jump to navigation
  • Celts in Ancient Sicily June 11, 2010

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

    Beachcombing has luxuriated for too long in the modern world. Indeed the last time he visited antiquity was in the company of some Indian merchants a long week ago. So he rushes back today to the clean, glistening marble of the ancients. The following passage comes from G.T. Griffith’s The Mercenaries of the Hellenistic World (London 1975), p. 253 – depending, for the most part, on Polybius 2, 7. It describes a group of Gaulish/Celtic mercenaries, c. 230 BC, and is interesting in reminding the reader just how far travelled some barbarian mercenaries were.

     ‘[S]ome Gauls… appear as the garrison of the independent Epirote city of Phoenice. Their history is so varied, and perhaps so typical, that it is worth telling. In the beginning they had been expelled from their own land by their compatriots. Having entered the service of Carthage they were sent to Sicily, where they quarrelled with their general about pay, and attempted to sack the city of Acragas which they were supposed to be guarding (at this time they were about 3000 strong). In the same way at Eryx they first tried to betray the city and its garrison to the Romans, and, foiled in this, they deserted to the Romans themselves. Next they sacked a temple and made themselves so unpopular with their new masters that, when the war was over, they were at once disarmed, put on board ship, and forbidden to set foot in Italy. It was then that they sailed to Epirus, where they were entrusted with the garrison of Phoenice. By now they were reduced to 800. The last that we hear of them is that they betrayed Phoenice to the Illyrian raiders of Queen Teuta.’  

    This is one of these passages that makes Beachcombing think: ‘there’s a novel in this!’ True, we do not know where these Gauls came from, but northern Italy or France are perhaps the most likely homelands: though given that they were in Carthaginian employ Spain is not impossible. That they were ‘expelled’ can be paralleled in other accounts of ancient tribal groups from northern Europe, excess testosterone being invited to go and make their fortune elsewhere. (Polybius states, however, that they had been driven out from their homes for treachery so their exile may have been criminal rather than customary.) Their longest journey was from wherever their homeland was to Sicily in the heart of the Mediterranean, the island on which both Acragas and Eryx stood. Then they made a more modest journey over to Epirus in the Balkans, where they betrayed the city of Phoenice to the Illyrians, a ‘deep Balkan’ tribal people. What happened to the last eight hundred God only knows… Given that they had betrayed their previous four ‘owners’, they very likely went on to betray the pirate queen Teuta.

    Beachcombing has several references to far-travelled Celts in one of the deepest drawers of his filing cabinet – warriors in Khazakstan, Turkey, Egypt and Babylon. He also has several references to long travelling mercenary groups including one ancient pirate band that made it from the Black Sea to the coast of Holland. However, he would always like to hear of others…  [drbeachcombing[AT]yahoo[DOT]com].