History Files


European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes




MapAmbivariti (Belgae)
Incorporating the Toxandri

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 Ambivariti were a minor tribe that was located inside the modern Dutch border, in the north of Dutch Limburg or the east of Noord-Brabant. They were probably neighboured by the Menapii, and therefore also by the Paemani and Eburones.

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. This particular tribe should not be confused with the more southerly Ambivareti, who were a client tribe of the Aeduii.

The tribe's name breaks down into 'ambi', meaning 'both sides' [of a river, for example]. The second part, 'varet' plus the plural ending '-i' would suggest a river by that name, pronounced 'waret'. This would make them the tribe 'on both sides of the [River] Varet'. The existence of the Varet is uncertain, but the region is replete with river courses, so there's every chance of an obscure tributary river name in the region. Varet may be a swapped sound sequence, a switched 'r' and 't' which could have been 'vatir', meaning water. Simply 'on both sides of the water' - an unnamed river. Perhaps just as viable an option is a tribal name that was adopted by the area's previous occupants. Given the fact that their name is almost an exact match with that of the Ambivareti, that older Gaulish tribe may have occupied territory around North Limburg which they later abandoned in favour of the newly-arrived Belgae who then adopted their name.

The Ambivariti of the Belgae were mentioned only once, by Julius Caesar, and then only vaguely. Their location was not given, except by association with the Menapii, to whom they seem to have been neighbours. This was in connection with a raid on them by Germans in 55 BC, at which time they were probably based between modern Breda and Antwerp. Thereafter they disappear from history, not to be mentioned by any other classical writer. Curiously, during the later Roman empire period, a tribe or group named the Toxandri were to be found living in the same area, and their name was preserved into the medieval period as the Toxandria region of the duchy of Lower Lorraine. Toxandri breaks down into 'texto', from the proto-Celtic *text-(e)je/o-, meaning 'obtain', and 'andera', from *anderā, meaning 'young woman', which makes something along the lines of 'they who obtain [a/the] young woman' - certainly one of the stranger tribal names!

(Information co-authored by Edward Dawson, and additional information from The La Tene Celtic Belgae Tribes in England: Y-Chromosome Haplogroup R-U152 - Hypothesis C, David K Faux, and from External Link: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars. Other major sources listed in the 'Barbarian Europe' section of the Sources page.)

55 BC

As recorded by Julius Caesar in his work, Commentarii de Bello Gallico, the Germanic Tencteri and Usipetes tribes cross the Rhine from Germania and attack the Belgic Menapii. The Germans force them to withdraw to the western side of the Rhine, where the Menapii are able to defend the river line for some time. They also attack the Condrusi and Eburones tribes.

Feigning a withdrawal to lure out the Menapii, the Tencteri and Usipetes defeat them, capture their ships and occupy many of their villages for the winter. Caesar, alarmed at this threat to the north of territory in Gaul that he has already conquered, takes a force into the region. After much diplomatic effort and some delays, he attacks the Germanic tribes and drives them back into Germania with heavy losses.

South Limberg
The gentle rolling landscape of the Limberg region, which was home to the neighbouring Eburones, would have made idea pasture and farming land for the Belgic tribes, but its proximity to the Maas on the eastern flank of both them and the Ambivariti would have provided the woods and swamps which served as a refuge in times of need

Another tribe involved in these attacks when the Tencteri and Usipetes are foraging for plunder and grain is the Ambivariti. They are far less certain in terms of any detail, although from inference they seem to be located on the south bank of the Rhine, between Breda and Antwerp. They are not mentioned again in history by any other classical authors, making it possible that Caesar mishears or misunderstands their name.

Also possible is that they are a fragment of another tribe, perhaps the Gaulish Ambivareti, and that their existence with that same name is short. In the later Roman empire, a tribe called the Toxandri are to be found in the same area. The name is not at all similar, but the people could be the same, with other groups added, naturally - perhaps even Germans, given that the surrounding tribes are already saturated with Germanic influences or names or people. The region of Toxandria is later a stronghold of the Salii before they are accepted into the Roman empire.

Either way, Caesar's campaigns of this year effectively end the independence of the Belgic tribes, and the history of its population of Celts is now tied to that of the empire.