History Files


European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes




MapGaesatae (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, and they also extended into Switzerland, northern Italy, and along the Danube.

However, although they fought alongside many Gaulish tribes, the Gaesatae do not seem to have been a tribe in themselves. They appear in history without any previous apparent existence, or even stories about their history - they are simply there in 231 BC. They are subsequently referred to by Polybius as an Alpine tribe, suggesting that many of their number come from either side of the Alps. Confusingly, Polybius also says that they are a tribe that lives on the Rhone, perhaps showing they they did indeed originate in multiple locations, and probably showing that Polybius didn't really know their origins.

The Gaesatae name is simply thrown in by Polybius, who describes it as a word that means 'serving for hire'. The Gaesatae did indeed appear to be mercenaries, although perhaps the Latin word, foederati, would be kinder. There are two possible origins for their name, the first being the most likely: *gaiso- in the proto-Celtic word list means 'spear'. In other words they were 'the spearmen', or spears for hire in much the same sense as the modern 'gun for hire'. The second option is far more hypothetical and unlikely, but deserves investigation nonetheless. Removing the '-ae' suffix leaves 'gaesat' as the core name. In the Germanic language, 'ge-' is one form of a prefix that can be used to intensify an action by more than one person (a collective action). The second part of the name, 'sat', means to settle somewhere. So the name would mean 'the settlers' or something similar. Such usage is far more readily apparent in the Anglo-Saxon settlers in Britain in the sixth and seventh centuries; tribes such as the Ciltern Saetan, Magonset, Pecsaetan, Tomsaetan, etc.

The second explanation is definitely at odds with what is known of them, however. According to the words put into their mouths by Polybius, a number of them may have descended from the Senones who had seized Rome in 389 BC. This probably included their two elected kings, and would very likely make them the most powerful group within the mercenary body. The rest of them hailed from the Celtic tribes of the Alps and the Rhone area. These were certainly outside any Germanic influence in the third century BC (and indeed, for many centuries afterwards).

The Gaesatae were noted for their vanity and bravado in throwing off all their clothing when going into battle. They carried nothing but their weapons, believing that, as the ground may have contained brambles and other impediments that may catch upon baggy Celtic trousers and impede the use of their weapons, they would be more effective in this state. They appeared for the start of the Gallic War and disappeared at its end, either destroyed or, more probably, settled into anonymity to merge into northern Italy's general population.

(Information co-authored by Edward Dawson, and additional information from External Links: Polybius, Histories, and Dictionary.com.)

231 - 225 BC

The two most extensive Gallic tribes of northern Italy, the Boii and Insubres, send out the call for assistance against Rome to the tribes living around the Alps and on the Rhone. Rather than each of the tribes sending their own warriors, it appears that individual warriors are effectively hired from the entire Alpine region as mercenaries. Polybius calls them Gaesatae, describing it as a word which means 'serving for hire'. They come with their own kings, Concolitanus and Aneroetes, who have probably been elected from their number in the Celtic fashion.

Celtic warriors
While most of the Gauls of the third century BC fought fully clothed, their Gaesatae mercenaries tended to fight with nothing more than their weapons, and not even the trousers shown here

231? - 225 BC


'King' of the Gaesatae mercenaries. Killed in battle.

231? - 225 BC


Co-ruler of the Gaesatae. Committed suicide.

The Gaesatae are offered a large sum of gold on the spot and the wealth of Rome is also pointed out - wealth that can be theirs if they stick to their task. The mercenaries are easily persuaded, and are proud to remind the other Gauls of the campaign that had been undertaken by their own ancestors in which they had seized Rome. This strongly suggests that a proportion of the Gaesatae (probably including their kings) are descended from members of the Senones tribe, as it was this tribe that had led the occupation of Rome in 389 BC.

Rome has been informed of what is coming, and hurries to assemble the legions. Even its ongoing conflict with the Carthaginians take second place, and a treaty is hurriedly agreed with Hasdrubaal, commander in Iberia, which virtually confirms Carthaginian rule there. Such is Rome's haste that they approach the Gaulish frontier before the Gauls have even stirred.

It is 225 BC when the Gaesatae forces cross the Alps and enter the valley of the Padus with a formidable army, furnished with a variety of armour. The Boii, Insubres, and Taurini accompany them but the Cenomani and Veneti are persuaded to side with Rome, forcing the Gauls to detach a force to guard their flank. Despite this, their main army consists of about a hundred and seventy thousand foot and horse, which petrifies the Romans and reminds them of 389 BC. As well as the four new legions, they are accompanied by Etruscans, Sabines, Sarsinates, and Umbri, and more Cenomani and Veneti. Defending Rome and its territories are Ferrentani, Iapygians, Latins, Lucanians, Marrucini, Marsi, Messapians, Samnites, and Vestini, plus two more legions on Sicily and in Tarentum.

The first battle, when it comes, is near Faesulae, outside the subjugated Etruscan city of Clevsin. The Romans are decimated and routed by superior Gaulish tactics. A fresh army under Lucius Aemilius arrives, and Aneroetes counsels retreat with their booty and army intact, ready to launch a fresh attack when ready. Consul Gaius Atilius lands at Pisae with the Sardinian legion and the Gauls find themselves caught between two Roman armies. The battle is fierce, and the Gauls gain the head of Gaius Atilius. However, the battle turns against them and large numbers of Gauls are cut down or taken prisoner, including Concolitanus. Aneroetes is able to flee with his band of followers, and they commit suicide together.

224 BC

Buoyed by its victory, Rome attempts to clear the entire valley of the Padus. Two legions are sent under the command of the consuls of that year, and the Boii are terrified into submission. However, incessant rain and an outbreak of disease prevents the legions from achieving anything greater.

223 BC

Two fresh consuls lead two more legions into the Padus, marching through the territory of the Anamares, who live not far from Placentia (some readings of the original text translate this as the Ananes and their home in the Marseilles region, which would be impossible given the nature of this campaign). They secure the friendship of this tribe and cross into the country of the Insubres, near the confluence of the Adua and Padus. Some skirmishing aside, peace is agreed with this tribe, and the Romans head for the River Clusius. There they enter Cenomani lands, with these allies providing some reinforcements. Then the Romans return to the Insubres and begin laying waste to their land. The tribe is faced with no choice but to fight, and their defeat is all but inevitable.

222 BC

With peaceful overtures by the Insubres being firmly rejected by Rome, the tribe calls on the Gaesatae once more. Together they fight the Romans and withdraw intact to Mediolanum. The stronghold is stormed by the Romans and, following some hard fighting, the Insubres are left with no option but to surrender, their unnamed chief making a complete submission to Rome. This act effectively ends the Gallic War in northern Italy, as Rome now dominates all of the tribes there. The Gaesatae disappear from history.

218 - 217 BC

The Second Punic War starts at Saguntum (near modern Valencia) in Hispania. Using Gadir as a base, Hannibal Barca sets out to attack Rome, leading his Carthaginian armies over the Alps into Italy. He has to fight off resistance by Gaulish tribes such as the Allobroges along the way but is supported by other Gauls such as the Insubres, who rebel against their Roman occupiers. At first he wins great victories at Trasimeno and Cannae which all but destroys Roman military strength, but he is denied the reinforcements to pursue his victory by an opposing political faction back at home. As the tidal wave of invasion passes by and dies down, Roman domination of the Boii, Gaesatae, Insubres, Lingones, and Taurini is renewed.

Western Alps
The Celtic tribes of northern Italy were large and dangerous to the Romans, unlike their fellow Celts in the Western Alps, who were relatively small in number and fairly fragmented, although they made up for that by being even more belligerent than their easterly cousins

It seems unlikely that the Gaesatae still exist, four years after their employment had ended. Perhaps this mention of them is a mistake. Or perhaps the Gaesatae had originally come lock, stock and barrel, arriving as traditional Celtic migrants with their women, children and baggage train to settle in northern Italy alongside their employers. This would be typical Celtic behaviour based on many other documented instances. In this case there is simply not enough information available to be able to tell, but the Gaesatae could have formed their own tribal group, one that now begins its integration into Roman society along with the other Gauls in the region.