Celtic mercenaries in Egypt

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.

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

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.

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

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

References:

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

 

Comments

Morgain's picture

Was surpirised the article did not mention the Celtic bodyguard of the most famous Ptolemy of all: Cleopatra VII – the great queen and stateswoman who almost brought Rome to its knees in 1stC BCE.

Another part of the Celtic diaspora of interest is the goddess Epona, matroness of horses. She accompanied Roman cavalry units across the Empire as they were mainly Celts. Ovid’s Matamorphoes mentions her. She was the only non-Roman, non-Greek deity who had an official festival in the Roman calendar – December 18th.

Epona is poignant as she is always portrayed as a peaceful female either among foals and mares, or riding sidesaddle, without weapons, often with a basket of food. This suggests she represented what the cavalry were fighting toi defend, peace and plenty.

Much later we find traces of her in the mediaeval Rhiannon, in the Mabinogi, whose magical and very political tale is much bound up with horses.

   

Shan Morgain www.mabinogistudy.com

I found this article fascinating. I had heard of Scota before, but not that she may have been connected to Akhenaten/Amenhotep IV. That makes sense, though, so it will be interesting to find out more.

Both of my parents had DNA analysis done which reflected what they knew--descent from population groups generally found in people with ancestors of Celtic culture, but it also showed both parents as having a small percentage of Middle Eastern ancestry. When I first learned of this I thought it was unusual, but the more I learn about the peoples that made up the Celts, the more I realize that it isn't so surprising after all. My little bit of Middle Eastern ancestry could very well be Egyptian. Moroccan is another possibility. The DNA doesn't show countries, of course, only genetic populations, and my Middle Eastern DNA could come from more that one Middle Eastern country, but that it could be Egyptian is more of a possibility than I once thought.

santafewriter's picture

In the somewhat heated discussion above concerning celts not being Anglo-Saxon/WASP/Europeans, I think a basic miscommunication has taken place. The writer protesting anglocentric interpretation of the Celts-Egypt connection is doing what many people in the USA where I live do: lumping all non-African, non-aboriginal, and non-Asiatic bloodlines/cultures into one category: "White." This was not the case even as late as the 1920s in the US. In the US in the 1920s, for example, Irish and Italians were often referred to disparagingly by persons of English Protestant heritage as inferior "races"—as "not White as we are White". Minorities of this sort were not permitted to attend New York University's main campus, but were made to attend the NYU branch in Greenwich Village. I know this because my father, a 2nd generation American Jew, was relegated to this branch.So for the protestor, the Celts and the Anglo-Saxons belong in the same conceptual category, "White Europeans," hence the protestor's disparagement of attempts to link them to an "exotic" heritage such as that of ancient Egypt.

 

Rand B. Lee
http://randlee.me
Reason and intuition are both necessary for a balanced view of self and the universe.

Very, very interesting - I find it so astounding that as many ancient history articles as I read I am always finding out new facts & new peoples I had never met before - a book written some time back suggested this link between the Mediterranean & the Celts, and the concept was considered because the peoples of those ancient eras used ships to get around - it was actually easier to get somewhere that way rather than tramp thousands of miles overland. He suggested the sea was a natural passageway if following the coast - you battle the waves, but you don't have to fight your way through the various tribes lands.
Good point I thought, he was suggesting that peoples of those early days were much more mobile than we give them credit for - "The Atlantean Irish - Ireland's Oriental & Maritime heritage" by Bob Quinn - fascinating proposals.

I was also surprised by that, but it seem logical, if a people want to do trade by road, it have to pay taxes to the owner of the land it have to pass through, they might even refuse to let them pass if their relationship is bad. Roman and Chinese people tried to bypass the silk road many times because of that.
Sea is like a free road for trade and long distance trade, no one really control the sea so i guess it's easier (maybe even faster, a trading caravan must be pretty slow).
In "Celtic from the west" some of the authors spoke of that too, the north atlantic formed a big trading zone, like the mediterranean sea in the south. So the cultures in those area had a lot of similarities. For example, Portugal (during the north atlantic period) might have more in common with the Celt from Ireland than with the east of Spain. The same might be true for the south. Massalia (now in France) had more in common with Carthago (nowday Tunisia) than with Paris. And it's funny to see that some of those differences might still be perceptible now, Marseille and Brest (both in France) don't have a lot in common, the people's mentalities are really different...
I found that very interesting.

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