Exploring the Little Known History of Celtic Warriors in Egypt
Celtic warriors were one of the most important supports of Mediterranean armies. However, it is a little known fact that apart from their role in the Byzantium, these powerful warriors also had a strong connection with ancient Egypt.
Nowadays, the Celtic languages and cultures are restricted to Ireland, parts of Scotland, Wales, Galicia in Spain and Brittany in France. However, Celtic-speaking tribes once controlled much of Europe before the rise of the Roman Empire. Groups of Celtic mercenaries and adventurers made their presence felt as far afield as Thrace, Greece, Judea, and Africa.
It was during the 4th century BC that Celtic warriors first appeared in Greece, Italy and the Mediterranean islands. In 390 BC they sacked a small city along the Tiber River in Etruria. Celtic warriors were famous for the quality of their weapons, their impressive courage and their wild battle-cries. Some of them went on foot, but the nobles rode to battle on horses. They wore long hair and favored decorated shields and long swords.
During the 4th and the beginning of the 3rd centuries BC they were employed in the region from Sparta to Syracuse. There they formed an important part of the Carthaginian army and fought in both Punic Wars. They supported Hannibal and traveled with him through the Alps.
It is rarely reported that during the 3rd century BC, the Celts also acted as a support for the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt.
Celtic warriors. (Copyright: Zvezda /Karatchuk, artist).
Celts in Ptolemaic Egypt
Many Celts in the armies of foreign countries came from Galatia, an area once situated in the highlands of central Anatolia in what is now Turkey. From the early 3rd century, Celtic warriors from the Eastern European tribes were included in the Egyptian battle-order. During the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphios, a band of four thousand Celtic warriors were recruited from the Balkans, with the aid of Antigonos Gonatas of Makedon.
According to the Greek historian Pausanias, the 4,000 Celtic warriors helped Ptolemy to win a crushing victory over his half-brother usurper, Ptolemy Keraunos. He also claims that the war-leaders of the Celtic bands wanted to overthrow both Ptolemy and Magas of Cyrene, a Greek Macedonian nobleman who was a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Their goal was to set themselves up as the rulers of Egypt. To punish this Celtic rebellion, Ptolemy expelled these exotic warriors to a small island in the Nile to die of starvation. However, this episode did not mean the end of the association between the Celts and the Ptolemies.
In 250 BC, Ptolemy II hired more Celtic warriors to assist the native Egyptian army in road construction and to put down rebellions. He and his son Ptolemy III Euergetes, who became Pharaoh in 247 BC, also employed Celtic mercenaries. This time they marched through Syria and Judea in a victorious campaign against Seleukos Kallinikos, a ruler of the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire, in the invasion of the Seleucid Empire, ravaging Mesopotamia and western Persia. During the reign of Ptolemy IV Philopater (222-205 BC), Celtic soldiers had become a part of the culture of Ptolemaic Egypt. Until the fall of Ptolemaic dynasty, they remained a very important part of the army. Ptolemy V Epiphanes hired an army of Thracian Celts to put down a revolt of the native Egyptian population in Upper Egypt. It is also known that the last ruler of the dynasty – Cleopatra – used the Celtic mercenaries.
Many Celtic warriors found a new home in Egypt, married local women and stayed in the land of the Pharaohs for the remainder of their lives. According to the Greek historian Polybios, the intermarriage between Celtic warriors, and native Egyptian and Greek girls were very common. The children of Celtic-Egyptian marriages were known by the slang term epigovoi.
Celtic soldiers (bottom left) in Egypt (scout.com)
The oldest footsteps between the two civilizations
According to Lorraine Evans, who reveals in her compelling book Kingdom of the Ark, the relationship between Egypt and the Celts is much older than the 3rd century BC. She believes that the remains of an ancient boat discovered in 1937 in North Ferriby, Yorkshire, belonged to ancient Egyptians. The boat was at first thought to be a Viking longship, but according to radiocarbon dating, it was created around 1400 to 1350 BC. Evans argues that these boats originated from Egypt. In the Scotichronicon, a 15th-century chronicle or legendary account, by the Scottish historian Walter Bower, Evans discovered the story of Scota, the Egyptian princess and daughter of a Pharaoh who fled from Egypt with her husband Gaythelos. They settled in Scotland until they were forced to leave and landed in Ireland. The Egyptian names used in Bower's manuscript come from Mentho's work. According to the text, Scota's father was Achencres, what is a Greek version of the name Akhenaten. Evans believes that legendary Scota could be the daughter of the heretic king from Egypt.
Bronze Age boat being excavated in North Ferriby, Yorkshire. Credit: Penn Museum.
Another link between the history of the Egyptians and Celts comes from the period known in Egyptology as the New Kingdom (ca. 1640–1550 BC). In 1955, archaeologist Dr. Sean O’Riordan of Trinity College, Dublin, made an interesting discovery during an excavation of the Mound of Hostages at Tara in Ireland. The site, dated to the Bronze Age, was connected with the history of the ancient kingship of Ireland. Archeologists discovered the skeletal remains of what is believed to have been a young prince. The most interesting aspect of this finding was a rare necklace of faience beads, made from a paste of minerals and plant extracts that had been fired. They were Egyptian and the skeleton was carbon dated to around 1350 BC. The boy from Tara lived in the same times as Tutankhamun. Even more surprising is the fact that both Tutankhamun and the Tara skeleton had the same golden collar around their neck, which was inlaid with matching conical, blue-green faience beads.
The Mound of Hostages, Tara, Ireland (Sean Rowe / Flickr)
There are still many mysteries behind the Celtic-Egyptian connection. In Egypt, archaeologists have found many figurines of Celts presented in Ptolemaic style. Due to a lack of resources, this area of research remains largely unexplored. Only future excavation expeditions may find an answer to questions surrounding the full history of Celtic connections to Egypt.
Featured image: Celtic mercenaries in Egypt (scout.com)
By: Natalia Klimcsak
B. Maier, Celts: A History from Earliest Times to the Present. 2003.
S. James, Simon. The World of the Celts, 2005.
B.Cunliffe, Barry. The Ancient Celts. 1997.
L. Evans, Kingdom of the Ark, 2000.
Adams, H. (2009). The Story of Princess Scota. Available from: http://www.grandestrategy.com/2009/07/594949-story-of-princess-scota.html#ixzz3vk25VLz6