Celts and the Classical World

By David Rankin | Go to book overview

5

The Second Finest Hour of Hellas

When Celtic warriors in a furious horde invaded Greece in 278 BC, her inhabitants saw in their eventual victory over this northern terror a glorious renewal of the triumphs against the Persians in 490 BC, and 480-479 BC. Some stimulant for their national pride was needed. Since the victory of Philip II at Chaeronaea (338 BC), Greece had been substantially under the power of Macedon. There were restless movements amongst the cities from time to time: attempts to regain the old freedom for destructive rivalry. One such attempt after the death of Alexander was crushed after a deceptive initial success. Yet Athens and the others still retained enough illusory independence to become resentful at each setback to old pretensions and irritably willing to risk another futile throw in a game which they could no longer afford to play. The city-states were haunted over generations by the ghost of their defunct importance and were unwilling to discard their claims to individuality and liberty of action whether the imminent suzerain was Macedonian or Roman.

A fragment of poetry on a papyrus of the third century BC has a reference to Celts, possibly in connection with some Hellenistic king, and compares the ‘wild Celtic warrior’ (thouros anēr Galatēs) with the Mede (J.U. Powell 1925:131). The Celtic attack became embedded in the great drama of Greek mythopoeic history. The invasions were indeed savage and severe in their effects and the fear which they inspired can hardly be exaggerated. The Greek cities rose to the occasion, but in fact the peril was less than in the Persian Wars. They did not face an enormous and well-organised empire led by rulers of the calibre of Darius or Xerxes, who were intelligent and determined leaders whose considerable strategic and political gifts enabled them to sustain their policies and plans

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