Galatia: Asia’s Celtic Outpost

For pretty well all of the past 1 500 years, Celtic cultures have been confined to the western margins of Europe.  Yet, prior to the rise of the Roman Empire, Celts were present throughout western and central Europe; indeed, the first fully Celtic culture arose in Austria (the Hallstatt culture, named for the village where major Celtic gravesites dating to the mid-1st millennium BC were discovered).  Not only did Celtic culture spread to the west into places we associate today with Celts (the British Isles and northern France; modern France being located on the territory of ancient Gaul), but Celts (Gauls) also moved southward from Gaul into Italy and Spain (see modern Galicia), and eastward as far as southern Poland, Ukraine (home to a Galicia of its own) and central Romania.  Eventually, one group of Gauls established themselves as far east as north-central Anatolia (modern Turkey), by far the most isolated outpost of ancient Celtic culture.


Galatia in 189 AD (coloured in yellow near the top centre of the map), along with the rest of Roman Asia.

While Celtic people were present in Greece as early as 369 BC (Dionysius I, the ruler of Syracuse, had brought Gallic mercenaries from Marseilles with him to do battle in southern Greece), the true eastward mass migration of the Gauls came via the Danube River.  Moving to the southeast from their increasingly populated Austria/Hungary base in search of land, the eastern Gauls began advancing along the Danube into southern Pannonia, a region roughly equated with modern Slovenia, northern Croatia, and northern Bosnia, in the 4th century BC.  Historical accounts place the number of Celts that moved into the region as high as 300 000 people.  Regardless of the number, over the course of about a century, Pannonia had become fully Celticised with the arrival of many thousands of Gauls.


Source: Hxseek,,_Thracians_and_Illyrians_during_the_Celtic_invasion_of_4th_century_BC.png.  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

From Pannonia, the Gauls expanded rapidly into the Balkans in 281 BC in a manner that was both military and migratory in nature.  The Gauls pushed as far as Thrace before branching into three groups in 279 BC.  One group focused on Thrace, one on Macedonia and Illyria, and the other on Paionia, as shown in the map below.  The leader of the group that ran through Paionia, Brennus, then consolidated the Gallic forces (numbering around 175 000 troops) and marched into Greece, successfully defeating the Greeks at Thermopylae but losing to them at Delphi, Brennus taking his own life in the process.


The advance of the Gauls in the early 3rd century BC through southeast Europe into Asia Minor (Anatolia).  Source: Megistias,  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic licence.

The surviving Gauls from Brennus’ army reunited with the Gauls based in Thrace and proceeded east across the Dardanelles into Asia, as well as sacking Byzantium.  It was at this same time that Nicomedes I of Bithynia (the small kingdom immediately to the Bosporus across from Byzantium) was battling over possession of the throne with his brother, Zipoetes II, following the death of their father.  Nicomedes would employ the Gauls as mercenaries; in exchange, the Gallic soldiers and their families would receive land in Anatolia in which to settle.  After defeating Zipoetes in 277 BC, the Gauls would overrun much of neighbouring Phyrgia, and it would be the barren highland captured from Phyrgia plus that given to them by Nicomedes at the east edge of Bithynia that would become their home.  While the Gallic advance would be stopped by the Seleucid king Antiochus Iin 275 BC (Antiochus had actually sent soldiers to Thermopylae four years earlier in the losing cause), Antiochus would then turn around and use the Celtic warriors as mercenaries of his own.  By 260 BC, the Gauls had firmly established themselves in the region, which would take the name Galatia.

A map of Celtic expansion and retraction.  Yellow represents the core Hallstatt culture territory and expansion before 500 BC.  Light green represents the maximal Celtic expansion by the 270s BC.  Green represents the current extent of Celtic-speaking countries that have persisted through time, while dark green represents the area that are majority Celtic speaking.  Source: QuartierLatin1968,  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

There were three principal Galatian tribes in the region.  In the west were the Tolistobogii; in the centre, the Tectosages, based out of Ancyra (the modern Turkish capital of Ankara); and in the east, the Trocmi.  The old Phyrgian capital of Gordium would be renamed Vindia, derived from the Celtic root word windo-, meaning ‘white’, similar to how the Austrian capital of Vienna received its name.  From their highland base, the battled-tested Galatians were able to successfully conduct raids on many of the neighbouring peoples over the next few decades.  As mercenary allies of the Seleucid king Antiochus III during the early 2nd century BC, the Galatians would find themselves doing battle against the Roman Empire as Antiochus III attempted to hold onto Anatolia and reclaim Greece for the Seleucids (the eastern branch of the old empire of Alexander the Great).  Incensed by this attempted invasion, the Roman pushed back, defeating the Seleucids and then initiating war against their Galatian allies in 189 BC.  Galatia would become a vassal state of Rome and eventually was incorporated into the Empire in 25 BC as a province.  Galatia would remain a Roman/Byzantine province (split into two provinces north/south in 398 AD) into the late 7th century AD.

Accounts of the Galatian language are reported up to the 6th century AD, making Galatian the longest-lasting of the continental Celtic languages.  Approximately 120 Galatian words have been preserved, all of them known only from inscriptions in Greek texts or citations from Greek authors.  The words relate very closely to other Celtic languages; the 4th century priest/historian Saint Jerome (most famous for translating the Bible into Latin) reported the language as being very identical to that spoken in the Moselle valley (modern Luxembourg, southeastern Belgium, and western Germany).  Even after the assimilation of the Galatians into the surrounding Greek-speaking population and the disappearance of their language, the term Galatia for the region persisted into the 11thcentury.  Eventually the conquest of Anatolia and the Byzantine Empire by the Seljuk Turks would remove the term ‘Galatia’ from local consciousness.

Further Reading

Koch, J.T. (2006).  Galatia.  In Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, 785-788.  Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Lendering, J. (2012).  Antiochus I Soter.  Livius,  Available at  Accessed 12 June 2012.

UNRV History (2012).  Galatia.  Available at  Accessed 12 June 2012.

Yilmaz, T. (2011).  Chronology.  Galatians, 17 April 2011.  Available at  Accessed 12 June 2012.

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