Celtic diasporas: Galatian mercenaries settled at Alexandria in Egypt (ca. 250-200 BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Celtic diasporas: Galatian mercenaries settled at Alexandria in Egypt (ca. 250-200 BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified August 22, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=14840.

Slab of limestone for “Bitos (?) the Galatian” in the Soldier’s Tomb at Alexandria depicting a standing soldier with a long blue cloak down to the bottom of the calves, a spear in his right hand, and a tall oval shield from his feet to this chin (250-200 BCE; Met, no. 04.17.5 = Brown 1957, no. 3; 38.1 cm x 8.9 cm):

Slab for a Galatian whose name is largely worn away (-astos) depicting a man (with a black moustache and blue cloak fastened on the right shoulder) reaching out towards a cup held by a darker-skinned boy to the viewer’s left wearing a tunic (holding a lance with a large greenish-blue oval shield on the ground resting on his chest) (Met, no. 04.17.6 = Brown 1957, no. 5; 37.6 × 24.4 × 8.6 cm):

Slab for “Isidoros the Galatian” depicting a man wearing a bright blue cloak (likely nude under that) and shaking hands with two little girls in long pink robes on the viewer’s left (Met, no. 04.17.4 = Brown 1957, no. 6; 41.9 × 24.4 × 9.8 cm):

Slab for “Ailiearatos son of Aidosotis the Galatian” depicting a man wearing a cloak (perhaps nude underneath) and a helmet with a large oval shield in his left hand and a spear in his right hand (Saint Germain-en-Laye, no. 31235 = Brown 1957, no. 8 = Reinach 1911, no. 2, which is the source of this image):

Slab for “Pyrrhos the Galatian” depicting a soldier wearing a long cloak with a large oval shield in his left hand and a spear in his right hand (Saint Germain-en-Laye, no. 31233 = Brown 1957, no. 9 = Reinach 1911, no. 3, the source of this image):

Slab for “Atiuos the Celt” depicting a woman (perhaps his wife) at a banquet reclining by a servant (Louvre, MA 3638; Reinach 1911, no. 6, the source of this image):

Comments: The most obvious cases of Celtic diasporas in the Hellenistic world, of course, were the major migrations and settlements of at least three main sub-groups of Celts – often synonymous with “Galatians” in Greek or “Gauls” in Latin – who established themselves in central Anatolia or Turkey in the third century BCE, resulting in that region also being labelled “Galatia.” These were the Trokmians, Tolistobogians, and Tektosagians (link to Strabo’s discussion). You can read about those migrations and some Greek reactions to the “invaders” in 279 BCE and following in several other posts, starting with the one at this link. However, there is also evidence of other, lesser-known Celtic diasporas, including the Galatian mercenaries dealt with in this post.

Successive hegemonic or imperial powers liked to cast (in both literary and artistic forms) Celts and Galatians in a negative light as highly spirited warriors who were also erratic, savage, and inferior as a people. Yet these very same Hellenistic (e.g. Seleucids, Ptolemies, Attalids) and Roman powers were known to actually hire such Celts as mercenaries for their own campaigns. Those mercenaries would then potentially permanently settle in a new home abroad, as with the Galatians who were buried (cremated, stored in jars, and closed in with the slabs) in the so-called “Soldier’s Tomb” in the last half of the third century BCE about two kilometres east of Alexandria in Egypt (among other soldiers including a Thessalian).

The self-presentations of these Galatians settled in Alexandria (who were mercenaries or descendents of mercenaries in the Ptolemaic army) contrast significantly to negative Greek and Roman stereotypes (as with dying Gauls at this link and that link), as might be expected (see Cassibry for further examples of this expected tension). There are some symbols found in both Greek characterizations and Celtic self-representations, such as the large oval shield. However, despite the worn nature of the paintings, these Celtic presentations always involve some clothing (cloaks, even if nude underneath) along with military gear (whereas Greek literary and visual representations obsess about the supposed nudity of Celtic soldiers). At least two of the Galatians have Greek names here (alongside those with Celtic names) and all present a Greek inscription, pointing towards some level of acculturation to Greek ways. This is also the case with the slabs themselves, which align with the design of those from contemporary Attica (see Brown). It is notable that one grave uses “Celt” as a self-identifier in Greek rather than “Galatian.”

Works consulted: B.R. Brown, Ptolemaic Paintings and Mosaics and the Alexandrian Style (Cambridge, MA: Archaeological Institute of America, 1957), especially pp. 13-51, with more photos in plates (link); K. Cassibry, “The Tyranny of the Dying Gaul : Confronting an Ethnic Stereotype in Ancient Art,” The Art Bulletin 99 (2017): 6–40; A. Reinach, “Les Galates dans l’art Alexandrin,” Monuments et mémoires de la Fondation Eugène Piot 18 (1911): 37–116 (link).

Source of images: All images identified above as either from the Metropolitan Museum, New York (used under the Museum’s terms), or Reinach 1911, public domain.

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