History Files
 

 

European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes

 

 

 

Index of Celtic TribesMapAtrebates (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 Atrebates (or Atrebati according to Ptolemy) were located in the far north of modern France. Their territory was centred on the tribal capital at Nemetacum Atrebatum or Nemetocenna (modern Arras on the River Scarpe, south-west of modern Lille), and close to the modern ports of Boulogne and Calais. They were neighboured to the north by the Menapii, to the north-west by the Morini, and to the west by the Ambiani, all three of which were sea-faring tribes, and then to the south-west by the Bellovaci, to the south by the Viromandui, and to the east by the Nervii.

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 tribe's name, the Atrebates, is a rather odd one. The singular form should be 'Atrebus' which, in late Gaulish and late Latin would be 'Atrebo'. Its first part, 'ad', means 'to'. 'Trebo' is a house, extended in this case. In reality, this is a verb extended to be a noun, which makes it exceedingly odd. While this could be taken to mean 'settlers' or 'inhabitants' this is not quite right. A more accurate interpretation should be the '(people who are) in houses', in other words, the 'homesteaders'.

It is Julius Caesar in his Gallic Wars who connects the Atrebates tribe of the mid-first century BC with a tribe of the same name that had invaded northern Gaul during the fourth and second centuries BC. As it is entirely possible that this Belgic tribe settled in northern Gaul in the second century BC, it must also be entirely possible that they staged a prelude to that settlement beforehand. Once it had settled, the Atrebates tribe founded a chief town at Nemetocenna in the area of modern Arras. Ptolemy in the second century AD contorted the name into Metacum.

(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 The Oxford History of England: Roman Britain, Peter Salway, and from External Links: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars and Proto-Celtic Word List (PDF). Other major sources listed in the 'Barbarian Europe' section of the Sources page.)

4th century BC

According to Julius Caesar, the Atrebates invade northern Gaul from their territory in what would become Germania.

2nd century BC

Julius Caesar notes the second invasion of the Atrebates from Germania into northern Gaul during this century. This is probably when the tribe finally leaves its earlier home and settles permanently. Many other Belgic tribes are doing the same thing at this time, and it is entirely possible that elements of the tribe (and other Belgic tribes) keep on moving, heading for Britain where they retain their name as the Atrebates.

57 BC

The 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, attacking the Remi town of Bibrax along the way. Rather than face such a large force with a reputation for uncommon bravery, Caesar elects to isolate them in groups using his cavalry. The Bellovaci are defeated at the Battle of the Axona, and the Suessiones are forced to surrender, as are the Ambiani.

The Nervii refuse any surrender, and assemble with the Atrebates and Viromandui to offer battle. The Atuatuci are expected to join them, but the Nervii launch an early surprise attack at the Battle of the Sabis (probably the River Selle). The Romans are supported by auxiliaries sent by the Treveri, while the Nervii are backed up by the Atrebates. The attack surprises the Romans, but they rally and turn potential defeat into a near-massacre of the Nervii. The Atuatuci, who had been marching to the assistance of the Nervii, return home once they hear that they have missed the battle. With this action, northern Gaul has been brought under Roman domination, while the victorious legions winter amongst the Andes, Carnutes, and Turones.

56 BC

Possibly up to a year after the surrender of the Ambiani, one Commius is entrusted by Caesar to rule the Atrebates, while also becoming his aide.

56 - 51 BC

Commius

Later settled with the British Atrebates.

55 BC

Commius helps Julius Caesar during both expeditions to Britain. For the first expedition he is sent ahead to prepare the way by gaining allies. His mission ends before it begins. Commius is captured almost immediately after he lands and is thrown into chains. He is only released after Caesar has successfully fought his way ashore. He then commands a small force of thirty horsemen who had been part of his original entourage, using them to pursue the Britons after the failure of their attack on the Roman camp.

54 BC

Commius accompanies Caesar on his second expedition and is used to persuade Cassivellaunus, king of the Catuvellauni, to succumb to the Romans. Commius returns to Gaul with Caesar. In reward for his loyalty he is granted command of the Morini along the coast and his newly expanded kingdom is exempted from taxes.

53 BC

On 13 February 53 BC the disaffected Carnutes massacre every Roman merchant who is 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 is 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.

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. Vercingetorix of the Arverni summons his people to arms but subsequently his cavalry are routed in battle, so he 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 four thousand men from the Atrebates. 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.

52 - 51 BC

With the fall of Alesia, Commius 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, retreating into swamps and woods and avoiding battle. Commius travels into the Germanic lands to the east of the Rhine in an attempt to find allies, eventually returning with five hundred cavalry. He survives an ambush in which Correus is killed, and when the surviving Bellovaci nobles decide to submit to Caesar he flees across the Rhine and takes refuge with the same German tribe which had provided the cavalry.

51 BC

Now an enemy of Caesar, Commius soon returns to Gaul, at the head of a band of his surviving followers, and conducts a guerrilla campaign against the Romans, surviving on supplies captured from their convoys. The nearest Roman commander, Marcus Antonius (Mark Anthony), sends a cavalry force to catch him. After a series of minor clashes Commius is involved in a battle in which the Roman leader, Caius Volusenus Quadratus, is badly wounded. In return, the Roman troops kill a large number of Commius' followers, The defeat is a serious one.

Now realising that his situation is hopeless, Commius flees the Continent. Frontinus writes: 'Commius, the Atrebatian, when defeated by the deified Julius, fled from Gaul to Britain, and happened to reach the Channel at a time when the wind was fair, but the tide was out. Although the vessels were stranded on the flats, he nevertheless ordered the sails to be spread. Caesar, who was following from a distance, seeing the sails swelling with the full breeze, and imagining Commius to be escaping from his hands and to be proceeding on a prosperous voyage, abandoned the pursuit.' Commius joins his brother Atrebates in Britain. Whether he brings with him any of his people other than a few retainers is unknown.

c.50 BC

Despite his absence, Commius may still retain some authority in Gaul. Coins stamped after the Roman conquest carry his name along with two others, possibly relatives of his.

Atrebates coin
Both sides of a coin issued by the Atrebates between 50-20 BC, by Commius or his son

fl c.50 BC

Garmanos

Relative or regent?

fl c.50 BC

Carsicios

Relative or regent?

No further leaders of the Atrebates are known. Indeed, with the failure of the pan-Gaulish revolt of 52 BC, the tribe almost certainly loses its independence, native leaders being replaced with Roman administrators or loyal Gauls. All of Gaul is now under Roman domination, and the history of its population of Celts is tied to that of the empire.