History Files


European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes




MapHelveconae (Suevi)

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. They also extended eastwards, into the region that was becoming known as Germania. The Celts had ruled much of this in their heyday, but by the middle of the first century BC they were fragmented, and were either in the process of being expelled by the increasingly powerful Germanic tribes who were migrating southwards from Scandinavia and the Baltic coast, or they were being defeated and integrated into Germanic or other tribes. The Helveconae were located between the rivers Viaduna (the modern Oder) and Vistula, in modern southern-central Poland. They were neighboured to the north by the Germanic Vandali and Goths, and generally by the Celtic Helisii, Manimi, Harii, Naharvali, and Osi, and to the west by the Boii, with the Germanic Semnones intruding from farther north.

The Helveconae name is a hard one to break down. Remove the suffixes, '-on' (the Germanic and Gaulish plural) and 'ae' (the Latin plural), and the core word, Helvec, or Helvet, remains. This is very similar to the Helvetii name and to the core of the Helvii name. The word *selwā means 'possessions' in conjectural proto-Celtic. Helvetii minus the suffix would be Helvet. It has to be assumed that there was a shift from 's' to 'h' for the initial consonant, for which there has been a precedent in Celtic. The 'c' or 't' on the end is harder to work out. The problem with the 'c' is that its pronunciation is not known: is it a 'k' or a 'ch'? If a 'ch' then a slight shift to a 't' is possible, especially if followed by an '-ion' or '-on' suffix. If this conjecture is correct, then the names may indicate the same tribe in two different locations - Helveconae and Helvetii. In any case, the best guess is that the name means 'the owners'.

An alternative meaning behind the name of all three tribes mentioned above is 'yellow' (ie. blond). Pokorny has discussed the origins of the Latin word 'helvus', which derives from a root that means 'yellow sun' (as in 'hot, bitter, burning'). This appears to develop into a word that means 'honey-yellow, golden', and it is this meaning that could equally apply in Celtic to refer to blond Celts. These tribes could have been the 'honey-yellow [people]' in reference to their blond hair.

The Helveconae (or Helvecones) may earlier have been located in central Germany (in the later region of Franconia). This is close enough to their first century BC location to be believable, but it is also where the Helvetii were picked up by the Cimbric and Teutonic migration of the late second century BC. As seen above, there is a marked similarity between the names, Helvetii and Helveconae (without all the suffixes), so it seems very possible that these people formed a single tribe until the migration. Left behind in Germany, the Helveconae appear to have been a major local tribe (in terms of population), but very quickly they were politically overwhelmed by very aggressive Germanic tribes. If any of them survived to retreat into rougher terrain, then perhaps they formed part of the Galatians (later Galicia) of Poland.

Tacitus described them as one of a number of tribes which together formed the federation of the Lugii, which itself was viewed as being part of the Suevi confederation. This was usually made up of Germanic peoples, coming into existence by the first century AD or earlier. It perhaps also included Celtic tribes that had remained in the region and which were largely absorbed by the later arrivals. The Suevi confederation included the tribes of the Alemanni, Angles, Hermunduri, Langobards, Marcomanni, Quadi, Semnones, and Warini, and perhaps also the Heruli too. None of these were what could be considered 'front line' tribes, living along the border with the Roman empire. Instead they were arrayed behind a large number of other tribes which were better known and better attested by Roman writers. The Suebic tribes remained a little more obscure, at least until they came into direct contact with the empire, and many of the more minor tribes that made up the confederation were almost entirely unchronicled. The Harii, Helisii, Manimi, and Naharvali were also sometimes included in the Lugii federation

(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 Oxford History of England: Roman Britain, Peter Salway, from Complete Works of Tacitus, Alfred John Church, William Jackson Brodribb, Lisa Cerrato, 1942, and from External Link: Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, J Pokorny. Other major sources listed in the 'Barbarian Europe' section of the Sources page.)

6th century BC

The Helveconae probably belong to the Hallstatt culture of Celts, along with the Bebryces, Boii, Cotini, Harii, Helisii, Manimi, Naharvali, Osi, and at least some elements of the later Lugii. They are to be found around the central German lands, and in Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia, and the edges of Poland and Ukraine. Around this time a large-scale expansion begins that sees many Hallstatt Celts migrate outwards, towards northern Italy, Gaul, or Iberia. Many others remain, and control the region until pressure from newly-arriving Germanic tribes begins to erode their hold in the second and first centuries BC.

113 - 105 BC

A large-scale migration of Teutones and Cimbri passes through central Europe, and along the way it picks up Celto-Germanic Helvetii peoples who at this time are located in central Germany (in the later region of Franconia). Together this band enters southern Gaul and northern Italy, and comes up against the Roman republic. The resultant Cimbrian War sees initial Teuton and Cimbri success against tribes which are allied to Rome and a huge Roman army is destroyed at the Battle of Arausio in 105 BC.

The Teutones wandering in Gaul
An illustration depicting the Teutones wandering in Gaul, with their Cimbric and Helvetian allies close by, no doubt, as they approached northern Italy

102 - 101 BC

Consul Gaius Marius has been rebuilding the Roman forces while the Cimbri raid Iberia. Now the weakened Teutones are defeated and enslaved. The Cimbri are similarly destroyed at the Battle of Vercellae in 101 BC. It could be this event which sees the remainder of the Helvetii who had joined the migration settle in south-western Switzerland, dragged away from their earlier homeland which is still home to the Helveconae, possibly their former fellow tribesmen.

8 - 6 BC

Migrations of Marcomanni from the region of northern Bavaria and the River Main lead them to the homeland of the Boii in Bohemia. The Marcomanni leader, Marbod, forms a confederation of tribes which includes Langobards, Lugii, Marcomanni, and Semnones, and the Boii themselves. Possibly this also incorporates remnants of the alliances of Ariovistus of the Suevi in 58 BC. At this time the Lugii are probably contributing to the Przeworsk culture of central and southern Poland.

AD 23

The first historical mention of the Lugii is by Strabo, who seems to place them as members of a tribal federation which includes the Butones (a questionable name, perhaps a misspelling of Gutones), Mugilones, Semnones, Sibini and Zumi. There is no mention of the Harii, Helisii, Helveconae, Manimi, and Naharvali at this time.


Writing in AD 98, Tacitus mentions the Lugii. He is of the opinion that they are a federation of the smaller Gaulish tribes, the Harii, Helisii, Helveconae, Manimi, and Naharvali. Tacitus also mentions the Buri but not as members of the Lugii. The Helveconae are held to be one of the most powerful of the tribes in the federation

The three-headed representation of the Celtic god Lugus, discovered in Paris - Lugus was widely followed, by the Lugii tribe, and by Gauls in Scotland, Ireland, Iberia


Ptolemy breaks the Lugii down into Lugi Buri, Lugi Diduni, and Lugi Omani. It seems plausible that the Manimi of AD 98 have some relationship to the Omani, based on the similar names, but of the Harii, Helisii, Helveconae, Manimi, and Naharvali there is no sign once again. Have they been absorbed into the larger Lugii collective, or have they drifted off elsewhere, never to be recorded again by history?


By this time, the Suevi have formed a wide-ranging confederation of tribes that are all known individually but which are counted as being Suevi. The vast number of tribes included in the confederation include the Aestii, Angles, Aviones, Buri, Cotini, Eudoses, Gutones, Hermunduri (who have virtually ceased to exist as a recognisable independent people), Langobards, Lugii (a name applied to several tribes: the Harii, Helisii, Helveconae, Manimi, and Naharvali, although these are not mentioned at this time), Marcomanni, Marsigni, Naristi, Nuitones, Osi, Quadi, Reudigni, Semnones, Sitones, Suardones, Suiones (Swedes), and the Warini.