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The invasion of the Gauls II

Just when the situation in the hellenistic empires seemed to be stabilized, the Galatians invaded Greece. The deepest cause was the collapse of the kingdom that had once been Lysimachus': when this king was killed in 281, the tribes in the buffer zone in the north sided with the barbarous Galatians, who now found the way to the south open. These Galatians belonged to the La Tène-culture, which is often called 'Celtic'.

The story is told by Pausanias (Guide for Greece 10.19.4-23.9); his source may or may not be Hieronymus of Cardia. The translation was made by Peter Levi.

This is the second part of the text; the first one can be found here.

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Statue of a Dying Gaul. Musei Capitolini, Roma (Italy). Photo Marco Prins.
The 'dying Gaul' (Musei Capitolini, Rome)

The other barbarian commanders were staggered by the Greeks: they were at a loss over the future, seeing that what was in their hands already must come to nothing; but Brennus reasoned that if he could force the Aetolians to retreat into Aetolia, the war against Greece might be easier to manage.

So he chose 40,000 infantry out of the army, and about 800 cavalry, and put Orestorius and Cambutis in command, to go back by the bridges of the Spercheius, make their way through Thessaly, and strike at Aetolia. It was Cambutis and Orestorius who committed the atrocities on the Callians [1], the mast horrifying wickedness I have ever heard of, not like the crimes of human beings at all. They butchered every human male of that entire race, the old men and the children at the breast; and the Gauls drank the blood and ate the flesh of those of the slaughtered babies that were fattest with milk. Any woman and mature virgins with a spark of pride killed themselves as soon as the city fell; those who lived were subjected with wanton violence to every form of outrage by men as remote from mercy as they were remote from love. Women who came on a Gaulish sword committed suicide with their own hands; it was not long before the others were to die by famishing hunger and sleeplessness, outraged in an endless succession by pitiless and barbarous men: they mated with the dying and mated with the already dead.

The Aetolians got news of the kind of calamity that was on them, and at once they raced back at speed from Thermopylae and concentrated their power into Aetolia. They were furious over the agony of the Callians, but even more gripped by anxiety to preserve cities which had never before in history been captured. From home everyone old enough came out to fight from every city, with the very old mixed among them by necessity and by pride; even the women were willingly serving beside the men, driven by a deeper rage than their husbands against the Gauls. When the barbarians had plundered houses and sanctuaries and set fire to Callion, they turned back the same way, only to come face to face with men from Patras, who were trained regimental infantry and the only Achaeans fighting for Aetolia. This force suffered badly from the numbers and desperation of the Gauls; but the Aetolians and their women waited in place along every road to aim javelins into the barbarians, and as the Gauls had only their traditional shields the javelins seldom missed; when they were chased they escaped and got away without trouble, and returned from the chase to make another vigorous attack. The Callians suffered such terrible things as to make what Homer wrote about the Laestrygonians and the Cyclope [2] look like stark realism, and yet they were avenged in proportion: out of 40,800 barbarians who attacked them, less than half got safely back to the camp at Thermopylae.

Meanwhile here is what was happening to the Greeks at Thermopylae. There are two paths over Mount Oeta, one above Trachis mostly precipitous and terribly steep, and the other through the Aeneanean country, easier for the passage of an army, the one by which Hydarnes the Persian attacked the Greeks under Leonidas in the rear [3]. The Aeneaneans and Heraclians were induced to take Brennus by this route, not from ill-will to Greece but out of concern that the Celts should march out of their country and not hang about to ruin them. I think Pindar was right as usual about this, when he said that 'every man feels his own troubles, but other people's griefs will not hurt him'.[4

But now Brennus was encouraged by this promise; he left Acichorius with the army telling him to advance when the Greeks were surrounded, chose 40,000 men, and made the journey by the path. It happened on that day that a mist rolled down the mountain and darkened the sun; so the Phocians who were guarding the path saw nothing until the barbarians were on top of them. The Gauls gave battle and the Phocians put up a stiff resistance, though in the end they were forced back and withdrew from the path; but they ran down to their allies and reported, before the encirclement of the Greeks was set and perfect, and the Athenians on the warships withdrew the Greek army from Thermopylae in time.

The Greeks scattered to their own countries, and Brennus without a minute's delay, even before Acichorius' men arrived from the camp, set out for Delphi. The Delphians fled in terror to the oracle: the god told them of to be afraid, and announced he was going to look after himself. But these were the Greeks who came to the help of the god: Phocians from all their cities, and 400 regimental infantry from Amphissa, some Aetolians who came as soon as they heard the barbarians were advancing, and then Philomelus brought a 1,200 later. But the flower of the Aetolians was facing Acichorius' army, without engaging him, but continually attacking the fringes of his line of march., carrying off baggage and slaughtering drivers; for this reason his movements were extremely slow. Acichorius had also detached a party to guard the treasures in the Gaulish camp.

But Brennus and his army were faced by the Greeks at Delphi and by the hostile portents of the god, which were swift and conspicuous to a degree that to my knowledge has no other instance. All the ground where the Gaulish army was quaked violently nearly all day, with continuous thundering and lightning. The Celts were dumbfounded by this lightning, and unable to hear when orders were given; flashes from heaven would not only strike a man down, but set fire to other men and their shields all round him. It was then that visions of the divine heroes appeared against them, Hyperochus and Laodocus and Pyrrhus, and some say a fourth, Phylacus, a hero of the Delphian district. Among the many Phocians who died in the battle was Aleximachus, who in that battle by the fine edge of his youth, by the power of his body, and the strength of his spirit contributed more than any other Greek to the massacre of barbarians. [Later,] the Phocians made a portrait of Aleximachus and sent it to Delphi for Apollo.

All day long the barbarians were gripped by disaster and by horror; but a much more calamitous night was waiting for them. There was a fierce frost, and with the frost came snow. Enormous rocks came tumbling down Parnassus [5] right at them, and cliff-faces broke away and came crashing down. Not by ones and twos now, but in twenties and thirties or more, on guard and where they slept, they perished together under storms of rock.

At sunrise the Greeks attacked them from Delphi, the main force came straight at them by the road, but the Phocians, as they knew the ground better, climbed quietly through the snow by the precipices of Parnassus and got behind their backs, shooting and throwing javelins in perfect security. When the battle opened, the barbarians, particularly Brennus' own men, who were the biggest and strongest of the Gauls, resisted with spirit, though they were shot at from every direction and suffered badly from the cold, especially the wounded. But when Brennus was wounded too and was carried out of the battle fainting, and they saw Greeks in position against them in every direction, against their will the barbarians fled, murdering their own men who were too weak or wounded to follow them.

They camped where night overtook them retreating, but during the night they were seized by the Panic terror. (It is said that terror without a reason comes from [the god] Pan.) The disturbance broke out among the soldiers in the deepening dusk, and at first only a few were driven out of their minds; they thought they could hear an enemy attack and the hoof-beats of the horses coming for them. It was not long before madness ran through the whole force. They snatched up arms and killed one another or were killed, without recognizing their own language or one another's faces or even the shape of their shields. They were so out of their minds that both sides thought the others were Greeks in Greek armor speaking Greek, and this madness from the god brought on a mutual massacre of the Gauls on a vast scale.

The first to know what had happened to the barbarians during the night and to bring the news to the Greek army were some Phocians who were out in the fields looking after their flocks. The Phocian detachment gathered confidence and attacked the Celts with even greater vigor. They watched every enemy encampment with a heavier guard and never let them forage in the countryside without a fight, so that the whole Gaulish army very soon felt a severe lack of grain and of every other food. The number of them destroyed in Phocis was a little under 6,000 men killed in battle, but more than 10,000 in the storm at night and in the Panic terror, and as many again who died from starvation.

Some Athenians came to Delphi as observers, and went home with the news of what had happened to the barbarians, including the activity of the god. The Athenians immediately marched out; when they reached Boeotia the Boeotians mingled with them, and together they dogged the barbarians, ambushing them and continually killing off the stragglers. The party with Acichorius had joined the men fleeing with Brennus the night before; the Aetolians had slowed down their march, raining javelins on them and whatever else came to hand, so that it was not many who escaped to the camp at Heraclia.

Brennus' wounds left him no hope; they say out of fear of his countrymen and even more out of shame as the cause of all their sufferings in Greece, he died deliberately by drinking unmixed wine [6]. After this the barbarians reached the Spercheius with difficulty under savage Aetolian attacks, but when they arrived at the river the Thessalians and Malians were waiting for them, and those peoples so swallowed them up that not one man got safely home. The Celtic expedition against Greece and its destruction took place in the magistracy of Anaxicrates at Athens, in the second year after the hundred and twenty-fifth Olympics, when Ladas of Aegeum won in the stadium [7]; and the very next year, in the. magistracy of Democles at Athens, the Celts crossed over into Asia. I assure you that is how it happened.


Note 1:
Callion was a town in eastern Aetolia.

Note 2:
Both were known for their cannibalism.

Note 3:
In 480, the Persians had defeated a Greek army at Thermopylae.

Note 4:
Nemean odes 1.52-54.

Note 5:
A mountain range north of Delphi.

Note 6:
The Greeks considered drinking unmixed wine a barbarous custom, but this does not explain how it could have killed Brennus.

Note 7:
In 279.

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