History Files


European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes




Index of Celtic TribesMapAmbiani (Belgae)

FeatureIn general terms, the Romans coined the name 'Gaul' to describe the Celtic tribes of what is now central, northern and eastern France. To the north of these were the tribes of the Belgae, divided from the Gauls by the rivers Marne and the Seine. By the middle of the first century BC, the Ambiani were located in northern Gaul in the area of modern Amiens. They were neighboured to the north-east by the Morini, who were another sea-faring tribe like the Ambiani themselves, and then to the east by the Atrebates, to the south by the Bellovaci, and to the west by the Caleti.

The Belgae would seem to be an eastern branch of Celts who migrated to the Atlantic coast some time after their Gaulish cousins had already established themselves to the south. Their dialect probably used a 'b' or a 'v' sound where their western cousins in Gaul used a 'w' sound, opening up different interpretations for their names. The Ambiani name is formed from the proto-Celtic *ambi- which is a preposition for 'around'. In Latin this is 'ambitus', meaning border, edge, extent or going around, circuit. So the Ambiani would probably be the 'people of the border'. The name has connotations similar to that of the Marcomanni.

The tribe lived along the lower reaches of the Somme, with a capital at Samarobriva (modern Amiens, which still bears the tribe's name). The name breaks down into 'briwa' ('briva' in Latin), meaning a bridge. 'Samaros' is probably the old name of the River Somme, so the name of the capital means 'Somme bridge'. The tribe was well known for their ability to mint coins. A large amount of middle second century BC coinage (Gallo-Belgic A) that has been attributed to the Ambiani tribe has been discovered in parts of southern Britain, mostly areas occupied by a tribe or group that was itself specifically called Belgae. While this may be due only to trading connections, it may also be due to Ambiani settlers in the territory.

(Information by Peter Kessler & Edward Dawson, with additional information from The La Tene Celtic Belgae Tribes in England: Y-Chromosome Haplogroup R-U152 - Hypothesis C, David K Faux, from A Genetic Signal of Central European Celtic Ancestry, David K Faux, from Celts and the Classical World, David Rankin, from The Civilisation of the East, Fritz Hommel (Translated by J H Loewe, Elibron Classic Series, 2005), from Europe Before History, Kristian Kristiansen, and from External Link: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars.)

mid-200s BC

A large number of Gallo-Belgic A coins are to be found in southern Britain at this time or soon afterwards. This suggests heavy trade with the Ambiani tribe in northern Gaul, but also the probability that Ambiani have settled in Hampshire, possibly as the earliest representatives of the Belgae people there. The Suessiones may be another Belgic tribe that is settling heavily in Britain from this time.

57 BC

The Continental Belgae enter into a confederacy against the Romans in fear of Rome's eventual domination over them. They are also spurred on by Gauls who are unwilling to see Germanic tribes remaining on Gaulish territory and are unhappy about Roman troops wintering in Gaul. The Senones are asked by Julius Caesar to gain intelligence on the intentions of the Belgae, and they report that an army is being collected. Caesar marches ahead of expectations and the Remi, on the Belgic border, instantly surrender, although their brethren, the Suessiones remain enthusiastic about the venture. The Bellovaci are the most powerful among the Belgae, but the confederation also includes the Ambiani, Atrebates, Atuatuci, Caerosi, Caleti, Condrusi, Eburones, Menapii, Morini, Nervii, Paemani, Veliocasses, and Viromandui, along with some unnamed Germans on the western side of the Rhine.

Battle of the Axona
The Battle of the (River) Axona (the modern Aisne in north-eastern France) witnessed the beginning of the end of the Belgic confederation against Rome

Caesar encourages his ally, Diviciacus of the Aeduii, to attack the Bellovaci and divert part of the Belgic forces. The remaining Belgae march against the Romans en masse. As part of the Battle of the Axona, the Bellovaci are cut down by the Romans and the Suessiones surrender following the capture of their town of Noviodunum. Caesar marches on the surviving Bellovaci, who take refuge in their town of Galled Bratuspantium. Diviciacus of the Aeduii pleads for the former allies of his people, whose leaders in the confederacy against Rome had already fled to Britain. With the Bellovaci subdued, Caesar receives the surrender of the Ambiani, while the other Belgic tribes are defeated in battle.

52 BC

While Caesar is tied down in Rome, the Gauls begin their revolt, resolving to die in freedom rather than be suppressed by the invaders. The Carnutes take the lead under Cotuatus and Conetodunus when they kill the Roman traders who have settled in Genabum. News of the event reaches the Arverni that morning, and Vercingetorix summons his people to arms.

Vercingetorix, after sustaining a series of losses at Vellaunodunum, Genabum, and Noviodunum, summons his men to a council in which it is decided that the Romans should be prevented from being able to gather supplies. A scorched earth policy is adopted, and more than twenty towns of the Bituriges are burned in one day, although their oppidum at Avaricum is spared. His cavalry subsequently routed in battle, Vercingetorix withdraws in good order to Alesia, a major fort belonging to the Mandubii. The remaining cavalry are dispatched back to their tribes to bring reinforcements. Caesar begins a siege of Alesia, aiming on starving out the inhabitants.

The site of Alesia
The site of Alesia, a major fort belonging to the Mandubii tribe of Celts, was the scene of the final desperate stand-off between Rome and the Gauls in 52 BC

Four relief forces amounting to a considerable number of men and horses are assembled in the territory of the Aeduii by the council of the Gaulish nobility. Among those demanded from the tribes of Gaul are five thousand each from the Ambiani, Mediomatrici, Morini, Nervii, Nitiobroges, Petrocorii, and Suessiones. Together they attempt to relieve Vercingetorix at the siege of Alesia, but the combined relief force is soundly repulsed by Julius Caesar's remarkable strategy of simultaneously conducting the siege of Alesia on one front whilst being besieged on the other. Seeing that all is lost, Vercingetorix surrenders to Caesar. The garrison is taken prisoner, as are the survivors from the relief army. They are either sold into slavery or given as booty to Caesar's legionaries, apart from the Aeduii and Arverni warriors who are released and pardoned in order to secure the allegiance of these important and powerful tribes.

With this action, all of Gaul has been brought under Roman domination, and the history of its population of Celts is tied to that of the empire.

51 BC - AD 14

Following the imposition of Roman administration on the region, the tribe's chief oppidum of Samarobriva becomes Civitas Ambianensium (presumed to be the basis for modern Amiens).