The second battle of Thermopylae: 279 BC

Just 200 years after the heroic and fatal stand of Leonidas and his 300 Spartans against an onslaught from Persia, Greece would again face down invaders bent on destruction.

When the battle of Thermopylae is mentioned, the sacrifice of 300 Spartans in 480 BC always comes to mind. The strategic importance of passage made it frequently a battleground. Philip II forced the pass by a stratagem. The Athenians again, took there by surprise a Macedonian force during the Lamian War. But Thermopylae would become a battleground at least twice in the Hellenistic era.

During the third century the triumphs of Alexander the Great were a thing of the past and Greece was ravaged by civil wars, which were sparked his successors because of their lust for absolute sovereignty. The economies and the populations were exhausted, but the deep political passions, goaded the people to continue the folly of war. This was the situation during 279 BC, when Greece was invaded by the Celts who, hard pressed by the overcrowding of their northern homelands invaded the South.

The Celts were a North-European people with fair complexions and tall stature. They had spread across the whole of Europe from the Carpathians to the Iberian peninsula and Italy. They were farmers and their art was characterized by complex ornamental patterns. They lived in separate tribes fighting each other for land and resources and foolish bravery that they considered a great virtue.

The Celts carried swords, spears and axes. A few aristocratic fighters wore armor but the only protection for most common warriors was their large rectangular shields that had a metal boss in the center. Many had tattoos and wore animal skins to terrorize their opponents. Their only tactic was a wild charge against their enemies or in some cases the use of ambushes.

A great army led by someone named Bolgius demanded tribute from the Macedonians. The King of Macedon, Ptolemy “Keraunos” (the thunder), was killed in an effort to repel them and Celtic onslaught swept Thessaly. A new leader named Brennos came forward and persuaded the Celts to sack the holy shrines of southern Greece.


(Celtic cavalry)


Exhausted by the civil war conflicts, when the Greeks found out that they could not negotiate with these wild barbarians, and with the courage that is granted by desperation they pressed to resist the Celts at Thermopylae where King Leonidas fell with his Spartans and allies some 200 years before. The Boeotians, the Phocians and the inhabitants of Peloponnese put their armies under the command of the Athenian General Callipos while the Athenian fleet blocked the Euboean Gulf. With their arrival at Thermopylae, the allies received aid from the Aetolians and mercenaries from the Hellenistic kingdoms. They attempted to prevent the Celts to cross the Spercheios river by destroying bridges, but the barbarians found another passage and forced them to retreat to the initial Greek positions at Thermopylae.

The narrowness of Thermopylae pass did not allow the Celts to take advantage of their numerical superiority. They attacked in a frenzy as disordered masses but did not manage to break the Greek hoplites. Unlike what happened in Italy, the wild Celtic yelling and violent rushes failed to terrorize the Greeks who maintained their formation and presented a solid barrier against the barbaric onslaught.

At the same time, Athenian ships loaded with archers and war machines approached the coast and caused tremendous losses to the crammed Celts. Like Xerxes two hundred years before, Brennos learned the hard way that he had not the means to break the ordered hoplite phalanx.

In order to force the defenders to abandon the pass, Brennos launched one army against Aetolia and another against sacred Delphi. The Aetolians left to defend their cities and the Phocians retreated to defend Delphi. The Athenians evacuated the other Greek fighters with their fleet, but Brennos did not march forward as he was waiting for the results of his raiding parties.

(Roman copy of a Greek original of a dying Gaul)

Despite efforts of some Western historians to present the Celtic raid as successful, the archaeological findings do not agree with them. Instead, it was avalanches, earthquakes, landslides, and the fierce guerilla war waged by Aetolians and Phocians, in which their women also participated, that exterminated the Celtic warriors. When Brennos learned of the destruction, he committed suicide while the Celts retreated through Macedonia and Thrace and passed to Asia Minor where eventually the Pergamens defeated them. Having defeated the northern barbarians, the Greeks instituted a celebration called ‘Sotiria’ to commemorate the events.

Spero columnist Stefanos Skarmantzos resides in Athens where he writes on classical history.

Sources

Pausanias ”Description of Greece” trns John Dreyden London: Macmillan, 1889

Diodorus Siculus «History» Loeb Classical Library publ1920

Justin: Trogus Epitomi “Philippic Histories” tran

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