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Bituriges (Early Celts)

FeatureThe Bituriges were a Celtic tribe that was located to the north of the Alps, in what became Gaul. By the start of the sixth century BC they apparently occupied territory to the west of the Rhine. Although the extent of the territory is unknown, it clearly formed part of a very powerful and very extensive Celtic kingdom, one which apparently dominated many of the other Celts and may even have held some kind of high kingship over them. The tribe must have been vast by later first century BC terms. Livy describes it as being over-populated around the start of the sixth century BC, so that it divided into three, sending offshoots heading east of the Rhine and into Italy. Another tribal split (or perhaps part of the same one) happened as much as a century later, which created the Biturices Vivisci.

The Bituriges tribal name breaks down as *bitu- and *rīg-. The proto-Celtic dictionary gives 'bitu' as 'world', but on taking a closer look it can be seen that it is closer to the Latin 'vita'. Cross-checking the proto-Indo-European root shows all the cognates, some of which also use that sequence. So while the conventional meaning of 'bitu' is listed as 'world', it actually appears to mean 'life', cognate with the Latin 'vita', the Lithuanian 'gyvata' and Old Irish 'bethu', all meaning life, not world. The Old Irish version is the particular give-away for this. The second part of the name, *rīg-, means 'king' ('rik' or 'rix' are variations on 'rīg'), so the tribe's name did not mean the typically quoted (and arrogant-sounding) 'kings of the world', it meant 'kings of life'. The name may be related to the tribe's prominent links with druidism and their political influence that was so heavily targeted by Julius Caesar. The Novantae tribe of the north of Britain were named in a fairly similar fashion.

(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, 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, the Perseus Digital Library, and Livy's History of Rome Book 5. Other major sources listed in the 'Barbarian Europe' section of the Sources page.)

fl c.600 BC

Ambigatus / Ambicatus

Powerful ruler of the unified Bituriges. Possible high king of Celts.

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). They would be a prime example of the new-found dominance of the Hallstatt D tribes of southern Germany, Switzerland, and eastern France, replacing the wealthy Hallstatt C peoples as top dogs. Livy understands that this particular 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.

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.

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.

fl c.600 BC

Bellovesus

Nephew. Settled areas of northern Italy.

fl c.600 BC

Segovesus

Brother. Settled the Hercynian Forest east of the Rhine.

c.600 BC

Bellovesus reaches the barrier of the Alps with an enormous force of horse and foot. This barrier is one that has apparently not previously been breached by Celts, but they are also deterred by a sense of religious obligation, triggered by news reaching them that another group looking for territory, a force of Massalians, are under attack by the Salyes. Seeing this as an omen of their own fortunes, the Celts briefly go to the assistance of the Massalians to help them secure their position. After crossing the Alps by the passes of the Taurini and the valley of the Douro, they defeat the Etruscans in battle not far from the Ticinus. Bellovesus and his mainly Insubres people settle around the Ticinus and build a settlement called Mediolanum (modern Milan).

Map of the Etruscans
This map shows the greatest extent of Etruscan influence in Italy, during the seventh to fifth centuries BC, including the Campania region to the south - but in the last century of this period they faced increasing and ferocious competition from growing numbers of Celts

474 BC

It seems that the Celtic arrival in northern Italy has not been entirely welcomed. The Etruscans, who themselves have been migrating northwards to the River Po from central Italy, have been clashing increasingly with the Celts for domination of the region. A pivotal showdown takes place at the Battle of Ticinum in this year (which must be located close to the main Celtic settlement of Mediolanum that had been founded by the Bituriges and Insubres of Bellovesus around a century before). The Etruscan force, which is little more than a well-armed militia, is butchered by the Celts in a ferociously fought battle. This victory confirms Celtic domination of the region for the next couple of centuries, so that it is called Gallia Cisalpina (Gaul on 'our' side of the Alps, 'ours' being the Latin and Italic side).

c.400 - 391 BC

Following the route set by Bellovesus and the Bituriges around 600 BC, other bodies of Celts have gradually invaded northern Italy, probably due to over population in Gaul and the promise of fertile territory just waiting to be captured. The first of these is the Cenomani around 400 BC, followed by the Libui and Saluvii. Then the Boii and Lingones cross the Pennine Alps, with the Senones the last to arrive. The Alpine Medulli tribe may also find its home there as part of this migration.

c.400 BC?

The Bituriges have until about now formed what is probably one of the largest and most powerful tribes in western Europe. It seems to be around this time that they divide into two groups which become the Bituriges Cubi and Biturices Vivisci (this split could also be linked to the one that Livy describes around 600 BC). The first group settles in central France while the second prefers to head for Bordeaux and the coast. The split could be caused by a difference of viewpoint between two powerful groups in the tribe, either with the druids or the warrior elite, but either way, both appear to retain the parent tribe's name in varying forms and both remain key centres of druidic activity.

MapBituriges Cubi (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 Bituriges were located in central Gaul, between Orleans and Bourges, and between the rivers Cher and Creuse. They were neighboured to the north by the Turones and Carnutes, to the east by the Mandubii and Aeduii and a small pocket of Boii, to the south by the Arverni, and to the west by the Pictones.

The Cubi epithet of the tribe's name can be broken down into the proto-Celtic 'kwu' (?), which means 'to', while 'bei-e/o-' (??) means 'live'. 'Cubi meant 'to live'. Essentially Bituriges Cubi name matches the Biturices Vivisci name, both meaning roughly the same thing. The intriguing question is why the 'kings of life' would need to reaffirm their name in this way. In both cases it would possibly be another reference to the druidism that seemed to be a major part of the tribe's identity.

Unfortunately, by the first century BC the tribe's glory days had faded somewhat. It had splintered along they way, with the Bituriges Cubi settling or remaining in central France, in the region of Berry. They had a chief oppidum at Avaricum (modern Bourges), but by the first century BC they seem to have been little more than a client tribe of the neighbouring Aeduii. The other division of the tribe were the Biturices Vivisci, who ended up to the south-west of them in Bordeaux. This southern division had been cut off from their northern relations by the middle of the first century BC as the Santones and Lemovices intruded to the north of the Garonne.

(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, from The History of Rome, Volume 1, Titus Livius (translated by Rev. Canon Roberts), and from External Link: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars. Other major sources listed in the 'Barbarian Europe ' section of the Sources page.)

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 (a divided portion of the earlier Bituriges), 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)

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.

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.

Vercingetorix, his cavalry subsequently routed in 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. 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 twelve thousand each from the Bituriges, Carnutes, Ruteni (mostly archers), Santones, Senones, and Sequani. Together they attempt to relieve Vercingetorix at the siege of Alesia, but the combined relief force is soundly repulsed by Julius Caesar. Seeing that all is lost, Vercingetorix surrenders to Caesar.

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

During the revolt, the Bituriges Cubi fall back to 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 decimated Bituriges Cubi, whom Caesar now 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.

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.

AD 468 - 469

Riothamus, 'King of the Britons', crosses the Channel to Gaul, bringing 12,000 ship-borne troops. He remains in the country for a year or more, perhaps reinforced by Armorican Bretons, and is able to advance to Bourges (the ancient territory of the Bituriges) and even further. Gaul's imperial prefect, the deputy of the Western Roman emperor, treacherously undermines him by apparently dealing with the Visigoths, probably to try and divert the Visigothic king to attacking the Breton territories to the benefit of Roman holdings. In the end, both Riothamus and the imperial army are defeated in separate battles, and Bourges falls to the Visigoths. Soissons and Armorica are cut off from Rome.