History Files


European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes




MapCarnutes / Carnuti (Gauls)
Incorporating the Durocasses

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 Carnutes were located along the north bank of the Liger (the modern River Loire), between Cenabum (modern Orleans) and Tours. They were neighboured to the north-east by the Senones, across the Sequana (the modern Seine) to the east by the Tricasses and Mandubii, to the south by the Bituriges Cubi, to the west by the Turones, and to the north by the Cenomani.

The tribe's name is somewhat problematic. The first part, 'carn', means 'meat', which seems unlikely. Going back a little further, the proto-Celtic root is *karno-, meaning the hoof of an animal (a horse, deer, cow, goat or sheep, for example). Could this be a reference to Cernunnos the horned god? If so then a good guess for the meaning of the tribe's name is that they were the followers of this god.

The Durocasses, or Durocassae, were a minor tribe that occupied an oppidum called Durocassium (modern Dreux in the Eure-et Loir département of north-western France). This places them probably very close to the Carnutes, and probably also makes them a vassal tribe, or even a division of the Carnutes. Following the subjugation of the Carnutes themselves by Rome, a fortified camp named Castrum Drocas was constructed in their territory. The tribe's name belies their vassal status. 'Duro' means 'hard' while 'cass' is a mangling of 'cat', meaning 'battle'. The tribe were the 'hard fighters'.

As for the Carnutes, their major centres of occupation were Cenabum (modern Orleans) and Autricum, which was also known as Carnutes (this survives today as Chartres). Julius Caesar described an annual Druidic assembly that occurred in one or other of these towns. Livy records the tradition that the Carnutes were one of the tribes that accompanied Bellovesus in the first Celtic invasion of Italy around the start of the sixth century BC. On closer examination, it seems that rather than accompany him, they were one of a series of groups that followed the route he set over the course of the subsequent two centuries. This was part of a steady trickle of Celtic migrations into northern Italy, all of which seem to have been formed by splinter groups from existing tribes. By the time Julius Caesar was on the scene in Gaul, the original group of Carnutes had declined in power, so much so that they were dependents of the Remi.

(Information co-authored by Edward Dawson, and additional information 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.)

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.

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.

Rather than face such a large force with a reputation for uncommon bravery, Caesar elects to isolate them in groups using his cavalry, and manages to defeat or accept surrender from all of them in a single campaigning season. According to him, the Aulerci, Cariosvelites, Osismii, Redones, Sesuvii, Venelli, and Veneti, all of whom are located along the Atlantic coast, are subdued by the legion of Publius Licinius Crassus. With this action, northern Gaul has been brought under Roman domination. The victorious legions winter amongst the Andes, Carnutes, and Turones.

57 - 55 BC


A member of the ruling clan. Roman puppet. Assassinated.

57 - 55 BC

Following the successful conclusion of his campaign, Julius Caesar sets up Tasgetius, a member of the ruling clan, as ruler of the tribe while also imposing a Roman protectorate on the tribe and its lands. The Carnutes view this enforced protection in a very dim light, and by 55 BC Tasgetius has been assassinated.

54 BC

The assassination of Tasgetius raises the fear in the Romans that the tribe will revolt. Lucius Plancus takes a legion to winter amongst them, but his investigations into the murder are interrupted. About fifteen days after the legions enter winter quarters, Ambiorix and Cativolcus of the Eburones instigate a revolt, prompted primarily by pressure from their people. A legion under Quintus Titurius Sabinus and Lucius Aurunculeius Cotta is defeated, with both generals being killed and the survivors committing suicide in their fort to avoid capture. Only a few men escape to relate the news to Caesar. Although the Carnutes appear to play no part in this revolt, the stage is set for a far more widespread revolt the following year.

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

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. Caesar immediately retaliates against the Carnutes, burning Cenabum to the ground, putting all of its men to the sword, and selling its women and children into slavery. However, while he 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. When news of the Carnutes massacre of Romans reaches the Arverni that same morning, Vercingetorix summons his people to arms.

? - 52 BC


Led the tribe during the revolt.

? - 52 BC


Co-leader during the revolt.

52 BC

With the war underway and the cavalry of Vercingetorix subsequently routed in battle, 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. 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 men 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 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.

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 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 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.

27 BC - AD 14

The tribe is pacified by the troops of Augustus, bringing them largely under Roman domination. Although the Carnutes are apparently never properly Romanised, as one of the peoples of Gallia Lugdunensis they are afforded the rank of civitas soda, or foederati, which at least allows them to retain their own self-governing institutions and mint their own coins. During this period the settlement of Autricum becomes their capital (later known as Carnutes and now as Chartres).

AD 275

Emperor Aurelian refounds the traditional Carnutes oppidum of Cenabum as a Roman civitas, and renames it Aurelianum (or Aureliani). The city survives and prospers, even following the invasion of the region by Franks. In 511 it forms the heart of the kingdom of Orleans (a Germanic version of its Latin name, Aurelianum).