Celts: Trogus on Gallic invasions and character (first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Celts: Trogus on Gallic invasions and character (first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 1, 2024, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=16337.

Ancient author: Pompeius Trogus (first century BCE) as cited by Justin, Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus 24.4-8; 25.2; and, 32.3 (link; link to Latin).

Comments: At the outset, it is worth remembering that Trogus himself was from Gaul. Justin’s summary of Trogus’ account of the invasions of the Celts or Gauls in the early third century nonetheless delves into the war-like character of the people, contrasting Celtic rashness to Greek (Delphians are the focus) piety.  He also sketches out a story of violent migrations. These depictions of the Celtic invasions can be compared with other accounts in both literary evidence and inscriptions (Iink).


[Migrations and character of the Celts / Gauls, ca. 300-270s BCE]

(24.4-8) When the land that had produced the Gauls was unable to contain them due to an excessive increase in the population, the Gauls sent out three hundred thousand men, as a “sacred spring,” to seek new settlements. Among these adventurers, one part settled in Italy and took and burned the city of Rome. Another part reached into the remotest parts of Illyria (Illyricum) under the direction of a flight of birds (because the Gauls are more skilled in interpreting messages of the gods in the flights of birds) making their way amidst great slaughter of the barbarians, and they settled in Pannonia. They were a savage, bold, and war-like descent group (gens). They were the first after Hercules (to whom that undertaking procured great admiration for his valour, and a belief in his immortality) to pass the unconquered heights of the Alps, and places uninhabitable from excessive cold.

After having subdued the Pannonians, they carried on various wars with their neighbours for many years. Success encouraging them, they went in separate bands, some into Greece and some into Macedonia [ca. 279 BCE], destroying with the sword everything in their path. In fact, there is so much terror associated with the name of the Gauls that even kings, before they were attacked, purchased peace from them with large sums of money. Ptolemy [Keraunos] alone, the king of Macedonia [ca. 281-279 BCE], heard of the approach of the Gauls without alarm. Driven on by the Furies that punish killing of one’s relatives, Ptolemy went out to meet them with a few untrained troops, as if wars could be dispatched with as little difficulty as murders. An embassy from the Dardanians [northwest of ancient Macedonia] offered him twenty thousand armed men to assist. He turned them away and added further insulting language, saying that “the Macedonians were in a sad condition if, after having subdued the whole east without assistance, they now required aid from the Dardanians to defend their country; and, that he had for soldiers the sons of those who had served under Alexander the Great, and had been victorious throughout the world.” When this answer was repeated to the Dardanian prince, he observed that “the famous kingdom of Macedonia would soon fall as a sacrifice to the rashness of a raw youth.”

[Invasion of Macedonia and death of Ptolemy Keraunos]

So the Gauls, under the command of the Bolgios, sent deputies to Ptolemy to sound the disposition of the Macedonians, offering him peace if he liked to purchase it. However, Ptolemy boasted to the members of his court that the Gauls requested peace from fear of war. Nor was his manner less boastful before the ambassadors than before his own adherents, saying that he “would grant peace only on condition that they would give their generals as hostages, and deliver up their weapons, because he would put no trust in them until they were disarmed.” When the deputies brought back this answer, the Gauls laughed and exclaimed throughout their camp, that “he would soon see whether they had offered peace from regard for themselves or for him.” Some days after a battle was fought, and the Macedonians were defeated and cut to pieces. Ptolemy, after receiving several wounds, was captured. His head was cut off and stuck on a lance, being carried around the whole army to strike terror into the enemy. Flight saved a few of the Macedonians. The rest were either taken or slain.

When the news of this event was spread through all Macedonia, the gates of the city were shut, and all places filled with mourning. Sometimes they lamented their bereavement, from the loss of their children. Sometimes they were seized with dread, in the event their cities would be destroyed. At still other times they called on the names of their kings, Alexander and Philip, as deities, to protect them, saying that “under them they were not only secure, but conquerors of the world.” They were begging that “they would guard their country, whose fame they had raised to heaven by the glory of their exploits, and give assistance to the afflicted, whom the insanity and rashness of Ptolemy had ruined.”

While everyone was in despair like this, Sosthenes, one of the Macedonian generals, thinking that nothing would be accomplished by prayers, assembled such as were of age for war, repulsed the Gauls in the midst of their exultation at their victory, and saved Macedonia from devastation. For these great services, Sosthenes (though of humble extraction) was chosen before many nobles that aspired to the throne of Macedonia. However, even though he was saluted as king by the army, he made the soldiers take an oath to him, not as king, but as general.

[Other Celtic groups’ invasion of Macedonia and Greece, ca. 279 BCE]

In the meantime Brennos, under whose command a portion of the Gauls had made an incursion into Greece. These Gauls had heard of the success of their countrymen who, under the leadership of Belgios, had defeated the Macedonians, and they were indignant that such rich plunder, consisting of the spoils of the east, had been so lightly abandoned. So they assembled an army of a hundred and fifty thousand foot-soldiers and fifteen thousand horsemen, and suddenly invaded Macedonia. As he was destroying the fields and villages, Sosthenes met him with his army of Macedonians in full array. However, since they were few in number and in some consternation, they were easily overcome by the more numerous and powerful Gauls. As the defeated Macedonians retired within the walls of their cities, the victorious Brennos, who met no opposition, ravaged the lands throughout all of Macedonia. Soon after, as if the spoils of mortals were too insignificant for him, he turned his thoughts to the temples of the immortal gods, saying, with a profane joke, that “the gods, being rich, should be generous to men.” So Brennos suddenly directed his march towards Delphi, regarding plunder more than duty to the gods (religio), and caring about gold more than the wrath of the gods” He said that “ the gods stood in no need of riches, since they were accustomed instead to grant riches to mortals.” . . . [omitted Trogus’ / Justin’s explanation of Delphi].

[Celts invade Delphi]

Brennos, when he came within sight of the temple, deliberated for some time about whether he should immediately make an attempt to take it or if he should allow his soldiers, tired from the march, a night to refresh themselves. The captains of the Ainianians and Thessalians, who had joined him for a share in the booty, advised that no delay should be made, while the enemy were unprovided for defence, and the alarm at their coming still fresh. They advised that in the interval of a night, the courage of the enemy would perhaps revive, and assistance come to them, and that the approaches, which were now open, might be blocked up. But the common soldiers, when, after a long endurance of scarcity, they found a country abounding with wine and other provisions, had dispersed themselves over the fields, rejoicing as much at the plenty as if they had gained a victory, and leaving their standards deserted, wandered about to seize on everything like conquerors. This conduct gave some respite to the Delphians.

At the first report that the Gauls were approaching, the people in the countryside are said to have been prohibited by the oracle from carrying away their corn and wine from their houses. The advantage of this prohibition was not understood until, through this abundance of wine and other provisions being thrown in the way of the Gauls to stop their progress, reinforcements from their neighbours had time to collect. So the Delphians, supported by the strength of their allies, secured their city before the Gauls who clung to the wine-skins on which they had seized, could be recalled to their standards. Brennus had sixty-five thousand infantry, selected from his whole army; of the Delphians there were not more than four thousand; in utter contempt of whom, Brennus, to rouse the courage of his men, pointed to the vast quantity of spoil before them, declaring that the statues, and four-horse chariots, of which a great number were visible at a distance, were made of solid gold, and would prove greater prices when they came to be weighed than they were in appearance.

[Celtic rashness vs. Greek Delphian piety, with the gods defeating the Celts]

The Gauls, motivated by these assertions and, at the same time, disordered by the wine which they had drunk the day before, rushed to battle without any fear of danger. The Delphians, on the other hand, placing more confidence in the god than in their own strength, resisted the enemy with contempt and, from the top of the hill, repelled the Gauls as they climbed up, partly with pieces of rock and partly with their weapons. Amidst this contest between the two, the priests of all the temples and the priestesses with their hair loose and with their decorations and hair-ribbons, rushed, trembling and frantic, into the front ranks of the combatants. They exclaimed: “that the god had come; that they had seen him leap down into his temple through the opening roof; that, while they were all humbly imploring for help from the deity, a youth of extraordinary beauty, far above that of mortals, and two armed virgins, coming from the neighbouring temples of Diana [Artemis] and Minerva [Athena], met them; that they had not only perceived them with their eyes, but had heard also the sound of a bow and the rattling of arms.” So they conjured them with the strongest entreaties not to delay because the gods were leading them on; to spread slaughter among the enemy; and, to share the victory with the powers of heaven. Incited by these exhortations, the Delphians all rushed eagerly to the field of battle, where they themselves also soon perceived the presence of the deity, because a part of the mountain, broken off by an earthquake, overwhelmed a host of the Gauls and some of the densest bodies of the enemy were scattered around with wounds and fell to the ground. A storm then followed, destroying with hail and cold those that were suffering from bodily injuries.

The general Brennos himself, unable to endure the pain of his wounds, ended his life with a dagger. The other general, after punishing those who had encouraged the war, made off from Greece with an expedition, accompanied with ten thousand wounded men. But neither was fortune more favourable to those who fled, because in their terror they passed no night under shelter and no day without hardship and danger. Continual rains and snow congealed by the frost, famine, fatigue, and, what was the greatest evil, the constant lack of sleep, consumed the wretched remains of the unfortunate army. The descent groups and peoples through whom they marched pursued their stragglers to plunder them. So it turned out that from this large army, which had just presumed its strength to even contend with the gods, not a single man was left to be a memorial of its destruction.

[Prevalence of Celts as mercenaries]

(25.2) . . . However, the Gauls at this time were so prolific that they filled all of Asia as with one swarm. The kings of the east then carried on no wars without a mercenary army of Gauls. Nor, if they were driven from their thrones, did they seek protection with any other people than the Gauls. Such indeed was the terror of the Gallic name and the unvaried good fortune of their military skills that princes thought they could neither maintain their power in security, nor recover it if lost, without the assistance of Gallic valour. So, being called by the king of Bithynia to his aid, and having gained him the victory over his enemies, they shared his kingdom with him, and called their part of it Gallograecia [i.e. “Galatia” in Asia Minor / Turkey].


[Following up on the Celts, ca. 177 BCE]

(32.3) The Gauls, after their disastrous attack on Delphi, in which they had felt the power of the god more than that of the enemy, and had lost their leader Brennos, had fled, like exiles, partly into Asia, and partly into Thrace. They then returned by the same way by which they had come, into their own country. Among these Gauls, a certain number settled at the conflux of the Danube and Save rivers, and took the name of Skordiskians. The Tektosagians, on returning to their old settlements around Toulouse, were seized with a pestilential disease, and did not recover from it until, being warned by the admonitions of their prophets, they threw the gold and silver, which they had got in war and sacrilege, into the lake of Toulouse. All of this treasure was one hundred and ten thousand pounds of silver and fifteen hundred thousand pounds of gold. Caepio, the Roman consul, a long time after carried away all this treasure with him. But this sacrilegious act subsequently proved a cause of ruin to Caepio and his army. The rising of the Kimbrian war, too, seemed to pursue the Romans as if to avenge the removal of that devoted treasure. Among these Tektosagians, a significant number, attracted by the charms of plunder, went to Illyria and, after spoiling the Istrians, settled in Pannonia.


Source of the translation: J.S. Watson, Justin, Cornelius Nepos, and Eutropius (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853), public domain, adapted by Harland.

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