History Files


European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes




MapVellavi (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 Vellavi were a minor tribe that was located in the Auvergne in south-eastern Gaul, around Le Puy-en-Velay. They were neighboured to the north by the powerful Arverni, to the east by the Segusiavi, across the Alps to the south by the Helvii, to the south-west by the Ruteni, and to the west by the Cadurci.

Breaking down the tribe's name is a relatively simple process, but potentially a controversial one. It follows exactly the same lines as for the Continental Catalauni and their Insular Catuvellauni cousins, without the addition of the extra word 'cat' which means battle. Perceived conventional wisdom in regard to the main element in the Vellavi name, 'vel', is that it means 'leader', which means that the tribe would be something like 'the leaders'. A problem here is that it is in the German sequence, not the Celtic. In the latter language the modifier comes after the noun. If this tribe were Belgics, this could be due to heavy contact with the Germanic tribes of Scandinavia in the Iron Age, before the migration to Britain and the northern Atlantic coast of the Continent. However, like the Alpine Veragri, it's hard to see how this tribe might have picked up Germanic influences. The only easy answer is that they came from Germanic or Belgic tribes, most likely during the Cimbric migration of the late second century BC.

Another possibility with this tribe's name is that linguists are wrong about the meaning of 'vel', and that its original meaning is different. In Old English, 'wæl' means slaughter, carnage, a shambles. In Latin 'bello' means 'war' (conventional wisdom says that 'bello' is a mutated form of 'duello'). But perhaps 'vel' is a proto-Celtic-Italic word for a field of slaughter, also adopted into Germanic, or perhaps it came the opposite way, from Germanic into northern Gaulish (there's that potential Germanic influence again). Perhaps 'vel' or 'wal' means slaughter.

This examination of both names produces a suspicion that the 'vel' element could in fact be 'wallo' or 'wello', which is also the proto-Celtic noun for 'fight' or 'war' (or close to it), assuming that it is cognate in Latin as 'bell' (with the '-um' suffix from 'bellum' removed), and assuming that 'duell' (with the '-um' suffix again removed) is from 'duo' plus 'vell' or 'bell', meaning a fight between two parties. 'Vell' is a possibility because in Oscan (the language of the Opici and several other Iron Age Italic tribes), 'volloíom' means to destroy, which supports the supposition regarding 'vell'. In proto-Indo-European (PIE), *wal seems to mean 'strong', 'powerful'. This may have mutated into multiple extended meanings. This gives us yet another possible meaning for the Vellavi: 'battle' or perhaps '[the] battlers' - in other words 'fighters'. Was 'vell' extended in early Q-Celtic to reference war itself, as it comes down to us from Latin?

The tribe occupied territory around Le-Puy-en-Velay in the region of the Auvergne (which was on the border with the Roman province of Gallia Narbonensis. They had an oppidum at Roession (Ruessium, which means 'well situated'). Today this area is better known as Saint-Paulien. Julius Caesar notes that the Vellavi were a client tribe of their powerful neighbours, the Arverni. Strabo called them the Vellæi and stated that they were once a part of the Arverni, their greater neighbours to the west, but that they had since formed a people of their own. The fragmentation of the once great Celtic tribes was an ongoing process even in Caesar's time, it seems. Pliny describes the tribe as liberi, indicating that they enjoyed a number of freedoms under the Roman system of government. It's possible that their associations with the Arverni were severed in order to reduce that tribe's power, and that the Vellavi were rewarded for being cooperative.

(Information co-authored by Edward Dawson, and additional information from External Link: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars.)

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. His cavalry 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.

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

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 tose demanded from the tribes of Gaul are thirty-five thousand men from the Arverni in conjunction with the Cadurci, Eleuteti, Gabali, and Vellavi, who are accustomed to following Arverni commands. 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.