The Celtic Literature Collective

The Description of Greece
Pausanias (fl. 2nd c. CE)

[5] I have made some mention of the Gallic invasion of Greece in my description of the Athenian Council Chamber. But I have resolved to give a more detailed account of the Gauls in my description of Delphi, because the greatest of the Greek exploits against the barbarians took place there. The Celts conducted their first foreign expedition under the leadership of Cambaules. Advancing as far as Thrace they lost heart and broke off their march, realizing that they were too few in number to be a match for the Greeks.

[6] But when they decided to invade foreign territory a second time, so great was the influence of Cambaules' veterans, who had tasted the joy of plunder and acquired a passion for robbery and plunder, that a large force of infantry and no small number of mounted men attended the muster. So the army was split up into three divisions by the chieftains, to each of whom was assigned a separate land to invade.

[7] Cerethrius was to be leader against the Thracians and the nation of the Triballi. The invaders of Paeonia were under the command of Brennus1 and Acichorius. Bolgius2 attacked the Macedonians and Illyrians, and engaged in a struggle with Ptolemy, king of the Macedonians at that time. It was this Ptolemy who, though he had taken refuge as a suppliant with Seleucus, the son of Antiochus, treacherously murdered him, and was surnamed Thunderbolt because of his recklessness. Ptolemy himself perished in the fighting, and the Macedonian losses were heavy. But once more the Celts lacked courage to advance against Greece, and so the second expedition returned home.

[8] It was then that Brennus, both in public meetings and also in personal talks with individual Gallic officers, strongly urged a campaign against Greece, enlarging on the weakness of Greece at the time, on the wealth of the Greek states, and on the even greater wealth in sanctuaries, including votive offerings and coined silver and gold. So he induced the Gauls to march against Greece. Among the officers he chose to be his colleagues was Acichorius.

[9] The muster of foot amounted to one hundred and fifty-two thousand, with twenty thousand four hundred horse. This was the number of horsemen in action at any one time, but the real number was sixty-one thousand two hundred. For to each horseman were attached two servants, who were themselves skilled riders and, like their masters, had a horse.

[10] When the Gallic horsemen were engaged, the servants remained behind the ranks and proved useful in the following way. Should a horseman or his horse fall, the slave brought him a horse to mount; if the rider was killed, the slave mounted the horse in his master's place; if both rider and horse were killed, there was a mounted man ready. When a rider was wounded, one slave brought back to camp the wounded man, while the other took his vacant place in the ranks.

[11] I believe that the Gauls in adopting these methods copied the Persian regiment of the Ten Thousand, who were called the Immortals. There was, however, this difference. The Persians used to wait until the battle was over before replacing casualties, while the Gauls kept reinforcing the horsemen to their full number during the height of the action. This organization is called in their native speech trimarcisia, for I would have you know that marca3 is the Celtic name for a horse.

[12] This was the size of the army, and such was the intention of Brennus, when he attacked Greece. The spirit of the Greeks was utterly broken, but the extremity of their terror forced them to defend Greece. They realized that the struggle that faced them would not be one for liberty, as it was when they fought the Persian, and that giving water and earth would not bring them safety. They still remembered the fate of Macedonia, Thrace and Paeonia during the former incursion of the Gauls, and reports were coming in of enormities committed at that very time on the Thessalians. So every man, as well as every state, was convinced that they must either conquer or perish.

Any one who so wishes can compare the number of those who mustered to meet king Xerxes at Thermopylae with those who now mustered to oppose the Gauls. To meet the Persians there came Greek contingents of the following strength. Lacedaemonians with Leonidas not more than three hundred; Tegeans five hundred, and five hundred from Mantineia; from Orchomenus in Arcadia a hundred and twenty; from the other cities in Arcadia one thousand; from Mycenae eighty; from Phlius two hundred, and from Corinth twice this number; of the Boeotians there mustered seven hundred from Thespiae and four hundred from Thebes. A thousand Phocians guarded the path on Mount Oeta, and the number of these should be added to the Greek total.

[2] Herodotus does not give the number of the Locrians under Mount Cnemis, but he does say that each of their cities sent a contingent. It is possible, however, to make an estimate of these also that comes very near to the truth. For not more than nine thousand Athenians marched to Marathon, even if we include those who were too old for active service and slaves; so the number of Locrian fighting men who marched to Thermopylae cannot have exceeded six thousand. So the whole army would amount to eleven thousand two hundred. But it is well known that not even these remained all the time guarding the pass; for if we except the Lacedaemonians, Thespians and Mycenaeans, the rest left the field before the conclusion of the fighting.

[3] To meet the barbarians who came from the Ocean the following Greek forces came to Thermopylae. Of the Boeotians ten thousand hoplites and five hundred cavalry, the Boeotarchs being Cephisodotus, Thearidas, Diogenes and Lysander. From Phocis came five hundred cavalry with footmen three thousand in number. The generals of the Phocians were Critobulus and Antiochus.

[4] The Locrians over against the island of Atalanta were under the command of Meidias; they numbered seven hundred, and no cavalry was with them. Of the Megarians came four hundred hoplites commanded by Hipponicus of Megara. The Aetolians sent a large contingent, including every class of fighting men; the number of cavalry is not given, but the light-armed were seven hundred and ninety, and their hoplites numbered more than seven thousand. Their leaders were Polyarchus, Polyphron and Lacrates.

[5] The Athenian general was Callippus, the son of Moerocles, as I have said in an earlier part of my work, and their forces consisted of all their seaworthy triremes, five hundred horse and one thousand foot. Because of their ancient reputation the Athenians held the chief command. The king of Macedonia sent five hundred mercenaries, and the king of Asia a like number; the leader of those sent by Antigonus was Aristodemus, a Macedonian, and Telesarchus, one of the Syrians on the Orontes, commanded the forces that Antiochus sent from Asia.

[6] When the Greeks assembled at Thermopylae learned that the army of the Gauls was already in the neighborhood of Magnesia and Phthiotis, they resolved to detach the cavalry and a thousand light armed troops and to send them to the Spercheius, so that even the crossing of the river could not be effected by the barbarians without a struggle and risks. On their arrival these forces broke down the bridges and by themselves encamped along the bank. But Brennus himself was not utterly stupid, nor inexperienced, for a barbarian, in devising tricks of strategy.

[7] So on that very night he despatched some troops to the Spercheius, not to the places where the old bridges had stood, but lower down, where the Greeks would not notice the crossing, and just where the river spread over the plain and made a marsh and lake instead of a narrow, violent stream. Hither Brennus sent some ten thousand Gauls, picking out the swimmers and the tallest men; and the Celts as a race are far taller than any other people.

[8] So these crossed in the night, swimming over the river where it expands into a lake; each man used his shield, his national buckler, as a raft, and the tallest of them were able to cross the water by wading. The Greeks on the Spercheius, as soon as they learned that a detachment of the barbarians had crossed by the marsh, forthwith retreated to the main army. Brennus ordered the dwellers round the Malian gulf to build bridges across the Spercheius, and they proceeded to accomplish their task with a will, for they were frightened of Brennus, and anxious for the barbarians to go away out of their country instead of staying to devastate it further.

[9] Brennus brought his army across over the bridges and proceeded to Heracleia. The Gauls plundered the country, and massacred those whom they caught in the fields, but did not capture the city. For a year previous to this the Aetolians had forced Heracleia to join the Aetolian League; so now they defended a city which they considered to belong to them just as much as to the Heracleots.

Brennus did not trouble himself much about Heracleia, but directed his efforts to driving away those opposed to him at the pass, in order to invade Greece south of Thermopylae.

Deserters kept Brennus informed about the forces from each city mustered at Thermopylae. So despising the Greek army he advanced from Heracleia, and began the battle at sun-rise on the next day. He had no Greek soothsayer, and made no use of his own country's sacrifices, if indeed the Celts have any art of divination4. Whereupon the Greeks attacked silently and in good order. When they came to close quarters, the infantry did not rush out of their line far enough to disturb their proper formation, while the light-armed troops remained in position, throwing javelins, shooting arrows or slinging bullets.

[2] The cavalry on both sides proved useless, as the ground at the Pass is not only narrow, but also smooth because of the natural rock, while most of it is slippery owing to its being covered with streams. The Gauls were worse armed than the Greeks, having no other defensive armour than their national shields, while they were still more inferior in war experience.

[3] On they marched against their enemies with the unreasoning fury and passion of brutes. Slashed with axe or sword they kept their desperation while they still breathed; pierced by arrow or javelin, they did not abate of their passion so long as life remained. Some drew out from their wounds the spears, by which they had been hit, and threw them at the Greeks or used them in close fighting.

[4] Meanwhile the Athenians on the triremes, with difficulty and with danger, nevertheless coasted along through the mud that extends far out to sea, brought their ships as close to the barbarians as possible, and raked them with arrows and every other kind of missile. The Celts were in unspeakable distress, and as in the confined space they inflicted few losses but suffered twice or four times as many, their captains gave the signal to retire to their camp. Retreating in confusion and without any order, many were crushed beneath the feet of their friends, and many others fell into the swamp and disappeared under the mud. Their loss in the retreat was no less than the loss that occurred while the battle raged.

[5] On this day the Attic contingent surpassed the other Greeks in courage. Of the Athenians themselves the bravest was Cydias, a young man who had never before been in battle. He was killed by the Gauls, but his relatives dedicated his shield to Zeus God of Freedom, and the inscription ran:--

Here hang I, yearning for the still youthful bloom of Cydias,
The shield of a glorious man, an offering to Zeus.
I was the very first through which at this battle he thrust his left arm,
When the battle raged furiously against the Gaul.

[6] This inscription remained until Sulla and his army took away, among other Athenian treasures, the shields in the porch of Zeus, God of Freedom. After this battle at Thermopylae the Greeks buried their own dead and spoiled the barbarians, but the Gauls sent no herald to ask leave to take up the bodies, and were indifferent whether the earth received them or whether they were devoured by wild beasts or carrion birds.

[7] There were in my opinion two reasons that made them careless about the burial of their dead: they wished to strike terror into their enemies, and through habit they have no tender feeling for those who have gone. In the battle there fell forty of the Greeks; the losses of the barbarians it was impossible to discover exactly. For the number of them that disappeared beneath the mud was great.

On the seventh day after the battle a regiment of Gauls attempted to go up to Oeta by way of Heracleia. Here too a narrow path rises just past the ruins of Trachis. There was also at that time a sanctuary of Athena above the Trachinian territory, and in it were votive offerings. So they hoped to ascend Oeta by this path and at the same time to get possession of the offerings in the temple in passing. They overcame the barbarians in the engagement, but Telesarchus himself fell, a man devoted, if ever a man was, to the Greek cause.

[2] All the leaders of the barbarians except Brennus were terrified of the Greeks, and at the same time were despondent of the future, seeing that their present condition showed no signs of improvement. But Brennus reasoned that if he could compel the Aetolians to return home to Aetolia, he would find the war against Greece prove easier hereafter. So he detached from his army forty thousand foot and about eight hundred horse. Over these he set in command Orestorius and Combutis,

[3] who, making their way back by way of the bridges over the Spercheius and across Thessaly again, invaded Aetolia. The fate of the Callians at the hands of Combutis and Orestorius is the most wicked ever heard of, and is without a parallel in the crimes of men. Every male they put to the sword, and there were butchered old men equally with children at their mothers' breasts. The more plump of these sucking babes the Gauls killed, drinking their blood and eating their flesh.

[4] Women and adult maidens, if they had any spirit at all in them, anticipated their end when the city was captured. Those who survived suffered under imperious violence every form of outrage at the hands of men equally void of pity or of love. Every woman who chanced to find a Gallic sword committed suicide. The others were soon to die of hunger and want of sleep, the incontinent barbarians outraging them by turns, and sating their lust even on the dying and the dead.

[5] The Aetolians had been informed by messengers what disasters had befallen them, and at once with all speed removed their forces from Thermopylae and hastened to Aetolia, being exasperated at the sufferings of the Callians, and still more fired with determination to save the cities not yet captured. From all the cities at home were mobilized the men of military age; and even those too old for service, their fighting spirit roused by the crisis, were in the ranks, and their very women gladly served with them, being even more enraged against the Gauls than were the men.

[6] When the barbarians, having pillaged houses and sanctuaries, and having fired Callium, were returning by the same way, they were met by the Patraeans, who alone of the Achaeans were helping the Aetolians. Being trained as hoplites they made a frontal attack on the barbarians, but suffered severely owing to the number and desperation of the Gauls. But the Aetolians, men and women, drawn up all along the road, kept shooting at the barbarians, and few shots failed to find a mark among enemies protected by nothing but their national shields. Pursued by the Gauls they easily escaped, renewing their attack with vigor when their enemies returned from the pursuit.

[7] Although the Callians suffered so terribly that even Homer's account of the Laestrygones and the Cyclops1 does not seem outside the truth, yet they were duly and fully avenged. For out of their number of forty thousand eight hundred, there escaped of the barbarians to the camp at Thermopylae less than one half.

[8] Meantime the Greeks at Thermopylae were faring as follows. There are two paths across Mount Oeta: the one above Trachis is very steep, and for the most part precipitous; the other, through the territory of the Aenianians, is easier for an army to cross. It was through this that on a former occasion Hydarnes the Persian passed to attack in the rear the Greeks under Leonidas.

[9] By this road the Heracleots and the Aenianians promised to lead Brennus, not that they were ill-disposed to the Greek cause, but because they were anxious for the Celts to go away from their country, and not to establish themselves in it to its ruin. I think that Pindar spoke the truth again when he said that every one is crushed by his own misfortunes but is untouched by the woes of others.

[10] Brennus was encouraged by the promise made by the Aenianians and Heracleots. Leaving Acichorius behind in charge of the main army, with instructions that it was to attack only when the enveloping movement was complete, Brennus himself, with a detachment of forty thousand, began his march along the pass.

[11] It so happened on that day that the mist rolled thick down the mountain, darkening the sun, so that the Phocians who were guarding the path found the barbarians upon them before they were aware of their approach. Thereupon the Gauls attacked. The Phocians resisted manfully, but at last were forced to retreat from the path. However, they succeeded in running down to their friends with a report of what was happening before the envelopment of the Greek army was quite complete on all sides.

[12] Whereupon the Athenians with the fleet succeeded in withdrawing in time the Greek forces from Thermopylae, which disbanded and returned to their several homes. Brennus, without delaying any longer, began his march against Delphi without waiting for the army with Acichorius to join up. In terror the Delphians took refuge in the oracle. The god bade them not to be afraid, and promised that he would himself defend his own.

[13] The Greeks who came in defence of the god were as follow: the Phocians, who came from all their cities; from Amphissa four hundred hoplites; from the Aetolians a few came at once on hearing of the advance of the barbarians, and later on Philomelus brought one thousand two hundred. The flower of the Aetolians turned against the army of Acichorius, and without offering battle attacked continuously the rear of their line of march, plundering the baggage and putting the carriers to the sword. It was chiefly for this reason that their march proved slow. Futhermore, at Heracleia Acichorius had left a part of his army, who were to guard the baggage of the camp.

Brennus and his army were now faced by the Greeks who had mustered at Delphi, and soon portents boding no good to the barbarians were sent by the god, the clearest recorded in history. For the whole ground occupied by the Gallic army was shaken violently most of the day, with continuous thunder and lightning.

[2] The thunder both terrified the Gauls and prevented them hearing their orders, while the bolts from heaven set on fire not only those whom they struck but also their neighbors, themselves and their armour alike. Then there were seen by them ghosts of the heroes Hyperochus, Laodocus and Pyrrhus; according to some a fourth appeared, Phylacus, a local hero of Delphi.

[3] Among the many Phocians who were killed in the action was Aleximachus, who in this battle excelled all the other Greeks in devoting youth, physical strength, and a stout heart, to slaying the barbarians. The Phocians made a statue of Aleximachus and sent it to Delphi as an offering to Apollo.

[4] All the day the barbarians were beset by calamities and terrors of this kind. But the night was to bring upon them experiences far more painful. For there came on a severe frost, and snow with it; and great rocks slipping from Parnassus, and crags breaking away, made the barbarians their target, the crash of which brought destruction, not on one or two at a time, but on thirty or even more, as they chanced to be gathered in groups, keeping guard or taking rest.

[5] At sunrise the Greeks came on from Delphi, making a frontal attack with the exception of the Phocians, who, being more familiar with the district, descended through the snow down the precipitous parts of Parnassus, and surprised the Celts in their rear, shooting them down with arrows and javelins without anything to fear from the barbarians.

[6] At the beginning of the fight the Gauls offered a spirited resistance, especially the company attached to Brennus, which was composed of the tallest and bravest of the Gauls, and that though they were shot at from all sides, and no less distressed by the frost, especially the wounded men. But when Brennus himself was wounded, he was carried fainting from the battle, and the barbarians, harassed on all sides by the Greeks, fell back reluctantly, putting to the sword those who, disabled by wounds or sickness, could not go with them.

[7] They encamped where night overtook them in their retreat, and during the night there fell on them a “panic.” For causeless terrors are said to come from the god Pan. It was when evening was turning to night that the confusion fell on the army, and at first only a few became mad, and these imagined that they heard the trampling of horses at a gallop, and the attack of advancing enemies; but after a little time the delusion spread to all.

[8] So rushing to arms they divided into two parties, killing and being killed, neither understanding their mother tongue nor recognizing one another's forms or the shape of their shields. Both parties alike under the present delusion thought that their opponents were Greek, men and armour, and that the language they spoke was Greek, so that a great mutual slaughter was wrought among the Gauls by the madness sent by the god.

[9] Those Phocians who had been left behind in the fields to guard the flocks were the first to perceive and report to the Greeks the panic that had seized the barbarians in the night. The Phocians were thus encouraged to attack the Celts with yet greater spirit, keeping a more careful watch on their encampments, and not letting them take from the country the necessities of life without a struggle, so that the whole Gallic army suffered at once from a pressing shortage of corn and other food.

[10] Their losses in Phocis were these: in the battles were killed close on six thousand; those who perished in the wintry storm at night and afterwards in the panic terror amounted to over ten thousand, as likewise did those who were starved to death.

[11] Athenian scouts arrived at Delphi to gather information, after which they returned and reported what had happened to the barbarians, and all that the god had inflicted upon them. Whereupon the Athenians took the field, and as they marched through Boeotia they were joined by the Boeotians. Thus the combined armies followed the barbarians, lying in wait and killing those who happened to be the last.

[12] Those who fled with Brennus had been joined by the army under Acichorius only on the previous night. For the Aetolians had delayed their march, hurling at them a merciless shower of javelins and anything else they could lay hands on, so that only a small part of them escaped to the camp at Heracleia. There was still a hope of saving the life of Brennus, so far as his wounds were concerned; but, they say, partly because he feared his fellow-countrymen, and still more because he was conscience-stricken at the calamities he had brought on Greece, he took his own life by drinking neat wine.5

[13] After this the barbarians proceeded with difficulty as far as the Spercheius, pressed hotly by the Aetolians. But after their arrival at the Spercheius, during the rest of the retreat the Thessalians and Malians kept lying in wait for them, and so took their fill of slaughter that not a Gaul returned home in safety.

[14] The expedition of the Celts against Greece, and their destruction, took place when Anaxicrates was archon at Athens, in the second year of the hundred and twenty-fifth Olympiad, when Ladas of Aegium was victor in the footrace. In the following year, when Democles was archon at Athens, the Celts crossed back again to Asia.

Pausanias. Pausanias Description of Greece with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D., and H.A. Ormerod, M.A., in 4 Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1918. WWW. Perseus Project. Starting URL:


1. Brennus: his name is probably derived from the root *brig-, meaning "high, exhalted". From *brig- comes Brigantia and brenin, the Welsh word for king. This would account for the numerous "Brennus"es of Greco-Roman history: Brennus who sacked Rome in 387 BCE; the present Brennus, who sacked Delphi in 279 BCE; Brinno, leader of a Batavian revolt in 69 CE; and the mythical Brennius of British history, brother of Belinus. The relationship of these Brennuses with the Welsh god Bran the Blessed is difficult to untangle.

2. Bolgius: it is thought to be a theonym, meaning "lightning." According to John Koch, Bolgios/Belgios (Bolgius is called Belgius by Justin) would have been the tutelary god of the Belgae. What's more interesting is that Bolgios/Belgios and the similar god Belinus were at some point conflated into the figure of Beli Mawr, the mythical king of Britain and brother of Brennius. In fact, Geoffrey of Monmouth does exactly that, placing his mythical king Belenus in the role of Pausianas' Bolgios.

As this story tells not only of the sack of Delphi, but of the Celtic settlement of Galatia, it is likely that the tale, while inspired by a real event, has mythological overtones, such as the names of the two leaders, "King" and "Lightning", who figure in other settlement stories up to the Medieval period.

3. marca: This still holds true; march is the Welsh word for horse.

4. Actually, there are several classical attestations to the Celts using divination, such as Tacitus' Annales xiv. 30; and Strabo, 4.4.4. For more, see chapter XVI of J.A. MacCulloch's The Religion of the Ancient Celts.

5. Brennus' suicide differs in Justin, which has him using a dagger.