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Prehistoric Britain

What's in a Name - Catuvellauni

by Edward Dawson, Peter Kessler, & Rhys Saunders, 1 December 2019

By the time Rome was able to record the political situation in Britain during and after the second expedition by Julius Caesar in 54 BC, the Catuvellauni tribe was the dominant force in the south-east. It soon expanded that dominance to encompass much of the south.

The tribe's name is a fascinating one, but breaking it down is a long and complicated business, and one with no clear-cut outcome. In fact it seems to have at least four outcomes!

The straightforward explanation

The most likely explanation is perhaps the most straightforward one, as provided by Rhys Saunders.

The meaning here is derived from a study of modern Welsh, which is certainly a descendant of Common Celtic. The tribe's name can be broken up into 'cat', plus 'vel' and -auni'. That much at least is undisputed.

The first part, 'cat', means 'battle', while perceived conventional wisdom in regard to the second element, 'vel', is that it means 'leader', which would produce something like 'the battle leader'.

However, Rhys contends that it stems from the Gaulish word, 'wello', meaning 'excelling, better'. Note that the 'w' in Common Celtic acquired a 'g' in front of it in modern Welsh. The Welsh 'gwell' (adj & adv) means 'better', while 'gwella' [gwell-] (v) means 'improve, better, mend, rally, amend, reform, remedy, convalesce, ameliorate', and 'gwellwell' (adj) means 'better and better', all serving to support this interpretation.

So the tribe were probably something like '[those who are] excelling in battle'.

The second-favourite explanation

Edward Dawson admits that his supposition that the Common Celtic and Latin were close to each other could be subject to some debate, but it certainly provides an intriguing (and somewhat complicated) breakdown which should in this case be seen as the second favourite in terms of its likely accuracy.

The first element, 'cat', still means battle. This is universally accepted.

As for 'vel', Edward disputes its normal reading as 'leader'. The problem with the resultant 'battle leader' is that it is in the German sequence, not the Celtic. In the latter language the modifier comes after the noun.

As the Catuvellauni were possibly Belgic in origin rather than Gaulish or early Britons, this could be due to heavy contact with the Germanic tribes of Scandinavia in the Iron Age, prior to migration to Britain somewhere between the fifth to second centuries BC.

John Deare's invasion of Julius Caesar
John Deare's late eighteenth century sculpture shows Julius Caesar and his troops on their beachhead in Kent, desperately fighting off the Britons

Alani & Roxolani
Frey & Freya
Picts & Caledonia
Sakas & Scythians

The Belgae group would seem to have been an eastern or northern branch of Celts who moved west at a later stage (and possibly also further east, but that's another story). Their dialect probably used a 'b' or a 'v' sound where their cousins in Gaul used a 'w' sound, opening up different interpretations for their names.

An alternative 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'.

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. Perhaps 'Catuvel' means 'cat' or 'cad' (battle) plus 'vel' or 'wal' (slaughter). Similar complicated problems exist with an examination of the Belgic Veliocasses tribe on the Continent.

A third option

This examination leads back to 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).

This assumes 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 [1]

'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, *wal seems to mean 'strong, powerful'. This may have mutated into multiple extended meanings.

This gives us yet another possible meaning for the Catuvellauni: 'strong in battle' (or 'battle strong' in its Celtic word order). Was 'vell' extended in early Q-Celtic to reference war itself, as it comes down to us from Latin?

A (minor) fourth option

Last but not least is the headache-inducing possibility that two thousand years ago, 'wal-' meant 'leader', 'well-' meant both 'battle' and 'best', and the Celts, being Celts, punned freely among the three, 'leader battle, best'. The Catuvellauni could be any possible combination of 'the best battlers'.

Map of Britain AD 10
By the end of the first century BC and the start of the first century AD, British politics often came to the attention of Rome, and the borders of the tribal states of the south-east were pretty well known (click or tap on map to view full sized)

[1] Conventional wisdom says that 'duello' is a combination of 'bello' in its postulated older pronunciation of 'vello', with 'duo' meaning 'two', 'duo-bello', meaning 'two [men] fighting', which was contracted to 'duello'.

And possibly an older meaning

Assuming that 'battle leader' is the final definition of the Catuvellauni tribal name (which could also be used as a personal name in pre-Roman Britain: Catuvellanos; or in post-Roman Britain: Cadwallon) doesn't entirely satisfy, however.

It does indeed mean 'battle leader' in modern Welsh. but like so many technical words in Sanskrit (a related Indo-European language), it does not mean now what it meant back then.

The second element, 'vell/wall' is cognate with the Latin 'bell' (without the '-o' and '-um' suffixes) and means 'war, fighting'.

The first element may have been misunderstood when it is described as meaning 'to fight', which allowed the conclusion to be reached that it meant 'battle fighter'.

This may have been the wrong conclusion.

A good Latin dictionary showed cognates for 'cătus'. The declension of this word is telling: 1) knowing, clever, shrewd, wise, prudent, circumspect; 2) (sound) shrill or clear.

The first definition clears it up. From this it can easily be concluded that a 'catuvellanos' is someone who is smart in battle.

It is also easy to see how this could have been extended to mean 'battle leader', but in truth this was not just any battle leader, it was an excellent one - just the type of battle leader any tribe would be proud to follow.


Main Sources

Mackenzie, Donald Alexander - Ancient Man in Britain (Blackie & Son Ltd, 2014)

Mallory, JP & Adams, DQ (Eds) - Encyclopaedia of Indo-European Culture, 1997

Pokorny, J - Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, online database which updates Pokorny's Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch

Online Sources

Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples

Linguistics Research Center, University of Texas at Austin

Online Etymological Dictionary

Pokorny - Indo-European Etymological Dictionary



Images and text copyright © P L Kessler, Edward Dawson, & Rhys Saunders. An original feature for the History Files.