Tribal groups of the Celtic peoples known to the Greeks as the Galatai, or Galatians, first began to be seriously noticed by the Greek world in the time of Alexander the Great. According to Arrian, the king of Macedon, hoping to learn that he was greatly feared by the Galatians, asked some Celtic envoys what they feared most in the world. He was greatly disappointed when it was replied that the Galatians most feared that the sky might fall on their heads. With a grumble Alexander made a treaty with the Galatian tribesmen and complained that they were far too proud.
The impression made by the Galatian tribes that invaded Macedonia and northern Greece in 280 BC was not much different. It was however, far bloodier. These fearless warriors stormed into Thrace and Macedonia during the weak rule of Ptolemy Keraunos, searching for war and treasure. in the wealthy and civilized lands of the Greeks. Perhaps the only thing that the Galatians liked more than the opportunity to display their valor in war was the shine of plundered gold.
Within a year an army of Galatians under the leadership of Brennos had penetrated Greece as far south as Delphi in the hopes of plundering the treasures of the great panhellenic sanctuary. The allied forces of the Aitolian League, the Phokians and the Boiotians, combined with a miraculous snowstorm and a divine epiphany staved off the attack and sent the Galatians back to Macedonia. The miracle of this victory was commemorated annually at the festival of the Soteria. The Galatians who escaped the disaster at Delphi were crushed by Antiogonos II Gonatas, thereby giving him the opportunity to claim the title of king and restore the fortunes of the Antigonid house.
In 278/7 BC a group of Galatians was transported across the Hellespont at the ill-conceived instigation of the Northern League. It was hoped by this confederation of cities in northern Asia Minor that the terror and violence at the command of the Galatians could be used to hinder the bid of Antiochos I to assert his authority in their territory. The plan went disastrously awry when the Galatians failed to distinguish their paymasters from their opponents and embarked on a spree of violence and extortion that did not come to an end until 270 BC. During this period the Greek cities and even the kings themselves lived in constant fear that they would see bands of Celts before their gates demanding gold.
To Greek eyes the Galatians cut an outlandish and frightening figure. They wore pants (always a sure sign of barbarism) and carried large oblong shields which the Greeks called thureoi ('doors'). Some, in order to show their extreme bravery, would run into battle entirely nude except for swords in their hands and torcs on their necks.
Only a fool would not be afraid of such a strange and deadly people.
The Galatian reign of terror in Asia Minor had an interesting effect on popular religion in Asia Minor. As if the Celts were some new race of impious Giants ranged against the Olympians, it was widely believed that the gods were making physical appearances on earth to defend the Greeks against their barbarian foes.
In mainland Greece Apollo and Pan were held to have personally assisted in the rout of the Galatians at Delphi. In Asia Minor there are various dedications referring to gods who miraculously saved individuals trapped outside of the city walls when the Galatians appeared in the vicinity.
The constant and paralyzing fear of Celtic marauders was finally put to an end when the army of Antiochos I and some Indian war elephants forced the majority of the tribes to settle in an area east of the Halys River which was henceforth known as Galatia. It was for this very service that Antiochos was given the epithet Soter ('Savior').
Although this victory lifted much of the terror that had afflicted the cities, there still remained some reason to fear. Not all of the Galatian bands had been forcibly settled in Galatia, and many of those remaining at large were precariously employed as mercenaries by kings and dynasts throughout the Hellenistic world. Antigonos II Gonatas, the kings of Pontos, and even Ptolemy II Philadelphos used them in their wars. Nevertheless, the Galatians were always unruly allies and often needed to be repressed by their own employers. Ptolemy II was forced to terminate all 4000 of his Celtic troops when they threatened to run amok in Alexandreia. For this brutal act the poet Kallimachos made the king out to be a great hero holding the breach against the forces of barbarism. Dread of the Galatians fell once again upon Asia Minor in 240 BC when Antiochos Hierax began to enforce his will through the use of Celtic mercenaries. Their defeats at the hands of Attalos I gave him the opportunity he needed to take up the diadem and proclaim Pergamon an independent kingdom. It is ironic that by 217 BC Attalos was employing his own band of Galatians to convince the cities under the hegemony of Achaios to join the Attalid cause. From this point on Galatians are a commonplace in most armies in Asia Minor and the East.
After the defeat of Antiochos III at Magnesia in 190 BC the Roman consul, Gn. Manlius Vulso, was sent to Galatia to put an end to the inhabitants' tendency to attack their neighbors. Rome also hoped to use the Galatian tribes as a counterbalance to the constantly increasing power of Pergamon. Galatia remained loyal to the Romans during the Mithridatic Wars (88-69 BC) and was at last incorporated as a province in 25 BC.
The territory of Galatia was organized among the three
major tribal groups of the Tolistobogioi, the Tektosages and the Trokmoi.
Each tribe had its own capital and was ruled by tetrarchs. A Celtic
language continued to be spoken in Galatia until the fourth century AD.
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