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European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes

 

 

 

MapHelvii / Elui (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 Helvii were a minor confederation that was located on the west bank of the Rhone, in the modern Lozère département of south-eastern France. They were neighboured across the Alps to the north by the Vellavi, to the east by the Allobroges, Segovellauni, and Caturiges, to the south along the banks of the Rhodanus (the modern River Rhine) by the Vocontii, to the south-west by the Volcae Arecomisci, and to the west by the Ruteni.

The Helvii were a polity rather than a tribe (and certainly not a sub-tribe, according to Julius Caesar). Also known as the Elui, their name is a little tricky to break down. The word *selwā means 'possessions' in conjectural proto-Celtic, and appears in at least two other tribal names - the Helvetii and the Helveconae. The 's' of 'selwa' would be pronounced as 'sh', and was reduced to an 'h'. It gives the sense that all three tribes were in some way known as 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 '-et' in Helvetii could be a diminutive, making them the 'little owners'. Although it would seem from this that the Helvii could once have been the dominant part of a greater confederation, they appear to have arrived at 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 Helvii polity was based in the southern area of the modern Ardeche, with a principal settlement at Alba (modern Aps until 1904, and now known as Alba-la-Romaine). Following the Roman campaign of 123-121 BC they formed the transition between Roman-controlled territory and the rest of Gaul. Apparently highly accepting of such a position (in all but one known instance), they became Romanised in name and probably benefited greatly from Roman imports. Once their important border status was ended by the conquest of the rest of Gaul, they largely passed out of the historical record, but continued to inhabit a rich and fertile region.

(Information co-authored by Edward Dawson, and additional information from External Links: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars, and the Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, J Pokorny.)

123 - 121 BC

The Allobroges come into direct conflict with Rome following the latter's defeat of the Salluvii. That tribe's king, Tuto-Motulus, flees northwards and seeks shelter with the Allobroges. They welcome him in, and when Rome demands that he is handed over, they refuse. Having declared war, Rome sends Quintus Fabius Maximus to attack them in 121 BC. He is the son of Quintus Fabius Maximus Aemilianus, consul of 145 BC, and is consul himself during this year. He campaigns in Gallia Transalpina (the modern Auvergne and Rhône-Alpes regions) with Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, fighting the Allobroges, Arverni, and Helvii. They are defeated and the consul is awarded the honour of a triumph which is famous for its spectacle, with the Arverni ruler, Bituitus, being displayed in his silver battle armour. The Ruteni, Segovellauni, Vocontii, and Volcae Arecomisci are subjugated at the same time.

Western Alps
The Celtic tribes of the Western Alps were relatively small and fairly fragmented, but they made up for that with a level of belligerence and fighting ability that often stunned their major opponents, including the Romans

83 BC

Unlike many of their Gaulish counterparts, the Helvii seem especially to welcome Rome, forming an alliance with what most other Celts view as invaders. A leader of the polity, Caburus, is now granted Roman citizenship by Gaius Valerius Flaccus, governor of Gaul. This is an extraordinarily rare honour at this point in time, suggesting that he has rendered some unique and invaluable service to Rome, possibly during the city's civil wars of this period.

fl 83 - 52 BC

Gaius Valerius Caburus

Magistrate and Roman citizen. Killed by the Gabali and Arverni?

80 - 72 BC

The Sertorian War in Hispania causes the Celts of Mediterranean Gaul to be subjected to troop levies and forced requisitions in order to support the military efforts of Metellus Pius, Pompeius, and other Roman commanders against the rebels. However, some Celtic polities, including, remarkably, the Helvii, support Sertorius and they pay the price for their support after his assassination. The Helvii and Volcae Arecomici are forced to cede a portion of their territory to the Greek city state of Messalina. Caesar mentions this land forfeiture but does not provide any details of the Helvii actions against Rome.

58 - 56 BC

Led by Caburus, the Helvii have formed an alliance with Rome. During the campaigns of Julius Caesar in Gaul, they supply auxiliaries to his forces. Caburus also supplies his sons, with Caius Valerius Donotaurus (Domnotaurus or Donnotarvos) being killed in action in 52 BC and Gaius Valerius Troucillas serving Julius Caesar as an aide-de-camp in a diplomatic capacity in 58 BC.

? - 52 BC

Caius Valerius Donotaurus

Son. 'Principle man of the state'. Killed in battle.

fl 58 BC

Troucillas / Procillus

Brother. ADC on Caesar's staff in 58 BC.

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. 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 again provide auxiliaries) to reach that of the Arverni, despite deep winter snows in the mountains.

The Gabali and the easternmost Arverni cantons are subsequently sent to fight the Helvii, and the Cadurci and Ruteni are told to lay waste the territories of the Volcae Arecomisci. The Helvii are defeated and their leaders slain, including Caius Valerius Donotaurus, the son of Caburus (and perhaps Caburus too, as he is not mentioned again in the historical record). The Allobroges manage to defend their frontiers successfully. Vercingetorix is eventually forced to withdraw in good order to Alesia, a major fort belonging to the Mandubii. Caesar begins a siege of the town, aiming on starving out the inhabitants.

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

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 eight thousand men each from the Helvii (despite the tribe's pro-Roman standing which has perhaps been terminated by the apparent death of its long-lived leader), Parisii, Pictones, and Turones. 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.

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.

40s BC

During the Roman civil wars of this decade, the Greek city state of Messalina elects to maintain its long-standing relationship with Pompeius even though it is isolated in this desire. The Celts of the Narbonensis continue to support Caesar in opposition. As a result, the Massalians are besieged and defeated by Caesar, and they lose their independence, and possibly also the Helvii land that they had formerly been granted.