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European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes


MapAmbarri (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. By the middle of the first century BC, the Ambarri were located along the River Saône (also known to the ancients as the Arar), a tributary of the Rhône, to the immediate north-west of Lake Geneva. They were neighboured to the north by the Sequani and Aeduii, to the east by the Helvetii, to the south by the Allobroges, and to the west by the Segusiavi.

The best explanation for the origin of the tribe's name is that it breaks down into 'ambi', meaning 'both sides', and 'arar'. In other words they lived on both sides of the River Arar (the Saône). The river's modern name descends from a river goddess who also gave her name to the nearby Sequani tribe. Similar 'both sides' tribal names are those of the Ambidravi, Ambilici, Ambisontes, and Ambitouti.

The Ambarri may have been a client tribe of the Aeduii or, according to one theory, one and the same as the Aeduii, the names being combined as Aeduii Ambarri. The latter theory gains weight when it is realised that the Ambarri were not counted as a client tribe of the Aeduii by Julius Caesar. Livy mentions them as part of the wave of Celts that entered northern Italy during the kingdom of Rome period. Those Ambarri were also alongside the Aeduii, further linking the two.

(Information by Peter Kessler and Edward Dawson, with additional information from The History of Rome, Volume 1, Titus Livius, translated by Rev Canon Roberts, 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, and from External Links: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars and Perseus Digital Library.)

c.600 BC

The first century BC writer, Livy (Titus Livius Patavinus), writes of an invasion into Italy of Celts during the reign of Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, king of Rome. As archaeology seems to point to a start date of around 500 BC for the beginning of a serious wave of Celtic incursions into Italy, this event has either been misremembered by later Romans or is an early precursor to the main wave of incursions. Livy writes that two centuries before major Celtic attacks take place against Etruscans and Romans in Italy, a first wave of invaders from Gaul fights many battles against the Etruscans who dwell between the Apennines and the Alps.

Gauls on expedition
An idealised illustration of Gauls on an expedition, from A Popular History of France From The Earliest Times Volume I by Francois Pierre Guillaume Guizot

At this time, the Bituriges are the supreme power amongst the Celts (who already occupy a third of the whole of Gaul). Livy understands that this tribe had formerly supplied the king for the whole Celtic race, either suggesting a previously more central governance of the Celts that is now beginning to fragment or the typical assumption that one powerful king rules an entire people. The prosperous and courageous, but now-elderly Ambigatus is the ruler of the Bituriges, and over-population means a division of its number is required. Ambigatus sends his sister's sons, Bellovesus and Segovesus, to settle new lands with enough men behind them to put down any opposition. Bellovesus heads towards Italy, inviting fellow settlers to join him from six tribes, the Aeduii, Ambarri, Arverni, Aulerci, Bituriges, Carnutes, and Senones.

1st century BC

By the beginning of the first century BC, and perhaps for an indeterminate period before it, the Aeduii are at the head of a tribal confederation that also includes the Ambarri, Aulerci, Bellovaci, Bituriges Cubi, Brannovices, Mandubii, Parisii, Segusiavi, and Senones. Against this confederation in the contest for supremacy in Gaul are the Arverni, to its immediate south, and the Sequani to its east.

Map of Gaul 100 BC
The Aeduii confederation is shown here, around 100 BC, with borders approximate and fairly conjectural, based on the locations of the tribes half a century later - it can be seen that the Aulerci at least migrate farther north-west during that time, although the remainder largely stay put (click or tap on map to view full sized)

58 BC

The Helvetii are ravaging southern Gaul and the Romans are preparing to face them in battle. Caught in the crossfire, the Ambarri and Allobroges call on Julius Caesar for aid as they have lost all their crops, towns have been laid waste, and their children have been carried off into slavery. Caesar realises that he has to push forward his plans for battle, and the resulting encounter at Bibracte sees the Helvetii mercilessly crushed by six Roman legions. Their shattered remnants are forced back to their homeland, setting in motion a train of events that will eventually result in all of Gaul being captured by Rome, and the history of its population of Celts being tied to that of the empire.

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