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Barbarian Europe

Who were the Venedi?

by Edward Dawson & Peter Kessler, 22 March 2019

It is a truth universally acknowledged - or at least it should be - that if you place three academics in the same room, you'll get at least four opinions.

This certainly is true when it comes to the complex subject of the Belgae and, in particular, the Veneti or Venedi. The relationship between the two is uncertain and is often very murky in historical sources. It seems that no archaeological evidence exists to prove the Venedi/Belgae relationship one way or the other.

Despite - or probably because - the link cannot be archaeologically proven, several schools of thought exist when it comes to pinning down the Venedi and describing their perceived origins. Unfortunately, any origins which have been produced by these disparate schools of thought are largely exclusive of one another - they cannot be combined simply because the origin theories are mutually exclusive.

The main characters

In the first century BC the (western) Veneti in what is now Brittany (Armorica to the Romans) were the major seafaring nation on the Atlantic coast. Their ships were accustomed to crossing the Channel in large numbers to get to their cousins in Britain and they dominated the region's other groups where they were engaged in sea trade.

Following defeat by Rome, elements of the Veneti tribe may have fled to Britain and Ireland where they reformed by AD 140 as two tribes of Venicones, one in Pictland (northern Scotland) and the other in Donegal. The 'Venicones' name appears to be based on a core word, 'venet', which was mispronounced by the Romans who recorded it and was further degraded by them because they insisted on adding plural suffixes.

The Veneti tribe also appear to have had strong trading links with the Dumnonii tribe in Britain even before the Roman conquest. The relationship between the two seems to have been maintained during the Roman period, so much so that Dumnonian Britons felt free to migrate to Brittany from the fourth century onwards in order to escape instability in Britain.

The (eastern) Veneti or Venedi - the latter term, 'Venedi', is used here to provide a level of differentiation between them and the Veneti of Brittany - occupied areas of Eastern Europe. Today experts generally label them the Baltic or Vistula Venedi to provide even more clarity about which Veneti are being referenced. By the first century BC they were known to occupy a large if narrow swathe of territory which stretched from East Prussia to western Ukraine, largely following the east bank of the Vistula and generally sticking close to it and adjacent river valleys. Eventually they were submerged by later arrivals in several waves, including Germanics, Huns, Avars, Bulgars, and Slavs.

Map of Barbarian Europe 52 BC (Small)
This map shows the general locations of the Veneti and Venedi in Brittany and along the Vistula respectively (the latter in non-coloured territory), the general mass of Belgae in north-western Europe (between the Low Countries and northern France), the general mass of Celts between Britain and France in the west and Czechia and Poland in the east (all in blue), and the Germanic groups (in orange), plus Slavs and Finno-Ugrics in the east, all in the first century BC (click or tap on map to view full sized)

A third group, the Adriatic Veneti, occupied territory at the north-western end of the Adriatic Sea. Their name survived in the city and medieval state of Venice. The provenance of this group is much less certain. Were they Belgae? Were they Celts? Were they Italics? No one seems at all certain, although many theories exist.

Also included in the mix are the Celts (Gauls), a vast collection of tribes which, at their height, stretched from Britain and Gaul (France) to what is now Czechia and the northern reaches of the Balkans, and even to central Turkey. Until the first century BC, their northern neighbours, the Germanics, were largely confined to southern Scandinavia and the northern fringe of the Baltic coastline. Militarily the Celts and Germanics play little part in this examination, but culturally and linguistically they may have had a influence.

The 'other' main group is formed by the Belgae. Their origins are still under discussion today, but they have generally been classed as northern Celts. This northern bias gives them probable contact with the main body of Celts to the south and also the Germanics to the north, with both providing perceived influences.

If at all possible, the water is further muddied by the first century BC/AD presence of the Vindelici and Vennones in what is now Switzerland. The latter may either have been a sub-division of the former or a sub-tribe of the Raeti. Neither the Vindelici and Raeti were part of the Indo-European (IE) migration into Western Europe, seemingly predating the IE migration which brought the proto-Celts and proto-Italics into Central Europe - although later Celtic influence and cultural domination is likely, and this may be the source of the similarity in their names. They can largely be dismissed within the context of a discussion regarding the origins of the Venedi and their potential link to the Belgae.

These then are the main players in this area of discussion, and here is a broad recap of the three available views of just who were the Venedi. First is what is largely the mainstream view, followed by a fringe view which holds little water, let alone following, and then the slightly unorthodox but no less valid train of thought which is being followed here and throughout the History Files.

The mainstream view

There is a good deal of doubt and debate outside the classical academic view when it comes to pinning down the Belgae and also the Veneti/Venedi relationship to them. The mainstream view is followed by Piero Favero and many others, and reference to it can be found in a good many books, including several colourful, highly detailed editions published by Piero Favero himself.

In general, this view states that the Belgae were close allies of the Veneti and probably shared many common aspects but, in essence, they were two different groups.

Celtic Inscription

Stone RIG E-5 was found in Umbria in Italy, bearing an inscription both in Latin and Gaulish (using the Gallo-Etruscan alphabet), probably of the fourth or third centuries BC

The Belgae were Celtic and the Veneti probably not (although this is far from certain even within the mainstream view). The Veneti may have predated the arrival of the Belgae, migrating from the Lower Rhine in north-western Germany and the Low Countries to Brittany where they were found by the Romans as the powerful Veneti tribe. The Belgae were northern Celts who later followed the same path by settling in the Low Countries and then migrating westwards to Brittany and also south-eastern Britain.

In this view the Veneti migration probably took place around 1000 BC, during the Urnfield period. This places it in a similar timeframe to the earliest Celtic outwards migrations from their core homeland between Switzerland and Bavaria, mostly to Britain and Iberia, from about 1200 BC. This is well before the greater Celtic migration into Gaul (France) from about 750 BC, and also well before the Belgae migrations into Brittany and Britain from some point between the sixth and fourth centuries BC.

Strabo and Poseidonius describe in general the Armoricani (the people of Brittany) as belonging to the Belgae group. Julius Caesar names as Belgic about seventeen tribes, but the Veneti of Brittany - who were very well known to Caesar - were not on the list (a key finding for the mainstream view in differentiating them from the Belgae).

Romans attack a Veneti vessel
Roman auxiliaries in the form of the Aeduii on board a Gaulish-built ship attack a Veneti vessel in Morbihan Bay on the French Atlantic coast during the campaign of 56 BC (unfortnately showing oars being used by the Veneti - a clear mistake)


Something more than classical quotes is required, however, before any firm statement can be made about the origins of the Veneti in Brittany. Archaeological proof is needed.

The same is true when trying to show a link between the Veneti of Brittany and the Veneti/Venedi of the Baltic Coast and Vistula (the Vistula Venedi). If the affinity between Belgae and Brittany Veneti was as close as some think then this may well be impossible, because they would have been too similar to tell apart by means of archaeological findings alone.

However, the Veneti of Brittany had to be newcomers in the region, and examining this claim highlights differences between them and the Belgae in general. They were primarily a seaborne people. Most Belgae were land-based tribes with habits not too dissimilar from the Gauls.

The Veneti had not been in contact with any civilised nations for an extended period of time. Their sailing technology as reported by Julius Caesar confirms this. They used leather sails and did not use oars. The first fact is remarkable given the presence and availability of textiles in Gaul. Where did they come from to have a tradition of using leather sails and no oars? And to avoid inclusion in Caesar's classification of the Belgic tribes?

It has to be suspected that the Veneti were traders, sailing across the Baltic Sea from their home at the mouth of the Vistula. At some point they had developed their remarkable sailing technology to the extent that they could begin leaving the Baltic Sea to access the North Sea and English Channel, sailing down any large rivers they found to access trade markets.

Prior to the first century BC they either established a trading post in Brittany which turned into a colony, or was part of a division of the tribe and subsequent migration due to overpopulation - a common practice amongst all Celts. This then would account for their differences, and would certainly mark them out from both Gauls and Belgae in the region.

One may even argue that Germanic Scandinavians learned to go 'viking' from the Veneti. The original meaning of the term is to go trading; 'vik' is cognate to the Saxon 'wic' which often denotes a trading place in England.

Belgic settlement in, or migration across, Northern Europe almost certainly involved some of them entering the Cimbric peninsula where they interacted with early German tribes there, influencing them and being influenced by them

The problem becomes even greater when considering the Vistula Venedi. Much of the academic world has accepted the premise that the Vistula Venedi were Slavs, based on the earliest recorded contact with their language. This has been generated in part thanks to the understanding that references to the Venedi are in fact references to early Slavs.

This particular view may be aided by the fact that the modern Estonian and Finnish names for Russia are Venemaa and Venäjä respectively (using 'wend' or 'vend' as a basis), and Russia today is dominated by Slavs. However, it fails to take into account the lack of naval terminology in early Slav vocabulary - noted as being a landlocked agricultural people. How could a landlocked agricultural people also be the seafaring, river-dwelling Veneti of the Vistula? It also confuses early medieval Frankish references to 'Wenden' as being references to early Slavic groups.

The fringe view

This view is championed by Andres Paabo, amongst others no doubt. It states that the Belgae were a separate group entirely - not Celts at all, but seemingly not Germanics either. In fact it postulates that they were part of a Finnic linguistic group which somehow managed to achieve a degree of dominance in northern and Eastern Europe during the height of Celtic dominance further south, despite there being no sign that Finnic groups ever penetrated so far into Central Europe (Magyars of Hungary aside - a very different and much later migration).

The academic world has generally determined that the Venetic language was Indo-European, and therefore most probably Celtic or Germanic (or perhaps more realistically a combination of both) but, to contradict that acceptance, this view insists that scholarly interpretations of the language do not stand up to scientific standards.

The same view holds that the south-eastern Britain of the Belgae was not Celtic, insisting that place names in Britain as described by Ptolemy in the early Roman period show an easy translation via Finnic into simple descriptive terms. This point is easily dismissed. Any similarities between Indo-European languages and the origins of Finnic - the Uralics of the Ural Mountains - arose prior to the Indo-European migrations of the Yamnaya horizon from about 3500 BC.

Neolithic plague victim
The remains of a twenty year-old woman (Gokhem2) from around 3700 BC who was killed by the earliest-known plague pandemic which itself likely led to the decline of Neolithic societies in Europe - clearing the path for Indo-European ingress into Central Europe (click or tap on image to view full sized)

The pre-Indo-European (IE) and pre-Uralic groups either shared words, or used words which dated back to a shared 'Eurasiatic' language stock. Some loan words from IE to Uralic are known, primarily connected with horses once the IEs had adopted horse riding. Other, more basic words may be much older.

The precise method is unclear, but any sharing of words could easily have taken place during generations of contact between the two groups, and the majority of known share words are early, basic words which would have been prone to sharing anyway. None of them are later, more sophisticated words. Some common words are still very similar today, such as mama/ema (English/Estonian). The proto-Indo-European version of this word also exists in proposed proto-Celtic as *mammā-, while the Estonian form descends from the proposed proto-Uralic *emä.

The claim by the fringe view that the Belgae of Britain and Northern Europe were Finnic in origin can be dismissed as being fundamentally flawed. Even claims in support of it along the lines of the name 'Londinium' being at its core similar to 'Lund' in Scania (now southern Sweden) help to dismiss it. Scania was until the early modern period a Danish province and is now a Swedish one - both Indo-European groups via the Germanic branch - not Finnic at all.

Further claims that the Finno-Ugric Estonians of the Roman period were speaking the same language as the people of Britain can also be dismissed. Tacitus states the following:

...the Suebian Sea, which washes the country of the Aestii, who have the same customs and fashions as the Suebi, but a language more like the British

Tacitus clearly relied on second-hand information for this description of a far distant people. That information was relatively accurate in locating the Aestii but at some point in its relaying to Tacitus, the Aestii appear to have been confused for a neighbouring people who - importantly - spoke a language which was very similar to that of the Britons. This claim in fact aids the unorthodox examination below, but does nothing to help the fringe view.

River Belaia in the southern Urals
The ancient forest at the foot of the southern Ural Mountains would have emerged after the end of the most recent Ice Age - the River Belaia in the southern Urals is shown here - and soon provided a home to the foraging humans who became the proto-Uralics

The unorthodox examination - discounting the Adriatic Veneti

Firstly the Adriatic Veneti (the founders of the city of Venice) can be dealt with briefly and easily. They used a West-Indo-European (West IE) tongue which was related to Italic and Celtic. That made them a group which had probably formed as early as the Vistula Venedi, and well before the Armorican Veneti.

It seems highly unlikely that the Adriatic Veneti were directly related to the other groups. Instead they were most likely one of the splinter groups of the West IE migration which had formed in the heartland of that migration's eventual destination in northern Italy, Switzerland, and Bavaria. Quite probably they were an offshoot of the Italic branch which ventured into Italy in the late second millennium BC and early first.

The time frame is all-important. Around 2000 BC the proto-Celts on the northern edge of the general settlement area in Switzerland and Bavaria would have developed a northern dialect of their language, which is suggest as being Belgic. Between about 1000-500 BC, by which time the Celts were expanding outwards as part of the Urnfield and Hallstadt cultures, they would have been speaking common Celtic even if they did have an accent (probably no different from the norm than the difference between modern Londoners and the Geordies of Newcastle). Around 1000 BC the Celtic language would have been much closer to Italic, especially P-Italic, because the two groups seemingly divided no more than about five hundred years before this.

So the suggestion is that the Adriatic Veneti were an early colony or division of the main West IE group, probably before a perceivable difference emerged between Celtic and Italic. It's quite natural that they would have exhibited similarities to the Celts and Italics around them. Could they be counted as being Belgic? That would be highly speculative, but it's unlikely that they would have received the same influences as the Celts of Northern Europe, so it's equally unlikely that they would be speaking the same variant northern dialect as the Belgics. They may have been a variant group in their own right, but it wasn't the same one as the Belgics.

The unorthodox examination - early-arriving Italics?

In fact - although this may open up a separate can of worms - the names Venice, Vindelici, and Veneti may all still have a shared origin, but one which could be far earlier than many would like to accept (and which, of course, is entirely theoretical, being provided by linguistic evidence alone).

If those IEs who were entering Central Europe from the Pontic steppe contained a large central component which used some form of the 'vend/vened' name, then it could have been spread by early migratory streams heading into Switzerland and Venice - and possibly even along the Vistula to form the early Belgae - prior to a postulated migration by a far bigger West IE group which would later become the Celts.

That's two West IE migrations into Central Europe, not one. Remember 'can of worms'!

The first wave could have been the ancestors of the Italics, while the bigger, second wave could have been the ancestors of the Celts. This could mean that the Venedi/Veneti were not Celts, strictly speaking, but instead had closer initial linguistic and cultural ties to the Italics and Illyrians (another division of the West IE migratory stream).

Even without the 'can of worms', if the Vistula Venedi left one or other of these migratory waves to head north along the Vistula then their split away from it would have been early. The differences in their language from Italic or Celtic would have had plenty of time to materialise.

If the Veneti of Armorica were indeed descended from the Vistula Venedi then this would also explain why Caesar did not name them as Belgae - they were a different branch of West IEs whio either spoke a different dialect of Celtic/Italic or who had a differentiated culture.

This particular theory presupposes that the Veneti and the Belgae were indeed not the same - being eastern Italics/Celts and northern Celts respectively, with different divergence dates and different language influences and evolutions.

Many Belgic groups showed marked Germanic influences, so were they Celts with German words and warriors, or Germans with Celtic words and warriors? The truth probably lies somewhere in between

The unorthodox examination - Vistula Venedi

Despite all the theorising, great problems exist when trying to identify the Vistula Venedi. As can be seen, much of the academic world has accepted the premise that they were Slavs, based on the earliest recorded contact with their language. But that contact was quite late and can be explained as the Wends (the Germanic name for the Vistula Venedi, pronounced with a 'v') adopting the Slavic of the culture which was now dominating them (around five or six hundred years after the period in which Tacitus was writing).

Those same Wends who were based in eastern Germany (especially along the Pomeranian coast) are right now speaking German for the same reason.

It seems unlikely that, two thousand years ago, the Slavs had made it even as far west as Minsk. Their early migrations seem not to have taken place until after the Great Migrations of the third to fifth centuries AD. Therefore they could be nowhere near the Vistula and cannot have been the Venedi who were well attested at this time.

Slavs were never nomads anyway. Instead they specialised in migrating a few kilometres at a time on foot, until they were used as frontier garrisons by nomads (Huns, Avars, Khazars, and the like) and learned to move long distances. They also had none of the maritime vocabulary which would have been possessed by a folk living along a mighty river such as the Vistula, and did not even have a word for amber, the chief export of the Baltic tribes to the Romans, probably via the Vistula Venedi. In fact a Baltic influence on the Vistula Venedi would be much more likely, but it would have been a non-aggressive, non-domineering influence from these relatively peaceful people.

So the clear likelihood is that the Vistula Venedi had some form of proto-Celto-Italic origin. Unfortunately we have no way ever of knowing exactly what the Vistula Venedi spoke. They left no written records. Their language is not like Latin or Greek for which we have thousands of pages of each to reference.

So what do we know? We know their name Venedi means 'white', from an Indo-European root. We know that the language closest to this in terms of the use of 'venedi' was Celtic. We know that they were not the same as Belgae (northern Celts), thanks to the Veneti of Armorica. We know they were out on the edge of Celtic territory, to the east of what the Romans called Germania (Germania ended at the west bank of the Vistula, with the east bank onwards being part of Scythia).

Amber beads
The amber trade of which the Balts were the masters meant that amber beads would ends up in all sorts of places after travelling through the trade network (which meant using the Vistula Venedi while they were masters of the river) - these beads ended up in the Near East

That point alone makes questionable any expectation of their dialect matching the Celtic of Gaul, as proposed by the mainstream view. But it wouldn't be too far different if it were Belgic - the two dialects were obviously mutually intelligible. In support is Tacitus' claim that the occupants of the eastern side of the Vistula, near the river's mouth into the Baltic Sea, spoke a language very much like that of the Britons. From this - if it was correct - it can be seen that the language of the Vistula Venedi certainly had a bias towards Celtic, and there is a good chance that it was not exactly the same Celtic as spoken in most of Gaul.

What should it be called then? Let's call it 'Eastern Belgic'. This is perfectly reasonable - the Celtic of Iberia didn't sound like the Celtic of Gaul, which was itself different from the Celtic of the Belgae. It would be reasonable to postulate yet another dialect due to the distances involved: Vistula Celtic, perhaps, but the argument is probably complicated enough without introducing another new name into the mix.

So the dialect of the Vistula Venedi is postulated to be Belgic or similar (but not quite the same), but still mutually intelligible to other Celts, just like the Belgic of Brittany and the Low Countries was to the Celts of Gaul. Very similar differences can be seen today in British and US English. A lorry in the UK is a truck in the US. Not too much needs to be made of such minor differences.

Ultimately the precise meaning of 'Belgic' depends upon one's definition. Caesar's definition is not necessarily being used here, although it is highly useful, but that of Tacitus is, albeit perhaps not in quite the sense he meant. But it is the conventional word used for a certain group for which we are attempting to expand the definition.

Finally, perhaps we should abandon the poor Belgae (in the west) to their fate and change the definition of the Veneti from Belgic to Baltic? Would a new definition make everyone any happier? Probably not, so the Vistula Venedi remain an enigma - Belgae to some, Slavs to others, and even Finns in one view.

In all probability, though, they were eastern Celts who themselves gave rise to the Veneti who migrated from the mouth of the Vistula to Brittany. Perhaps they were the same as (or at least similar to) the northern Celts of what is now northern Germany, perhaps they were not.

It seems more likely that the Belgae were themselves northern Celts rather than eastern Celts. But the Vistula-dwelling descendants of the eastern Celts retained their independence after the greater mass of Gauls and Belgae had fallen under Roman domination in the first century BC, and then later themselves fell under the domination of various groups.

The first of these would have been Germanic (notably the Bastarnae, despite their being more Celto-Germanic, and then also the Goths) in the first century AD, and then Slavs and Turks from the fifth century AD onwards. The Goths would probably have forced the Venedi to become Germanic-speakers. The result would have been that the language of the Venedi - the Wends of later chroniclers - went from Celtic to Germanic to Slavic.


Main Sources

Faux, David K - The La Tene Celtic Belgae Tribes in England: Y-Chromosome Haplogroup R-U152 - Hypothesis C

Jordanes - Getica

Kiaupa, Zigmantas, with Ain Mäesalu, Ago Pajur, and Gvido Straube (Eds) - The History of the Baltic Countries, AS Bit, Estonia, 2008

Sophoulis, Panos - Byzantium and Bulgaria, 775-831

Friis-Jensen, Karsten, with Peter Fisher (Ed & Trans) - Gesta Danorum: The History of the Danes

Anthony, David W - The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World

Häkkinen, Jaakko - Early Contacts between Uralic and Yukaghir, 2012

Häkkinen, Jaakko - Uralic Evidence for the Indo-European Homeland, 2012

Paabo, Andres - Email discussions during 2017

Mallory, J P, with D Q Adams (Eds) - Encyclopaedia of Indo-European Culture, 1997

Leskov, Nikolaĭ Semenovich - On the Edge of the World

Online Sources

Hudud al-'Alam, The Regions of the World

Problems in the taxonomy of the Uralic languages in light of modern comparative studies, Tapani Salminen, 2002

Proto-Celtic-English Wordlist (PDF, available from the University of Wales)

The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars - via Sacred Texts

The Proto-Bulgars



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