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Index of Celtic TribesMapHelvetii (Gauls)
Incorporating the Ambrones, Tigurini, Toutonoi, Toygeni, & Verbigeni

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. By the middle of the first century BC, the Helvetii were located in south-western Switzerland. They were neighboured to the north by the Latobrigi, to the north-east and east by the Brigantii and Vindelici, to the south by the Vennones (either a sub-division of the Vindelici or a tribe of the Raeti), and to the west by the Raurici.

The Helvetii name is a hard one to break down. The word *selwā means 'possessions' in conjectural proto-Celtic. Helvetii minus the suffix would be Helvet, while the similarly-named Helveconae or Helvecones minus two suffixes would be Helvec. The Helvii also use the same core word in their name. The 'c' or 't' on the end is harder to work out. Assuming a shift from 's' to 'h', for which there has been a precedent in Celtic, the acquisition of the 'c' could be reached, but it is a bit of a stretch of the imagination. If this is correct, however, then maybe the names of these two tribes in some sense meant the 'owners'. Given the similarity of the names for the Helvetii and Helveconae, they could well be branches of the same original tribe, despite the distance between them in the first century BC. The 't' and 'ch' difference in pronunciation is negligible and may be caused by little more than a question of which suffix they added to the end of it.  The Helvii could once also have been related, but they appear to have arrived at their second century BC homeland near the Alps at least a generation earlier than the Helvetii.

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 four pagi, or cantons, of the Helvetii have interesting names themselves. The Ambrones might be made up of 'ambi-', plus two plural suffixes, '-on' and '-es'. The name would roughly refer to being both sides or all sides of something, or in extended form would mean 'everywhere'. Or they may have been named after a river called the Ambri. In the proto-Celtic word list, *ambri- is a river name. Next, the Tigurini may have been absorbed by the Helvetii after breaking off from the Cimbri and Teutones in 107 BC. 'Tigur' appears to mean royal, plus a distorted '-on' suffix that appears as '-in', plus a Latin suffix '-i'. The proto-Celtic word list provides *tigern-āko-, meaning 'royal', and *tigern-atsu- (?), meaning 'kingdom', plus *tigerno-, meaning 'ruler'. So the name probably means 'the rulers'. This would be appropriate seeing as the Tigurini seem to have been a leading force in the Teutones migration, even managing to defeat a Roman force.

The Toutonoi/Toygeni/Tougeni name is fairly simple, with 'tout-' meaning 'tribe' or 'family' in Celtic (and this was also adopted into Germanic). The '-on' is a Celt/German plural suffix, and '-oi' is a Greek one. With Toygeni, the '-geni' is Latin for a clan or tribe (and possibly cognate with the Greek 'genes', meaning born or produced. Toy- is obscure, but to/tu is 'you' in Celtic, and the proto-Celtic word list indicates that 'towo' is 'your' (possessive case). Could this mean 'your tribe'? Given that, is the first part of 'Touton' the same word? Could 'touton' simply be 'yours' plus the plural suffix '-on'? It seems likely that a Greek writer translated 'Touton' into Greek and possibly Latin, so mangling it in the process. According to a good deal of debate since the twentieth century by experts on Swiss history, the Tougeni may be the remnants of the Teutones, whose mass migration in the late second century BC ended in disaster. Verbigeni shows the same 'geni' ending. The proto-Celtic word list mentions the first part, with a question mark: werbā- ?, so when looking for cognates in Latin the obvious comes up: 'verbum', meaning 'word'. This was 'the tribe of the word', although perhaps they extended the meaning, giving us 'the speakers' (the Lingones were another tribe of 'speakers').

Julius Caesar stated that the Celts who lived nearest the Rhine waged continual war against the German tribes on the other side. It was for this reason that the Helvetii surpassed the rest of the Gauls in valour, as they contended with the Germans in almost daily battles. Either they repelled the Germans from their own territories, or they themselves waged war on their frontiers. The tribe was considerably hemmed in by its location, with the Rhine frontier to the north, the Jura mountains separating them from the Sequani to the west, and Lake Geneva and the Rhone separating them from the Allobroges to the south, so they either had to fight, or migrate en masse. They tried the latter in 61 BC, but the Romans were already influential enough in Gaul to stop them.

(Additional information by Edward Dawson, from Strabo's Geography, H C Hamilton & W Falconer, and from External Links: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars, and United Nations of Roma Victrix, and also the Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, J Pokorny.)

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 territory that later becomes 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. Their passage also sparks a partial tribal movement by elements of the Boii who invade the Norican region south of the Danube.

The Teutones wandering in Gaul
An illustration depicting the Teutones wandering in Gaul, part of a large-scale migration from modern Denmark into northern Italy

fl 107 BC

Divicus

Leader of the Tigurine canton of Helvetii.

107 BC

During the Cimbrian War it is Consul Lucius Cassius Longinus who enters Gallia Narbonensis to oppose the Cimbri in defence of Rome's Allobroges allies. He is killed along with his lieutenant, Lucius Piso (grandfather of Lucius Calpurnius Piso, father-in-law to Julius Caesar), at the Battle of Burdigala, the chief town of the Bituriges Vivisci, and modern Bordeaux. The victors are the Helvetii, who rout the Roman force under Cassius and force it to 'pass under the yoke' after it has surrendered the bulk of its supplies.

The Helvetian canton responsible for the deed is the Tigurini, who are led by Divicus. They have only recently broken away from the main Cimbri group after following it for two years so that they can raid Roman territories on both banks of the Rhone. It is a fortunate coincidence that this is the canton that Caesar is first able to attack at the Battle of Bibracte in 58 BC. As such, they suffer the heaviest casualties of all the Helvetii, with the Tigurini being all but annihilated.

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 surviving Helvetii who had joined the migration from north of the Rhine now settle in south-western Switzerland. They have been dragged away from their earlier homeland which is still home to the Helveconae, who are possibly their former fellow tribesmen. It could also be this point at which the Tigurini are absorbed by the Helvetii, or join with them, having escaped the slaughter of the Cimbri.

? - 61 BC

Orgetorix

Died before the migration attempt.

61 BC

The Helvetii are coming under greater pressure from migrating Germanic tribes who have now arrived to their north and are occupying territory on the east bank of the Rhine. They plan to migrate into the lowlands to the west, but their proposed path will take them through the territory of the Aeduii, a Roman ally, and the tribes that lie in the way fear that the Helvetii will plunder and destroy as they go. Orgetorix dies before the planned exodus can go ahead, and a new chief is selected.

61 - 58 BC

Divico

Almost certainly not the Divicus as 109 BC. A son?

61 - 58 BC

Despite the death of Orgetorix, the Helvetii decide to go ahead with their planned exodus. Aquitania seems to be their target, where they hope to tie up with the Boii who have settled there, close to the Atlantic coast, although Julius Caesar understands their target to be the land of the Santones, a little to the north of the Boii. During a forced march from Italy, he recruits two new legions to face the threat, although the Ceutrones, Graioceli, and Caturiges attempt to block his passage through the Alps. As he passes through the territory of the Vocontii to enter that of the Allobroges and then the Segusiavi, groups from several local tribes are joining the Helvetii, including the Latobrigi, Raurici, and Tulingi, making them one of the largest and most powerful forces in all of Gaul. They also unite themselves to the Boii who have crossed the Rhine to assault the Taurisci.

As the Helvetii and their allies depart, they burn their villages and any food stocks that cannot be carried. The statement is clear - they do not intend to return. After some skirmishing, the Helvetii and the Romans face each other at the Battle of Bibracte in 58 BC, just outside the Aeduii oppidum of the same name. The Helvetii are mercilessly crushed by the six Roman legions. Perhaps two thirds of their number, men, women and children, are killed on the day, while another 20,000 are killed in the subsequent pursuit.

Battle of Bibracte Romans
The Roman troops of Julius Caesar prepare to face the Helvetii and their allies (which probably include some Boii elements) at the Battle of Bibracte in 58 BC, outside the oppidum of the Aeduii tribe

The shattered remnants of the Helvetii are forced back to their homeland, but having been greatly reduced, they will be unable to fight off Germanic incursions that could also threaten Gaul. Julius Caesar allows the relatively hospitable Boii to settle a buffer zone to the north of the Helvetii and east of the Aeduii, but even this shift leaves gaps for Germanic incursions, and one such incursion is already underway to the north. Caesar receives a federation of chiefs from tribes that include the Sequani, all of whom are suffering thanks to the Suebic invasion under Ariovistus. It is this campaign and its mixed outcome, despite victory in battle, that triggers Julius Caesar's campaigns in Gaul from this point onwards, which result in the eventual annexation of the entire land into the Roman state.

53 BC

As noted by Julius Caesar in his Gallic Wars, the Hercynian Forest (known to the Greeks as Orcynia) is home to a mixture of Germans and a once-powerful arm of the Volcae Tectosages. The forest lies 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). Its breadth is such that it takes a quick traveller nine days to cross it through uncertain paths, as there are no known roads. It begins at the frontiers of the Helvetii, Nemetes, and Raurici, and extends in a line along the River Danube to the territories of the Daci and the Anarti. From there its borders twist northwards into the vast lands that have not been charted by the Mediterranean cultures.

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.

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

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 ten thousand men each from the Bellovaci, Helvetii, Lemovices and Lingones. 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.

AD 68 - 69

With Nero's Rome slipping into chaos, Caius Julius Vindex, a governor in Gaul, launches a revolt with support from Servius Sulpicius Galba. Vindex soon finds that his levies are no match for legions sent from Germania Superior (IIII Macedonica, XXI Rapax, and XXII Primigenia), under the command of Lucius Verginius Rufus and supported by ever-reliable Gallic communities such as the Lingones. Nero loses control in Rome and commits suicide, ending the Julio-Claudian dynasty of emperors. The scene is set for the 'Year of Four Emperors'.

The Senate votes Galba into office as emperor at the same time as they declare Nero a public enemy. Suddenly the legions and Gaulish tribes who had supported the former regime by suppressing Vindex's revolt find themselves under suspicion. Supported by the Helvetii, Galba replaces their commander with Marcus Hordeonius Flaccus, which is interpreted as a sign of distrust. The legions in Gaul revolt, accepting as their emperor Aulus Vitellius, governor of Germania Inferior. When this news reaches Rome, Galba panics and announces the appointment of a successor. The result is that imperial guard assassinates Galba and replaces him with Marcus Salvius Otho.

69

Among the first measures to be enacted by Otho is to award Roman citizenship to all Lingones, hoping that they will abandon their alliance with Vitellius. Unfortunately, eight Batavian auxiliary units meet up with the legions of Vitellius in the country of the Lingones. On 16 April AD 69, the Vitellians defeat Otho's army near Cremona. Otho commits suicide and the Senate hastily sends its congratulations to Vitellius. The Helvetii are also crushed by the forces of Vitellius. The capital at Aventicum surrenders and the tribe is apparently only saved from being wiped out by the intervention of the Helvetian envoy to Vitellis, Claudius Cossos.

Celts
The Gaulish and Germanic Batavian revolt of AD 69-70 was a major contributor to the instability experienced in the Roman empire during the 'Year of Four Emperors'

406 - 409

The Burgundians cross the Rhine en masse and establish their own territory as a Roman allied state on land that had once been occupied by the Helvetii. Once there, they find groups of other Germanic people who have been settled on vacant lands by the Romans in the third century, including the Chamavi and other constituent elements of the Franks. The name of the Helvetii is preserved in the later native name for Switzerland, Helvetia.