Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.12.03 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.12.03

Luc Baray, Celtes, Galates et Gaulois, mercenaires de l'Antiquité: représentation, recrutement, organisation. Antiquité-Synthèses.   Paris:  Éditions Picard, 2017.  Pp. 216.  ISBN 9782708410220.  €31.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Uiran Gebara da Silva, University of Sao Paulo (

Luc Baray has been working for some time now on two challenging themes of research in the field of Ancient History: mercenaries and Celts, or, more precisely, Celtic mercenaries. The mercenary alone is a common but easily overlooked feature of histories of the ancient Mediterranean. And while the modern concept of “mercenary” somewhat corresponds to the ancient phenomenon of hired soldiery, the study of the ancient mercenary is usually made difficult by hermetic philological debates and the biased descriptions the ancient authors offered of those soldiers-for-hire (always showed as inferior to the warrior-citizen). The Celts, in turn, correspond to a “barbarian” people or ethnic group whose historical characterization is often rendered by indirect means. Most of the time, the evidence of the existence of Celts in Antiquity is given by texts written by the “civilized” Greek and Roman authors. The result of the conjoined effort of Greeks and Romans (with a big contribution from the Attalids) is that the Celts (and Galatians and Gauls) were, for a long time, the archetypal literary barbarians, a description widely reproduced by modern scholarship. Baray’s attitude is that of a healthy skepticism, directed both to the ancient sources (and the ideological biases organizing their narratives) and to modern scholarship (which reproduces the commonplaces or topoi of the ancient authors). Although in his previous works1 Baray addressed the Celtic mercenary mostly from the archaeological perspective, in this book he is mainly concerned with the analysis of the representations of the Celtic mercenary in the textual traditions.

In the introduction, Baray presents the book’s central themes, problems and some of its methodological aspects, labeling his research as a “sociology of the Celtic mercenary” and defining it as a return to the sources that looks for the different domains that compose the sociological reality of that particular kind of mercenary. This looks quite similar to what Matthew Trundle did with the Greek mercenary,2 but one difference from Trundle’s work is the comparative methodology. Baray states that the comparative methodology is necessary in order to understand the differences between the Celtic mercenaries and mercenaries from other ethnic groups (Greek mercenaries included). He also previews here many of the book’s recurring themes and challenges: the elusive geographical origins of those mercenaries whom the ancient authors vaguely define as “Celts”, “Galatians” and “Gauls”, the need to escape the “Graeca” or “Romana Interpretatio”, and the nature of the textual tradition (composed of incidental testimonies), its wide chronological range (5th century BC-4th century AD), and its varied composition in terms of literary genres. Unsurprisingly, those challenges and themes keep recurring throughout the work.

The first chapter reviews scholarship about the non-Celtic mercenary, from the 19th- and early 20th-century representations of them as savages and undisciplined barbarians to the recent revisions caused by archaeological studies. In the second chapter, Baray shows the connections between Roman and Greek ideas of barbarians and their representations of Celts. He starts with the first depictions of the Celtic raider—celte pilleur—addressing the Celtic invasion of Italy in Livy and the religious offenses by Celtic raiders in the East. He then addresses the stereotypical representation of the Celts in battle—brave, but irrational—in which hubris is the key feature. Since Polybius was central to the consolidation of that image, Baray proceeds to a re-reading of Polybius’s depictions of the Celts framed by François Hartog’s theories of ancient alterity.3 However, once he discloses how Roman and Greek anthropological inversion constructs the Celts as archetypical barbarians, it becomes very difficult to find any differences between them and the other barbarians.

Having dealt with the ancient stereotypes regarding the Celts, Baray, in the third chapter, addresses those regarding mercenaries, starting with the similarities between the topoi concerning barbarians and those attached to mercenaries. His presentation of the debate on Polybius’s preference for a citizen army and his critique of the increased use of mercenaries of the Hellenistic armies leads to Baray’s first foray into the problems around the Mercenary War (241-238) and the question of whether it consisted in a simple mercenary betrayal to Carthage or a true civil war.

In the fourth chapter, he further develops those themes, focusing now on the paradox between the continual use of the Celtic mercenary and the persistence of their stereotypes in the literature. Baray surveys how ancient authors depicted the Celtic mercenaries as gluttonous, drunken, greedy, untrustworthy, and possessing a kind of unreliable physical might (the Celtic mercenary was both weak and strong, showing short bursts of strength but lacking in endurance and incapable of withstanding the heat of the Mediterranean coast). However, they also had some good qualities: they were, after all, strong, but also brave and capable of causing great fear in the enemy. The paradox that such topoi create, Baray stresses, are an expression of the Interpretatio Graeca or Romana, and modern scholarship should avoid reproducing and repeating it.

In the fifth chapter, the author strongly criticizes several attempts by modern scholars to locate exact origins for the Celtic mercenaries employed in the West and in the East. He argues that almost no source gives such information and that most of the “certainties” in modern scholarship are pure speculation. The Galatian settlement in Asia Minor is a case in point. In the sixth chapter, he critiques the conventional idea that mercenaries could be enlisted as loosely organized groups in Mediterranean armies, deconstructing the historiographical commonplaces concerning their numbers in the Hellenistic monarchies or in Carthage’s armies. Here Baray also analyses the different modes of recruitment, and concludes by discussing the different modalities of contract and their duration.

In the seventh, eighth, and ninth chapters, Baray investigates the payment of ancient mercenaries. He reviews the modalities of payment (wage and booty) and the hypotheses that barbarians (and Celts in particular) were paid less than mercenaries from other ethnic groups. He argues that the wages were equivalent, showing that earlier assertions to the contrary were not based on evidence and that differences in payment can be explained by the different rank and specialties of the soldiers with better earnings. Baray then moves on to the payment of Celtic mercenaries in Carthage’s armies, questioning whether the good service of mercenary soldiers was a function of their wages. The Mercenary War reappears as a case study, where Baray analyses the double nature of the payment (salary and grain-ration), the form of the soldier’s emolument (specie or cash) and the reparation for dead horses. As the author moves on to the issue of the Celtic mercenaries’ payment in the course of the First Punic War, the Mercenary War again looms over his analysis, when he addresses Carthage’s inability to pay mercenaries (Celtic or not) after the war, Carthage’s reasons for bringing them to Africa, and the broken promises made to them in Sicily.

The tenth chapter focuses on the relations between mercenaries and their commanders, beginning with their origins and backgrounds (social and ethnic). Baray states that command of mercenary troops was a function of three criteria: merit, birth, and wealth (a theory taken from a passage from Posidonius). His analysis of the agents interceding between generals and troops results in one of the best parts of the book. His examination of the problem of language and communication in ancient armies greatly benefits from a comparative approach, when he analyses the role played by interpreters at the battle of Zama and in the negotiation of wages. It also helps us to understand why lower-ranking officials often belonged to the same ethnic group as soldiers, while higher-ranking ones belonged to the commanding state. A digression about Hannibal’s knowledge of Greek sets the stage for the analysis of the psychological influence upon soldiers of army generals’ speeches, as well as of the role of lower-ranking officials in transmitting and translating a speech.

The eleventh chapter deals with army discipline, placing at its center the mutual distrust between public powers and mercenaries. Here, Baray describes several instances in which mercenary armies (from diverse ethnic groups, not only Celts) changed sides, abandoning one army in favor of another. The fundamental reason, he argues, was payment. Although the historiographical debate presents several reasons for Carthage’s use of barbarian mercenaries instead of Greek armies (such as that their more simple-minded nature prevented conspiracies, or because vanquished armies had to be incorporated), for Baray mercenary betrayal was always a response to specific military and political contexts. His analysis of army cohesion and the roles played by barbarian mercenary or auxiliary troops compares the ties among Greek soldiers and those among other mercenary armies. Here he opposes, on the one hand, a model based on civic, kin, or friendship ties and, on the other, one based on kin, client, and patronage ties as well as personal connections to the army leader. The examples selected for the second group of ties, though, are quite problematic, because the use of Tacitus’s representation of patronage among the Germans risks projecting an additional stereotypical image of Germanic barbarism over the Celtic mercenary, whom Baray is trying to debarbarize.

The last chapter addresses the problem of the origins of Celtic mercenaries’ arms and weapons, and allows Baray briefly to assess his previous work on La Tène weapons. His presentation of the debate on how mercenaries were equipped, whether by the soldiers themselves or by their recruiters, neatly presents the opposition between Whitehead’s position (themselves) and McKechnie’s (the states). Dionysius I of Syracuse’s massive production of weapons for mercenaries and Carthage’s great arsenals would seem to be definitive evidence in favor of McKechnie’s position, but Baray ends up agreeing with Whitehead. This chapter concludes with an examination of the Celtic mercenaries’ chariots and the reasons why they became a feature of Celtic soldiering, even though other groups of mercenaries also used them.

In the conclusion, Baray readdresses the main concerns of his investigation. Evoking again his critical attitude towards ancient authors’ creation of stereotypes and modern scholarship’s repetition of them, he states that Carthage’s, the Hellenistic kingdoms’, and Rome’s continual employment of Celtic mercenaries should remind the modern scholar to look for their military worth.

As said at the beginning of this review, the Celtic mercenary is a very challenging topic for historical research. Baray’s methodological choice to lay bare the commonplaces present in the sources and scholarship, which is probably the best approach, has as its necessary result the deconstruction of the ancient image of that mercenary group. It becomes, then, very difficult to differentiate the Celtic mercenary from others. Still, this refreshing investigation serves both as a very good starting-point for newcomers and as a learned intervention on the historiographical debate.

Last remarks: there is quite a useful table of sources for Celtic (mercenary, auxiliary, or allied) troops in Greek and Latin sources on pages 187-191, and a selection of illustrations (maps, modern representations, statues, sculptures, coins, graves, inscriptions, and other objects) on pages 14-30. At no point does the text refer to those images, however. Additionally, there is a problem with the table of contents (sommaire), since many of the chapters have no page designation.


1.   Les Mercenaires celtes et la culture de La Tène: critères archéologiques et positions sociologiques. Dijon: Éditions universitaires de Dijon, 2014; Sociétés celtiques et mercenaires (VIIe-Ier siècle av. J.-C.): la terre, le pouvoir et les hommes. Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2016. The exception to this would be his book for non- specialists: Les Mercenaires celtes en Méditerranée, Ve-Ier siècles avant J.-C. Chamalières: Lemme, 2015.
2.   Trundle, Matthew. Greek Mercenaries: From the Late Archaic Period to Alexander . London: Routledge, 2004.
3.   Hartog, François. Le Miroir d’Hérodote: essai sur la représentation de l’autre. Paris: Gallimard, 2001.

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