Widely forsaken today but well-documented by ancient historians, the attack of the Gauls on the oracle of Delphi in 279 B.C. marked the devastating end of the Gallic tribes’ ambitious invasion of Greece.
Gallic groups, originating from the various La Tène chiefdoms across central Europe, had begun their south-eastern movement into the Balkan peninsula from the 4th century BC and climaxed their invasions in the early 3rd century B.C. until the Greek defenders of Delphi halted this violent progress in their own ancestral homeland and prevented the fall of the religious heart of the Hellenic world, the oracle of Apollo.
Pausanias and Justin both documented how Gaulish forces were defeated in Delphi and their army was decimated within days, as survivors from the fight with the Greek coalition struggled to flee down Mount Parnassus and its harsh weather, escaping towards the valleys of Central Greece.
Gauls’ crushing defeat in Delphi
Although accounts of events as presented by Pausanias and Justin, both ancient historians, differ in the details, they do both agree that it was the treasure of the oracle—famous to the entire ancient world—which attracted Gaul leader Brennus to Delphi and convinced his army to follow him on the mission.
Having defeated a Greek coalition at Thermopylae, the Gauls began their ascent of Mount Parnassus, heading for the oracle of Apollo in Delphi with the aim of looting its gold.
“The Delphians fled in terror to the oracle: the god told them not to be afraid, and announced he was going to look after himself,” writes Pausanias.
Greek tribes, such as the Phocians and Aetolians, from neighboring areas joined the defenders of Delphi. Justin describes how even the priests and priestesses of the temples—not only of Apollo but also those of Artemis and Athena—fought the Gauls on the steep slopes of Parnassus.
Pausanias attributes the heavy losses that the Gauls sustained in Delphi partly to the bravery of the Greek combatants and partly to divine intervention by Apollo, who made the ground quake throughout the attack and then sent heavy snow and frost to exhaust the attackers followed by a wave of madness that caused the Gauls to slaughter each other.
“The number of them destroyed in Phocis was a little under 6,000 men killed in battle, but more than 10,000 in the storm at night and in the Panic terror, and as many again who died from starvation,” Pausanias notes.
Justin’s account, on the other hand, gave a more detailed description of tactics, explaining how the overconfident Gauls marched without fear of danger against the Greeks while the latter, “placing more confidence in the god than in their own strength, resisted the enemy with contempt.”
It is understood that the climate and morphology of the territory have certainly provided the Delphians a great advantage in repelling Brennus’s large army.
Any Gaulish forces who managed to flee weren’t more fortunate, Justin concludes: “They passed no night under shelter, and no day without hardship and danger; and continual rains, snow congealed by the frost, famine, fatigue, and, what was the greatest evil, the constant want of sleep, consumed the wretched remains of the unfortunate army.”
Modern debate on the oracle’s gold
Modern scholars have recently rekindled a debate on whether the oracle of Apollo in Delphi had actually been looted before the Gauls were defeated by the Greeks, suggesting that Pausanias’ and Justin’s accounts of the battle were glorified versions of the real facts, as the Greeks would never accept that their most important sanctuary had been sacked.
The basis of these claims lies in an extract from the writings of Strabo in which the ancient Greek geographer mentions a local legend about the gold of Tolosa, home of the Tectosages tribe, in south Gaul.
“And it is further said that the Tectosages shared in the expedition to Delphi; and even the treasures that were found among them in the city of Tolosa by Caepio, a general of the Romans, were, it is said, a part of the valuables that were taken from Delphi,” Strabo writes.
However, Strabo himself addresses the rumor and dismisses the very claim that modern scholars are trying to make of his writings.
According to his own information, the quantity of gold found by Caepio in Tolosa and rumored to have been spoils of the Tectosages from Delphi exceeded what one could have found in the oracle at the time of the Gaulish invasion.
Quoting the Greek philosopher Poseidonius, Strabo explains: “For he says that the treasure that was found in Tolosa amounted to about fifteen thousand talents, unwrought, that is, merely gold and silver bullion; whereas the temple at Delphi was in those times already empty of such treasure… because it had been robbed at the time of the sacred war by the Phocians.”
And he continues to say that “even if something was left, it was divided by many among themselves; neither is it reasonable to suppose that they reached their homeland in safety, since they fared wretchedly after their retreat from Delphi.”