John D Grainger, The Galatians (Pen & Sword, 2019)
The common perception of the Celts comes from the fierce warrior barbarians that fought the Romans in Gaul and Britain. But another significant branch of that culture migrated east into the Balkan region then Asia Minor, settling in both areas in their tribal groups. These were collectively known as the Galatians. In this riveting book, John Grainger narrates the rise and fall of this fascinating people who proved a thorn in the side for all the great Hellenistic powers before succumbing to the almighty Romans.
According to Grainger, the Galatians were part of an expansion from a culture that spread across western and northern Europe, entering into the Balkans as the Scordisci. From there, they clashed with their neighbours in Macedon and Thrace. Grainger’s story begins with Philip II of Macedon who was the first ‘Greek’ to encounter the Galatians/Scordisci. His son Alexander also took note of them, but he had bigger fish to fry in the East. When he died, his Empire fragmented, and the Galatians consolidated their power to become a threat to Macedon and Greece. Serious incursions into both took place from 280 BCE, though they ended in defeat and the division of the Galatians.
A group of Galatians invaded Asia Minor as the situation in Thrace settled down in the 270s. They took Bithynia collectively then split into three tribes to continue their expansion. Grainger notes that they were not the overwhelming scourge that some sources posit – one tribe was defeated by Antigonus in the famous Elephant battle of 274 – but they were still more than a nuisance to their neighbours. Grainger also records how Galatians were employed as mercenaries across the Hellenistic world, enthusiastically at first but more reluctantly because they were considered untrustworthy and rebellious, or perhaps, as Grainger notes in his next chapter, they were not particularly good soldiers in pitched battles? As Galatia came into being in Asia Minor by the 260s, the three tribes had to fight their own wars. Grainger points out these were not raids as was commonly thought but military campaigns conducted by a properly organised State.
How the Galatians coped with Pergamon and Rome occupies Grainger next. Their use as mercenaries against Rome made them an enemy, which inevitably led to war. That was a one-sided affair and led to the steep decline of Galatia, first through domination by Pergamon then, after a spell of autonomy, under the pressure of Roman expansion. That said, the Scordisci back in the Balkans remained a force into the 1st century BCE before Rome defeated them followed by the rising Dacians. Roman annexation of the region was not too far behind. They annexed Galatia too, following another thread in Grainger’s story of Roman expansion, and made it into a successful Province. Indeed, notes Grainger in his appendix, Galatia furnished Rome with three Emperors.
The Galatians is a thoroughly enjoyable, well-written book on a people that are often overlooked amidst the great dynastic struggles of the Hellenistic world. Grainger wrings every drop out of his limited sources, both written and archaeological, and does so in a way that invites his readers into the conversation. He also works his way methodically through an often complex history, acknowledging at one point the ‘hyper-activity’ of the Roman Republic’s civil wars that he had to untangle. My one quibble is a lack of maps to help us follow the narrative, but other than that, this book will appeal to anyone interested in the Hellenistic world or just ancient history in general.