279 BC | Thermopylae


Madness seizes the barbarians.

Brennus and his army of Gauls were faced by the Greeks at Delphi, and soon portents boding no good to the barbarians were sent by the god of the Delphic oracle, 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. 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 armor 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.

All day the barbarians were beset by calamities and terrors of this kind. But the night was to bring 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. 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. At the beginning of the fight, the Gauls, especially the company attached to Brennus, which was composed of the tallest and bravest of the Gauls, offered a spirited resistance, 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. 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. 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. 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 armor, 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. 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 Gauls with yet greater spirit, keeping a more careful watch on their encampments, and not letting them forage from the countryside without a struggle, so that the whole Gallic army suffered at once from a pressing shortage of grain and other food. Their losses in Phocis were these: in the battles nearly six thousand were killed; those who perished in the wintry storm at night and afterward in the panic terror amounted to over ten thousand, as likewise did those who starved to death.

About This Text

Pausanias, from Description of Greece. About Greek geographer Pausanias, James Frazer once wrote that “without him, the ruins of Greece would for the most part be a labyrinth without a clue, a riddle without an answer.” Pausanias’ description of the lead-up to the battle between the Greeks and Gauls at Delphi contains one of the earliest descriptions of a panic, a term derived from the Greek god Pan, who was said to instill sudden fear—panikon—in all who heard him shout.