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Roman Britain

Tribal Names: The Venicones

by Edward Dawson, 30 October 2010. Updated 14 April 2023

When Julius Caesar conquered Gaul he also had to subdue the seaborne tribe of the Veneti.

The Romans bragged that they got them all, killing or enslaving them. This seems to be a very convenient piece of self-serving propaganda, and one which has to be disbelieved.

A tribe which specialised in ocean travel and the use of boats would be difficult, if not impossible, to bottle up. A good many of them would have been able to slip away in the face of an attempted capture by the Romans.

Name construction

A few centuries later the geographer Ptolemy notes that the Venicones lived in north-eastern Britain (in the region of Fife and on both banks of the Tay to the north). He also noted a tribe called the Venicnii which was located in the north of Ireland (Donnegal). This is clearly the same name: 'Venic' plus '-on' or '-n'.

The use of '-ion' is still used as a plural by the Welsh, and the Venet groups would probably have used something similar, making the name 'Venet-on'. The reconstructed suffix '-on' is a plural and is also in genitive case (see the Checklist of Proto-Celtic Lexical Items in the sidebar). The genitive case is the icing on the cake because genitive here means 'having its origin in'. So the suffix '-on' with a tribal name indicates 'the ones (plural) having their origin in [placename]'.

The name 'Venicones' was pronounced 'Wen-ichones', most likely due to a shift in the language. In the case of this tribe, it is 'Venet' (the 't' becoming a 'ch') plus '-on' (plural genitive) plus the later addition of '-es', which is another (and seemingly unnecessary) plural suffix.

The Romans would probably have mispronounced it, and apparently also added their plural suffix to the already-present plural genitive, giving us 'Venicones'.


The Venicones were occupying the same region which the Romans needed to invade several times in order to quell attacks by Picts in the east of the Highlands, including from the 'Pictish navy' (see the Venicones list for more details in this regard).

A legionary fortress was built at Inchtuthill, Tayside (Pinnata Castra), which remained occupied during the late first century by the 20th Legion Valeria.

One has to suspect that the famed Pictish navy which gave the Romans some trouble was manned by people who traditionally hated Romans, as they went out of their way to attack Roman Britain. This and many other attacks seems to point towards a tribe of experienced seaborne warriors with the same name (given natural shifts in pronunciation) as the aforementioned earlier seaborne tribe in Armorica, the Veneti.

One could easily postulate that the survivors of the Roman conquest of the Veneti in Gaul climbed into their boats, sailed north, and settled in Fife and Donnegal. And the rebuilt tribe which occupied Fife continued the fight.

Once beaten in Fife by the renewed Roman attack on them, some of them apparently joined the Roman side. Much later - and presumably being descendants of the same people - they were later rewarded with the Deceangli/Gangani territory in what is now north-west Wales, which the new owners promptly named after their tribe ('Venedotia', modern Gwynedd).

Any of them which did not join the Romans and were not thereby enslaved were probably absorbed into the nearby unconquered Venicones area. This later went by the name of Verturiones (Fortriu), although the people here would likely have shared a common origin with the Venicones anyway (see the map below).

Map of Britain AD 80
A map of Britain of AD 80, showing the Roman occupation of Scotland's eastern shores and the British client states of what is now southern Scotland

Venet was probably pronounced 'Wened' by that time (AD 100-300) and, soon enough, due to the addition of a 'g', it settled into its modern spelling of Gwynedd.


  • circa 58-52 BC: Julius Caesar leads Roman legions into Gaul.
  • circa 56 BC: Caesar's fleet defeats the Veneti off the coast of what is now Brittany.
  • circa AD 80: Agricola marches legions north through Fife to the Firth of Tay. The inhabitants between Forth and Tay are the Venicones.
  • circa 390: At the request of local Roman government, possibly by Coel Hen (Old King Cole - see the 'Kings of Northern Britain'), a branch of Romanised Venicones (Veneti) move from Manau in the northern Gododdin (Votadini) kingdom, to the north and west coast of what is now Wales. The territory is given to them on the condition they expel the Irish (Scotti) and defend it.


Paul Johnstone's Sea-Craft of Prehistory involves a useful discussion of skin boats and leather sails. An interesting sidebar is the Veneti use of leather sails on their boats.

Julius Caesar remarked on the Veneti using leather sails, an odd practice from the viewpoint of anyone accustomed to Mediterranean ships. It indicates an origin for the Veneti which was far from civilisation and its woven sails. Such sails would easily have been encountered if the tribe had actually developed in situ in Armorica, because traders constantly sailed from the Mediterranean to nearby Dumnonia on Britain to purchase tin.

It also indicates an origin somewhere in which ships would be needed, either a shore or an island. This leaves us with the islands of Britain and Ireland, the shore of Gaul to the east of Britain, and the region of Scandinavia and the Baltic Sea.

These ships were wooden, so an origin in Ireland is doubtful. Their sails were leather, so an origin in Britain is doubtful. Scandinavia itself was inhabited by early Germanic and older Finnic tribes. This leaves us with the areas of the Belgae to the north of Gaul, the Jutland peninsula, and the southern/eastern shores of the Baltic (the likely origin point for the Belgae anyway).

Just such a boat seems to have been found at Bruges, Belgium, dated to the second or third century AD (see the Online Library). And from Bad Kreuznach, a mosaic showing such a boat is featured in figure 3 of an 'Archaeology Data Service' report (see link in the sidebar).

These craft are said to have sailed the Rhine. So how far east were wooden boats with leather sails used? Because...


There were Venedi in the Baltic, along the shore in the region of the Oder and Vistula rivers.

The name itself means 'white' in Common Gaulish. It is cognate to the English words 'white' and 'winter'. It may mean 'the winter people', or it may mean 'the blonds' (white hair). Perhaps it comes from an ancient leader or founder of the tribe who may have been blond and nicknamed 'White', but the name seems to be too prevalent for this, given that there was also an Adriatic Veneti.

One can envision a possible migration of Veneti from the Baltic coast by sea to Armorica. Then a flight of survivors from Armorica to Fife in Scotland and Donnegal in Ireland. Then Romanised Veneti of Fife move into western and northern Wales to found the kingdoms of Gwynedd and Ceredigion - quite a trail of semi-recorded migration!


Main Sources

Johnstone, Paul - The Sea-Craft of Prehistory, Routledge, 1989

A Checklist of Proto-Celtic Lexical Items - website

Archaeology Data Service - website

Online Library - website



Text copyright © Edward Dawson. An original feature for the History Files.