The Galatian War: The Year 189 BCE


  • The Latin colony of Bononia is founded;
  • The new praetor of Hispania Ulterior, Lucius Baebius Dives, is killed on the way to his province; Lucius Aemilius Paullus continues his campaigns against the Lusitani and wins a great victory;
  • The pontifex maximus Publius Licinius Crassus prohibits the praetor and flamen Quirinalis Quintus Fabius Pictor to leave for his province of Sardinia;
  • Titus Quinctius Flamininus and Marcus Claudius Marcellus are elected censors; Manius Acilius Glabrio withdraws from the election after he is accused of embezzlement;
  • The Senate and People of Rome ratify Scipio Africanus’ peace agreement with King Antiochos of the Seleucid Empire; decemviri are sent to Asia to assist the new consul Gnaeus Manlius Vulso;
  • Lucius Aemilius Regillus is awarded a naval triumph for his victory at Myonnesos; Lucius Cornelius Scipio is awarded a regular triumph for his victory at Magnesia; he is also nicknamed ‘Asiaticus’;
  • The consul Marcus Fulvius Nobilior besieges Ambrakia; the city ultimately surrenders and is stripped of all of its art;
  • End of the war between Rome and the Aetolian League;
  • The praetor Quintus Fabius Labeo secures the release of Roman and Italian prisoners that are held on Crete;
  • The consul Vulso campaigns against the Galatians, defeating the Tolistobogii and Trocmi at the Battle of Mount Olympus, and the Tectosages and their Cappadocian allies at the Battle of Mount Magaba.

The new consuls Marcus Fulvius Nobilior and Gnaeus Manlius Vulso had drawn lots for the provinces. Aetolia had been allotted to Fulvius. The six-month armistice in the region had expired by now, and it was his job to bring the Aetolian League to its knees. Vulso was sent to Asia Minor. At the time of his election and the allotment of the provinces (presumably November of the previous year), King Antiochos had not yet been defeated, so the new consul could still hope for glory against the Seleucids. These hopes were soon dashed when rumours began to circulate that the king had been defeated in a great battle. It was probably late January when a legate sent by Lucius Scipio arrived in Rome to report that the king’s army had been annihilated at Magnesia and that he had accepted the harsh Roman conditions for peace. Vulso would have to seek his glory elsewhere.

Italy and Spain

The Latin colony of Bononia was founded this year in former territory of the Boii. 3.000 people were settled there. Today, the city has a population of over 380.000 people and is known as Bologna, nicknamed La Dotta (The Learned, because of its university), La Grassa (The Fat, because of its cuisine) and La Rossa (The Red, because of the colour of its buildings and its left-wing political history). Livius tells us that the city was founded on 28 December, but since the Roman calendar of those days was way ahead of ours, it was probably late August or early September.

Map of Spain (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0)

The new praetor of Hispania Ulterior, Lucius Baebius Dives, was killed on the way to his province. He had decided to take the overland route through Liguria and had been ambushed by the tribes there. Most of his entourage were killed, and the praetor himself sustained serious injuries. He managed to reach Massilia in Southern Gaul, but died there within three days. Since it would take some time for his successor Publius Junius Brutus to arrive in Spain, Lucius Aemilius Paullus had a little more time to make up for his ignominious defeat of the previous year. The praetor assembled a new army and now managed to defeat the Lusitani, killing thousands of them and restoring some law and order to his province.

Constitutional issues

There were a few interesting constitutional issues this year. Quintus Fabius Pictor had been elected praetor and had been granted Sardinia as his province. But Pictor was also the flamen Quirinalis, the priest of the deified Romulus. Ancient traditions dictated that flamines were not allowed to leave the city. The praetor believed this taboo to have become obsolete, but the pontifex maximus Publius Licinius Crassus disagreed and cited a precedent from the closing stages of the First Punic War. Crassus forbade the praetor to leave for his province and after much discussion, Pictor gave up and was close to laying down his office. As compensation, he was made the praetor peregrinus – who dealt with legal cases involving non-citizens – instead.

This year, new censors were elected. There were many illustrious candidates, but the winners were Titus Quinctius Flamininus and Marcus Claudius Marcellus. Manius Acilius Glabrio had been a candidate too, but he was disliked by many of the others because he was a new man (homo novus). His reputation was furthermore smeared when two tribunes accused him of having embezzled part of the loot taken after his victory over King Antiochos at Thermopylae. Marcus Porcius Cato testified that he had seen golden and silver treasures in the king’s camp that had not been paraded in Glabrio’s triumph of 190 BCE. Cato had served as Glabrio’s legate and wielded great authority, but he was also a candidate for the office of censor himself, which cast some doubt on the impartiality of his testimony. Although Glabrio accused Cato of perjury (periurium), he nevertheless decided to withdraw from the elections.

An end to the war with King Antiochos

King Antiochos III the Great (photo: Uploadalt/British Museum).

It was already early summer when envoys from all the parties involved in the war between Rome and the Seleucid Empire arrived in Rome. During the talks with the Senate, the old rivalry between the kingdom of Pergamum and the mercantile republic of Rhodos began to surface again. King Eumenes of Pergamum gave the Romans a history lesson and related how his father Attalos had been loyal to their course, even to the death. He also recounted his own valuable services to Rome. The king argued that the Romans should choose between either annexing the territories that had previously been subject to Antiochos or turning them over to him to enlarge his kingdom. The Rhodians, on the other hand, made a speech in favour of granting freedom and autonomy to all the Greeks in Asia Minor. Zeuxis and Antipatros, the Seleucid envoys, spoke just briefly.

The Senate ratified the terms that Scipio Africanus had dictated to the Seleucids in Sardis and these were approved by the popular assembly soon after. A committee of ten men (the decemviri) was appointed and sent to Asia to settle the details of the peace agreement on the spot and to assist the consul Vulso, who had already travelled to his province months ago. Eumenes was awarded lands that had previously been part of the Seleucid Empire. The Rhodians were given territories in Lycia and Caria, which they were more than happy to accept in spite of the roaring speech about freedom that they had delivered previously.

Roman ship on a tomb from Classe, near Ravenna (Archaeological Museum of Ravenna).

When the decemviri were preparing to depart for Asia, the two Scipios and Lucius Aemilius Regillus, the victor of Myonnesos, landed at Brundisium. The latter was awarded a naval triumph, a so-called triumphus navalis, which had first been awarded in 260 BCE. Lucius Scipio asked to be nicknamed Asiaticus because of his victory in Asia. He was awarded a regular triumph. Both triumphs were celebrated in the autumn of this year.

The war in Greece

Greece in the meantime was, quite frankly, a mess. Two years previously, the Macedonians, with Roman aid, had occupied Athamania and had driven out King Amynandros. The king had been forced to flee to Ambrakia with his family. Macedonian rule was, however, widely resented and this year, the king managed to win back his throne and expel the Macedonian garrisons. King Philippos’ attempt to reclaim the region for Macedonia was a failure. Philippos also lost territories to the resurgent Aetolians, who for the moment were in the winning mood. But then it was reported to them that King Antiochos III had been defeated at Magnesia. Not much later they received the news that the Senate in Rome had refused to make peace with the Aetolians. The consul Marcus Fulvius Nobilior would be sent to Greece to continue the war. This was a grim perspective for the Aetolians.

Corinthian Greek helmet (Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam).

The Aetolians decided to make a last desperate attempt at diplomacy. They asked Rhodos and Athens to mediate and sent a new Aetolian delegation to Rome as well. Alexander the Isian, widely considered the richest man in all of Greece, was one of the envoys. His personal fortune exceeded 200 talents. At that time, the Aetolians were at war with their neighbours, the Epirotes. The Epirotes managed to capture the envoys and demanded a ransom of five talents for each of the men. Alexander considered this sum to be much too high and refused to pay. The Epirotes then lowered the ransom to three talents, but Alexander still considered the sum to be excessive and declared that he was only prepared to pay one talent. The Isian was lucky this time: not much later the Romans learned of the fate of the envoys and ordered their allies the Epirotes to set them free. No ransom whatsoever was paid and Alexander’s greed paid off.

The Siege of Ambrakia

The Epirotes now convinced the consul to attack Ambrakia. Ambrakia was not in Aetolia proper, but it had been a member of the Aetolian League for several years. It was furthermore a very rich city: in the early third century, King Pyrrhos of Epirus had made it his capital and had spent a fortune to make it look like a capital. Fulvius Nobilior attacked Ambrakia with five siege towers. His men started battering down the walls with their rams and used sickle-shaped devices to tear down the battlements. But the Aetolian defenders fought back bravely. They tried to disable the rams by dropping all sorts of objects onto them and used iron hooks against the sickles. The defenders also frequently sallied from the gates and fought skirmishes with the besiegers. When the Romans managed to bring down parts of the walls, the Aetolians simply constructed new walls behind the breaches. Ambrakia proved to be a tough nut to crack.

Map of Greece (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0).

The consul then decided to dig a tunnel to undermine the walls. The Romans worked for several days without being detected, but then the defenders spotted an ever-growing mound of earth. The Aetolians immediately took countermeasures. They dug a trench that ran parallel to their walls and used bronze plates (which reflected sound) to locate the Roman diggers. When these had been tracked down, the Aetolians built a tunnel themselves and soon the two digging parties reached each other. The Romans and Aetolians fought each other underground with spears and tools, but there was not much room down here and both parties protected themselves with large shields. The Aetolians then resorted to chemical warfare. Polybius tells us what happened:

“Some one suggested to the besieged to put in front of them a large corn-jar exactly broad enough to fit into the  trench. They were to bore a hole in the bottom of it, and insert into this an iron tube as long as the jar: next they were to fill the whole jar with fine feathers and place quite a few pieces of burning charcoal round its extreme edge: they were now to fit on the mouth of the jar an iron lid full of holes and introduce the whole carefully into the mine with its mouth turned towards the enemy. When they reached the latter they were to stop up completely the space round the rim of the jar, leaving two holes, one on either side, through which they could push their pikes and prevent the enemy from approaching it. They were then to take a blacksmith’s bellows and fitting it into the iron tube blow hard on the lighted charcoal that was near the mouth of the vessel among the feathers, gradually, as the feathers caught fire, withdrawing the tube. Up all those instructions being followed, a quantity of smoke, especially pungent owing to its being produced by feathers, was all carried up the enemy’s mine, so that the Romans suffered much and were in an evil case, as they could neither prevent nor support the smoke in their diggings.”

Imperial Roman legionaries forming testudo with their shields (Trajan’s column, Rome).

The Romans were quite literally smoked out. Still, the stubborn defence of the Aetolians only delayed their inevitable fate. Rome’s Achaean and Illyrian allies pillaged the Aetolian coast and King Philippos was also threatening Aetolian territory. The Aetolian League simply lacked the manpower to fight a war on so many fronts. The Aetolians sent envoys from Ambrakia to the consul, who was initially not inclined to be merciful. Fortunately for the Aetolians, they received diplomatic aid from the Rhodians and Athenians, and especially from the consul’s half-brother, Gaius Valerius Laevinus (the two men had the same mother). He was the son of the famous Marcus Valerius Laevinus, the Roman commander who had first concluded an alliance between Rome and the Aetolians as far back as 211 BCE. This had led to an informal relationship between the gens Valeria and the Aetolians, known as a patrocinium. This relationship required the Valerii to offer some degree of protection to the Aetolians, and this is why the younger Laevinus was prepared to plead on their behalf.

In the end, Ambrakia surrendered to the Romans and the Aetolian garrison was allowed to leave the city unharmed. The peace terms dictated to the Aetolians were nevertheless harsh. Among other things, they were to pay 500 talents and return all the defectors and prisoners of war. The possibilities for new members to join the League were restricted. The consul then began to systematically strip the city of all of its treasures. Votive offerings, bronze and marble statues and paintings were all confiscated by the Romans and shipped to Italy. The Aetolians soon ratified the peace agreement, the Romans would follow later this year. To make sure that they would adhere to the treaty, the Aetolians were forced to send forty hostages to Rome.


Theseus fighting the minotaur. In the top right corner is the personification of Crete.

This year also saw the first Roman actions on the island of Crete. The Roman praetor Quintus Fabius Labeo commanded the Roman fleet in the region, but since Antiochos had already been defeated both on land and at sea, there was not much for him to do. When it was reported to him that many Roman and Italian prisoners from the war with King Antiochos were held on the island, the praetor decided to sail to Crete, which he found in a state of anarchy. Kydonia (now the charming city of Chania) was embroiled in a war against Gortys and Knossos. What happened next is not entirely clear, but it seems that Gortys voluntarily returned the prisoners. It would later become the capital of Roman Crete. The other Cretan cities initially refused, but may have released the prisoners anyway when the praetor threatened to use force.

Vulso’s campaign against the Galatians

At the beginning of spring, the other consul, Gnaeus Manlius Vulso, had arrived in Ephesos. There he had taken command of Lucius Scipio’s army and had subjected it to a ritual cleansing, known as the lustratio. The consul then began his campaign against the Celtic tribes of Asia Minor, the Galatians. There were several reasons for this campaign, some more convincing as casus belli than others. The Galatians had migrated to Asia Minor in the early third century BCE. King Nikomedes I of Bithynia had invited them to cross over from Thrace to Asia Minor to serve as auxiliaries in his army. The Galatians had later settled in the region that was named Galatia after them. They soon became a nuisance, terrorising their neighbours and forcing them to pay tribute. It is telling that both the Seleucid king Antiochos I (281-261 BCE) and King Attalos I of Pergamum (241-197 BCE) were nicknamed Soter (‘Saviour’) for their victories over these tribes.

Map of Asia Minor (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0)

When Vulso launched his campaign against the Galatians, the Celtic threat seems to have subsided for decades. King Eumenes of Pergamum nevertheless encouraged the Romans to fight a war against the Galatians to prevent them from ever becoming a threat again. Eumenes’ brothers Attalos and Athenaios would accompany the consul on his campaign. A somewhat more compelling justification for the Roman offensive was the fact that the tribes had provided King Antiochos with troops that had fought at Magnesia. For this they needed to be punished. But the strongest reasons for the campaign seem to have been the consul’s wish to win glory and the Roman desire to give the entire region another demonstration of Roman military might.

Although it is difficult to reconstruct the route that the Roman army took, Vulso’s campaign was a complete success. As the consul marched through Pisidia and Pamphylia, the Galatians were by no means his only target. The consul for instance also extorted 100 talents and 10.000 medimnoi[1] of wheat from a certain Moagetes, the local and not so powerful tyrant of Kibyra. Vulso had first humiliated the man, demanding the huge sum of 500 talents from him and threatening to destroy his territories if the tyrant refused to pay. Moagetes had been forced to beg for the consul to lower his demands. The Romans acted the way they did simply because they could.

The Battle of Mount Olympus

Vulso’s first contact with the Galatians was with a certain Eposognatus. He was a chieftain of a branch of the Tolistobogii, one of the three main Galatians tribes. Unlike many of the other chieftains, Eposognatus had remained loyal to his ally, King Eumenes, and had not provided the Seleucid king with troops. Eposognatus offered to act as a mediator for the Romans. The Tolistobogii, however, were unwilling to negotiate, and they took their wives and children to a mountain named the Olympus, the exact location of which is unknown. Some Galatian horsemen sought a confrontation with the Romans, but after some initial success against the pickets, they were repelled with heavy loss. The Romans now marched north and reached Pessinus, home to a famous sanctuary of the Mother of the Ida (Mater Idaea; see 205 BCE). The sanctuary was under Galatian control, and it is probably not a coincidence that the eunuch priests of the Mother were known as Galli. The Romans subsequently reached Gordium, where Alexander the Great had cut the proverbial Gordian Knot.

The so-called Ludovisi Gaul, a Galatian committing suicide (Palazzo Altemps, Rome).

The unknown Mount Olympus must have been in the vicinity of Gordium. The Tolistobogii had been joined by the army of the Trocmi, the second major Galatian tribe, and together the tribes commanded a formidable position on the high ground. But Vulso was confident too, perhaps a bit overconfident, as he was driven off by Galatian horsemen while scouting the Galatian positions with some cavalry of his own. The consul realised that because of the terrain, the battle was going to be fought by men on foot. He left his cavalry and elephants in the valley, divided his army into three parts and advanced on the enemy positions. The Roman light troops caused mayhem in the ranks of the Celts. Vulso had sent ahead his velites, as well as his Cretan archers and Trallian and Thracian slingers. Many Galatians fought without body armour, with their chests bare, and their shields offered insufficient protection against the Roman javelins, arrows and slingstones. The Romans inflicted many casualties from a distance. Whenever the Galatians broke ranks and charged them, the velites were more than ready to fight them off with their Spanish swords.

The battle had basically already been won by the light troops when the Roman heavy infantry finally reached the top of the mountain. The Galatians had retreated to their camp, which was now stormed and taken by the legionaries. The Celts that fled down the mountain into the valley were killed or captured by the Roman horsemen. At least 10.000 Galatians were killed, perhaps more. Some 40.000, most of them women and children, were taken prisoner and sold as slaves. Two of the three Galatian tribes had now been defeated. The third tribe, the Tectosages, had retreated to Mount Magaba, not far from Ancyra (present-day Ankara, the capital of Turkey). It was just a three days march to Ancyra, so the consul quickly took his army and marched east.

The Battle of Mount Magaba

In this context, Polybius, Livius and Plutarchus all tell the story of Chiomara, the beautiful wife of a Galatian chieftain. She had been captured by the Romans and had been raped by a Roman centurion. The centurion then tried to sell her back to her own family for the huge sum of one talent. While he was negotiating with some of her relatives, Chiomara ordered them to cut off the centurion’s head, which they did. The woman took the severed head to her husband, who –according to Plutarchus – complained that she had acted in bad faith. Chiomara then replied that “it is better still that only one man who has lain with me should remain alive”. Polybius claims to have actually met with this Chiomara in Sardis.

Dead Galatian (Museo Archeologico, Venice).

Vulso had now reached the territory of the Tectosages and negotiators were sent to his camp. It was agreed that the consul would meet with the chieftains the next day in the no-man’s-land between their respective camps, but in the end, the Galatians failed to show up, citing religious reasons. A meeting was then scheduled between Attalos for the Romans and some Galatian nobles. As neither the consul nor the Galatian chieftains were present, no agreement was reached. A third meeting was agreed for the next day. The Galatians had used the delay to evacuate some of their families and possessions, but now they planned to ambush the consul. When Vulso showed up the next day, he and his 500 horsemen were attacked by a much larger Galatian cavalry force. The Romans were initially routed, but the consul was then saved by 600 reinforcements. These horsemen had been sent to protect Roman foraging parties gathering supplies in the region, but they now charged the Galatians and cut them down. The foragers also returned from the fields and many of the Celts were killed.

The Romans were furious about the treacherous acts of the Galatians. There would be no mercy now. Vulso advanced on Mount Magaba and divided his army into four attack columns. Arrayed against him were not just the Tectosages, but also troops provided by King Ariarathes IV of Cappadocia. The king was married to a daughter of the Seleucid king Antiochos III, and Ariarathes had aided his father-in-law with troops at the Battle of Magnesia as well. Now he supported the Galatians, and the Romans would make him pay dearly for it. The Battle of Mount Magaba was more or less a copy of the Battle of Mount Olympus. The Tectosages were utterly defeated, many prisoners and loot were taken, and the survivors begged the Roman commander for peace. Since it was already autumn, Vulso decided to retreat to Ephesos on the coast, where the climate was milder.


Primary sources


[1] A medimnos is roughly 52 litres.


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