Celtic Invasion: Subduing Greece and Spain

From the lecture series: The Celtic World

By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., The Catholic University of America

The Celtic invasion of Europe began in Italy, and then spread to Greece and Spain. Discover how the Celts became so synonymous with terror and intimidation, that they were hired as mercenaries around the Mediterranean, and explore aspects of Celtic culture that remain mysteries to this day.

silhouettes of fighting warriors
(Image: Patalakha Sergii/Shutterstock)

The “Barbarians” Invade Greece

Although the first people to write about the Celts were Greeks, these writers were not based in Greece, but rather in the Greek colonies of the western Mediterranean, such as Massalia. It was only many years after the dramatic events in Rome in 390 B.C. that the first Celts encroached on the territory of Greece itself.

The Greeks may not have invented the concept of the barbarian—many cultures have an aversion towards foreigners—but the Greeks did invent the word “barbarian.”

Our word “barbarian” comes from Greek encounters with other peoples. The Greeks thought that non-Greek speech sounded like “bar, bar, bar.”

In response, they named a person who spoke a language other than Greek a “barbaros.” The Romans then adopted the word—though to them it was someone who spoke anything other than Greek or Latin.

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

What happened between the Celts and the Greeks? In the early 3rd century B.C., large groups of barbarians swept into Greece from the north.

These groups took advantage of the collapse of the empire of Alexander the Great, who had died in 323 B.C. In 281 B.C., a group of people known to the Greeks as the Galatae, and later as the Galatians, defeated the Macedonian king Ptolemy.

Brennus depicted on the figurehead of the French battleship Brennus.
Celtic chieftain Brennus lead the attack on the temple at Delphi in 279 B.C. (Image: Toulon Sculpture workshop/Public domain)

The Galatae then split into two main groups. One group, under a leader named Brennus, headed south in 279 B.C. towards the temple at Delphi, a tempting target because it functioned as a large bank.

Allegedly, the Greek gods, especially Pan, intervened to foil the attack by inducing panic among the invaders, who then retreated in great disorder. In shame, Brennus committed suicide, and according to one report, he took his own life by drinking undiluted wine.

The Greeks had had a lucky escape, and thus was the end of the threat by one of the two groups of Celts.

Learn more about Julius Caesar’s wars against Celtic-controlled Gaul

The Galatians as Fierce Mercenaries

The other group of Galatians headed into central Turkey, where they founded their own state. What occurred next is a fascinating side note to the main story of the Celts.

The Galatians wound up in Turkey by invitation. At that time, present-day Turkey was divided up into many smaller states that were often at war with one another.

Map of the Roman provinces, with Bithynia highlighted.
Map of the Roman provinces, with Bithynia highlighted. (Image: Panairjdde/Public domain)

The ruler of one of these states, the kingdom of Bithynia, invited the Galatians to serve as mercenaries. Incidentally, this phenomenon was by no means an isolated one.

Reports exist of bands of Celtic mercenaries in other parts of the classical world, including in Egypt—where they were referred to as “wild Celts”—and in Macedonia.

The Galatians in Bithynia didn’t manage to defeat the king’s enemies, but they were successful in carving out a stronghold for themselves in the interior of Turkey, where they made their living as bandits.

They had a devilish reputation and were known for sacrificing their victims. People would kill themselves rather than face capture by the Galatians.

These were good people to have inside the tent rather than outside. Various rulers hired them as mercenaries over the years, including the people who were resisting Rome’s eventual conquest of Turkey.

Learn more about the trade-based migration theory that explains the arrival of the Celts influence in Britain

Defeating the Galatians

Given the reputation of the Galatians as fierce warriors, it’s no wonder that when armies did manage to defeat the Galatians, it was considered especially notable.

The dying Gaul staute
The Dying Gaul is a Roman copy of a Hellenistic original from the 3rd century B.C. (Image: Copy after Epigonos – Palazzo Nuovo, first floor, Hall of the Galatian/Public domain)

Evidence for this exists in a remarkable statue that is usually called The Dying Gaul, though it should be called The Dying Galatian. The statue is a Roman copy of a Hellenistic original from the 3rd century B.C.

The work was probably commissioned by the king of Pergamon to commemorate his victory over the Galatians. The figure of the dying Galatian has a torque around his neck, a characteristic kind of necklace made of twisted wire.

The Galatian warrior is also displayed completely naked, which matches the description that Julius Caesar inherited from the ancient writer Poseidonius. Not everyone was impressed by the Celtic preference for going into battle unclothed.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who lived at the time of Caesar, was dismissive of the Galatians: “Our enemies fight naked. What injury could their long hair, their fierce looks, their clashing arms do us? These are mere symbols of barbarian boastfulness.”

The Galatians did win most of the time, however, and they carried on as a mercenary state up until the Romans conquered the region. In fact, the Galatians backed the Romans against their main opponent: the kingdom of Pontus.

As a reward for their support, the Romans allowed the Galatians to maintain their autonomy as a sort of micro-kingdom within Roman-ruled Anatolia.

One group of Galatians eventually embraced a different path and converted to Christianity. These are the Galatians to whom the Apostle Paul directed one of his famous epistles.

The Galatians were eventually absorbed into the larger Greco-Roman world, but the Galatian language, which was related to Gaulish, survived for hundreds of years thereafter. For many centuries, there was a Celtic language being spoken in central Turkey.

Learn more about the ancient religious figures known as druids who served as holy men, soothsayers, and even lawyers

The Celts in Spain: A Complicated Subject

The story of Celtic identity in Spain is a complicated matter. The Romans referred to some of the inhabitants of Iberia as “Celts,” to others as “Iberians,” and to still others as “Celtiberians,” which implies some mixture of Celtic and Iberian.

These designations can be roughly plotted on a map, but the results are puzzling, particularly if you want to believe in the theory that the Celts began in Central Europe before spreading outwards in all directions.

Celtiberian fibula representing a rider from the National Archaeological Museum of Spain. Under the horse's head, there is a cut human head, maybe from a defeated enemy.
Celtiberian fibula representing a rider, and featuring a severed human head—perhaps that of a defeated enemy—visible under the horse’s head. (Image: Luis García/Public domain)

The problem is that the map of Iberia is a patchwork, with Celts, Iberians, and Celtiberians jumbled together. What is certain is there was a large group of Iberians located in the east of the peninsula, and their language was not Celtic.

Historians are not completely sure which of these peoples were Celts. Some scholars argue that the Tartessian language, seen in the inscriptions which came to light in the 1990s in the southwest of Iberia, represents an even earlier form of the Celtic language than the Lepontic language found in northern Italy.

Researchers know that one of the languages spoken in northwestern Spain, called Gallaecian, was Celtic. The Gallaecian language is one of the glaring problems with the theory that Celtic language and culture started in Central Europe and spread outwards.

If the theory were correct, how did the language bypass the Iberians in eastern Spain to get to the northwestern part of the peninsula? Scholars are still fighting this one out.

Another curious fact is that the art style associated with the Celts of Central Europe barely made it to Iberia. It’s strange to have people speaking a Celtic language but not producing “Celtic” art.

The Iberian evidence is one of the best indications that the pieces of the old Celtic hypothesis do not fit together as neatly as we think they do.

Learn more about the development of a common language along maritime Celtic trade routes

Celtic Oddities

One initially puzzling habit in which the Celtiberians indulged was rinsing their teeth with urine. Surprisingly, urea is so good at cleaning teeth that some special dental health chewing gums today include it as an ingredient.

The various Celtic groups in Spain, among others, gave the Romans a terrible time. It took well into the 1st century B.C. before they were entirely subdued.

Generally, what did the classical world make of the Celts? They certainly feared them, but they did not necessarily regard the Celts as a monolithic threat.

Other classical societies instead understood the Celts for what they were: a group of tribes living in various widely separated locations, who rarely if ever cooperated effectively with one another.

Contemporaries of the Celts tended to write about them mostly as military opponents or as barbarian curiosities.

Later, more information on the Celts emerged, broadening our view. Some aspects of the picture painted by the classical authors are confirmed, but the art and artifacts of the Celts demonstrate that they were more sophisticated than classical commentators were prepared to admit.

Common Questions About Celtic Invasions

Q: When was Ireland invaded by the Celts?

While it is generally thought that the Celts arrived in Ireland around 500 B.C.E., it’s not clear that Ireland was invaded. It seems rather that the Celts migrated over the years and took over with a superior culture.

Q: Was Rome invaded by the Celts?

Rome was sacked by a Gallic tribe called the Senones after the Battle of Allia around 390 B.C.E.

Q: Were the Vikings also Celts?

No. The Vikings were a Scandinavian culture living in Northern Europe while the Celts lived in West, Central and Eastern Europe.

Q: Did the Celts war with the Vikings?

There are accounts of Celtic raids on Viking lands, but in general, the Celts tolerated the Vikings. However, it is thought from some writings that the Vikings feared the Celts.

This article was updated on November 21, 2019

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