History Files


European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes




MapArverni (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. By the middle of the first century BC, the Arverni were located in southern-central Gaul, in the area around the modern Auvergne. They were neighboured to the north by the Bituriges Cubi, to the north-east by the Aeduii, to the east by the Segusiavi, to the south by the Vellavi and Gabali, and to the west by the Cadurci and Lemovices, and perhaps also by the powerful Pictones.

The Arverni tribal name can be broken down relatively easily. It starts with 'ar' which means 'ar' ('at', or 'before', or 'next to'), plus 'vern'. The same first part was used in 'Aremorio', a word used to describe Brittany it is earliest days as a home for Celts. This may come from the proto-Celtic *werno- or *wernā- which means 'alder'. The modern Welsh form is (noun) 'gwern', 'alder grove', perhaps producing a name that meant 'by the alder grove'. One of the tribe's towns was Augustonemetum, and 'nemet' is a holy grove. In full it was Augustonemetum Arvernorum, which means Augusta Arvernorum, the civitas of the Arverni. Its modern name is Clermont-Ferrand (in the Puy-de-Dome département).

The Arverni were formed as a confederation of minor Gaulish tribes, probably including the Vellavi, whom Strabo says were once a part of the Arverni. Before the arrival of the Romans, they were very powerful, contesting with the Aeduii for nominal overlordship of all of the Gaulish tribes for a period. They emerged victorious, but their victory was short-lived, being very quickly usurped by Rome. However, in the massed Gaulish revolt of 52 BC, it was the Arverni who supplied a commander who was capable of taking on Julius Caesar. Despite his eventual defeat, the name of Vercingetorix remains as potent to the modern French as that of Boudicca does to the British. The Arverni were located in the Auvergne, to which they gave their name, and their most powerful and important stronghold was Gergovia. This has been identified as Merdogne, a village that since 1865 has been better known as Gergovie, near Clermont-Ferrand.

(Information co-authored by Edward Dawson, and additional information by Rhys Saunders, and from The La Tene Celtic Belgae Tribes in England: Y-Chromosome Haplogroup R-U152 - Hypothesis C, David K Faux, from The History of Rome, Volume 1, Titus Livius, translated by Rev. Canon Roberts, and from External Links: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars and Perseus Digital Library. Other major sources listed in the 'Barbarian Europe' section of the Sources page.)

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. Bellovesus heads towards Italy, inviting fellow settlers to join him from six tribes, the Aeduii, Ambarri, Arverni, Aulerci, Bituriges, Carnutes, and Senones. The body of people led by Bellovesus himself apparently consists mainly of Insubres, a canton (or sub-division) of the Aeduii.

200s - 100s BC

During the third and second centuries BC, the Arverni are one of the most powerful Gaulish tribes. They reach the height of their power and influence under the leadership of Luernios in the first half of the second century BC. Unfortunately, his son, Bituitous, is not quite up to the task, and is defeated by the Romans in one of their earliest conquests in Gaul.

c.180 - 167 BC


Ruled the tribe during the height of its power.

c.167 - 123 BC


Son. Captured by Rome.

123 - 121 BC

The Allobroges come into direct conflict with Rome following the latter's defeat of the Salluvii. That tribe's king, Tuto-Motulus, flees northwards and seeks shelter with the Allobroges. They welcome him in, and when Rome demands that he is handed over, they refuse. Having declared war, Rome sends Quintus Fabius Maximus to attack them in 121 BC. He is the son of Quintus Fabius Maximus Aemilianus, consul of 145 BC, and is consul himself during this year. He campaigns in Gallia Transalpina (the modern Auvergne and Rhône-Alpes regions) with Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, fighting the Allobroges, Arverni, and Helvii. They are defeated and the consul is awarded the honour of a triumph which is famous for its spectacle, with the Arverni ruler, Bituitus, being displayed in his silver battle armour. The Ruteni, Segovellauni, Vocontii, and Volcae Arecomisci are subjugated at the same time.

The tribe becomes part of a Roman provincia as a result of its defeat. This brings its glory days as a powerful nation to a definite end and allows the Aeduii and Sequani tribes, who have yet to be subdued, to rise in its place.

fl c.118 BC


1st century BC

By the beginning of the first century BC, and perhaps for an indeterminate period before it, the Aeduii are at the head of a tribal confederation that also includes the Ambarri, Aulerci, Bellovaci, Bituriges Cubi, Brannovices, Mandubii, Parisii, Segusiavi, and Senones. Against this confederation in the contest for supremacy in Gaul are the Arverni, to its immediate south, and the Sequani to its east.

Map of Gaul 100 BC
The Aeduii confederation is shown here, around 100 BC, with borders approximate and fairly conjectural, based on the locations of the tribes half a century later - it can be seen that the Aulerci at least migrate farther north-west during that time, although the remainder largely stay put (click on map to show full sized)

fl c.70s BC?


High king of Gaul? Slain by his people.

Celtillus breaks down into 'celt' and 'il', plus an '-os' or '-us' suffix. The 'il' part is a diminutive. Celtillus would mean 'little Celt'. According to Julius Caesar in his Gallic Wars, Celtillus holds 'the supremacy of entire Gaul' which, if true, shows that they are still one of the most powerful of the Gaulish tribes. Caesar describes him more fully as a man who "held the supremacy of entire Gaul, and had been put to death by his fellow-citizens, for this reason, because he aimed at sovereign power". In other words, Celtillus is slain by his own people because he aims to cement his rule of the tribe by establishing an hereditary kingship rather than obeying the elected process that the Gauls favour. His son is Vercingetorix, in Caesar's words, a "young man of the highest power".

c.72 - 58 BC


71 - 60? BC

In this period, shortly before the arrival of Julius Caesar and a sustained drive to subjugate all of Gaul, the Arverni win their battle for regional superiority again the Aeduii, subduing them in the process. Other subject tribes include the Gabali.

60? BC

Ariovistus is a leader of the Suevi and other allied Germanic peoples in the second quarter of the first century BC, and at least up to 58 BC. Displaying the interconnected nature of Germanics and Celts at this time, he is a fluent speaker of Gaulish, and one of his two wives is the daughter of Vocion of the Norican kingdom.

As recorded by Julius Caesar, and perhaps also by Cicero (who writes in 60 BC of a defeat for the Aeduii), Ariovistus and his followers take part in a war in Gaul, assisting the Gallic Arverni and Sequani to defeat their rivals, the Aeduii. The reasons for the war are unknown, but they could be related to the Sequani hold over a vital trading corridor in the Doubs river valley which links to the Rhine. The Battle of Magetobriga results in a victory for the allies, thanks to the Suevi troops, and the Aeduii become vassals of the Sequani.

Ariovistus seizes one-third of the Aeduii territory in the Alsace region, settling about 120,000 Germans there. However, with the Sequani now at his back, between him and Germania, he decides to clear them out of their Doubs valley homeland. More German settlers are introduced there, and a further third of Gaulish territory is demanded for his allies, the Harudes.

58 - 52 BC


Son of Celtillus. Defeated, deposed, and imprisoned by Rome.

Vercingetorix's name is pronounced with an initial 'w' sound according to general Gaulish naming conventions. The 'rix' suffix on the end means 'king' in exactly the same way as saying King Henry, for example. Rendered in modern English he would be King Vercingetos. This can be broken down into two parts, and the proto-Celtic/modern English wordlist has *kenget- (?), meaning 'warrior' for the second part. Therefore it seems that 'cinget' means 'a warrior'. The proto-Celtic wordlist has the first part, 'wer' as as 'werro', meaning 'raised'.

The order of the word elements is a little worrying though. Modifiers in Celtic tongues come after nouns, not before, as shown above with 'rix'. So 'wer-' is the noun. Luckily there is a parallel use in Welsh, 'uchel', meaning 'high' as a noun. So the man's given name would be Vercingetos, meaning 'warrior of the high (raised, exalted)' plus his title of king.

? - 52 BC


Cousin and a commander of the relief force. Killed.

54 BC

The revolt of Ambiorix of the Eburones stirs up the Gauls, with anti-Roman sentiment strengthening in some quarters. However, despite the Treveri joining the revolt, it is eventually quashed. Although the situation is calmed by this victory, Cavarinus of the Senones is condemned to death by his people and is forced to flee to the Romans for protection. This serves as a commitment by that tribe to oppose Julius Caesar during his Gallic campaigns. The act seems to rally support from amongst most of the Gauls, except the Aeduii and Remi, who remain loyal to Rome, although the Gauls are unable to encourage the Germans to cross the Rhine and support them due to the recent defeats of Ariovistus of the Suevi and of the Tencteri expedition, something that has dissuaded them from a third attempt. Following the death of Indutiomarus of the Treveri, no further action is taken against the Romans in this year.

53 BC

On 13 February 53 BC the disaffected Carnutes had massacred every Roman merchant who had been present in the town of Cenabum, as well as killing one of Caesar's commissariat officers. This is the spark that ignites a massed Gaulish rebellion. While Julius Caesar has been occupied in the lands of the Belgae, Vercingetorix has renewed the Arverni subjugation of the Aeduii. He has also restored the reputation of Arverni greatness by leading the revolt that is building against Rome.

Despite his former allegiance to Julius Caesar, in the winter of 53-52 BC Commius of the Atrebates uses his contacts with the Bellovaci to convince them to contribute 2,000 men to an army. This army will join other Gauls to form a massive relief force at Alesia in the last stage of the revolt (this being a major fort that belongs to the Mandubii). The Lemovices are also amongst the first tribes to commit to joining Vercingetorix, contributing 10,000 men. The Mediomatrici send 5,000 men, and the Andes, Ruteni, and Turones are also amongst the first to commit.

The warriors of the Pictones decide to supply 8,000 warriors, but their chief, Duratios, stands firm in his desire to maintain his alliance with Rome, and this difference of opinion causes a split in the tribe. The warriors join the chief of the Andes who heads for Lemonum to besiege Duratios. The king sends a messenger to the Roman legate, Caius Caninius, who comes to his aid from the territory of the Ruteni. This small force is soon backed up by a more effective unit under Caius Fabius and a Pictonii civil war is averted.

Romans versus Gauls
Organising the various tribes of Gaul into a unified resistance took some doing, but Vercingetorix of the Arverni appears to have held a level of authority that made him a leader not to be refused, and thousands of warriors flocked to join him

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. Despite being expelled from the town of Gergovia by his uncle, Gobanitio, and the rest of the nobles in their fear of such a risky enterprise, he gathers together an army. The Aulerci, Cadurci, Lemovices, Parisii, Pictones, Senones, and Turones all join him, as do all of the tribes that border the ocean. The Treveri support the revolt but are pinned down by German tribes.

He sends Lucterius of the Cadurci into the territory of the Ruteni to gain their support, and marches in person to the Bituriges. The latter, under the protection of the Aeduii, send to them for help to resist the Arverni but are forced to join the revolt. Lucterius continues to the Gabali and Nitiobroges and wins their support, collecting together a large force ahead of an advance into the province of Narbonensis. Caesar gets there first and rallies the garrisons among the Ruteni and Volcae Arecomisci, and Lucterius is forced to retreat. From there Caesar circles through the territory of the generally pro-Roman Helvii (who provide auxiliaries) to reach that of the Arverni, despite deep winter snows in the mountains.

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. The Boii have little with which to support the Romans, and the Aeduii are showing little enthusiasm for it, but Caesar secures all the supplies he needs when he besieges and storms Avaricum, despite a formidable Gaulish defence. From there, the two sides gravitate towards an eventual confrontation at Gergovia, a town of the recently resettled Boii. Now the chief of the generally pro-Roman Aeduii, Convictolitavis, is free to end his equivocation and leads a force not in support of Caesar at Gergovia but against him. The Nitiobroges also send troops to aid Vercingetorix there. Caesar loses the siege after having to split his forces to face the unexpected threat, a rare defeat for him in Gaul.

Labienus marches with four legions to the Parisii town of Lutetia. Gauls from the neighbouring states immediately gather to oppose him, under the leadership of the aged but still very wise Camulogenus of the Aulerci. Labienus pulls back to Melodunum of the Senones, takes the town by force, and marches again against Camulogenus. The ensuing battle sees the Gauls defeated and Camulogenus killed. Labienus joins Caesar while Vercingetorix levies troops from the Aeduii and Segusiavi. These he places under the command of the brother of Eporedirix and orders them to attack the Allobroges. The Gabali and the easternmost Arverni cantons are sent to fight the Helvii, and the Cadurci and Ruteni are told to lay waste the territories of the Volcae Arecomisci. The Helvii are defeated and their leaders slain, including Caius Valerius Donotaurus, the son of Caburus. The Allobroges manage to defend their frontiers successfully, but Caesar finds that he is hard-pressed to counter Vercingetorix's superiority in cavalry. He calls for cavalry and light infantry from the loyal German tribes (which undoubtedly includes the Ubii), and this helps him greatly in the battle which follows.

Vercingetorix, his cavalry routed in that battle, 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. Indeed, matters become so bad inside the fort that the Mandubian women and children are ejected (possibly in the hope that the Roman lines will part to let them pass), but Caesar effectively traps them in the no-man's-land between the opposing forces and allows them to starve.

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. Demanded from the tribes of Gaul are thirty-five thousand men from the Aeduii and their dependents, the Ambivareti, Brannovices, and Segusiavi; an equal number from the Arverni in conjunction with the Cadurci, Eleuteti, Gabali, and Vellavi, who are accustomed to following Arverni commands; twelve thousand each from the Bituriges, Carnutes, Ruteni (mostly archers), Santones, Senones, and Sequani; ten thousand each from the Bellovaci, Helvetii, Lemovices and Lingones; eight thousand each from the Helvii (despite the tribe's pro-Roman standing), Parisii, Pictones, and Turones; six thousand combined from the tribes of Armorica (including the Ambibari, Caleti, Cariosvelites, Osismii, Redones, Venelli, and Veneti); five thousand each from the Ambiani, Mediomatrici, Morini, Nervii, Nitiobroges, Petrocorii, and Suessiones; the same number from the Aulerci Cenomani; four thousand from the Atrebates; three thousand each from the Aulerci Eburovices, Bellocassi, Lexovii, and Veliocasses; plus substantial numbers sent by the Boii, Boiocasses, and Raurici.

Of all of these the Bellovaci withhold their contribution, claiming that they would wage war against the Romans on their own account, free of external command. However, at the request of Commius of the Atrebates, they send two thousand men in consideration of a tie of hospitality which exists between them and him. Commanders are appointed, one of which is Vercassivellaunos, who teams up with Sedullos of the Lemovices.

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

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. Marcus Antonius (Mark Anthony) and Caius Trebonius marshal the troops for the rearward defence. Sedullos of the Lemovices is slain, and Vergasillaunus of the Arverni is captured. 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.

During the revolt, the Bituriges Cubi fall back to their main oppidum of Avaricum. Although they put up a desperate resistance, their hill fort ultimately falls to a Roman assault and all its surviving inhabitants are put to the sword. The Carnutes make their own situation worse by attacking the now leaderless and defenceless Bituriges Cubi, whom Caesar aids. As a reminder of their part in the rebellion, the Carnutes town of Cenabum is left in ruins and the location is garrisoned by two Roman legions.

Vercingetorix is imprisoned in the Tullianum in Rome for five years and Gaul falls to the republic. After the surrender of Alesia, Commius of the Atrebates returns north and joins Correus of the Bellovaci. The two men command the last major Gallic army to directly oppose Caesar, and for some time they manage to hold off the Romans until defeat finally ends their resistance.

52 - 46 BC


Imprisoned heroic figure & nominal leader of Gauls. Executed.

46 BC

Following five years of imprisonment in the Tullianum, Vercingetorix is publicly displayed at Julius Caesar's triumph. Afterwards, back in his cell, he is executed by strangulation. This removes the figurehead of Gaulish independence and with this action, Gaul's dreams of independence have been ended by Roman domination, and the history of its population of Celts is tied to that of the empire.