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Old October 22nd, 2010, 05:19 PM   #1

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Cool The Celtic Warriors of Ancient Egypt


Today, Celtic languages and cultures are mostly restricted to Ireland, parts of Scotland, Wales, and Brittany. In the centuries immediately before the rise of the Roman Empire, however, Celtic-speaking tribes controlled much of Europe. Bands of Celtic mercenaries and adventurers made their presence felt as far afield as Thrace, Greece, Judea, and Africa.

In the 4th Century BC, Celtic warriors gained the attention of the cities of Greece, Italy, and the Mediterranean islands. In 390 BC they pillaged Etruria, and even sacked a small city along the Tiber River, that went by the name of Roma...

Celtic warriors became famous for their courage, their indifference to wounds, and the quality of their weapons. Their nobles rode to battle on horses, blowing trumpets and wearing fine jewelry. Common warriors went on foot, wearing their hair long and shouting wild battle-cries. The Celts favored massive swords, javelins, and beautifully decorated shields. Chieftains and elite warriors wore tall helmets, sometimes decorated with horns or metal figurines, and wore chainmail shirts.

Throughout the 4th and early 3rd Centuries BC, Celtic mercenaries were employed in the Meditarranean region from Sparta to Syracuse. They formed a large part of the Carthaginian army in both the First and the Second Punic Wars, marching through the Alps with Hannibal and fighting at Trebia, Cannae, and Zama. At least one other African power took note of the Celts in the 3rd Century, however - Ptolemaic Egypt.

From the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC to the death of Cleopatra in 31 BC, Egypt was ruled by the descendants of Alexander's general Ptolemaeos Lagos. Though the nucleus of the Ptolemaic army consisted of "native" Greek and Egyptian soldiers, like all of the Diadokhi the Ptolemies made great use of mercenaries. From as early as c. 260 BC, Celtic warriors from the Eastern European tribes were included in the Egyptian battle-order.

Ptolemaeos II Philadelphios, the second Greek king of Egypt, recruited a band of four thousand Celtic warriors from the Balkans, with the aid of Antigonos Gonatas of Makedon. Undoubtedly, these Celts must have made an impression on the native population. Tall, pale-skinned, and fair-haired, they wore their hair long but shaved their beards and spoke a language that would have sounded harsh to Greek, let alone Egyptian ears. The battle-chiefs would have led their warbands into the streets of Alexandria decked out in all their finery, wearing tartan-patterned cloaks and trousers, and blowing the distinctive carnyx trumpet.

This band of Celtic mercenaries was put to work almost immediately. Ptolemaeos' own brother Magas revolted and attempted to overthrow him. According to the historian Pausanias, the 4,000 Celtic warriors helped Ptolemaeos win a crushing victory over the pretender, but immediately afterwards they mutinied!

What sparked this spontaneous rebellion is one of history's mysteries. Pausanias claims that the war-leaders of the Celtic bands wanted to overthrow both Ptolemaeos and Magas, and set themselves up as the rulers of Egypt! An Egypt ruled by a Celtic dynasty would have been a very exotic - but improbable - aspiration.

A Greek writer who was present in Alexandria at the time, Kallimakhos, tells a different story. He claims that the Celtic chieftains had formed a conspiracy to loot Ptolemaeos' treasury while he was busy pursuing his defeated brother. Bearing in mind the importance of gold and jewelry in pre-Christian Celtic culture, this is a much more plausible motivation for the unruly mercenaries.

Regardless of their motives, the Celtic mercenaries did not succeed in their rebellion. Ptolemaeos put down their mutiny, and left them all on a small island in the Nile to die of starvation or suicide. Contemporary Egyptian coins and monuments gloat over the miserable fate of the mutinous warriors.

Apparently Ptolemaeos II obtained more Celtic warriors from Makedon, and these proved better-behaved than their predecessors. In the 250s he enlisted in a new batch of Celts to assist the native Egyptian army not only in putting down rebellions, but in road and construction work.

Ptolemaeos III Euergetes became the Greek Pharaoh in 247 BC, and he also employed Celtic mercenaries. These Celts got to see more of the world than perhaps any other group of northern Europeans in history before this time. They marched through Judea and Syria in a victorious campaign against Seleukos Kallinkos, which culminated in the capture of Antioch. They also accompanied Ptolemaeos in his invasion of much of the Seleukid Empire, ravaging Mesopotamia and western Persia. If any of these Celts lived to return to their homes in Gaul or the Balkans, they undoubtedly had many colorful stories about the wonders of the East to tell their grandchildren.

By the reign of Ptolemaeos IV Philopater (222-205 BC), Celtic soldiers had become a common sight in Egypt, and very much a part of the culture of Ptolemaic Egypt. Celts fought with their customary reckless courage at Raphia in 217 BC, when Egypt inflicted another crushing defeat on the Seleukids under Antiokhos II. Out of the Egyptian army of 25,000 men, 14,000 were Celts or the sons of Celts and Egyptians.

By the end of the 3rd Century BC, Celts had made themselves very much at home in Alexandria and elsewhere in Egypt. The mercenaries appear to have had their own cemetary at Hadra to the southeast of Alexandria; most of the names on the tombstones here are Celtic, but are written in Greek.

Polybios records that there was a degree of intermarriage between Celtic adventurers, and native Egyptian and Greek girls. The Egyptians referred to the "mixed" children of Celtic-Egyptian marriages by a slang term, Epigovoi. Whether this name was derogatory in nature is no longer known.

Some mercenaries were barely more than children when they arrived in Egypt; they married local women and were probably content to spend the rest of their lives in Egypt. Others, however, probably returned to their homes in Europe after a few years or decades of service to the Pharaoh. Undoubtedly the stories these men brought back became as important in Celtic tradition as the legends of "Miklagard" (Byzantium) spread by the Viking mercenaries of a later date.

The last record of Celtic mercenaries in the Egyptian army dates to the reign of Ptolemaeos V Epiphanes. His reign was a troubled time, when Greek Egypt was full of internal unrest, and was threatened by the Seleukids. In 185 BC, he dispatched an army of Thracian Celts to put down a revolt of the native Egyptian population in Upper Egypt.

The rebellion was put down, but the Celts apparently stayed in the region for sometime afterwards. Four of them, apparently out of curiosity if not boredom, wandered into the Temple of Karnak - which was some twelve-hundred years old at the time. Here they left the following inscription, written in Greek:

Of the Gauls, we, Thoas, Kallistratos, Akannon, and Apollonios, came, and fox we caught here

Four Celtic mercenaries had wandered into one of the great temples of ancient Egypt, and carved graffitti on its walls. This inscription is important, for it shows that - like the native Egyptians that they had just defeated - these Celts were very Hellenized. Most or all of these four names are obviously Greek - not Celtic. Perhaps these men were among the Epivogoi - their fathers had been Celts from Thrace or central Europe, but they were children of a Hellenic - not Celtic - society.

At least one more Ptolemaic ruler is said to have made use of Celtic mercenaries - Kleopatra. Even as late as the end of the 1st Century BC, most rulers in the Greek East still maintained bodyguards of Celtic adventurers; Herod the Great of Judea (of Biblical fame) also had a band of Gaulish warriors serving under him.

Some of the Celtic mercenaries of Egypt won great victories and brought home glory and fortunes for their families. Others died miserably, perishing from strange diseases, death in battle, or execution for mutiny and bad behavior. But they formed an important part in the Ptolemaic battle-order, helping Greek Egypt win several of its greatest victories. Though little is known about them in the modern day, undoubtedly the exploits of these mercenaries and their travels in exotic, distant lands gave the bards of Gaul and perhaps even Britain something to sing about for generations.
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Old October 22nd, 2010, 05:35 PM   #2

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Re: The Celtic Warriors of Ancient Egypt


Cheers for that, Sal, another excellent and informative post
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Old October 22nd, 2010, 06:36 PM   #3

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That was some great info Salah ad-Din, I had never read that before. Point me to a book so I can keep researching.
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Old October 22nd, 2010, 07:20 PM   #4

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Re: The Celtic Warriors of Ancient Egypt


Very interesting well done
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Old October 22nd, 2010, 07:32 PM   #5
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Re: The Celtic Warriors of Ancient Egypt


I think he means Galatians? They were recruited from Asia minor (were they settled after the celtic descent on the Balkans) into hellenistic armies rather than the balkans.
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Old October 22nd, 2010, 07:33 PM   #6

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Hey Sal I wonder what Paul will make of this, in his all Celts / everyone is really African thread.
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Old October 22nd, 2010, 07:35 PM   #7

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Re: The Celtic Warriors of Ancient Egypt


Thanks for the information Salah ad-Din. I agree with okamido, if you know of any good books on the subject I would really like to know of them as well.
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Old October 23rd, 2010, 06:36 AM   #8

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Re: The Celtic Warriors of Ancient Egypt


Quote:
Originally Posted by pugsville View Post
I think he means Galatians? They were recruited from Asia minor (were they settled after the celtic descent on the Balkans) into hellenistic armies rather than the balkans.
No, most of the Celts employed by the Ptolemaic state were from Thrace or central Europe, and were hired through the Makedonians.

Galatians were also used as mercenaries in the Wars of the Diadokhi, but they adopted Hellenic weapons and tactics so they weren't considered "Celtic" in how they fought.

"Galatae" was the Greek for "Galli", both names in reference to the Celts. So I do mean "Galatians" in that sense, but not the Galatians that settled in Asia Minor after fighting under the Bithynians.
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Old October 23rd, 2010, 06:39 AM   #9

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Re: The Celtic Warriors of Ancient Egypt


Quote:
Originally Posted by okamido View Post
That was some great info Salah ad-Din, I had never read that before. Point me to a book so I can keep researching.
Quote:
Originally Posted by Altinidas Gurulius View Post
Thanks for the information Salah ad-Din. I agree with okamido, if you know of any good books on the subject I would really like to know of them as well.
My source for a lot of the information here was The Celtic Empire by Peter Berresford Ellis. A good work on the pre-Christian Celts, and their involvements in the Punic Wars and other Mediterranean conflicts.
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Old October 23rd, 2010, 07:36 AM   #10
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Re: The Celtic Warriors of Ancient Egypt


Hmm everything I've read (and my reading is hardly exhustive) talks of Galatians being used by selcuid and potelmic armies and dont mention other celts, I'm into ancient mintiure tabletop gaming, and the army lists are furiously debated and much resereached, and the only options listed are Galatians. They could be wrong of course, and I'm no expert my reading is extentssive but not very focused. (I'm reseraching a lot of WW1 stuff right now)

Colour Me Skeptical about these guys not being Galatians but willingly to be convinced by the evidence.
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