Celts: Polybios on the Celtic encounter with Rome and on his method in dealing with distant peoples (second century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Celts: Polybios on the Celtic encounter with Rome and on his method in dealing with distant peoples (second century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 12, 2024, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=7124.

Ancient author: Polybios, Histories 2.13-35 and 3.57-59 (link).

Comments: The second-century author Polybios (also transliterated Polybius), whose work is focussed on the expansion of Roman power up to 146 BCE, engages in a digression on the Celts (and Galatians) with respect to their previous conquests and their military engagements with Romans in the third century BCE. Although the long, drawn-out details about specific military actions and alliances go on for some time, Polybios mentions many sub-groups of the Celts in the process and the overall point of the digression directly relates to our concern here on Greek characterizations of other peoples. Although there are hints throughout of the supposedly violent character of Celtic peoples by nature, the clincher is in the conclusion, where Polybios states “every single step that the Galatians [related to Celts] took” was due to “emotional spirit rather than reasonable thinking.” Elsewhere in Polybios’ narrative we see clearly that he also adopts an environmental theory concerning the character of peoples, on which go to this link. Often the success of northern peoples (like the Celts) in military activity was considered an outgrowth of their living in a very cold, harsh, and “spirited” environment.

In a separate section in book 3, Polybios goes on a digression regarding method in describing far off lands and peoples, which is worth including here since it shows his awareness of the Greek fascination with such topics and demonstrates his own ostensibly balanced approach to peoples such as the Celts or others. In general, he is defending himself for not engaging in detailed descriptions of places and peoples, although he nonetheless provides some brief passages along these lines like the ones about Celts.

Mixed ethnic composition of armies series:

  • Herodotos on the Persian king Xerxes’ army (link)
  • Curtius Rufus on the Persian king Darius III’s army (link)
  • Polybios on Hannibal’s army at the battle of Cannae and on military equipment (link)
  • Polybios on Italian armies and the Celtic invasion of 225 BCE (link)
  • Polybios on Ptolemy IV’s and Antiochos III’s armies (link)
  • Polybios on Antiochos IV’s army (link)


Book 2

[Context of Roman military engagement with Celts]

13 [material omitted] . . . The Romans, seeing that Hasdrubal was, in a fair way, about to create a larger and more formidable empire than Carthage formerly possessed, resolved to begin to occupy themselves with issues in Spain. Finding that they had up till now been asleep and had allowed Carthage to build up a powerful dominion, they tried, as far as possible, to make up for lost time. For the present, the Romans did not venture to impose orders on Carthage, or to go to war with her, because the threat of a Celtic invasion was hanging over them, the attack being indeed expected from day to day. They decided, then, to smooth down and conciliate Hasdrubal in the first place, and then to attack the Celts and decide the issue by arms, for they thought that as long as they had these Celts threatening their frontier, not only would they never be masters of Italy, but they would not even be safe in Rome itself. Accordingly, after having sent envoys to Hasdrubal and made a treaty, in which no mention was made of the rest of Spain, but the Carthaginians agreed not to make a military campaign cross the Ebro, the Romans at once entered on the struggle against the Italian Celts.

[Reason for digression on Celts]

14 I think it will be useful to give some account of these peoples [the Celts in and beyond the plains of northern of Italy], but it needs to be a brief one in order not to depart from the original plan of this work as explained in the preface. We must, however, go back to the time when they first occupied these districts. I think the story is not only worth knowing and keeping in mind, but quite necessary for my purpose, as it shows us who the people were and what was the land on which Hannibal afterwards relied in his attempt to destroy the Roman dominion. I must first describe the nature of the land and its position as regards the rest of Italy. A sketch of the land’s peculiarities, regionally and as a whole, will help us better to comprehend the more important of the events I have to relate.

[Description of the land and its produce]

Italy as a whole has the shape of a triangle. One side, the eastern side, is bounded by the Ionian Strait and then continuously by the Adriatic gulf. The next side, is turned to the south and west by the Sicilian and Tyrrhenian seas. The apex of the triangle, formed by the meeting of these two sides, is the southernmost cape of Italy known as Cocynthus which separates the Ionian strait from the Sicilian sea. The remaining or northern and inland side of the triangle is bounded continuously by the chain of the Alps which, beginning at Massalia [modern Marseilles] and the northern coasts of the Sardinian sea, stretches in an unbroken line almost to the head of the whole Adriatic, only failing to join that sea by stopping at quite a short distance from it.

At the foot of this chain, which we should regard as the base of the triangle, on its southern side, lies the last plain of all Italy to the north. It is with this that we are now concerned, a plain surpassing in fertility any other in Europe with which we are acquainted. The general shape of the lines that bound this plain is likewise triangular. The apex of the triangle is formed by the meeting of the Apennines and Alps not far from the Sardinian sea at a point above Massalia. Its northern side is, as I have said, formed by the Alps themselves and is about two thousand two hundred stadium-lengths in length, the southern side by the Apennines which extend for a distance of three thousand six hundred stadium-lengths. The base of the whole triangle is the coast of the Adriatic, its length from the city of Sena​ to the head of the gulf being more than two thousand five hundred stadium-lengths. The result is that that the whole circumference of this plain is not much less than ten thousand stadium-lengths.

15 The fertility of this plain is not easy to describe. It produces such an abundance of grains that often in my time the price of wheat was four obols per Sicilian medimnus​ and that of barley two obols, a metretes of wine costing the same as the medimnus of barley. Panic grass and millet are produced in enormous quantities, while the amount of acorns grown in the woods dispersed over the plain can be estimated from the fact that, while the number of swine slaughtered in Italy for private consumption as well as to feed the army is very large, almost the whole of them are supplied by this plain. The cheapness and abundance of all articles of food will be most clearly understood from the following fact: Travellers in this land who stay over in inns do not bargain for each separate article they require, but ask what is the charge per day for one person. The innkeepers, as a rule, agree to receive guests, providing them with enough of all they require for half an as per day, that is, the fourth part of an obol, the charge being very seldom higher. As for the numbers of the inhabitants, their stature and beauty and their courage in war, the facts of their history will speak.

The hilly ground with sufficient soil on both slopes of the Alps, that on the north towards the Rhone and that towards the plain I have been describing, is inhabited in the former case by the Transalpine Galatians and in the latter by the Tauriskians, Agonians and several other barbarous descent groups (genē). “Transalpine” is not a descent group name but a local name, “trans” meaning “beyond,” and those beyond the Alps being this. The summits of the Alps are quite uninhabitable owing to their ruggedness and the quantity of snow which always covers them.

16 The Apennines, from their junction with the Alps above Massalia, are inhabited on both slopes, that looking to the Tyrrhenian sea and that turned to the plain, by the Ligurians whose territory reaches on the seaboard-side as far as Pisa, the first city of western Tyrrhenia [i.e. Etruria in this case], and on the land side as far as Arretium. Next come the Tyrrhenians [Etruscans] and after them both slopes are inhabited by the Umbrians. After this the Apennines mountains, at a distance of about five hundred stadium-lengths from the Adriatic, quit the plain and, turning to the right, pass along the centre of the rest of Italy as far as the Sicilian sea, the remaining flat part of this side of the triangle continuing to the sea and the city of Sena. The river Po, celebrated by poets as the Eridanus, rises in the Alps somewhere near the apex of the triangle and descends to the plain, flowing in a southerly direction. On reaching the flat ground, it takes a turn to the East and flows through the plain, falling into the Adriatic by two mouths. It cuts off the larger half of the plain, which thus lies between it on the south and the Alps and head of the Adriatic on the north. It has a larger volume of water than any other river in Italy, since all the streams that descend into the plain from the Alps and Apennines fall into it from either side, and is highest and finest at the time of the rising of the Dog-star, as it is then swollen by the melting of the snow on those mountains. It is navigable for about two thousand stadium-lengths from the mouth called Olana. For the stream, which has been a single one from its source, divides at a place called Trigaboli, one of the mouths being called Padua and the other Olana. At the latter there is a harbour, which affords as safe anchorage as any in the Adriatic. The native name of the river is Bodencus. The other tales the Greeks tell about this river, I mean touching Phaithon and his fall and the weeping poplar-trees and the black clothing of the inhabitants near the river, who, they say, still dress like this in mourning for Phaethon, and all matter for tragedy and the like, may be left aside for the present. Such a detailed treatment does not suit very well the plan of this work. I will, however, mention this when I find a suitable occasion, especially as Timaios has shown much ignorance concerning the district.

[Tyrrhenians and other peoples of the region]

17 The Tyrrhenians [Etruscans] were the oldest inhabitants of this plain at the same period that they possessed also the Phlegraean plain in the neighbourhood of Capua and Nola, which, accessible and well known as it is to many, has such a reputation for fertility. Those therefore who would know something of the dominion of the Tyrrhenians should not look at the land they now inhabit, but at these plains and the resources they drew from them. The Celts, being close neighbours of the Tyrrhenians and associating much with them, cast covetous eyes on their beautiful land and, on a small pretext, suddenly attacked them with a large army and, expelling them from the plain of the Po, occupied it themselves. The first settlers at the eastern extremity, near the source of the Po, were the Laevians and Lebecians, after them the Insubrians, the largest tribe of all, and next these, on the banks of the river, the Cenomanians. The part of the plain near the Adriatic had never ceased to be in the possession of another very ancient tribe called the Venetians, differing slightly from the Celts in customs and costume and speaking another language. About this people the tragic poets tell many marvellous stories. On the other bank of the Po, by the Apennines, the first settlers beginning from the west were the Anarians and next them the Boians. Next the latter, towards the Adriatic, were the Lingonians and lastly, near the sea, the Senonians.

[Customs of the peoples in the region]

These are the names of the principal peoples (ethnē) that settled in the district. They lived in unwalled villages, without any superfluous furniture. For as they slept on beds of leaves and fed on meat and were exclusively occupied with war and agriculture, their lives were very simple, and they had no knowledge whatever of technical skills. Their possessions consisted of cattle and gold, because these were the only things they could carry about with them everywhere according to circumstances and shift where they chose. They treated communal relationships (hetaireia) as of the greatest importance, and those among them being the most feared and most powerful were those considered to have the largest number of attendants and associates.

[Celtic courage and the history of Celtic conquests or incursions]

18 On their first invasion [ca. 390 BCE] they not only conquered this land but reduced to subjection many of the neighbouring peoples, striking terror into them by their courage. Not long afterwards they defeated the Romans and their allies in a pitched battle, and pursuing the fugitives, occupied, three days after the battle, the whole of Rome with the exception of the Capitol. But, being diverted by an invasion of their own land by the Venetians, they made on this occasion a treaty with the Romans. Evacuating the city, they returned home. After this they were occupied by domestic wars, and certain of the neighbouring Alpine peoples, witnessing the Celts’ prosperity compared to their own, frequently gathered to attack Celts. Meanwhile the Romans re-established their power and again became masters of Latium. Thirty years after the occupation of Rome [360 BCE], the Celts again appeared before Alba with a large army, and the Romans on this occasion did not venture to meet them in the field, because, owing to the suddenness of the attack, they were taken by surprise and had not had time to anticipate it by collecting the forces of their allies.

But when, twelve years later [348 BCE], they again invaded in great strength, the Romans had early word of it, and, assembling their allies, marched eagerly to meet them, wishing for nothing better than a decisive battle. The Galatians [i.e. Gauls, sometimes interchangeable with Celts], alarmed by the Roman advance and at variance among themselves, waited until nightfall and then set off for home, their retreat resembling a flight. After this panic, they kept quiet for thirteen years, and then, as they saw how rapidly the power of the Romans was growing, they made a formal peace with them [334 BCE], and they adhered consistently to the terms for thirty years.

19 But then, when a fresh movement began among the Transalpine Galatians [299 BCE], and they feared they would have a big war on their hands, they deflected from themselves the inroad of the migrating peoples by bribery and by pleading their kinship, but they incited them to attack the Romans, and even joined them in the expedition. The Galatians advanced through Tyrrhenia [Etruria], with the Tyrrhenians also uniting with them, and, after collecting a quantity of booty, retired quite safely from the Roman territory. But, on reaching home, they fell out with each other about division of the spoils and succeeded in destroying the greater part of their own forces and of the booty itself. This is quite a common event among the Galatians, when they have appropriated their neighbour’s property, chiefly owing to their heavy drinking and excessive consumption of food. Four years later the Galatians made a league with the Samnites, and engaging the Romans in the territory of Camerinum inflicted on them considerable loss [295 BCE]. Meanwhile the Romans, determined on avenging their reverse, advanced again a few days after with all their legions, and attacking the Galatians and Samnites in the territory of Sentinum, put the greater number of them to the sword and compelled the rest to take precipitate flight each to their separate homes.

Again, ten years afterwards, the Galatians appeared in force and besieged Arretium [283 BCE]. The Romans, coming to the help of the town, attacked them in front of it and were defeated. In this battle their praetor Lucius Caecilius fell, and they nominated Manius Curius in his place. When Manius sent legates to Galatia [i.e. the Celtic region] to treat for the return of the prisoners, they were treacherously slain, and this made the Romans so indignant that they at once marched upon Galatia. They were met by the Galatians called Senonians, whom they defeated in a pitched battle, killing most of them and driving the rest out of their land, the whole of which they occupied. This was the first part of Galatia [i.e. the Celtic region] in which they planted a colony, calling it “Sena” [Senagallia, France] after the name of the Galatians who formerly inhabited it. This is the city I mentioned above as lying near the Adriatic at the extremity of the plain of the Po.

[Alliances with Tyrrhenians against Romans]

20 At this point, the Boians, seeing the Senonians expelled from their territory and fearing a similar fate for themselves and their own land, implored the aid of the Tyrrhenians and marched out in full force. The united armies gave battle to the Romans near Lake Vadimon, and in this battle most of the Tyrrhenians were cut to pieces while only quite a few of the Boians escaped [282 BCE]. Notwithstanding this, in the very next year these two peoples once more combined and, arming their young men (even the youngest ones), encountered the Romans again in a pitched battle. They were utterly defeated and it was only now that their courage at length gave way and that they sent an embassy to sue for terms and made a treaty with the Romans. This took place three years before the crossing of Pyrrhus to Italy and five years before the destruction of the Galatians at Delphi. For it really seems that at this time Fortune afflicted all Galatians alike with a sort of epidemic of war. From all these struggles the Romans gained two great advantages. In the first place, having become accustomed to be cut up by Galatians, they could neither undergo nor expect any more terrible experience. Next, owing to this, when they met Pyrrhus they had become perfectly trained athletes in war, so that they were able to shake the courage of the Galatians before it was too late, and from then on could give their whole mind first to the fight with Pyrrhus for Italy and afterwards to the maintenance of the contest with Carthage for the possession of Sicily.

21 After these reverses, the Galatians remained quiet and at peace with Rome for forty-five years. But when, as time went on, those who had actually witnessed the terrible struggle were no more, and a younger generation had taken their place, full of unreflecting passion and absolutely without experience of suffering or peril, they naturally began to disturb the settlement again, becoming exasperated against the Romans for the smallest reasons and inviting the Alpine Galatians to make common cause with them. At first these advances were made secretly by their chiefs without the knowledge of the multitude. The result was, when a force of Transalpine Galatians advanced as far as Ariminum, the Boian populace were suspicious of them. Quarrelling with their own leaders as well as with the strangers, they killed their kings, Atis and Galatos, and had a pitched battle with the other Galatians in which many fell on either side [286 BCE]. The Romans had been alarmed by the advance of the Galatians, and a legion was on its way. But, on hearing of the Galatians’ self-inflicted losses, they returned home. Five years after this alarm, in the consul­ship of Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, the Romans divided among their citizens the territory in Galatia [i.e. the Celtic region] known as Picenum, from which they had ejected the Senonians when they conquered them [282 BCE]. Gaius Flaminius was the originator of this popular policy, which we must pronounce to have been, one may say, the first step in the demoralization of the populace, as well as the cause of the war with the Galatians which followed. For what prompted many of the Galatians and especially the Boians, whose territory bordered on that of Rome, to take action was the conviction that now the Romans no longer made war on them for the sake of supremacy and sovereignty, but with a view to their total expulsion and extermination.

22 The two largest peoples, therefore, the Insubrians and Boians, made a league and sent messengers to the Galatians dwelling among the Alps and near the Rhone river, who are called Gaesatians because they “serve for hire” (this being the actual meaning of the word). They urged and incited their kings Concolitanus and Aneroestus to make war on Rome, offering them at present a large sum in gold. Regarding the future, they pointed out to them the great prosperity of the Romans and the vast wealth that would be theirs if they were victorious. They had no difficulty in persuading them, as, in addition to all this, they pledged themselves to be loyal allies and reminded them of the achievement of their own ancestors, who had not only overcome the Romans in combat, but, after the battle, had assaulted and taken Rome itself, possessing themselves of all it contained. Furthermore, after remaining masters of the city for seven months, they had finally given it up of their own free will and, as an act of grace, had returned home with their spoil, unbroken and unscathed. When the kings had been told all this, they became so eager for the expedition that on no occasion has that district of Galatia [i.e. the Celtic region] sent out so large a force or one composed of men so distinguished or so warlike. All this time, the Romans, either hearing what was happening or divining what was coming, were in such a state of constant alarm and unrest, that at times we find them busy enrolling legions and making provision of grain and other stores, at times marching to the frontier, as if the enemy had already invaded their territory, while as a fact the Celts had not yet budged from their own land.

This movement of the Galatians contributed in no small measure to the rapid and unimpeded subjugation of Spain by the Carthaginians. For the Romans, as I said above, regarded this matter as of more urgency, since the danger was on their flank, and were compelled to neglect the affairs of Spain until they had dealt with the Galatians. They therefore secured themselves against the Carthaginians by the treaty with Hasdrubal, the terms of which I stated above, and threw their whole effort into the struggle with their enemies in Italy, considering it their main interest to bring this to a decisive conclusion.

23 The Gaesatian Galatians, having collected a richly equipped and formidable force, crossed the Alps, and descended into the plain of the Po in the eighth year after the partition of Picenum [225 BCE]. The Insubrians and Boians held stoutly to their original purpose. But the Venetians and Cenomanians, on the Romans sending an embassy to them, decided to give them their support. As a result, the Celtic chiefs were obliged to leave part of their forces behind to protect their territory from invasion by these peoples. They themselves marched confidently out with their whole available army, consisting of about fifty thousand foot and twenty thousand horse and chariots, and advanced on Tyrrhenia [Etruria]. The Romans, the moment they heard that the Galatians had crossed the Alps, sent Lucius Aemilius, their consul, with his army to Ariminum to await there the attack of the enemy, and one of their praetors to Tyrrhenia, their other consul, Gaius Atilius having already gone to Sardinia with his legions.

There was great and general alarm in Rome, as they thought they were in imminent and serious peril, and this indeed was but natural, as the terror the old invasion had inspired still dwelt in their minds. No one thought of anything else. Therefore, they busied themselves mustering and enrolling their own legions and ordered those of the allies to be in readiness. All their subjects in general were commanded to supply lists of men of military age, as they wished to know what their total forces amounted to. Of grain, missiles and other war material they had laid such a supply as no one could remember to have been collected on any previous occasion. On every side there was a ready disposition to help in every possible way. For the inhabitants of Italy, struck with terror at the invasion of the Galatians, no longer thought of themselves as the allies of Rome or regarded this war as undertaken to establish Roman supremacy, but every man considered that the peril was descending on himself and his own city and countryside. So there was great enthusiasm for obeying orders.

[Threat of Hannibal and the number of forces allied with the Romans]

24 But, that it may appear from actual facts what a great power it was that Hannibal ventured to attack, and how mighty was that empire boldly confronting which he came so near his purpose as to bring great disasters on Rome, I must state what were their resources and the actual number of their forces at this time. Each of the consuls was in command of four legions of Roman citizens, each consisting of five thousand two hundred foot and three hundred horse. The allied forces in each consular army numbered thirty thousand foot and two thousand horse. The cavalry of the Sabinians and Tyrrhenians, who had come to the temporary assistance of Rome, were four thousand strong, their infantry above fifty thousand. The Romans massed these forces and posted them on the frontier of Tyrrhenia under the command of a praetor. The levy of the Umbrians and Sarsinates inhabiting the Apennines amounted to about twenty thousand, and with these were twenty thousand Venetians and Cenomanians. These they stationed on the frontier of Galatia [i.e. the Celtic region], to invade the territory of the Boians and divert them back from their expedition. These were the armies protecting the Roman territory.

In Rome itself there was a reserve force, ready for any war-contingency, consisting of twenty thousand foot and fifteen hundred horse, all Roman citizens, and thirty thousand foot and two thousand horse furnished by the allies. The lists of men able to bear arms that had been returned were as follows: Latins eighty thousand foot and five thousand horse; Samnites seventy thousand foot and seven thousand horse; Iapygians and Messapians fifty thousand foot and sixteen thousand horse in all; Lucanians thirty thousand foot and three thousand horse; and, Marsians, Marrucinians, Frentanians, and Vestinians twenty thousand foot and four thousand horse. In Sicily and Tarentum were two reserve legions, each consisting of about four thousand two hundred foot and two hundred horse. Among the Romans and Campanians there were on the roll two hundred and fifty thousand foot and twenty-three thousand horse. The result was that the total number of Romans and allies able to bear arms was more than seven hundred thousand foot and seventy thousand horse, while Hannibal invaded Italy with an army of less than twenty thousand men. On this matter I shall be able to give my readers more explicit information in the course of this work.

25 The Celts, descending on Tyrrhenia, overran the countryside devastating it without let or hindrance and, as nobody appeared to oppose them, they marched on Rome itself. When they had got as far as Clusium, a city three days’ journey from Rome, news reached them that the advanced force which the Romans had posted in Tyrrhenia was on their heels and approaching. On hearing this, they turned to meet it, eager to engage it. At sunset the two armies were in close proximity, and encamped for the night at no great distance from each other. After nightfall, the Celts lit their camp-fires, and, leaving orders with their cavalry to wait until daybreak and then, when visible to the enemy, to follow on their track, they themselves secretly retreated to a town called Faesulae and posted themselves there, their intention being to wait for their cavalry, and also to put unexpected difficulties in the way of the enemy’s attack. At daybreak, the Romans, seeing the cavalry alone and thinking the Celts had taken to flight, followed the cavalry with all speed on the line of the Celts’ retreat. On their approaching the enemy, the Celts left their position and attacked them, and a conflict, at first very stubborn, took place, in which finally the numbers and courage of the Celts prevailed, not fewer than six thousand Romans falling and the rest taking to flight. Most of them retreated to a hill of some natural strength where they remained. The Celts at first attempted to besiege them, but as they were getting the worst of it, fatigued as they were by their long night march and the suffering and hardships it involved, they hastened to rest and refresh themselves, leaving a detachment of their cavalry to keep guard round the hill, intending next day to besiege the fugitives, if they did not offer to surrender.

26 At this very time Lucius Aemilius, who was in command of the advanced force near the Adriatic, on hearing that the Celts had invaded Tyrrhenia and were approaching Rome, came in haste to help, fortunately arriving in the nick of time. He encamped near the enemy, and the fugitives on the hill, seeing his camp-fires and understanding what had occurred, immediately plucked up courage and dispatched by night some unarmed messengers through the wood to announce to the commander the plight they were in. On hearing of it and seeing that there was no alternative course under the circumstances, the latter ordered his tribunes to march out the infantry at daybreak, he himself proceeding in advance with the cavalry towards the hill mentioned above. The leaders of the Galatians, on seeing the camp-fires at night, surmised that the enemy had arrived and held a council at which the King Aneroëstes expressed the opinion, that having captured so much booty (for it appears that the quantity of slaves, cattle and miscellaneous spoil was enormous), they should not give battle again nor risk the fortune of the whole enterprise, but return home in safety, and having got rid of all their encumbrances and lightened themselves, return and, if advisable, try issues with the Romans. It was decided under the circumstances to take the course recommended by Aneroestes, and having come to this resolution in the night, they broke up their camp before daybreak and retreated along the sea-coast through Tyrrhenia. Lucius now took with him from the hill the survivors of the other army and united them with his other forces. He thought it by no means advisable to risk a general battle, but decided to hang on the enemy’s rear and watch for times and places favourable for inflicting damage on them or wresting some of the spoil from their hands.

27 Just at this time, Gaius Atilius, the other consul, had reached Pisa from Sardinia with his legions and was on his way to Rome, marching in the opposite direction to the enemy. When the Celts were near Telamon in Tyrrhenia, their advanced foragers encountered the advance guard of Gaius and were made prisoners. On being examined by the consul they narrated all that had recently occurred and told him of the presence of the two armies, stating that the Galatians were quite near and Lucius behind them. The news surprised him but at the same time made him very hopeful, as he thought he had caught the Galatians on the march between the two armies. He ordered his tribunes to put the legions in fighting order and to advance thus at marching pace in so far as the nature of the ground allowed the attack in line. He himself had happily noticed a hill situated above the road by which the Celts must pass, and taking his cavalry with him, advanced at full speed, being anxious to occupy the crest of the hill before their arrival and be the first to begin the battle, feeling certain that thus he would get the largest share of credit for the result. The Celts at first were ignorant of the arrival of Atilius and imagined from what they saw, that Aemilius’ cavalry had got round their flank in the night and were engaged in occupying the position. They therefore at once sent on their own cavalry and some of their light-armed troops to dispute the possession of the hill. But very soon they learned of Gaius’ presence from one of the prisoners brought in, and lost no time in drawing up their infantry, deploying them so that they faced both front and rear, since, both from the intelligence that reached them and from what was happening before their eyes, they knew that the one army was following them, and they expected to meet the other in their front.

28 Aemilius, who had heard of the landing of the legions at Pisa but had not any idea that they were already so near him, now, when he saw the fight going on round the hill, knew that the other Roman army was quite close. Accordingly, sending on his cavalry to help those who were fighting on the hill, he drew up his infantry in the usual order and advanced against the foe. The Celts had drawn up facing their rear, from which they expected Aemilius to attack, the Gaesatians from the Alps and behind them the Insubrians, and facing in the opposite direction, ready to meet the attack of Gaius’ legions, they placed the Tauriscians and the Boians from the right bank of the Po. Their wagons and chariots they stationed at the extremity of either wing and collected their booty on one of the neighbouring hills with a protecting force round it.

This order of the Celtic forces, facing both ways, not only presented a formidable appearance, but was well adapted to the exigencies of the situation. The Insubrians and Boians wore their trousers and light cloaks, but the Gaesatians had discarded these garments owing to their proud confidence in themselves, and stood naked, with nothing but their arms, in front of the whole army, thinking that thus they would be more efficient, as some of the ground was overgrown with brambles​ which would catch in their clothes and impede the use of their weapons. At first the battle was confined to the hill, all the armies gazing on it, so great were the numbers of cavalry from each host combating there pell-mell. In this action Gaius the consul fell in the mellay fighting with desperate courage, and his head was brought to the Celtic kings; but the Roman cavalry, after a stubborn struggle, at length overmastered the enemy and gained possession of the hill. The infantry were now close upon each other, and the spectacle was a strange and marvellous one, not only to those actually present at the battle, but to all who could afterwards picture it to themselves from the reports.

29 For in the first place, as the battle was between three armies, it is evident that the appearance and the movements of the forces marshalled against each other must have been in the highest degree strange and unusual. Again, it must have been to all present, and still is to us, a matter of doubt whether the Celts, with the enemy advancing on them from both sides, were more dangerously situated, or, on the contrary, more effectively, since at one and the same time they were fighting against both their enemies and were protecting themselves in the rear from both, while, above all, they were absolutely cut off from retreat or any prospect of escape in the case of defeat, this being the peculiarity of this two-faced formation. The Romans, however, were on the one hand encouraged by having caught the enemy between their two armies, but on the other they were terrified by the fine order of the Celtic host and the dreadful din, for there were innumerable horn-blowers and trumpeters, and, as the whole army were shouting their war-cries at the same time, there was such a tumult of sound that it seemed that not only the trumpets and the soldiers but all the land round had got a voice and caught up the cry. Very terrifying too were the appearance and the gestures of the naked warriors in front, all in the prime of life, and finely built men, and all in the leading companies richly adorned with gold torques and armlets. The sight of them indeed dismayed the Romans, but at the same time the prospect of winning such spoils made them twice as keen for the fight.

30 But when those who use javelins advanced, as is their usage, from the ranks of the Roman legions and began to hurl their javelins in well-aimed volleys, the Celts in the rear ranks indeed were well protected by their trousers and cloaks, but it fell out far otherwise than they had expected with the naked men in front, and they found themselves in a very difficult and helpless predicament. For the Galatian shield does not cover the whole body. The result was that their nakedness was a disadvantage, and the bigger they were​ the better chance had the missiles of going home. At length, unable to drive off the javelin throwers owing to the distance and the hail of javelins, and reduced to the utmost distress and perplexity, some of them, in their impotent rage, rushed wildly on the enemy and sacrificed their lives, while others, retreating step by step on the ranks of their comrades, threw them into disorder by their display of faint-heartedness. Thus was the spirit of the Gaesatians broken down by the javelin throwers; but the main body of the Insubrians, Boians, and Tauriscians, once the javelin throwers had withdrawn into the ranks and the Roman maniples attacked them, met the enemy and kept up a stubborn hand-to‑hand combat. For, though being almost cut to pieces, they held their ground, equal to their foes in courage, and inferior only, as a force and individually, in their arms. The Roman shields, it should be added, were far more serviceable for defence and their swords for attack, the Galatian sword being only good for a cut and not for a thrust. But finally, attacked from higher ground and on their flank by the Roman cavalry, which rode down the hill and charged them vigorously, the Celtic infantry were cut to pieces where they stood, their cavalry taking to flight.

31 About forty thousand Celts were slain and at least ten thousand taken prisoners, among them the king Concolitanus. The other king, Aneroestes, escaped with a few followers to a certain place where he put an end to his life and to those of his friends. The Roman consul collected the spoils and sent them to Rome, returning the booty of the Galatians to the owners. With his legions he traversed Liguria and invaded the territory of the Boians, from whence, after letting his legions pillage to their heart’s content, he returned at their head in a few days to Rome. He sent to ornament the Capitol the standards and necklaces (the gold necklets worn by the Galatians), but the rest of the spoil and the prisoners he used for his entry into Rome and the adornment of his triumph.

Thus were destroyed these Celts during whose invasion, the most serious that had ever occurred, all the Italians and especially the Romans had been exposed to great and terrible peril. This success encouraged the Romans to hope that they would be able entirely to expel the Celts from the plain of the Po and both the consuls of the next year, Quintus Fulvius and Titus Manlius, were sent against them with a formidable expeditionary force [224 BCE]. They surprised and terrified the Boians, compelling them to submit to Rome, but the rest of the campaign had no practical results whatever, owing to the very heavy rains, and an epidemic which broke out among them.

32 Next year’s consuls, however, Publius Furius and Gaius Flaminius, again invaded the Celtic territory, through the land of the Anares who dwelt not far from Massalia [223 BCE]. Having admitted this tribe to their friendship, they crossed into the territory of the Insubrians, near the junction of the Po and Adda. Both in crossing and in encamping on the other side, they suffered some loss, and at first remained on the spot, but later made a truce and evacuated the territory under its terms. After a circuitous march of some days, they crossed the river Clusius and reached the land of the Cenomani, who were their allies, and accompanied by them, again invaded from the district at the foot of the Alps the plains of the Insubrians and began to lay the land waste and pillage their dwellings. The chieftains of the Insubrians, seeing that the Romans adhered to their purpose of attacking them, decided to try their luck in a decisive battle. Collecting all their forces in one place, they took down the golden standards called “immovable” from the temple of Minerva, and having made all other necessary preparations, boldly took up a menacing position opposite the enemy. They were about fifty thousand strong. The Romans, on the one hand, as they saw that the enemy were much more numerous than themselves, were desirous of employing also the forces of their Celtic allies, but on the other hand, taking into consideration Galatian unpredictability (or: fickleness) and the fact that they were going to fight against those of the same nation as these allies, they were wary of asking such men to participate in an action of such vital importance. Finally, remaining themselves on their side of the river, they sent the Celts who were with them across it, and demolished the bridges that crossed the stream, firstly as a precaution against their allies, and secondly to leave themselves no hope of safety except in victory, the river, which was impassable, lying in their rear. After taking these measures they prepared for battle.

33 The Romans are thought to have managed matters very skilfully in this battle, their tribunes having instructed them how they should fight, both as individuals and collectively. For they had observed from former battles that Galatians in general are most formidable and spirited in their first onslaught, while still fresh, and that, from the way their swords are made, as has been already explained, only the first cut takes effect; after this they at once assume the shape of a strigil, being so much bent both length-wise and side-wise that unless the men are given leisure to rest them on the ground and set them straight with the foot, the second blow is quite ineffectual. The tribunes therefore distributed among the front lines the spears of the triarii who were stationed behind them, ordering them to use their swords instead only after the spears were done with. They then drew up opposite the Celts in order of battle and engaged. Upon the Galatians slashing first at the spears and making their swords unserviceable the Romans came to close quarters, having rendered the enemy helpless by depriving them of the power of raising their hands and cutting, which is the peculiar and only stroke of the Galatians, as their swords have no points. The Romans, on the contrary, instead of slashing continued to thrust with their swords which did not bend, the points being very effective. Thus, striking one blow after another on the breast or face, they slew the greater part of their adversaries. This was solely due to the foresight of the tribunes, the consul Flaminius being thought to have mismanaged the battle by deploying his force at the very edge of the river-bank and thus rendering impossible a tactical movement peculiar to the Romans, as he left the lines no room to fall back gradually. For had the troops been even in the slightest degree pushed back from their ground during the battle, they would have had to throw themselves into the river, all owing to their general’s blunder. However, as it was, they gained a decisive victory by their own skill and valour, as I said, and returned to Rome with a quantity of booty and many trophies.

34 Next year the Celts sent ambassadors begging for peace and engaging to accept any conditions, but the new consuls Marcus Claudius and Gnaeus Cornelius strongly urged that no peace should be granted them [222 BCE]. On meeting with a refusal, the Celts decided to resort to their last hope and again appealed to the Gaesatians on the Rhone river, and hired a force of about thirty thousand men. When they had these troops they kept them in readiness and awaited the attack of the enemy. The Roman consuls, when the season came, invaded the territory of the Insubrians with their legions. Encamping round a city called Acerrae lying between the Po and the Alps, they laid siege to it. The Insubrians could not come to the assistance of the besieged, as the Romans had occupied all the advantageous positions, but, with the object of making the latter raise the siege, they crossed the Po with part of their forces, and entering the territory of the Anares, laid siege to a town there called Clastidium. On the consuls learning of this, Marcus Claudius set off in haste with the cavalry and a small body of infantry to relieve the besieged if possible. The Celts, as soon as they were aware of the enemy’s arrival, raised the siege and advancing to meet them, drew up in order of battle. When the Romans boldly charged them with their cavalry alone, they at first stood firm, but afterwards, being taken both in the rear and on the flank, they found themselves in difficulties and were finally put to rout by the cavalry unaided, many of them throwing themselves into the river and being swept away by the current, while the larger number were cut to pieces by the enemy. The Romans now took Acerrae, which was well stocked with grain, the Galatians retiring to Mediolanum, the chief place in the territory of the Insubrians. Gnaeus followed close on their heels, and suddenly appeared before Mediolanum. The Galatians at first did not stir, but, when he was on his way back to Acerrae, they sallied out, and made a bold attack on his rear, in which they killed a considerable number of the Romans and even forced a portion of them to take to flight, until Gnaeus, calling back the forces in advance, urged the fugitives to rally and withstand the enemy. After this the Romans, on their part obeying their consul, continued to fight vigorously with their assailants, and the Celts after holding their ground for a time, encouraged as they were by their momentary success, were shortly put to flight and took refuge on the mountains. Gnaeus, following them, laid waste the land and took Mediolanum itself by assault, 35 upon which the chieftains of the Insubrians, despairing of safety, put themselves entirely at the mercy of the Romans.

[Polybios’ conclusion on Celts’ spirit and lack of intelligence]

Such was the end of the war [of the Romans] against the Celts [in 222 BCE]. This is a war which is second to no other war in history, if we look to the desperation and daring of the combatants and the numbers who took part and perished in the battles, but it is quite contemptible as regards the plan of the campaigns and the judgment shown in executing it. Not just most steps but every single step that the Galatians took was decided based on emotional spirit (thymos) rather than reasonable thinking (logismos). As I have witnessed them not long afterwards entirely expelled from the plain of the Po river [Padan Plain, north of Italy], except a few regions close under the Alps, I did not think it right to make no mention either of their original invasion or of their subsequent conduct and their final expulsion.

[Barbarians’ power is temporary]

For I think it is the proper task of history to record and hand down to future generations such episodes of Fortune. That way, those who live after us may not, out of complete ignorance of these incidents, be unduly terrified by sudden and unexpected invasions of barbarians. Instead, having a fair comprehension of how short-lived and perishable is the power of such peoples, they may confront the invaders and put every hope of safety to the test, before yielding anything they value. For indeed I consider that the writers who chronicled and handed down to us the story of the Persian invasion of Greece and the attack of the Galatians on Delphi have made no small contribution to the struggle of the Greeks for their common freedom. For there is no one whom hosts of men or abundance of arms or vast resources could frighten into abandoning his last hope, that is to fight to the end for his homeland. That is, if such a person remembered what part the unexpected played in those events and kept in mind how many thousands of men, what determined courage and what weapons were brought to nothing by the resolve and power of those who faced the danger with intelligence and reasonable thinking. It is not only in old times but more than once in my own days that the Greeks have been alarmed by the prospect of an invasion by Galatians. This was especially my motive for giving here an account of these events but going back to the beginnings, even if summarily.

36 This digression has led us away from the affairs of Spain, where Hasdrubal, after governing the country for eight years, was assassinated at night in his lodging by a certain Celt owing to wrongs of a private nature. . .


Book 3

[Method in describing far-off lands and peoples]

57 Now that I have brought my narrative and the war the two generals [Roman Scipio and Carthaginian Hasdrubal] into Italy, I desire, before dealing with the struggle, to say a few words on what I think proper to my method in this work. Some readers will perhaps ask themselves why, since most of what I have said relates to Libya [Africa] and Iberia [Spain], I have not said a word more about the mouth of the Mediterranean at the Pillars of Herakles, or about the Outer sea [Atlantic Ocean] and its peculiarities, or about the islands of Britannia and the method of obtaining tin, and the gold and silver mines in Iberia itself. These are all matters which authors dispute with each other at great length. I have omitted these subjects not because I think they are foreign to my history, but in the first place because I did not wish to be constantly interrupting the narrative and distracting readers from the actual subject, and next because I decided not to make scattered and casual allusions to such matters.

Instead, assigning the proper place and time to their special treatment to give as true an account of everything that is in my power. So no one needs to be surprised when in the course of my history I reach such localities, if I avoid for the reason here stated any description of them. But if there be any who insist on such descriptions of each place that may be mentioned, they are perhaps unaware that they are like over-eaters at a supper party who taste everything on the table and neither truly enjoy any dish at the moment nor digest any enough to derive beneficial nourishment from it in the future. So those who act in the same way about reading do not properly attain either present entertainment or future benefit.

58 That no part of history requires more circumspection and more correction by the light of truth than this is evident from many considerations and chiefly from the following: While nearly all authors or at least the majority have attempted to describe the peculiarities and the situation of the countries at the extremities of the known world, most of them are mistaken on many points. We must therefore by no means pass over the subject, but we must say a word to them, and that not casually and by scattered allusions, but giving due attention to it. In what we say we must not find fault with or rebuke them, but rather be grateful to them and correct them when wrong, knowing as we do that they also – if they had the privilege of living today – would correct and modify many of their own statements. In old times, indeed, we find very few Greeks who attempted to inquire into the outlying parts of the world, owing to the practical impossibility of doing so. For the sea had so many perils that it is difficult to enumerate them, and the land ever so many more. Again, even if anyone by his own choice or by the force of circumstances reached the extremity of the world, that did not mean that he was able to accomplish his purpose. For it was a difficult matter to see so many things closely with one’s own eyes, owing to some of the countries being utterly barbarous and others quite desolate. Furthermore, it was still more difficult to get information about the things one did see, owing to the difference of the language. Then, even if anyone did see for himself and observe the facts, it was even still more difficult for him to be moderate in his statements, to reject all talk of “marvels” and, preferring truth for its own sake, to tell us nothing beyond it.

59 As, therefore, it was almost impossible in the old days to give a true account of the regions I speak about, we should not find fault with the writers for their omissions or mistakes. Instead, we should praise and admire them, considering the times they lived in, for having ascertained something on the subject and advanced our knowledge. But in our own times since, owing to Alexander’s domination in Asia and the domination of the Romans in other parts of the world, nearly all regions have become approachable by sea or land. Since our men of action in Greece are relieved from the ambitions of a military or political career and have therefore ample means for inquiry and study, we should be able to arrive at a better knowledge and something more like the truth about lands which were formerly little known. This is what I myself will attempt to do when I find a suitable place in this work for introducing the subject, and I will then ask those who are curious about such things to give their undivided attention to me. This is in view of the fact that I underwent the perils of journeys through Libya, Iberia, and Galatia. I also underwent voyages on the seas that lie on the farther side of these countries, mostly for this very purpose of correcting the errors of former writers and making those parts of the world also known to the Greeks. But now returning to the point at which I digressed from my narrative I shall attempt to describe the battles between the Romans and Carthaginians in Italy. . .


Source of the translation: W.R. Paton, Polybius: The Histories, 6 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1922-27), public domain (Paton passed away in 1921), adapted by Harland.

2 thoughts on “Celts: Polybios on the Celtic encounter with Rome and on his method in dealing with distant peoples (second century BCE)

  1. Valerie Nicolet


    Just a small comment about the note in book 2.19 which confused me a little bit. It refers to Sena as being around Sens, France. But I imagine the reference is to Sena Gallica on the Adriatic Coast, to the east of Arretium, today called Senigalli, since Polybios identifies it as being on the Adriatic:
    “This was the first part of Galatia [i.e. the Celtic region] in which they planted a colony, calling it “Sena” [around Sens, France] after the name of the Galatians who formerly inhabited it. This is the city I mentioned above as lying near the Adriatic at the extremity of the plain of the Po.”
    I imagine the connection with Sens comes from the fact that the Gauls who attacked Arretium were Senonians who came from Sens, and thus gave their names to Sena in Italy. Then possibly the note could be [after Sens, France] to avoid the confusion?

    It’s a small thing, and it does not matter much on the whole!

    In any case, thank you for the wonderful work done in making these sources easily available.

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