Polybius, Histories

Polybius of Megalopolis (c.205–c.125 BCE) was a Greek politician who moved to Rome. His interest in the Celts was primarily focused on military concerns and Roman imperial ambitions.

The following is an adaption of Histories. Polybius, trans. Evelyn S. Shuckburgh. New York: Macmillan, 1889.

§ 2.7. Who, if sane, knowing the common report as to the character of the Gauls, would not have hesitated to trust to them a city so rich, and offering so many opportunities for treason? And again, who would not have been on his guard against the bad character of this particular group of them? For they had originally been driven from their native country by an outburst of popular indignation at an act of treachery done by them to their own kinsfolk and relations.

Then having been received by the Carthaginians, because of the exigencies of the war in which [the Gauls] were engaged, and being drafted into Agrigentum to garrison it (being at the time more than three thousand strong), [the Gauls] seized the opportunity of a dispute regarding payment, arising between the soldiers and their generals, to plunder the city; and again being brought by the Carthaginians into Eryx to perform the same duty, they first endeavoured to betray the city and those who were shut up in it with them to the Romans who were besieging it; and when they failed in that treason, they deserted in a body to the enemy: whose trust they also betrayed by plundering the temple of Aphrodite in Eryx.

Thoroughly convinced, therefore, of their abominable character, as soon as they had made peace with Carthage the Romans made it their first business to disarm them, put them on board ship, and forbid them ever to enter any part of Italy. These were the men whom the Epirotes made the protectors of their democracy and the guardians of their laws! To such men as these they entrusted their most wealthy city! How then can it be denied that they were the cause of their own misfortunes?

My object, in commenting on the blind folly of the Epirotes, is to point out that it is never wise to introduce a foreign garrison, especially of barbarians, which is too strong to be controlled.

§ 2.17. [Description of Po Valley] These plains were anciently inhabited by Etruscans, at the same period as what are called the Phlegraean plains round Capua and Nola; which latter, however, have enjoyed the highest reputation, because they lay in a great many people’s way and so got known. In speaking then of the history of the Etruscan Empire, we should not refer to the district occupied by them at the present time, but to these northern plains, and to what they did when they inhabited them. Their chief intercourse was with the Celts, because they occupied the adjoining districts; who, envying the beauty of their lands, seized some slight pretext to gather a great host and expel the Etruscans from the valley of the Padus, which they at once took possession of themselves. First, the country near the source of the Padus was occupied by the Laevi and Lebecii; after them the Insubres settled in the country, the largest nation of all; and next them, along the bank of the river, the Cenomani. But the district along the shore of the Adriatic was held by another very ancient nation called Venĕti, in customs and dress nearly allied to Celts, but using quite a different language, about whom the tragic poets have written a great many wonderful tales. South of the Padus, in the Apennine district, first beginning from the west, the Ananes, and next them the Boii settled. Next to them, on the coast of the Adriatic, the Lingones; and south of these, still on the sea-coast, the Senones. These are the most important nations that took possession of this part of the country.

They lived in villages without walls or any permanent buildings. They made their beds of straw or leaves and fed on meat and followed no pursuits but those of war and agriculture. They lived simple lives without knowledge of any science or art whatever. Each man’s property, moreover, consisted of cattle and gold, as they were the only things that could be easily carried with them, when they wandered from place to place, and changed their dwelling as their fancy directed. They made a great point, however, of friendship: for the man who had the largest number of clients or companions in his wanderings, was looked upon as the most formidable and powerful member of the nation.

§ 2.18. [Battle of Allia 390 BCE, Latin War 349-40 BCE] In the early times of their settlement the Celts did not merely subdue the territory which they occupied, but rendered also many of the neighbouring peoples subject to them, whom they overawed by their audacity. Some time afterwards they conquered the Romans in battle, and pursuing the flying legions, in three days after the battle occupied Rome itself with the exception of the Capitol.

But a circumstance intervened which recalled them home, an invasion, that is to say, of their territory by the Venĕti. Accordingly they made terms with the Romans, handed back the city, and returned to their own land; and subsequently were occupied with domestic wars. Some of the nations, also, who dwelt on the Alps, comparing their own barren districts with the rich territory occupied by the others, were continually making raids upon them, and collecting their force to attack them.

This gave the Romans time to recover their strength, and to come to terms with the people of Latium. When, thirty years after the capture of the city, the Celts came again as far as Alba, the Romans were taken by surprise; and having had no intelligence of the intended invasion, nor time to collect the forces of the Socii, did not venture to give them battle.

§ 2.22. [231 BCE] Accordingly the two most extensive nations, the Insubres and Boii, joined in the despatch of messengers to the nations living about the Alps and on the Rhone, who are called Gaesatae from the Celtic word which means “mercenary.” [This is incorrect: it actually means “spear-men.”] To their kings Concolitanus and Aneroetes they offered a large sum of gold on the spot; and, for the future, pointed out to them the greatness of the wealth of Rome, and all the riches of which they would become possessed, if they took it. In these attempts to inflame their greed and induce them to join the expedition against Rome they easily succeeded. For they added to the above arguments pledges of their own alliance; and reminded them of the campaign of their own ancestors in which they had seized Rome itself, and had been masters of all it contained, as well as the city itself, for seven months; and had at last evacuated it of their own free will, and restored it by an act of free grace, returning unconquered and unharmed with the booty to their own land. These arguments made the leaders so eager for the expedition, that there never at any other time came from that part of Gaul a larger host, or one consisting of more notable warriors. Meanwhile, the Romans, informed of what was coming, partly by report and partly by speculation, were in such a state of constant alarm and anticipation, that they hurriedly enrolled legions, collected supplies, and sent out their forces to the frontier, as though the enemy were already in their territory, before the Gauls had stirred from their own lands.

§ 2.26. [Battle of Telamon] But meanwhile Lucius Aemilius, who had been stationed on the coast of the Adriatic at Ariminum, having been informed that the Gauls had entered Etruria and were approaching Rome, set off to the rescue […] The Gallic chieftains too had seen his watch fires, and understood that the enemy was come; and at once held council of war. The advice of King Aneroestes was “that seeing the amount of booty they had taken — an incalculable quantity indeed of captives, cattle, and other spoil — they had better not run the risk of another general engagement, but return home in safety; and having disposed of this booty, and freed themselves from its incumbrance, return, if they thought good, to make another determined attack upon Rome.” Having resolved to follow the advice of Aneroestes in the present juncture, the chiefs broke up their night council, and before daybreak struck camp, and marched through Etruria by the road which follows the coast of the Ligurian bay.

§ 2.28. The Celts had stationed the Alpine nation of the Gaesatae to face their enemies on the rear, and behind them the Insubres; on their front they had placed the Taurisci, and the Cispadane nation of the Boii, facing the legions of Gaius. Their wagons and chariots they placed on the extremity of either wing, while the booty they massed upon one of the hills that skirted the road, under the protection of a guard. The army of the Celts was thus double-faced, and their mode of marshalling their forces was effective as well as calculated to inspire terror. The Insubres and Boii were clothed in their breeches and light cloaks; but the Gaesatae from vanity and bravado threw these garments away, and fell in in front of the army naked, with nothing but their arms; believing that, as the ground was in parts encumbered with brambles, which might possibly catch in their clothes and impede the use of their weapons, they would be more effective in this state. At first the only actual fighting was that for the possession of the hill: and the numbers of the cavalry, from all three armies, that had joined in the struggle made it a conspicuous sight to all. In the midst of it the Consul Gaius fell, fighting with reckless bravery in the thick of the battle, and his head was brought to the king of the Celts. The Roman cavalry, however, continued the struggle with spirit, and finally won the position and overpowered their opponents.

§ 2.29. It was surely a peculiar and surprising battle to witness, and scarcely less so to hear described. A battle, to begin with, in which three distinct armies were engaged, must have presented a strange and unusual appearance, and must have been fought under strange and unusual conditions. Again, it must have seemed to a spectator open to question, whether the position of the Gauls were the most dangerous conceivable, from being between two attacking forces; or the most favourable, as enabling them to meet both armies at once, while their own two divisions afforded each other a mutual support: and, above all, as putting retreat out of the question, or any hope of safety except in victory. For this is the peculiar advantage of having an army facing in two opposite directions. The Romans, on the other hand, while encouraged by having got their enemy between two of their own armies, were at the same time dismayed by the ornaments and clamour of the Celtic host. For there were among them such innumerable horns and trumpets, which were being blown simultaneously in all parts of their army, and their cries were so loud and piercing, that the noise seemed not to come merely from trumpets and human voices, but from the whole country-side at once. Not less terrifying was the appearance and rapid movement of the naked warriors in the van, which indicated men in the prime of their strength and beauty: while all the warriors in the front ranks were richly adorned with gold necklaces and bracelets. These sights certainly dismayed the Romans; still the hope they gave of a profitable victory redoubled their eagerness for the battle.

§ 2.30. When the men who were armed with the javelin advanced in front of the legions, in accordance with the regular method of Roman warfare, and hurled their javelins in rapid and effective volleys, the inner ranks of the Celts found their jerkins and leather breeches of great service; but to the naked men in the front ranks this unexpected mode of attack caused great distress and discomfiture. For the Gallic shields not being big enough to cover the man, the larger the naked body the more certainty was there of the javelin hitting. And at last, not being able to retaliate, because the javelin-throwers were out of reach, and their weapons kept pouring in, some of them, in the extremity of their distress and helplessness, threw themselves with desperate courage and reckless violence upon the enemy, and thus met a voluntary death; while others gave ground step by step towards their own friends, whom they threw into confusion by this manifest acknowledgment of their panic. Thus the courage of the Gaesatae had broken down before the preliminary attack of the javelin. But when the throwers of it had rejoined their ranks, and the whole Roman line charged, the Insubres, Boii, and Taurisci received the attack, and maintained a desperate hand-to-hand fight. Though almost cut to pieces, they held their ground with unabated courage, in spite of the fact that man for man, as well as collectively, they were inferior to the Romans in point of arms. The shields and swords of the latter were proven to be clearly superior for defense and attack, for the Gallic sword can only deliver a cut, but cannot thrust. And when, besides the Roman horse charged down from the high ground on their flank, and attacked them vigorously, the infantry of the Celts were cut to pieces on the field, while their horse turned and fled.

§ 2.31. 40,000 of them were slain, and some 10,000 taken prisoners, among whom was one of their kings, Concolitanus: the other king, Aneroestes, fled with a few followers; joined a few of his people in escaping to a place of security; and there put an end to his own life and that of his friends. Lucius Aemilius, the surviving Consul, collected the spoils of the slain and sent them to Rome, and restored the property taken by the Gauls to its owners. Then taking command of the legions, he marched along the frontier of Liguria, and made a raid upon the territory of the Boii; and having satisfied the desires of the legions with plunder, returned with his forces to Rome in a few days’ march. There he adorned the Capitol with the captured standards and torcs, which are gold rings worn by the Gauls around their necks; but the rest of the spoils, and the captives, he converted to the benefit of his own estate and to the adornment of his triumph.

Thus was the most formidable Celtic invasion repelled, which had been regarded by all Italians, and especially by the Romans, as a danger of the utmost gravity. The victory inspired the Romans with a hope that they might be able to entirely expel the Celts from the valley of the Padus: and accordingly the Consuls of the next year, Quintus Fulvius Flaccus and Titus Manlius Torquatus, were both sent out with their legions, and military preparations on a large scale, against them. By a rapid attack they terrified the Boii into making submission to Rome; but the campaign had no other practical effect, because, during the rest of it, there was a season of excessive rains, and an outbreak of pestilence in the army.

§ 2.35. Such was the end of the Celtic war: which, for the desperate determination and boldness of the enemy, for the obstinacy of the battles fought, and for the number of those who fell and of those who were engaged, is second to none recorded in history, but which, regarded as a specimen of scientific strategy, is utterly contemptible. The Gauls showed no power of planning or carrying out a campaign, and in everything they did were swayed by impulse rather than by sober calculation. As I have seen these nations, after a short struggle, entirely ejected from the valley of the Padus, with the exception of some few localities lying close to the Alps, I thought I ought not to let their original attack upon Italy pass unrecorded, any more than their subsequent attempts, or their final ejectment: for it is the function of the historian to record and transmit to posterity such episodes in the drama of Fortune; that our posterity may not from ignorance of the past be unreasonably dismayed at the sudden and unexpected invasions of these barbarians, but may reflect how short-lived and easily damped the spirit of this race is; and so may stand to their defense, and try every possible means before yielding an inch to them. I think, for instance, that those who have recorded for our information the invasion of Greece by the Persians, and of Delphi by the Gauls, have contributed materially to the struggles made for the common freedom of Greece. For a superiority in supplies, arms, or numbers, would scarcely deter anyone from putting the last possible hope to the test, in a struggle for the integrity and the safety of his city and its territory, if he had before his eyes the surprising result of those expeditions; and remembered how many myriads of men, what daring confidence, and what immense armaments were baffled by the skill and ability of opponents, who conducted their measures under the dictates of reason and sober calculation. And as an invasion of Gauls has been a source of alarm to Greece in our day, as well as in ancient times, I thought it worth while to give a summary sketch of their doings from the earliest times.

§ 4.45. [about Byzantium] […] They are burdened by a perpetual and dangerous war: for what can be more dangerous or more threatening than a war with barbarians who live on your borders? […] to their other misfortunes was added the attack of the Gauls under Comontorius, when they were reduced to a sad state of wretchedness indeed.

§ 4.46. These Gauls left their country with Brennus. Having survived the battle at Delphi they made their way to the Hellespont, instead of crossing to Asia, and were captivated by the beauty of the district round Byzantium, so they settled there. Then, having conquered the Thracians and erected Tylis as a capital, they threatened the Byzantines. In their earlier attacks, made under the command of Comontorius their first king, the Byzantines always bought them off by presents amounting to three, or five, or sometimes even ten thousand gold pieces, on condition of their not devastating their territory: and at last were compelled to agree to pay them a yearly tribute of eighty talents, until the time of Cavarus, in whose reign their kingdom came to an end; and their whole nation, being in their turn conquered by the Thracians, were entirely annihilated. It was in these times that being exhausted by the payment of these exactions, the Byzantines first sent messengers to the Greek states with a request for aid and support in their dangerous situation: but being disregarded by the greater number, they, out of necessity, attempted to levy dues upon ships sailing into the Pontus.

§ 4.52. [220 BCE] When the Gaulish king, Cavarus, came to Byzantium and showed himself eager to put an end to the war, earnestly offering his friendly intervention, both Prusias and the Byzantines agreed to his proposals. And when the Rhodians were informed of the interference of Cavarus and the consent of Prusias, being very anxious to secure their own object also, they elected Aridices as ambassador to Byzantium, and sent Polemocles with him in command of three triremes, wishing, as the saying is, to send the Byzantines “spear and herald’s staff at once.”

§ 8.24. Cavarus, king of the Gauls in Thrace, was of a truly royal and high-minded disposition, and gave the merchants sailing into the Pontus great protection, and rendered the Byzantines important services in their wars with the Thracians and Bithynians [text missing …] This king, so excellent in other respects, was corrupted by a flatterer named Sostratus, who was a Chalchedonian by birth [text missing]