Celts: Appian of Alexandria on their character and on ambassadorial relations with Romans (second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Celts: Appian of Alexandria on their character and on ambassadorial relations with Romans (second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 28, 2024, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=17852.

Ancient author: Appian of Alexandria (second century CE), Roman Matters: Celtic Book 4.1-18 and Samnite Book 3.6, as summarized or excerpted by various epitomists and compilers (link).

Comments: We know very little about Appian beyond that he was a Greek from Alexandria, spent time as a lawyer in Rome, belonged to the equestrian order, and likely took a position as procurator under emperor Antoninus Pius in the mid-second century. Appian’s work on Roman Matters is an important source not only for the Roman civil wars but also for Rome’s engagements with other peoples (the partially preserved “Foreign Wars” section of the work), including the Celts.

Although it would have been far better for historians if Appian’s entire work had been preserved, it turns out that the Byzantine emperor in the mid-tenth century (Constantine Porphyrogenitus) did this website a bit of a favour by ordering his compilers to collect precisely passages from Appian dealing with ambassadorial relations between various peoples (in this case the Celts) and the Roman people and on virtues and vices. So in those sections of the fragments we get a partial picture of how Appian (centuries after the incidents described) viewed these relations between peoples. But there are also incidental characterizations of various groups (i.e. vices) both by way of direct description and by way of indirect comments on supposed Celtic behaviours or tendencies. In the main, most Celtic peoples here are stereotyped as violent, highly spirited, lacking self-control, and unpredictable (due to the former two characteristics). But the focus on embassies means we hear more about Celtic peoples who did attempt some diplomacy, and so there are also some less judgmental characterizations through these narrations. In fact, several of these relations involve Roman military leaders, including Julius Caesar, behaving badly.

Despite using the broad outsider category of “Celts,” it should also be carefully noticed that Appian (and his sources) make important distinctions among peoples, naming many different sub-groups. While Julius Caesar (ca. 50s-44 BCE) may have been the first to clearly distinguish “Celts” from “Germans” (literally the pure ones), many other Greek ethnographic writers may have followed the old custom of calling all these northern peoples “Celts,” on which go to this link for examples.


Celtic Book

[Summary of various Roman engagements with Celts, according to an epitomist of Appian’s work]

(1) [from Epitome of De rebus Gallicus] At an early period [ca. 389 BCE], the Celts waged war against the Romans, took Rome itself, except the Capitol, and burned it. Camillus, however, overcame and expelled them. At a later period, when they had made a second invasion, he overcame them again and enjoyed the resulting triumph, being then in his eightieth year. A third army of Celts which invaded Italy was destroyed by the Romans under Titus Quintius [ca. 361 BCE].

Afterwards the Boians (Boioi), the most savage of the Celtic peoples (ethnē), attacked the Romans [ca. 358 BCE]. Gaius Sulpicius, the dictator, marched against them, and is said to have used the following stratagy: Sulpicius commanded those who were in the front line to discharge their javelins and immediately crouch low; then the second, third, and fourth lines to discharge theirs, each crouching in turn so that they would not be struck by the spears thrown from behind; then when the last line had hurled their javelins, all were to rush forward suddenly with a shout and join battle in hand-to-hand combat. The hurling of so many missiles, followed by an immediate charge, would throw the enemy into confusion. The spears of the Celts were not like javelins, but what the Romans called pila, four-sided, part wood and part iron, and not hard except at the pointed end. In this way the army of the Boians was completely destroyed by the Romans.

Another Celtic force was defeated by Popillius, and after this Camillus, son of the former Camillus, defeated the same people [ca. 350 BCE]. Afterwards Aemilius Pappus won some trophies from the Celts [ca. 225 BCE].

Shortly before the consulships of Marius [105 BCE] a massive, warlike group of Celtic peoples, most formidable in bodily strength, made incursions into both Italy and Galatia. They defeated some of the Roman consuls and cut their armies in pieces. Marius was sent against them and he destroyed them all.

[Caesar’s campaigns]

The latest and greatest war of the Romans against the Celts [ca. 58 BCE] was that waged under the command of Caesar. In the ten years that he held command there, he fought with more than four million barbarians, taken all together. Of these one million were captured and as many more slain in battle. He reduced to subjection four hundred peoples and more than eight hundred towns, which had either revolted from their allegiance or were conquered for the first time. Even before Marius, Fabius Maximus Aemilianus with a very small army killed one hundred and twenty thousand of them in one battle, losing only fifteen of his own men [ca. 121 BCE]. He did even though he was suffering from a recent wound, urging and encouraging his troops and showing them how to fight barbarians, now transported by being carried in a litter and now hobbling on foot leaning on the arms of others.

Caesar began his war against them by gaining a victory over some two hundred thousand of the Helvetians and Tigurinians [ca. 58 BCE]. The latter at an earlier period had captured a Roman army commanded by Piso and Cassius and sent them under the yoke, as is related in the writings of Paulus Claudius. The Tigurinians were now overcome by Labienus, Caesar’s lieutenant, and the others by Caesar himself, together with the Trikorians, who were aiding them.

[Germans characterized]

Caesar also overcame the Germans under Ariovistos (or: Ariovistus). This is a people who exceeded in size even the largest men among other peoples. Their lifestyle is savage (agrioi) and they are the bravest of the brave, despising death because they believe they will live afterwards. Bearing heat and cold with equal patience, they live on plants in time of scarcity and their horses eat the leaves on trees. It seems that they lacked patient endurance in their battles and did not fight using reasoning or knowledge. Instead, with a sort of high spirit (thymos), they simply attacked like wild animals. For this reason, they were overcome by Roman knowledge and endurance. For, although the Germans made a tremendous rush and pushed the legions back a short distance, the Romans kept their ranks unbroken, and outmanoeuvred them, and eventually killed eighty thousand of them.

[Belgians, Nervians, Kimbrians, and others]

Afterwards Caesar fell upon the so-called Belgians as they were crossing a river, and killed so many of them that he crossed the stream on a bridge of their bodies [ca. 57 BCE]. The Nervians (Nerbioi) defeated him by suddenly attacking his army as it was getting itself into camp after a march. They caused a very great slaughter, killing all of his tribunes and centurions. Caesar himself took refuge on a hill with his bodyguard, and there he was surrounded by the enemy. The latter being attacked from behind by the tenth legion were destroyed, although they were sixty thousand in number. The Nervians were the descendants of the Kimbrians and Teutonians. Caesar conquered the Allobrogians as well. He slaughtered four hundred thousand of the Usipetians and Tenchterians, armed and unarmed together. The Sikambrians with five hundred horsemen chased away five thousand of Caesar’s horsemen, attacking them unexpectedly. They subsequently paid the penalty for this in a defeat.

Caesar was also the first of the Romans to cross the Rhine. He also passed over to Brittania, an island larger than a very large continent, and still unknown to people at Rome. He crossed by taking advantage of the movement of the tide. As the tide rose, the fleet was impelled by the waves, slowly at first, then more rapidly, until finally Caesar was carried with great swiftness to Britannia.

[Celts in relations with Clusians, Fabians, and Romans]

(2) [Constantine Porphyrogenitus, The Embassies] In the ninety-seventh Olympiad [ca. 391 BCE], according to the Greek calendar, a considerable part of the Celts who lived along the Rhine moved off in search of new land, since what they occupied was insufficient for their numbers. Having scaled the Alps they attacked the territory of Clusium, a fertile part of Etruria. The Clusians had made a league with the Romans not long before, and now requested aid from the Romans. So the three Fabians were sent with the Clusians as ambassadors to the Celts to order them to vacate the country that was in alliance with Rome, and to threaten them if they did not obey.

The Celts replied that they feared no mortal man in threat or war, that they were in need of land, and that they had not yet meddled with the affairs of the Romans. The Fabians urged the Clusians to organize an attack on the Celts while they were heedlessly plundering the country. They took part in the expedition themselves and killed an immense number of the Celts whom they caught foraging. Quintus Fabius, one of the Roman embassy, himself killed the chief of that band, stripped his body, and carried his arms back to Clusium.

[Celts in ambassadorial relations with Romans, and the incident with Brennos (or: Brennus)]

(3) After the Fabians had killed this large number of Celts, Brennos the king [of the Celts], though he had refused to recognize the Roman embassy, for the purpose of intimidating the Romans selected as ambassadors to them certain Celts who exceeded all the others in bodily size as much as the Celts exceeded other peoples, and sent them to Rome to complain that the Fabians, while serving as ambassadors, had joined in the war against him, contrary to commonly shared law. He demanded that they should be given up to him for punishment unless the Romans wished to make the crime their own. The Romans acknowledged that the Fabians had done wrong, but having great respect for that distinguished family, they urged the Celts to accept financial compensation from them. As the latter refused, they elected the Fabian military tribunes for that year. Then they said to the Celtic ambassadors that they could not do anything to the Fabians because they were now holding office, but told them to come again next year if they were still angry. Brennos and the Celts under him considered this an insult and took it hard. Accordingly they sent around to the other Celts asking them to join their war with them. When a large number had collected in obedience to this summons they left the camp and marched against Rome. . . [omitted other short fragments].

[Celtic invasion of early fourth century, with reference to the admiral action of the Roman priest Dorso]

(6) [Constantine Porphyrogenitus, On Virtues and Vices 10, via Peiresc] When the Celts could find no means for scaling the Capitol they remained quietly in camp in order to reduce the defenders by famine [ca. 390 BCE]. A certain priest named Dorso went down from the Capitol to make a certain yearly sacrifice in the temple of Vesta. Dorso passed safely, with the sacred utensils, through the ranks of the enemy, who were either awed by his courage or had respect for his piety and his venerable appearance. So the person who had incurred danger for the sake of his holy office was saved by it. That this event occurred, as related, the Roman writer Cassius tells us.

[Celts negatively characterized]

(7) [Suda lexicon, α 463 and Constantine Porphyrogenitus, On Virtues and Vices 11, via Peiresc] The Celts filled themselves until they were full with wine and other luxuries, since they lacked self-control by nature and inhabited a country which yielded only cereals and was unfruitful and destitute of other produce. So their large bodies became delicate, bloated with fatness, and heavy by reason of excessive eating and drinking, and quite incapable of running or hardship. When any exertion was required of them, they quickly became exhausted by perspiration and shortness of breath.

[Celts characterized in connection with Camillus’ campaigns]

(8) [Suda lexicon, ι 152] Appian says the following about the Celts: “He [some Roman general, perhaps Marcus Furius Camillus] showed them [defeated Celts] naked to the Romans and said: ‘These are the creatures who assail you with such terrible shouts in battle, clash their arms, shake their long swords, and toss their hair. Look at how weak they are, at how soft and unfit their bodies are, and prepare yourselves to do your work.’”

(9) [Suda lexicon, ν 104] The people beheld the battle from the walls, and constantly sent fresh troops to take the place of the tired ones. But the tired Celts having to engage with fresh opponents fled in a disorderly manner (ataktōs) [perhaps ca. 361 BCE with the initial invasion].

(10) [Suda lexicon, λ 627] The Celts, furious and exhausted with loss of blood, pursued Valerius [under Lucius Furius Camillus], hastening in order to grapple with him [ca. 349 BCE]. As Valerius was all the time dodging just in front of him, the Celt fell head-first. The Romans congratulated themselves on this second single combat with the Celts.

[Senonians led by Britomaris slaughter Roman ambassadors under Cornelius Dolabella]

(11) [Constantine Porphyrogenitus, The Embassies 5] The Senonians, although they had a treaty with the Romans, nonetheless supplied mercenaries against the Romans. So the Senate sent an embassy to them to protest against this infraction of the treaty. Britomaris, the Celt – who was angry with them because of his father, who had been killed by the Romans while fighting on the side of the Etruscans in this very war – killed the ambassadors while they held the ambassadorial staff in their hands, and wore the garments of their office. Britomaris then cut their bodies in small pieces and scattered them in the fields.

The consul Cornelius [Dolabella, consul ca. 283 BCE], learning of this abominable deed while he was on the march, moved with great speed against the towns of the Senonians by way of the Sabine country and Picenum, and ravaged them all with fire and sword. He reduced the women and children to slavery, killed all the adult males without exception, devastated the country in every possible way, and made it uninhabitable for anybody else. Cornelius carried off Britomaris alone as a prisoner for torture. A little later the Senonians (who were serving as mercenaries), having no longer any homes to return to, boldly attacked the consul Domitius. Being defeated by him, they killed themselves in despair. Such punishment was meted out to the Senonians for their crime against the ambassadors.

[Salyians and Allobrogians in ambassadorial relations with Romans under Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus]

(12) [Constantine Porphyrogenitus, The Embassies 6] The rulers of the Salyians, a people (ethnos) vanquished by the Romans, took refuge with the Allobrogians. When the Romans asked for their surrender and it was refused, they made war on the Allobrogians, under the leadership of Gnaeus Domitius [Ahenobarbus, consul in 122 BCE]. When he was passing through the territory of the Salyians, an ambassador of Bituitus, king of the Allobrogians, met him, magnificently decorated and followed by attendants likewise decorated, and also by dogs. (For the barbarians of this region also use dogs as body-guards). A musician was in the train who sang in a barbarian style the praises of king Bituitus, and then of the Allobrogians, and then of the ambassador himself, celebrating his birth, his bravery, and his wealth. Mainly for this reason their illustrious ambassadors usually take such persons along with them. But this one, although he begged pardon for the chiefs of the Salyians, accomplished nothing.

[Teutonians in ambassadorial relations with Rome under Carbo]

(13) [Constantine Porphyrogenitus, The Embassies 7] A large band of the Teutonians intent on banditry (lēsteuein) invaded the territory of Noricum. The Roman consul, Papirius Carbo [consul ca. 113 BCE], fearing in case they would make an incursion into Italy, occupied the Alps at a place where the pass is narrowest. As they made no attempt in this direction he attacked them, complaining that they had invaded the people of Noricum, who were foreign friends of the Romans. It was the practice of the Romans to make foreign friends of any people for whom they wanted to intervene on the score of friendship, without being obliged to defend them as allies.

As Carbo was approaching, the Teutonians sent word to him that they had not known anything about this relationship between Rome and Noricum, and that for the future they would keep their hands off. He praised the ambassadors, and gave them guides for their homeward journey, but privately charged the guides to take them by a longer route. He himself then marched by a shorter one and attacked the Teutonians unexpectedly, even though they were still desisting from hostilities. However, Carbo suffered severely for his deceitfulness, and lost a large part of his army. He would probably have perished with his whole force if not for the darkness and a tremendous thunder-storm that happened to them while the fight was in progress, separating the combatants and putting an end to the battle by sheer terror from the sky. Even as it was, the Romans fled in small bands through the woods and came together with difficulty three days later. The Teutonians passed into Galatia.

[Kimbrian dead bodies]

(14) [Suda lexicon, α 4725, κ 1615] He [perhaps Gaius Marius ca. 101 BCE] ordered them to leave the bodies of the Kimbrians intact until daylight because he believed they were adorned with gold.

[Tigurinians and Helvetians in ambassadorial relations with Romans under Julius Caesar]

(15) [Constantine Porphyrogenitus, The Embassies 8] Two peoples (ethnē), the Tigurinians and the Helvetians, made an incursion into the Celtic region of the Romans [i.e. the province of Gaul]. When Caesar heard of this movement he built a wall along the river Rhodanos [Rhone] about a hundred and fifty stadium-lengths long to intercept them. When they sent ambassadors to him to endeavor to make a treaty, he ordered them to give him hostages and money. They replied that they were accustomed to receive these things, not to give them. As he wished to prevent them from forming a junction, he sent Labienus against the Tigurinians, who were the weaker, while he marched against the Helvetians, taking with him about twenty thousand Celtic mountaineers. The work was easy to Labienus, who attacked the Tigurinian unexpectedly on the river bank, defeated them, and scattered the majority of them in disorderly (asyntaxia) flight.

[Germans and king Ariovistos in ambassadorial relations with Romans under Julius Caesar]

(16) [Constantine Porphyrogenitus, The Embassies 9] Ariovistos, the king of the Germans beyond the Rhine, crossed to this side before Caesar’s arrival and made war against the Aeduians, who were friends of the Romans. But when the Romans commanded him to desist, he obeyed and moved away from Aeduians and desired to be accounted a friend of the Roman people also, and this was granted, Caesar being consul and voting for it.

(17) [Constantine Porphyrogenitus, The Embassies 6] Ariovistos, the king of the Germans, who had been voted a friend of the Roman people, came to Caesar to have a meeting. After they had gone their separate ways, he wanted to have another. Caesar refused it, but sent some of the leading men of the Celts to meet him. Ariovistos cast them in chains. For this reason, Caesar threatened him and made war on him. However, fear overtook the army [of Celts] because of the military reputation of the Germans.


(17a) [Suda lexicon, η 408] The Allobrogians, a Galatian people: It was difficult to attack their cities because of the tides which turned them from mainland to islands each day. They used boats for war. So Gaius Caesar built tall stakes around their cities and built a bridge on top of the stakes so that the water flowed between the stakes, but under the bridge. The work was not difficult for the Romans and endured.

[Ousipetians and Tenchterians in ambassadorial relations with Romans under Caesar]

(18) [Constantine Porphyrogenitus, The Embassies 10] It is believed that the Ousipetians (or: Usipetians) and the Tenchterians, German peoples, with eight hundred of their own horsemen, caused about five thousand of Caesar’s horsemen to flee. When they sent ambassadors to Caesar he held them as prisoners and attacked them. Caesar took them so completely by surprise that four hundred thousand of them were cut to pieces [cf. Gallic War 4.12–15].

One writer says that Cato in the Roman senate proposed that Caesar should be surrendered to the barbarians for this bloody action perpetrated while negotiations were pending. But Caesar in his own diary says that when the Ousipetians and Tenchterians were ordered to go back immediately to their former homes, they replied that they had sent ambassadors to the Suevians, who had driven them away, and that they were waiting for their answer. Caesar also says that while these negotiations were pending, they attacked his men with eight hundred of their horsemen, and by the suddenness of the attack caused five thousand to flee, and that when they sent another embassy to explain this violation of good faith he suspected a similar deception, and made his attack before giving his answer.

[Omitted three extremely short fragments].


Samnite Book

[Senonians and Etruscans in relations with Romans]

(6) [Constantine Porphyrogenitus, The Embassies 2] Once a great number of the Senonians, a Celtic people, aided the Etruscans in war against the Romans [ca. 283 BCE]. The Romans sent ambassadors to the towns of the Senones and complained that, while they were under treaty stipulations, they were furnishing mercenaries to fight against the Romans. Although they bore the ambassadorial staff, and wore the garments of their office, Britomaris cut them in pieces and flung the parts away, alleging that his own father had been slain by the Romans while he was waging war in Etruria. The consul Cornelius, learning of this abominable action while he was on the march, abandoned his campaign against the Etruscans, hurried quickly by way of the Sabine country and Picenum against the towns of the Senonians, and devastated them with fire and sword. He carried their women and children into slavery, and killed all the adult youth except a son of Britomaris, whom he reserved for awful torture, and led in his triumph.

When the Senonians who were in Etruria heard of this disaster, they joined with the Etruscans and marched against Rome. After various mishaps these Senonians, having no homes to return to and being in a state of frenzy over their misfortunes, attacked Domitius [the other consul], by whom most of them were destroyed. The rest killed themselves in despair. That was the punishment meted out to the Senonians for their crime against the ambassadors.


Source of the translation: H. White, Appian’s Roman History, 4 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1912-13), public domain, adapted by Harland.

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