This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

August 2002


This month we’ll depart from our usual format of expanding upon an entry from the Celtic Calendar and instead address a subject that a lot of people have been asking about, namely the ancient Celtic realm of Galatia.

The name of the place is related to the names of several other lands occupied by Celtic people: Gaul, Galicia in Iberia, and Galicia in Central Europe. The Romans termed the inhabitants of Galatia the “Galli” and referred to the place as “the Gaul of the East.” Classical Galicia covered the area in central Turkey known nowadays as the Anatolian Plateau. Today the heartland of the Turkish nation, the area had an ancient history long before the Celts, being the home grounds of the Hittites, as well as the home of a succession of other peoples such as the Lydians and the Phygrians.

The Celtic settlement of Galatia was the unintended achievement of a warlord we might call Prince Terrible. In 280 BC a Celtic invasion of Greece was led by a warrior named Brennus (which may have meant “Prince”) who was also referred to by the Celtic word “Prausus” (Terrible). The Celtic onslaught stormed through Greece and succeeded in sacking Delphi, only to meet defeat shortly afterwards, with Brennus dying by his own hand. The thwarted and leaderless Celts then accepted an offer by King Nicomedes of Bithynia to cross over from Greece into Asia Minor to help him out in a dynastic quarrel. Some seventeen Celtic chieftains brought their people out of Greece. Grouped into two grand divisions, there were some 20,000 Celts in all. Having secured him on his throne, Nicomedes allowed the Celts to settle on the Anatolian Plateau, henceforth to be known as Galatia.

Faithful to the Celtic love of triads, the Galatians sorted themselves out into three main parts. The central part of Galatia belonged to a tribe known as the Tectosages, who established a capitol at Ancyra (Celtic “anchor”), today the Turkish capitol of Ankara. Westward lay the lands of the Tolistbobolii, with their main town at Pressinus, and to the East were the Trocmi whose main town was Tavium.

Like other Celts, the Galatians shied away from establishing a strong central government. Instead each of the three tribes sent four tetarachs and 100 senators to a grand national council held annually at Drynemeton, near Ancyra.

As the Hittites did before them, the Galatians found their plateau an excellent launching pad for raids on neighboring countries, notably Syria and Pergamum. The famous nude statue of “the Dying Gaul” is actually a Roman copy of a Greek original from about this time that depicted a Celtic Galatian warrior. Galatian adventurism was only contained with the help of the Romans around 232BC. Discouraged by Roman power from attacking their neighbors, restless Galatian warriors hired themselves out as mercenaries instead.

But as Rome increased its power in the eastern Mediterranean, it grew more impatient with these Celtic troublemakers. After the battle of Magnesia in 180BC, in which Galatian mercenaries fought the Romans on the side of the losing Syrians, the Romans invaded Galatia in 179BC and forced it to submit to Rome.

As a client state of Rome, the Galatians managed to continue their Celtic tradition of fighting on the losing side in causes not their own. They backed the Roman General Pompey in his struggle against Julius Caesar in the Roman Civil War, and then they backed Mark Anthony against Octavian (Augustus Caesar) in the civil war that followed Julius Caesar’s assassination. Belatedly sensing which way the wind was blowing, the last Galatian king Amyntas tried to fix things at the last minute by switching sides on the eve of the decisive naval battle of Actium (which we remember Richard Burton losing in the movie “Cleopatra”).

The switch proved timely. The victorious Octavian confirmed Amyntas on his throne as king of Galatia, but when Amyntas mysteriously died in an ambush six years later Octavian (now the emperor Augustus Caesar) terminated his kingdon and proclaimed Galatia a Roman province.

About 75 years after this, Galatia again entered history through the Epistle of Paul in which the apostle admonished them as “you foolish Galatians” (Galatians 3:1). But were those foolish Galatians the Celtic Galatians? Scholars disagree about the precise locations of the “churches of Galatia” referred to in the Acts of the Apostles and to which Paul addressed his epistle. The problem is that the Roman province of Galatia contained areas not part of the original Celtic homeland. Today many scholars think these Christian churches were located on lands south of the Anatolian Plateau that were only added to Galatia when Roman administrators re-drew the boundaries of the province.

Nevertheless Celtic culture and language in Galatia seems to have persisted into the last years of the Roman Empire. Centuries after Paul’s epistle, the linguist and Bible translator St. Jerome briefly stopped over in Ancyra and noted that the natives of the region spoke a Gaulish language. Be that as it may, it seems that the Celtic nature of Galatia had all but faded away by the time the Turks swept in and established their Ottoman Empire.

Still, like many other Celtic countries, the lost realm of Galatia can boast its own distinct animal. Joining the Breton ermine, plus the Manx, Cymric, Kellas and Cornish Rex cats, along with the Wolfhound, Corgi, and Scotty dogs in the ranks of Celtic mascots is the Kangal dog. Today considered the native Turkish dog, the golden-haired Kan-gal (“dog of the Galatians”) is native to the area northeast of Ankara and is believed to have been introduced by the original Celtic settlers of Galatia.

Next month we’ll resume with stories drawn from the over 1000 historical entries in the 2003 Celtic Calendar, an historical and mythological calendar now available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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