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  • Jeff King

Celts in Asia Minor - Part 4 of Celtic History Explained

Co-written by Jeff King and Arienne King


In part 3 of Celtic History Explained, we talked about the disastrous invasion of the Balkans by Celtic tribes led by their king Brennus. These European tribes were known to the Greeks as the Keltioi (Celts), the Galatae (Galatians), and to the Romans as the Galli (Gauls).


After a series of victories, the triumphant Celts under Brennus were defeated by a Greek alliance at Delphi, while a splinter group of Celts fled east to Anatolia (in modern day Turkey). The tribes who split off from the group which invaded Greece eventually settled in a part of Central Anatolia, lending their name to the region known as Galatia.


The Celtic Exodus


By the 5th Century BC, the resources of Europe had become strained by overpopulation. At first, small groups began raiding further and further afield, and this eventually snowballed into large-scale population movements in the 4th and 3rd Centuries BC. Mediterranean goods like wine, figs, and olive oil had been making their way north for centuries. Ancient Roman authors are probably correct in surmising that the appetite for these commodities was part of the reason that Celtic tribes chose to migrate south.


The majority of the Celts who migrated into the Balkans moved towards Greece under the leadership of the over-king Brennus. However, a smaller group of about 20,000 invaded Thrace before laying siege to Byzantium. This group was led by two chiefs; Leonorius and Lutarius. The three tribes assembled under Leonorius and Lutarius were the Tolistobogii, the Tectosages, and Trocmi. Only about half of their number were fighting men, the rest were women and children. This mass of settlers relied on plundering to support themselves, but was more in need of a secure home in the short term.


Brennus set out with the intention of raiding Delphi, and ended up dying from his wounds following the catastrophic defeat of his followers. The plunderers of Leonorius and Lutarius were destined for greater things, namely the establishment of the most notable Celtic kingdom to emerge from their Classical diaspora.


Entry Into Anatolia


Nicomedes I of Bithynia invited Leonorius and Lutarius into Anatolia in exchange for their assistance in his wars with his brother Zapoites II, and the Seleucid king Antiochus I Soter. These tribes were a valuable asset for Nicomedes I, who came out victorious in his following contests. In exchange for allying with Nicomedes I, Leonorius and Lutarius were able to bring their people, those known to history as the Galatians, into a new and promising land.


When these Celtic tribes arrived, Anatolia was already teeming with different peoples. Greeks had long since established colonies and city-states in Asia Minor, and Thracian tribes had emigrated to the peninsula even before that. Of these, the Phrygians were perhaps most similar to the Celts, with their pastoral culture and warlike traditions. Many of the tribes and most of the cities were somewhat Hellenized, having been influenced by, and in turn influencing, Greece for centuries.


Galatia, a Celtic Kingdom in Asia Minor


For some time the Celts in Asia Minor rampaged more or less unchallenged, and they became the bogeymen of local legend as they terrorized the peoples of Asia Minor. From their footholds in Asia Minor, they ransacked wealthy cities in the area These Celts were eventually defeated by Antiochus I Soter at the so-called “Elephant Battle” of 275 BC. The Celts facing Antiochus had never faced elephants, and were unprepared to fight them.


Following this defeat, the Celtic tribes made an alliance with Mithridate I of Pontus. Around 232 BC, the Celts settled around the city of Ankara, in a part of Phrygia. The Hellenistic kings who divided Asia Minor were content to have the Celts more or less confined to the barren hills of Central Anatolia for the time being. This sparse territory soon became known as Galatia, from Galatae, a Greek name for Celts.


Map of Asia Minor, from F. W. Putzgers Historischer Schul-Atlas

The Celts who settled in Galatia preserved the way of life that they had maintained back in Europe. Hillforts, known as oppidum, were built to protect farmsteads and settlements, and a pastoral lifestyle prevailed over an urban one. Different tribes staked out their own territories, and violent raiding by Celtic Galatian bands soon became a part of the landscape.


Strabo, a 1st Century BC Roman geographer, described the political organization of Galatia in his day:


“The three tribes spoke the same language and differed from each other in no respect; and each was divided into four portions which were called tetrarchies, each tetrarchy having its own tetrarch, and also one judge and one military commander, both subject to the tetrarch, and two subordinate commanders. The Council of the twelve tetrarchs consisted of three hundred men, who assembled at Drynemetum, as it was called. Now the Council passed judgment upon murder cases, but the tetrarchs and the judges upon all others. Such, then, was the organisation of Galatia long ago, but in my time the power has passed to three rulers, then to two, and then to one, Deïotarus, and then to Amyntas, who succeeded him. But at the present time the Romans possess both this country and the whole of the country that became subject to Amyntas, having united them into one province”

The Celts did not build cities in their new home, but they did use some of the more important pre-existing cities as headquarters, namely Ankara. While Celts did not immigrate to Asia Minor in large enough numbers displace the local populations, they did become the ruling caste. Celtic culture seems to have permeated the lower levels of society, and was assimilated into local traditions.


Conflict with the Pergamene Kingdom


The Galatians did not sit idly by after establishing themselves in Galatia, they soon resumed their raids in the rest of Asia Minor. Galatian raids against Aegean cities intensified in the 3rd Century BC, spurred on by the vast wealth and political instability of the Hellenistic cities.

Bust of Attalus I of Pergamum, from the Pergamonmuseum in Berlin (Photo by Nicolás Pérez CC-BY-SA)

The Attalid dynasty, based in their capital of Pergamum, were the great power in the region and the most powerful enemy of the Galatians. Eumenes I of Pergamum agreed to pay the Galatians tribute in exchange for peace, as most other rulers had. Eumenes I’s successor Attalus I had no intention of appeasing the Galatians with treasure. Attalus I defeated the Galatians at the Springs of Kaikos in 233 BC, and this victory became his crowning achievement. The Greek historian Pausanias recounted a legend that this victory had been the subject of prophesy.


“That the Celtic army would cross from Europe to Asia to destroy the cities there was prophesied by Phaennis in her oracles a generation before the invasion occurred:


‘Then verily, having crossed the narrow strait of the Hellespont,

The devastating host of the Gauls shall pipe; and lawlessly

They shall ravage Asia; and much worse shall God do

To those who dwell by the shores of the sea

For a short while. For right soon the son of Cronos

Shall raise them a helper, the dear son of a bull reared by Zeus,

Who on all the Gauls shall bring a day of destruction.’


By the son of a bull she meant Attalus, king of Pergamus, who was also styled bull-horned by an oracle.” (Paus. 10.15.2-3)


Attalus I acquired the epithet “Soter” (“the Saviour”) in recognition of his defeat of barbarians who threatened the Hellenistic cities of Asia Minor. Attalus I Soter commissioned artwork depicting his defeat of the Galatians. It was around this time that the Galatian or Gallic warrior became the archetypal barbarian enemy of Greece, replacing or joining older archetypal enemies like Persians and Scythians.


The Galatian War


In the early 2nd Century BC, Galatia was dragged into the conflict between Rome and the Seleucid Empire. Antiochus III of the Seleucid Empire employed large numbers of Galatian troops in his wars with the Kingdom of Pergamum. These Galatians were present for Antiochus III’s defeat at the Battle of Magnesia in 190 by a Roman-Pergamene alliance. The year after the Battle of Magnesia, a Roman general named Gnaeus Manlius Vulso was tasked with subduing the kingdom of Galatia. Galatian involvement in the conflict was the casus belli for this Galatian War in 189 BC.


Coin of Antiochus III (Image credit: CNG CC-BY-SA)

Gnaeus Manlius Vulso swiftly defeated the Galatian tribes in a series of battles, capturing and enslaving 40,000 men, women, and children. In the aftermath the Roman Republic forced the Galatians to cease all raiding in western Asia Minor. However, the Romans also prevented the Pergamene Kingdom from dominating Galatia after it had been defeated. This Roman support helped Galatia to rise in importance in the region and not be subsumed by the Hellenistic kingdoms surrounding it.


As the western regions of Asia Minor became off limits, the Galatians began raiding their eastern neighbours, particularly Pontus and Cappadocia.


Politics, Propaganda, and the Pergamum Altar


By 167 BC, the Galatians had once again returned to their pirate ways, and Eumenes II of Pergamum waged wars with them for the next two years until a new peace treaty was created. Like his predecessor, Eumenes II used his victories over the Galatians to bolster his legacy as a protector of the Greeks.


Eumenes II commissioned four massive monuments to commemorate his triumphs over the Celts on the Pergamene Acropolis. These monuments commemorated the triumphs of the Attalid dynasty, including Eumene II’s defeat of the Galatians c. 166 BC. The founding of Pergamum by the legendary Telephus, and the Gigantomachy from Greek mythology were the most prominently portrayed themes, but other incidents from myth and history were also portrayed.



The monuments have since been lost, but several large marble blocks from the 2.48 meter base of the monument have been excavated. An inscription from one of these blocks reads:

“King Attalos having conquered in battle the Tolistoagii Gauls around the springs of the river Kaikos [set up this] thank-offering to Athena.“ (translation by Jerome Jordan Pollitt, page 85)

The famous “Dying Gaul” (in the Capitoline Museums) and the “Ludovisi Gaul” (in the Museo Nazionale di Roma) of a few Roman copies of 2nd Century BC Hellenistic art that may have originally been a part of this monument.


Legacy of Galatia


Galatia emerged from a period of heavy migration as the only stable and long-lasting kingdom in the Celtic diaspora. Although the inhabitants of Galatia were heavily influenced by Asiatic, Greek, and Roman cultures in Antiquity, the region also maintained a strong Celtic tradition in the local language and the heritage of the ruling Celtic families.


The most well-known reference to the ancient Galatians can be found in the New Testament, in Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. Saint Jerome remarked upon similarities between the language of the Galatians and the Celts in Treverorum (Trier) in the 4th Century AD.