History Files
 

 

European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes

 

 

 

Index of Celtic TribesMapVenelli / Unelli (Gauls)
Incorporating the Abrincatui

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 Venelli were located in Gaul in what is now the Cherbourg peninsula of north-western Normandy. They were neighboured to the east by the Lexovii, to the south by the Boiocasses, to the south-west across the Gulf of St-Malo (which contains the islands of Guernsey and Jersey) by the Redones, and across the English Channel by the Durotriges.

Julius Caesar referred to the tribe as the Unelli. The more commonly-used Venelli tribal name appears to be constructed of 'ven' (which was pronounced 'wen') plus a diminutive suffix, '-ellus', which was altered to '-elli' to make a plural. It seems highly likely that the 'ven' is derived from the proto-Celtic 'vindo', meaning 'white', and not from 'ven', meaning 'love'. So the tribal name would be 'the smaller group of the "Whites"', and certainly not the 'little lovers'!

Although there seems to be little concrete similarity in the construction of their names, the Venelli could have been related to the Veneti, the major seafaring nation on the Atlantic coast. Veneti ships were accustomed to cross the Channel to Britain in large numbers and they dominated the other peoples who were engaged in sea trade in the region.

The tribe occupied territory around Cotentin, with an oppidum at Cosedia (modern Coutances). Having seen the Belgae crushed by the might of Julius Caesar's legions in 57 BC, over the following winter the Armorican peoples presented a united front in the face of Roman foraging expeditions and the resultant revolt. Quintus Sabinus was sent with three legions to isolate the Venelli, Cariosvelites, and Lexovii, all of whom were led by a single chieftain named Viridovix. The three tribes were defeated by a mixture of Roman trickery and brutal exploitation of an advantage, and the revolt was crushed. The wider rebellion was also defeated, but only after some hard fighting and much Gaulish resistance. The Vanelli are also name-checked both by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History and by Ptolemy in his Geography.

A client tribe of the Venelli was the Abrincatui. They were a Late Hallstatt tribe that left their homeland to the south-east of Cologne on the River Abrinca (Vinxtbach) in the sixth or fifth century BC. They settled in Armorica, on the River See around modern Avranches, but were dominated by the Venelli until proper Roman occupation of the area began in 49 BC. The tribe's name breaks down into two parts - 'abro' and 'catu'. The last part, 'catu', is the familiar word used to mean 'fight/battle/war' that was also used in the Catuvellauni name (and others). The first part, 'abro', means 'very'. This is likely to have been the 'very warlike' tribe, or the 'very battlers' (ie. 'super warriors'), or something similar.

(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 Celtic Encyclopaedia, Harry Mountain, and from External Link: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars. Other major sources listed in the 'Barbarian Europe' section of the Sources page.)

fl 56 BC

Viridovix

Single ruler of the Cariosvelites, Lexovii, & Venelli.

57 BC

The Belgae enter into a confederacy against the Romans in fear of Rome's eventual domination over them. They are also spurred on by Gauls who are unwilling to see Germanic tribes remaining on Gaulish territory and are unhappy about Roman troops wintering in Gaul. The Senones are asked by Julius Caesar to gain intelligence on the intentions of the Belgae, and they report that an army is being collected. Caesar marches ahead of expectations and, in a single campaigning season, the Belgic tribes are defeated or surrender to Rome. According to Caesar, the Aulerci, Cariosvelites, Osismii, Redones, Sesuvii, Venelli, and Veneti, all of whom are located along the Atlantic coast, are subdued by the legion of Publius Licinius Crassus. With this action, northern Gaul has been brought under Roman domination.

56 BC

Following his successful campaign against the Belgae in the previous year, Caesar sets out for Illyricum. Once he has left, war flares up again, triggered by Publius Licinius Crassus and the Seventh Legion in the territory of the Andes. With supplies of corn running low, he sends scavenging parties into the territories of the Cariosvelites, Esubii, and the highly influential Veneti. The latter revolt against this infringement of their lands and possessions, and the neighbouring tribes rapidly follow their lead, including the Ambiliati, Diablintes, Lexovii, Menapii, Morini, Namniti, Nannetes, and Osismii. The Veneti also send for auxiliaries from their cousins in Britain. Julius Caesar rushes back to northern Gaul, to a fleet that is being prepared for him by the (Roman-led) Pictones and Santones on the River Loire. The Veneti and their allies fortify their towns, stock them with corn harvests from the surrounding countryside, and gather together as many ships as possible. Knowing that the overland passes are cut off by estuaries and that a seaward approach is highly difficult for their opponents, they plan to fight the Romans using their powerful navy in the shallows of the Loire.

Before engaging the Veneti, Caesar sends troops to the Remi, Treveri, and other Belgae to encourage them to keep to their allegiance with Rome and to hold the Rhine against possible incursions by Germans who may be planning to join the Veneti. This works, with even the previously militant Bellovaci remaining subdued during this revolt. Crassus is sent to Aquitania and Quintus Titurius Sabinus to the Cariosvelites, Lexovii and Venelli, to prevent them sending reinforcements to the Veneti. Sabinus finds that their single chieftain, Viridovix, has joined the revolt, along with the Aulerci and Sexovii, who have killed their magistrates for wanting to remain neutral. Sabinus remains in his well-fortified camp, resisting the taunts of the Venelli and their allies until they venture too far forwards, allowing a Roman sally across the defensive ditch and into the fleeing Celtic ranks. This area of the revolt is instantly extinguished.

Romans attack a Veneti vessel
Roman auxiliaries in the form of the Aeduii attack a Veneti vessel in Morbihan Bay on the French Atlantic coast during the campaign of 56 BC

The campaign by Caesar against the Veneti is protracted and takes place both on land and sea. Veneti strongholds, when threatened, are evacuated by sea and the Romans have to begin again. Eventually the Veneti fleet is cornered and defeated in Quiberon Bay by Legate Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus. The Veneti strongholds are stormed and much of the Veneti population is either captured and enslaved or butchered. The confederation is destroyed and Roman rule is firmly stamped upon the region.

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.

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. Demanded from the tribes of Gaul are six thousand men combined from the tribes of Armorica (including the Ambibari, Caleti, Cariosvelites, Lemovices, Osismii, Redones, Venelli, and Veneti). 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.

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

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.

AD 140 - 143

The Romans move north to the Forth-Clyde line, roughly the southern Pictish boundary, reoccupying British Lowland Scotland and beginning construction of the more basic Antonine Wall. It is around this time that the geographer, Ptolemy, notes the tribes to the north of the wall. Some of them receive their one and only mention in history and it is thought that at least one or two tribes may have been created by refugees fleeing the Roman invasion of the south.

The tribes mentioned include the Caereni, Caledonii (along either side of Loch Ness southwards from the Moray Firth to Ben Nevis), Carnonacae, Cornavii (possibly formed by members of the Cornovii tribe fleeing from the south), Creones, Decantae (on the western side of the mouth of the Moray Firth, possibly formed by fleeing Cantii), Epidii, Lugi, Smertae, Taexalli, Vacomagi (on the eastern side of the mouth of the Moray Firth), and Venicones (on the peninsula between the Firth of Tay and the Firth of Forth, possibly refugee Veneti from the Continent).