Terracotta figurine of Galatian
Terracotta figurine of Galatian

Movements of peoples in the ancient world as in the modern were sometimes peaceful and sometimes marked by violence. During the 4th and 3rd centuries BC tribes known as Galatians and Celts migrated from central and eastern Europe and descended upon Italy and Greece where they extorted money from the Hellenistic Greek city states and kingdoms and hired themselves out as mercenaries. Their prowess as fearless warriors was greatly appreciated and they took service in the armies of Macedonia, Syria and Egypt as well as Carthage.

Galatian raid on Delphi and the migration to Asia Minor
Galatian raid on Delphi and the migration to Asia Minor

One band made a raid on the Temple of Delphi in 279 Bc to plunder the rich collection of dedications to the god Apollo. Ancient Greek and Roman historians describe their terrifying appearance on the battlefield, fighting naked, their hair combed back with lime and armed with long slashing swords and carrying distinctive shields. They could also be difficult to handle and one mercenary band looted the cemetery of the town of Aegae in Macedonia where they had been sent as garrison. In 275 BC Nicomedes of Bithynia invited 20,000 Galatians members of three tribes called the Tolistobogii, Tectosages and Trocmes to cross the Hellespont to help eliminate a rival. This back-fired in spectacular fashion because the Galatians proceeded to run riot amongst the cities of Asia Minor, raiding and plundering and eventually seizing land for themselves in central Anatolia.

Sacrilegious Galatians caught plundering the treasures of Delphi
Sacrilegious Galatians caught plundering the treasures of Delphi

In this respect the Galatians appear to have behaved like the modern invasive species the red lionfish (Pterois volitans), which is destroying the ecosystem of the Caribbean. A native of the Pacific and Indian oceans the lionfish may have got into the Caribbean having escaped from a Florida aquarium or having travelled in sea water carried as ballast by oil tankers. Being venomous they don’t have many predators but they eat pretty much everything else and they are now threatening the environment itself by feeding off the fish that would keep the coral clean. I’m not sure how helpful it is to think of the Galatians as the red lionfish of the ancient world but both fish and Galatians can be seen as flamboyantly colourful invaders, making the most of the opportunities presented to them in a new environment. As part of our discussions about migration is it justifiable to draw comparisons between animal and human migration?

The Galatians ravaged their neighbours in Asia Minor and were only held in check when Antiochus I routed them with the help of 16 elephants even though his army was otherwise inferior. The Galatians had not encountered elephants before and did not know how to fight them on the battlefield. The defeat had only a temporary effect on their effectiveness and it was not until the Roman victories at Mount Olympus and Mount Magaba in 189 BC that the Galatians were finally curbed. St Paul’s letter to the Galatians in the Bible  is addressed to the descendants of these tribes.

In the Egyptology collection at Manchester Museum is a terracotta figurine which appears to be one of these Galatian mercenaries (accession number 7908). The figurine shows a naked male striding forwards carrying a shield with central spine and boss, and holding a curving musical instrument, presumably a trumpet, up to his lips. The man’s hair is combed back from his forehead. Everything about this figurine suggests that the man is intended to be a Galatian. He is reminiscent of one of the most famous pieces of sculpture of the ancient world: a copy of a bronze original commemorating the victories of Attalus I of Peragamum (reg 241-197 BC) over Galatians, called ‘the Dying Gaul’. A mortally wounded warrior is shown slumped over his shield, heroically naked save for a torc around his neck and with a curiously curved trumpet on his shield.

Ptolomy Philadelphus, King of Egypt, recruited several thousand Galatians in the early 3rd century BC.  Perhaps they were survivors of the raid on Delphi. In 274 BC Magas, regent of Cyrene, declared independence and prepared to invade Egypt. Philadelphus marched against him with a force including 4000 Galatian mercenaries. The matter was never tested on the battlefield because Magas was forced to turn back when some of his subjects rose against him. This was of no benefit to Ptolemy because his Galatians mutinied. Ptolomy succeeded in trapping them on an island in the Sebenytic branch of Nile where they came to a pitiful end: some starved to death, some were eaten by crocodiles and others committed suicide. The suppression of the Galatians in Egypt is celebrated on coins, and by terracottas made in Alexandria depicting the god Bes with the distinctive shield used by Galatians. It’s interesting that Bes is credited with the elimination of the Galatians.

This experience may have taught the Egyptians a valuable lesson and Galatians are not heard of again in Ptolematic armies until much later, at the end of the 3rd century BC. However, four Galatians caught a fox in the Memnonion at Abydos and left graffiti to record their exploit in Greek! This record is testamony to the process of acculturation and assimilation that took place. Eventually the Galatians became just another group of military colonists in Egypt.  In other Hellenistic armies the distinctive shield of the Galatian mercenary was adopted and gave its name to a type of soldier.  In the army of Antiochus III was a Galatian officer with the Greek name of  Lysimachos showing that for individuals with the right qualities ethnic origin was no barrier to advancement. As the Galatians become Hellenised and adopted Greek style names and even literacy they become harder to differentiate from the rest of the population. Perhaps DNA testing will rescue them from their archaeological invisibility.

Thinking back to the invasive Lionfish, given time perhaps it will do what the Galatians did and do the piscatorial equivalent of assimilation and acculturation to the point where it ceases to be the threat that it now poses.

Lionfish preserved in spirit. Sadly the fish's vivid colouration has not survived its immersion in alcohol.
Lionfish preserved in spirit. Sadly the fish’s vivid colouration has not survived its immersion in alcohol.
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