By  Periklis DeligiannisCelts

The ancient peoples of the South-Central Balkans and the routes of the Gallic invasion in the region and in Asia Minor.

In 366 BC the metropolitan Greeks watched the Gauls in combat for the first time, and they were certainly impressed. It was then that Dionysius of Syracuse, who had many Celtiberian and Padanian Gallic mercenaries in his service, sent 2,000 of them to aid his overseas ally, Sparta. Thucydides describes the flexible tactics used by the Celtic horsemen against their Greek opponents. Theopompos of Chios mentions the conflicts between the Galatians (Gauls, in the Greek lang.) and the Illyrian tribes in an area located in the vicinity of the river Naro of Dalmatia. During the Archaic Period, the Glasinac culture  flourished in modern Bosnia; a culture that  later became the powerful tribal union of the Autariatae Illyrians. In 359 BC Bardylis, probably the king of the Autariatae, and his forces defeated the Macedonian army killing the king Perdiccas and 4,000 of his men, paving the way for Philip II to the Macedonian throne. Next year, Philip II avenged by crashing the Autariatae and killing 7,000 of them. However the worst for the Autariatae was the beginning of their war with the Danubian Gauls.

In 335 BC, Alexander the Great marched up to the Danube River, in order to secure the subjugation of the tribes of the Balkan Peninsula and thereby the security of Greece, when he would be marching  in Asia. Following his victory in the region, several tribes sent embassies to earn his friendship and alliance, among them the Gauls of Pannonia and Northern Illyria. Arrian recounts the episode of the meeting of the Galatian envoys with Alexander. He describes the first as people with a striking look and high stature. When the king who was meant to become the greatest conqueror of world history, asked them what they fear most, the Gauls replied that “we only fear lest the sky fall on our heads”. However, the Galatians added diplomatically that they were interested more than anything else, in the friendship of a man like Alexander. The response of the Gauls to Alexander was not accidental. In essence it was an implicit statement that they do not fear him, considering him as an equal in power, but they wanted an agreement and alliance with him. The Celts were not wrong. The interests of the Greeks and Danubian Gauls in the region were identical because they were both fighting against the interlaying between them, Illyrian and Thracian tribes. The two nations had not yet territorial contact and at this time, the Gallic threat would seem very distant for the Greeks. Alexander who appreciated brave men, seemed to be satisfied with the Gallic answer, although he ironically commented on their barbaric pride (Arrian). Seeing his common interests with them, he made an alliance with the Celts  and probably allowed them to expand in the territory of the Autariatae. This was the first Gallic invasion or raid in the land of the Autariate.

Representation of a Macedonian sarissophoros by the Historical Association  Ancient Hoplitikon of Melbourne. He bears a Phrygian helmet, the standard bronze pelte of the Macedonians, greaves and a muscular cuirass (not shown here). The Macedonian army did not manage to concentrate on time against the Gauls due to the catastrophic decisions of Ptolemy Keraunos.

Modern scholars such as P.B. Ellis, consider that Alexander misunderstood the Gallic answer. As he observes, a thousand years later the Irish Celts swore to honor an agreement, by saying the stereotype oath of their island: “We shall not break our oath but only if the sky fall on us and crush us or the earth open and swallow us or if we will be covered by the sea …” The Gauls probably replied to Alexander on the standards of a similar Celtic oath, wanting to demonstrate their good faith together with the implicit statement that they considered themselves equivalent to the Greek power and not inferior. Twelve years later, another Gallic embassy made ​​the long journey to Babylon to congratulate Alexander for his conquest of the Persian Empire and the Valley of the Indus, and to renew the alliance with him.

As long as Alexander was alive, the Gauls did not dare to march to the Southern Balkan Peninsula. They were certainly watching the developments in the Greek World and began their attack only when it was certain that the wars between Alexander’s Successors (Diadochoi) had largely occupied the Greeks. In 310 BC, a Gallic horde under Molistomos invaded the country of the Autariatae and finally crashed them, causing their mass exodus to the South. Large groups of refugees invaded Dardania and Paeonia. The Paionian chieftain asked for the help of his suzerain Cassander, king of Macedonia. Cassander found a compromise by installing 20,000 Autariatae with their families in the area of Orbelos mountain. Only a portion of the Autariatae remained in their cradle. The Gauls replaced them there founding the tribal union of the Scordisci, which apart from them as suzerains, included Illyrian, Dacian and Thracian tribes. The Illyrian name that they adopted, the Scordisci (related to the Illyrian place and personal names Scardos, Skerdilaidas, Shkodra etc.), probably demonstrates their effort to win over the local population. Their capital was in Singidunum (Byzant. Singedon, modern Belgrade), their central fortress which they founded in the early 3rd century BC. Then the Celts conquered the powerful Ardiaeoi Illyrians and in 298 BC they turned against Thrace. The army of Lysimachus, the monarch of the Macedonian kingdom of Thrace, repelled them in the Balkan Mountains. The kingdom of Thrace, under its able and experienced warrior-king (former general of Alexander), was an impenetrable barrier for the Galatians. However in 281 Lysimachos was killed at the battle of Kourou Pedion in Asia Minor. His death opened the way for the Celts. After finally subduing the Getae, a powerful Thracian tribe of the Lower Danube basin, they again invaded Thrace under the leadership of Kambaules. Soon the Thracian tribes succumbed to the invaders. The largest part of the Balkan Peninsula had passed under Galatian control, from which escaped only the Greek regions and a few Illyrian tribes. The road to Macedonia, Southern Greece and the wealthy sanctuary of Delphi was now open for the Celts.

Cuirasses Marmesse

Celtic  cuirasses (Marmesse)

In Macedonia, the throne was occupied since 280 BC by Ptolemy the Thunderbolt (Keraunos), a son of Ptolemy of Lagos (another great general of Alexander) and brother of Ptolemy II, king of Egypt. The Gauls did not delay after Lysimachos’ death. The operations of their armies against the Greek regions clearly demonstrate that they followed a plan of an organized invasion. They divided their forces into three armies which invaded the South peninsula by three different “entry points.” The Galatians of  the warlord Kerethrios (the “rock” in Celtic) started their march from the Thracian hinterland, while at the same time the horde of Bolgios (the “thunderbolt”, a name related to the Belgian Celts) from Illyria, started its march through the valley of Aoos River, to Macedonia. The “Greek Thunderbolt” was not as wise as his Gaul namesake and committed a series of catastrophic errors. Ptolemy did not help the Dardanian Illyrians who fatally succumbed to the Galatians, nor kept his military forces on alert . Bolgios appeared unexpectedly on the border of Macedonia while the Macedonian army was not concentrated, with most of his men being in their homes. Nevertheless, the Gaul warlord sent ambassadors to Ptolemy who made ​​the tragic mistake to underestimate the Celtic force. Acting superficially, he killed the Gallic emissaries and marched against Bolgios with a small Macedonian military force, without waiting for the concentration of the main army. The Gauls thirsty for revenge, exterminated the Macedonian force killing Ptolemy as well. His decapitated head on a spear, was demonstrated throughout the camp of the Celts and then was put at the forefront of the Galatian campaign against Macedonia.

Ptolemy and Macedonia remained headless and the Gauls began an orgy of looting and violence. The country’s population found refuge in the cities, which the Celts could not capture because they did not use siege engines and sophisticated methods of siege. The Macedonian countryside was savagely ravaged, a condition unprecedented for a country whose armies just five decades ago, had conquered half of the known world. In this time of chaos the desperate Macedonians proclaimed and then toppled two kings, Meleager and Antipater . Antipater’s rule lasted only for 45 days. The state was saved by Sosthenes, a veteran general of Lysimachus who knew how to fight the barbarians because of the experience he gained by fighting the Thracian tribes. He gathered as many men as he could and using guerrilla warfare, he managed to repel Volgios’ barbarians in the north of Macedonia. Sosthenes could be proclaimed king of the country enjoying the loyalty of the army and apparently the gratitude of the people, but had not done so. He was one of the most humble and forgotten great personalities of the ancient Greek History.

Periklis    Deligiannis