History Files


European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes




Index of Celtic TribesMapAmbisontes (Gauls)

FeatureIn general terms, the Romans coined the name 'Gaul' to describe the Celtic tribes of what is now central, northern and eastern France. The Gauls were divided from the Belgae to the north by the Marne and the Seine, and from the Aquitani to the south by the River Garonne, and they also extended into Switzerland, northern Italy, and along the Danube. By the middle of the first century BC, the Ambisontes (or Ambisontii) were a minor tribe that was located in the Noricum, in the Styria and Carinthia regions of Austria. They were neighboured to the north by a pocket of the Alauni, to the north-east and east by the bulk of the Taurisci confederation, to the south by the Ambidravi, and to the west by the Vindelici and tribes of the Raeti.

The tribe's name poses a bit of a puzzle. The first part, 'ambi-', is clear enough and is the same as for the Ambarri, Ambidravi, and Ambitouti - meaning 'both sides', probably of a river. The second part is 'sont-', which probably refers to a river called 'sonta'. While there doesn't seem to have been a River Sonta in the Styria region there was a River Trisantona (the modern Trent). This would most likely be the source of the tribe's name, 'on both sides of the [Tri]santona'. A far less likely alternative is a secondary, that is, extended, meaning of 'ambi' in Celtic, with 'both sides' extended to mean 'completely'. That still doesn't help with the Ambisontes, as the only word similar to 'sont-' seems to be 'sondos', meaning 'here' or 'this'. Could the tribe have been 'completely here', a declaration of their ownership of the land, perhaps? In all probability, the Trisantona option is the best one out of the two.

The tribe and its Ambidravi neighbours were clients or constituent parts of the Taurisci confederation which occupied territory between the southern edge of the Eastern Alps and the Northern Adriatic. They seem to have arrived earlier than the Taurisci, though, at least sometime in the fourth century BC, and possibly earlier if Livy's details about the Celtic invasion of Italy are correct.

(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 The Harleian Miscellany: A Collection of Scarce, Curious and Entertaining Tracts Volume 4, William Oldys & Thomas Park, from The Celtic Encyclopaedia, Harry Mountain, 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 Links: On the Celtic Tribe of Taurisci, Mitka Guštin, and Geography, Strabo (H C Hamilton & W Falconer, London, 1903, Perseus Online Edition).

c.600 BC

The first century BC writer, Livy (Titus Livius Patavinus), writes of an invasion into Italy of Celts during the reign of Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, king of Rome. As archaeology seems to point to a start date of around 500 BC for the beginning of a serious wave of Celtic incursions into Italy, this event has either been misremembered by later Romans or is an early precursor to the main wave of incursions. Livy writes that two centuries before major Celtic attacks take place against Etruscans and Romans in Italy, a first wave of invaders from Gaul fights many battles against the Etruscans who dwell between the Apennines and the Alps.

Gauls on expedition
An idealised illustration of Gauls on an expedition, from A Popular History of France From The Earliest Times Volume I by Francois Pierre Guillaume Guizot

At this time, the Bituriges are the supreme power amongst the Celts (who already occupy a third of the whole of Gaul). Livy understands that this tribe had formerly supplied the king for the whole Celtic race, either suggesting a previously more central governance of the Celts that is now beginning to fragment or the typical assumption that one powerful king rules an entire people. The prosperous and courageous, but now-elderly Ambigatus is the ruler of the Bituriges, and over-population means a division of its number is required. Ambigatus sends his sister's sons, Bellovesus and Segovesus, to settle new lands with enough men behind them to put down any opposition. Segovesus.

fl c.600 BC


Nephew of Ambigatus of the Bituriges. Settled Carinthia & Styria.

Following divination by the druids, Segovesus heads into the Hercynian Forest, on the east bank of the Rhine (this forms the northern border of the lands known to the ancient writers of the Mediterranean, and the modern Black Forest forms its western part). He ends up leading his groups into Carinthia (now in southern Austria) to found the Ambisontes and Ambidravi tribes. The Ambisontes develop a centre on the River Salzach (actually just north of Carinthia's modern regional border), while the Ambidravi settle on both sides of the River Drava to the south of the Ambisontes.

c.300 BC

By the Late Iron Age, the area between the southern edge of the Eastern Alps and the Northern Adriatic has long been inhabited by diverse prehistoric populations, such as the Raeti and Ligurians (and also apparently by the early Celtic arrivals mentioned above). More newcomers arrive into the area around this time in the form of Celtic communities from north of the Danube, the heart of Celtic culture (possibly from so far north that the majority of them are in fact Belgae). The presence of the Celts in this area is first noted after 1829, when hoards of Celtic coins are discovered in the area of Celje, in Vrhnika and in Šmarjeta.

The modern southern Austrian region of Carinthia marked the upper edge of the Adriatic hinterland which was first occupied by Celts towards the end of the fourth century BC

The tribes concerned are determined by the historian Albert Muchar to be the Latovici, Serapili, Sereti, and Taurisci. This seems not to involve the Ambidravi and Ambisontes, presumably because they are already settled. In addition, their clearly Gaulish names marks them out from the other Taurisci confederation tribes, which all bear names that could be Belgic.

c.60 - 40 BC

From the latter part of the first century BC and into the next century, various historians mention a variety of tribes and their affiliates which are uniformly identified as being Taurisci, together with a variety of other Cisalpine tribes which include the Norici and Iapodi (not all of which are Celtic in origin). Strabo mentions the Taurisci in his Natural History as being strictly Celtic, as does Livy writing the History of Rome around 10 BC. Pliny the Elder, writing his own Natural History in the mid-first century AD, does the same, along with Apian and Cassius Dio in the second and third centuries AD, saying that the Taurisci are a warrior-like tribe that often plunders Roman territory in the hinterlands of Tergestica (modern Trieste). By this time, the Taurisci have picked up a good deal of local influence, partially from the Scordisci and partially from the remaining indigenous population.

The other tribes mentioned as individual groups of the Taurisci confederation include: the Carni, who occupy the Carnian Alps, on the edge of the south-eastern Alps; the Latovici between Krka and Sava; the Varciani along the Sava towards Sisak; the Serapili and Sereti along the River Drava on the edge of Pannonia; and the Iasi towards Varaždin.

Ancient authors also list several smaller indigenous communities, such as the Illyrian Colapiani along the River Kolpa, the Celtic Ambisontes in the Soča Valley, the Subocrini around Razdrto, and the Rundicti in the Kras and Notranjska regions. The Great Tauriscan tribal community with some identified smaller tribes (such as the Latovici) has never developed into a state formation, but it is becoming known collectively as the Norici.

25 - 15 BC

Augustus determines that the Alpine tribes need to be pacified in order to end their warlike behaviour, alternately attacking or extracting money from Romans who pass through the region, even when they have armies in tow. He wages a steady, determined campaign against them, and in a period of ten years he 'pacifies the Alps all the way from the Adriatic to the Tyrrhenian seas' (written by Augustus himself). The Ambisontes are included in this defeat after throwing in their lot with the Raeti and Vindelici. Given the fact that the Catubrini lie between Italy and this tribe, they should also be included. Following this, the history of the Alpine region's population of Celts is tied to that of the empire.