Who were the Venedi?
by Edward Dawson & Peter Kessler, 22 March
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 that 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
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 that 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.
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)
What's in a Name - Frey & Freya
Indo-European Daughter Languages: Germanic
Tribal Warfare of the Gods
Origins of the Celtic Name
RULERS OF EUROPE:
Eastern (Vistula) Venedi
Western (Armorican) Veneti
Hudud al-'Alam, The Regions of the World
Proto-Celtic-English Worldlist (PDF, University of Wales)
The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars (Sacred Texts)
Problems in the taxonomy of the Uralic
languages... (dead link)
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
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 that is being followed here and throughout the History
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.
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).
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
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 that 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
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.
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 that 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
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
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 that 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 unorthodox examination - early-arriving
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 that 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
The unorthodox examination - Vistula
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 that 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
Slavs were never nomads anyway. Instead they specialised
in migrating a few miles 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 that 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
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).
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 Middle 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
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.
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the Modern World
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The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars
- via Sacred Texts
Images and text copyright © P L Kessler &
Edward Dawson. An original feature for the History Files.