ellis, in his The Celtic Empire, Constable, 1990, pp. 82–84.
  21. ^ "Celtic Settlement in North-Western Thrace during the Late Fourth and Third Centuries BC" (PDF). Nikola Theodossiev. Retrieved 2008-09-21. 
  22. ^ Cunliffe (1997), p.83
  23. ^ Rankin, H. D. (1987). Celts and the Classical World. London & Sydney: Croom Helm. p. 17.  
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