The Bloody Demise of King Ptolemy ‘The Thunderbolt’ of Macedon | History Hit

The Bloody Demise of King Ptolemy ‘The Thunderbolt’ of Macedon

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Through bloody butchery and betrayal, a king called Ptolemy ‘Ceraunus’ – ‘the Thunderbolt’ – rose to power in the Kingdom of Macedon in 280 BC. He had overcome challenges from powerful opponents to gain control over Alexander the Great’s homeland.

Yet there would be no respite for the impetuous monarch – the greatest challenge to his rule was about to materialise. Beyond the northern borders of his kingdom, a new threat approached: Celtic invasion.

The Celts in southern Europe

From sacking the eternal city of Rome to settling the harsh rugged lands of Britain, by 279 BC the Celts had already left their mark on large swathes of the European landscape. The Arverni, Celtiberii, Boii and the Brigantes were just some of the Celtic tribes that at that time dominated vast regions in Northern Europe. 

Yet as the Celtic presence in certain regions increased, so too did the pressure on available resources. Land and food became hotly-contested; problems of overpopulation soon became apparent. Something had to give. Merciless infighting for control of land ensued. For the winners, victory promised the contested land, but for the losers everything they held dear was turned upside-down. Their quest for a new home began. The Celtic horde of 279 BC was a product of the same tensions.

Liptovska Mara,Open-Air Archaeological Museum, Havranok, Slovakia. Reconstruction of a farmstead from the Upper Iron Age (300-100 BC).

Image Credit: User Marek Novotnak on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

On the march

Having been forced from their lands in Illyria and the fertile Danube valley by other tribes, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children went on the move. Settling new lands was not the only motive for all these migrants; plunder also proved an attractive incentive.

Trained for war since childhood, within this migration’s ranks were hundreds of thousands of ferocious warriors, each with a craving for plunder and to carve out a new kingdom for their people by the spear. Spain, Italy, Britain and Illyria had previously been transformed by such invasions, but this horde looked eastwards. Macedonia, Thrace and the gateway to the lucrative Greek world beckoned. They could not have chosen a more favourable time.

Crisis on the frontier

Following Lysimachus’ death at Corupedium barely two years earlier, the strong northern frontier he had created started to crumble. Hellenistic control of the Thracian hinterland withered and the frontier system that Lysimachus and Agathocles had put in place for the last thirty years evaporated. Anarchy ensued; the Greek World was once again vulnerable to the threat of barbarian incursions from the north. 

The Celts and Macedonians were no strangers. During the previous century, as Macedonia enjoyed the zenith of its power under first Philip and then his infamous son Alexander, the paths of these two peoples had crossed before. Back then, it had been the Celts who had become wary of Macedonian power. But much had changed in Macedonia since the death of Alexander in 323 BC. His ‘glorious’ reign – and that of his father Philip – was in the past. No longer were the Celts fearful of that nation’s military might. And Ceraunus was certainly no Philip or Alexander.

The Celtic god Cernunnos on the Gundestrup cauldron.

Image Credit: National Museum of Denmark, CC BY-SA 3.0

News reached Ptolemy ‘Ceraunus’ of this incursion. Yet rather than being alarmed, the impetuous king believed his victory was certain. How, he thought, could a barbarian rabble, no matter how large, overcome the land that had sired some of the greatest military generals of the age – men such as Alexander, Perdiccas and Seleucus

An offer of alliance

As the Celtic horde came ever closer to his borders, word of their progress reached Ceraunus from the Dardanians, a Thracio-Illyrian tribe situated to the north of Macedonia. Their history with Ceraunus’ kingdom had been far from amicable; for centuries, the Dardanians had been one of Macedonia’s greatest enemies, launching numerous brutal incursions into the territory and inflicting horrible defeats on many previous Macedonian kings.

By 279 BC however, times had changed. Desiring to put aside their past differences, the Dardanian king offered to unite his forces with Ceraunus against the impending threat. He had 20,000 grizzled troops at his disposal – no insignificant number. United, he stated, their army could fend off the impending Celtic threat. The logic for accepting the aid seemed sound – why turn down the offer of such a powerful ally just before the war? Yet Ceraunus’ fateful arrogance now revealed itself.


Considering the prospect of being aided by the Dardanians – a tribe that in his eyes were just as barbaric and uncivilised as the Celtic horde – a humiliation to Macedonian pride, Ceraunus scorned the offer, replying that,

The Macedonians were in a sad condition if, after having subdued the whole east without assistance, they now required aid from the Dardanians to defend their country… he had for soldiers the sons of those who had served under Alexander the Great, and had been victorious throughout the World.

Justin XXIV.4

Ceraunus rebuked the Dardanian offer. It quickly proved a poor decision. Rather than persisting the Dardanian king took the next-best logical step to preserving his kingdom. Reluctantly he surrendered to the Celtic horde on its arrival, swelling their army with his powerful soldiers. The Macedonians, he predicted, would rue the day they refused Dardanian assistance. 

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Peace or war

Not long after refusing the Dardanian offer, word reached Ceraunus that the Celts, commanded by a warlord named Bolgius, had finally arrived. On reaching the northern border of the Macedonia, they had quickly made their presence known, offering the Macedonian king a stark choice: so long as he gave them a bountiful supply of money, Bolgius promised that he and his horde would leave Macedonia unharmed and find another land to plunder. Yet Ceraunus once again displayed his arrogance.

Convinced that Bolgius’ aggressive, bellicose horde feared the ‘might’ of Alexander’s legacy, Ceraunus gave a careless response to the Celtic envoys. Portraying himself as if he were the victor of some great battle against his foe, he demanded the Celtic leaders as hostages – the ultimate sign of submission; only then, Ceraunus haughtily stated, would he consider peace. Astounded on hearing the response, the Celts merely laughed, saying,

…he [Ceraunus] would soon see whether they had offered peace from regard for themselves or for him.

Justin XXIV.5

The Celtic Invasion of Macedonia

And so in 279 BC, the overconfident Ceraunus lead his Macedonian army out to face Bolgius’ horde in the open field. The result was no surprise. Lacking manpower and disorganised, Ceraunus’ army was vanquished. Survivors unfortunate enough to be taken alive by their barbaric foe were sacrificed. The Celts revelled in their victory; the Macedonians either lay dead or broken.

Ceraunus would not escape this fate. Having been captured by his enemy he was offered no quarter; the Celts mutilated the Macedonian king, placing his dismembered head on top a spear and parading it around as a trophy. Ptolemy Ceraunus, the man that history remembers most vividly as the scheming, traitorous murderer of the last of the Successors, was no more.

Tristan Hughes