The invasion of the Gauls

The dying Gaul

After the death of Alexander the Great, civil war broke out between his generals, who created new kingdoms. Just when the situation appeard to have 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 10.19.4-23.8); his source may or may not be Hieronymus of Cardia. The translation was made by Peter Levi.

The invasion of the Gauls

[10.19.4] I wanted to bring out the story of the Celtic invasion more clearly in my account of Delphi, because this was where the Greeks did most against them.

The Celts made their first expedition under the command of Cambaules; they got as far as Thrace, but despaired of the way ahead as they realized there were only a few of them and they were no match for the Greeks in terms of numbers.note

When they decided a second time to carry arms against foreign countries (driven most of all by veterans of Cambaules' campaign who had tasted piracy and fallen in love with the loot and rape of the world), they came in a mass of infantry and a very considerable throng of cavalry as well. The commanders divided the army into three parts, each to advance into a different country.

Cerethrius was to lead against the Thracians and Triballians,note while Brennusnote and Acichorius commanded the advance into Paeonia; Bolgius marched against the Macedonians and Illyrians and undertook a struggle with Ptolemy, who at that time was king of Macedonia. (This was the Ptolemy who treacherously murdered Seleucus son of Antiochus after taking refuge under his protection, and was called the "Thunderbolt" for his utter daring.) Ptolemy himself died in the battlenote and there was a sizable massacre of Macedonians, but even then the Celts did not have the confidence to advance against Greece; and so the second expedition returned home.

[10.19.5] But Brennus was a powerful influence on their general councils and individually on all the men in authority, calling for a campaign against Greece, and pointing out the weakness of the Greeks at that time, their great public wealth, and the even greater wealth in the sanctuaries in dedications and in coined silver and gold. He persuaded the Gauls to march on Greece, and among the fellow-commanders he chose from the great men of Gaul was Acichorius.

[10.19.6] The army that gathered was a 152,000 infantrymen and 20,400 horsemen: that was the number of the cavalry always in action, but the real number was 61,200, as there were two grooms to each horseman, all mounted and good riders. When the Gaulish cavalry were in battle, the grooms would stay behind the ranks and make themselves useful with new mounts when a horse or rider fell, but when a man was killed the slave would mount the horse in place of his master. If man and horse both died he was ready mounted. When they were wounded, one of the slaves took away the wounded man to camp, while another stepped into the line in his place.


In their own language they called this division trimarkisia; you should realize marka is the Celtic word for "horse". This was the armament and this was the resolution with which Brennus marched on Greece.

[10.20.1] Greek spirit had sunk right down, but the power of fear forced them to realize that Greece must fight. They saw that this struggle was not about freedom as it once was against Persia; it was not going to be enough now to offer earth and water.note What had happened to Macedonia, to Thrace, to Paeonia, in the previous onslaught of the Gauls, was still in their memory, and news came of. the outrages that were now being committed in Thessaly. Every man as an individual and every city collectively had realized that the Greeks must overcome or be destroyed.


[10.20.3] Here is the number of Greeks who appeared at Thermopylaenote against the barbarous tribes of the Atlantic ocean.

[10.20.4] When the Greeks had assembled at Thermopylae and discovered that the Gaulish army was already in Magnesia and Phthiotis, they decided to send out their cavalry with a thousand light infantry to the Spercheius,note and not to let the barbarians cross the river in security without a fight. They broke down the bridges and encamped on the riverbank.

But Brennus was not so barbarous as to be completely unsophisticated or wholly inexperienced in the contrivances of war. As soon as darkness fell, Brennus picked 10,000 Gauls who could swim or had more than average height (and to start with Celts are the tallest people in the world) and sent them not to the ancient crossing-places, but lower down where the Greeks would not know they were crossing, to where the Spercheius broadens out over level ground, forming a marshy lake instead of a narrow, violent current. So they got across under cover of darkness by swimming the marshy part of the river, using the oblong shields of their country like rafts, and the tallest ones simply wading across. When, the Greeks at the Spercheius discovered that a party of barbarians had crossed the marsh they retreated into the main camp.

[10.21.1] Brennus gave orders to the people of the Malian gulf to bridge the Spercheius, and they finished the job with an enthusiasm born of terror and of a longing to see the barbarians safely off their territory. Brennus took his army across the bridge and turned on Heraclia;note the Gauls plundered the countryside and murdered the people they caught out in the fields but failed to capture the city: the year before this the Aetolians had forced Heraclia into the Aetolian League, and now they defended it as a city that belonged as much to them as it did to its own people.

But Brennus did not care so much bout Heraclia; he was struggling to drive the enemy that faced him out of the passes and to reach the rest of Greece beyond Thermopylae.

[10.21.2] He advanced from Heraclia, knowing from deserters what men from each city had gathered at the Gates,note and in contempt of these Greeks he opened a battle as the sun rose the next morning; even supposing the Celts have some art of divination of their own, Brennus had no Greek soothsayer and made no concession to local religious observance. The Greeks advanced in silence and in order, and engaged hand to hand without the infantry breaking rank even enough to disturb their fighting formations, and with light infantry holding position, shooting, slinging, and throwing javelins. Cavalry was no use on either side because the Gates are a narrow pass, and the ground is broken and slippery, a continuous series of streams among rocky outcrops.

The Gaulish equipment was weaker, as the traditional oblong shields they carried were all the protection their bodies had; in military experience they fell even further behind. They rushed at their adversaries like wild beasts, full of rage and temperament, with no kind of reasoning at all; they were chopped down with axes and swords but the blind fury never left them while there was breath in their bodies; even with arrows and javelins sticking through them they were carried on by sheer spirit while their life lasted. Some of them even pulled the spears they were hit by out of their wounds and threw them or stabbed with them.

Meanwhile the Athenians on the warships with some difficulty and danger sailed in through the mud-banks that stretch far out to sea, and held their ships close inshore, bombarding the flanks with all kinds of arrows and weapons. The Celts were indescribably tired, and being in a narrow place they had little effect while they suffered two or three times as much, so their commanders gave them the signal to retreat to camp. As they turned away in broken ranks and no kind of order, many of them were trampled under each other's feet, and many went into the swamp and disappeared in the mud; as many of them perished in the retreat as died in the height of battle.

[10.22.3] On that day the Athenians showed the greatest courage in Greece, and the bravest of them was Cydias, a young man in battle for the first time. The Gauls killed him, and his kinsmen dedicated his shield to Zeus of Freedom, with this inscription.

The shield of a brave man, Zeus' offering,
pining away for the youth of Cydias:
the first shield his left arm ever put on,
hen raging War went hottest at the Gauls.

This was the inscription in the days before Sulla's men took away the shields from the colonnade of Zeus of Freedom among the loot of Athens.note And now at Thermopylae after the battle the Greeks buried their dead and stripped the barbarians, but the Gauls sent no herald for the taking up of their dead, not caring whether they were buried or fed wild animals and the birds who make war on corpses. This neglect of giving graves to those who had passed away was for two reasons I think: to astound their enemies, and because they have no natural pity for the dead. Forty Greeks died in the battle, but it was impossible to discover the exact number of barbarians, since a large number of them vanished into the mud.

[10.22.1] A week after the battle a commando of Gauls tried to get up on to Mount Oeta by way of Heraclia, where a narrow path leads as far as the ruins of Trachis;note in those days there was a sanctuary of Athena above Trachis, with statues in it. They hoped to climb up to Mount Oeta by this path, and while they were at it to collect what the sanctuary yielded [lacuna] garrison [lacuna] Telesarchus. They defeated the barbarians in battle, but Telesarchus fell fighting: he was devoted to Greece, if ever a man was.

[10.22.2] 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,note 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.

[10.22.3] 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.

[10.22.4] 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 Cyclopesnote 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.

[10.22.5] 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.note 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.note

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.

[10.23.1] 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.

[10.23.2] 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.

[10.23.3] 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 Parnassusnote 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.

[10.23.4] 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.

[10.23.5] 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.

[10.23.6] 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.

[10.23.7] 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.

[10.23.8] 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.note 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;note 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.