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European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes

 

Allobroges (Gauls)

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, while also extending into Switzerland, northern Italy, and along the Danube (see feature link for a discussion of the origins of the Celtic name).

By the middle of the first century BC, the Allobroges were located in south-western France, between the Rhône and Lake Geneva on the modern Swiss border. Possibly one of the most powerful tribes of the Transalpina - if not the most powerful - they occupied what was known as the Dauphine region (the early medieval county of Albon), on the east (left) bank of the Rhône.

Today their territory comprises the departments of Isere, Drome, and Hautes-Alpes. They were neighboured to the north by the Ambarri, to the east by the Veragri and Ceutrones, to the south by the Tricastii, Segovellauni, and Vocontii, and to the west by the Vellavi and Segusiavi.

Also referred to as the Allobrogs or Allobriges, the tribe's name seems to mean 'foreigner'. That meaning is found in the proto-Celtic dictionary as: *allo-mor-ī meaning 'foreigners', and *allo-mrog-i- meaning 'foreigner'. A check on modern Welsh words gives the same meaning, with 'allfro' (pronounced allvro). The 'm' to 'v' shift is normal for spoken Celtic which underwent the change into Welsh, but it is certainly unusual to find it evident as early as the first century BC, and perhaps earlier.

French historian Xavier Delamare confirms the translation. He states that the core name, 'allbrog', derives from 'allo', meaning 'other' and 'brogi', meaning 'country', so that the tribe were the 'people from another country'.

Separated from the Helvetii to the north by the Rhône and Lake Geneva, like their powerful neighbours the Allobroges also seem to have been a warlike tribe. Their major settlement was Vienne on the left bank of the Rhône (not the one in the modern Poitou-Charentes region of France). It became wealthy, along with the tribe, thanks to their control of major Alpine passes and those which went through the Rhône valley which allowed them to dominate local trade routes.

In addition, they did very well from agriculture and stock-keeping, producing various types of cheese which were known even in Rome. They also controlled the local mines, providing copper and iron to Rome.

Ancient Britons

(Information by Peter Kessler, Edward Dawson, & Trish Wilson, with additional information from The La Tene Celtic Belgae Tribes in England: Y-Chromosome Haplogroup R-U152 - Hypothesis C, David K Faux, from A Genetic Signal of Central European Celtic Ancestry, David K Faux, from Celts and the Classical World, David Rankin, from The Civilisation of the East, Fritz Hommel (Translated by J H Loewe, Elibron Classic Series, 2005), from Europe Before History, Kristian Kristiansen, from The History of Rome, Volume 1, Titus Livius (translated by Rev Canon Roberts), from Les peuples préromains du Sud-Est de la Gaule: Étude de géographie historique, Guy Barruol (De Boccard, 1999), from Encyclopaedia Britannica (Eleventh Edition, Cambridge (England), 1910), from Encyclopaedia of the Roman Empire, Matthew Bunson (1994), and from External Links: Jones' Celtic Encyclopaedia, and The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars, and L'Arbre Celtique (The Celtic Tree, in French), and Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz or Dictionnaire Historique de la Suisse or Dizionario Storico dell Svizzera (in German, French, and Italian respectively).)

c.300 BC

By about this time the Allobroges have settled in the Alpes du Nord. Part of their territory becomes known as Sapaudia - in today's French this is 'les pays des sapins', or 'land of fir trees', which later becomes better known as Savoie (Savoy).

The tribe, though, appears to hold even more territory, which extends all the way to Lac Leman (Canton de Geneve in Switzerland). Their principal civitas is held to be today's Vienne (then Vienna) on the left bank of the Rhône about thirty-seven kilometres to the south of Lyon.

Western Alps
The Celtic tribes of the Western Alps were relatively small and fairly fragmented, but they made up for that with a level of belligerence and fighting ability which often stunned their major opponents, including the Romans

218 BC

Writing in the mid-second century BC, Polybius provides both the Allobroges and the Segovellauni with their first mention in history. The Allobroges are already established on the western side of the Alps and they control many of the important passes through the mountains.

They (and 'other tribes' which may include the Medulli) unsuccessfully attempt to resist the passage of Hannibal and his Carthaginian army which is on its way to attack Rome during the Second Punic War.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, it seems to be fellow Celts, the Boii, who first show the mountain passes to Hannibal, after the Segovellauni have escorted them through the Allobroges' lands. Tribal politics often means using your enemy's enemy to strike a blow against them.

123 - 121 BC

The Allobroges come into direct conflict with Rome following the latter's defeat of the Salluvii. That tribe's king, Tuto-Motulus, flees northwards and seeks shelter with the Allobroges. They welcome him in, and when Rome demands that he is handed over, they refuse.

Map of Alpine and Ligurian tribes, c.200-15 BC
This map shows the post-Celtic, but pre-Roman, occupancy of the Alps and surrounding regions (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Having declared war, Rome sends Quintus Fabius Maximus to attack them in 121 BC. He is the son of Quintus Fabius Maximus Aemilianus, consul of 145 BC, and is consul himself during this year. He campaigns in Gallia Transalpina (the modern Auvergne and Rhône-Alpes regions) with Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, fighting the Allobroges, Arverni, and Helvii.

They are defeated and the consul is awarded the honour of a triumph which is famous for its spectacle, with the Arverni ruler, Bituitus, being displayed in his silver battle armour. The Ruteni, Segovellauni, Vocontii, and Volcae Arecomisci are subjugated at the same time.

107 BC

During the Cimbrian War it is Consul Lucius Cassius Longinus who enters Gallia Narbonensis to oppose the Cimbri in defence of Rome's Allobroges allies. He is killed along with his lieutenant, Lucius Piso (grandfather of Lucius Calpurnius Piso, father-in-law to Julius Caesar), at the Battle of Burdigala, the chief town of the Bituriges Vivisci.

The victors are the Helvetii, who rout the Roman force under Cassius and force it to 'pass under the yoke' after it has surrendered the bulk of its supplies.

Map of European Tribes
This vast map covers just about all possible tribes which were documented in the first centuries BC and AD, mostly by the Romans and Greeks, and with an especial focus on 52 BC (click or tap on map to view at an intermediate size)

? - 65 BC

Catugnatus

Leader during the revolt. Seemingly escaped.

65 BC

The Allobroges revolt under the leadership of Catugnatus, and the Segovellauni may also be involved. However, the revolt is defeated in short order by Gaius Pomptinus at the Solonium (probably Soyons in the Département Ardeche, just the other side of the Rhône from the city of Valence (Ventia Valentia)).

It results in a good deal of the tribe's accumulated wealth being paid to Rome, so much so that by 63 BC tribal representatives visit Rome to plead their debt.

At the same time, Senator Catiline (Lucius Sergius Catilina) invites the Allobroges to join his conspiracy. Instead, they decline the offer and decide to expose it. This earns Rome's gratitude and the Allobroges remain allies thereafter.

58 BC

The Helvetti try to enter Gaul through the connection between their lands around Lake Geneva. They are blocked by Julius Caesar and his Allobroges allies and are refused access. He promises to oppose them if they force the issue, so the Helvetii test his claim by attempting to find a crossing point over the Rhône. Met by Roman defences and missiles, they give up on the attempt.

Battle of Bibracte Romans
The Roman troops of Julius Caesar prepare to face the Helvetii and their allies (which probably include some Boii elements) at the Battle of Bibracte in 58 BC, outside the oppidum of the Aeduii tribe

However, Julius Caesar cannot put up with the idea of having such a dangerous force of Celts occupying the more peaceful plains of Gaul, so he force-marches two new legions from Italy to face the threat, although the Ceutrones, Graioceli, and Caturiges attempt to block his passage through the Alps.

He passes through the territory of the Vocontii to enter that of the Allobroges and then the Segusiavi, collecting together six legions in total.

The subsequent Battle of Bibracte between Celts and Romans is a total victory for the latter. The Helvetii are mercilessly crushed and are forced back to their homeland. This act sets in motion a train of events which results in the eventual annexation of all of Gaul into the Roman state.

56 BC

Following his successful campaign against the Belgae in the previous year, Caesar heads for Italy. He sends Servius Galba ahead with the Twelfth Legion and part of the cavalry to secure the way. The pass through the Alps has been dominated by the Nantuates, Seduni, and Veragri tribes, making the route a dangerous one for Roman merchants, and now is the time to end that danger.

Galba conducts a few successful battles and storms several of their forts, until the tribes send embassies and hostages, and peace is concluded. The Celts rise up again within a few days and assemble in the mountains overlooking the valley.

Great St Bernard's Pass
The region around the Great St Bernard's Pass was a perfect mix of fertile plains and protective high mountains for small but aggressive Celtic tribes in the four centuries or so between their settlement of the area and domination by Rome

The legion, which is reduced in size after detachments have been made, appears vulnerable to the Celts, who are convinced that the Romans want to conquer all of Gaul. The Romans decide to defend their position, and are hard-pressed by the superior numbers attacking them, perhaps 30,000 in all.

The six hour battle ends when the exhausted Romans make a last-ditch sally which takes the Celts by surprise and inflicts heavy casualties on them, forcing them to withdraw. Having survived the onslaught the Romans withdraw in good order, heading westwards into the territory of the Allobroges where they settle into safer winter quarters.

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.

Labienus marches with four legions to the Parisii town of Lutetia. Gauls from the neighbouring states immediately gather to oppose him, under the leadership of the aged but still very wise Camulogenus of the Aulerci. Labienus pulls back to Melodunum of the Senones, takes the town by force, and marches again against Camulogenus.

Snettisham torcs c.100 BC
Celts in Britain and on continental Europe were well known for their ostentatious jewellery, with chieftains wearing thick gold torques like this example (front of picture)

The ensuing battle sees the Gauls defeated and Camulogenus killed. Labienus joins Caesar while Vercingetorix levies troops from the Aeduii and Segusiavi. These he places under the command of the brother of Eporedirix and orders them to attack the Allobroges.

The Gabali and the easternmost Arverni cantons are sent to fight the Helvii, and the Cadurci and Ruteni are told to lay waste the territories of the Volcae Arecomisci.

The Helvii are defeated and their leaders slain, including Caius Valerius Donotaurus, the son of Caburus. The Allobroges manage to defend their frontiers successfully, but Caesar finds that he is hard-pressed to counter Vercingetorix's superiority in cavalry.

He calls for cavalry and light infantry from the loyal German tribes (which undoubtedly includes the Ubii), and this helps him greatly in the battle which follows.

Vercingetorix, his cavalry routed in that battle, withdraws in good order to Alesia, a major fort belonging to the Mandubii. Despite sending a massive relief force, the Celts are unable to break the Roman siege on the town. Seeing that all is lost, Vercingetorix surrenders to Caesar.

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

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.

With this action, all of Gaul has been brought under Roman domination, and the history of its population of Celts and Aquitani is tied to that of the emerging Roman empire.

c.AD 100

By this time the wealth of the Allobroges has been restored, thanks to the collection of tolls from travellers who are using the mountain passes through the Alps.

This has resulted in their capital, Vienne, expanding so rapidly and grandly that Tacitus is able to describe it as an 'historic and imposing' city. Vienne becomes part of the Frankish kingdom of Provence in AD 855.

 
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