History Files

European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes


Ambidravi (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 Ambidravi were located on the north-eastern border of Italy where it meets modern central Austria. They were neighboured to the north by the Ambisontes, to the east by the bulk of the Taurisci confederation, to the south by the Ambilici, Carni and Catubrini, and to the west by tribes of the Raeti.

As with the similar Ambarri, Ambilici, Ambisontes, and Ambitouti tribal names, the best explanation for the origin of the Ambidravi name is that it breaks down into 'ambi', meaning 'both sides', and 'dravi'. In other words, they lived on both sides of a river which had a name which fell along the lines of 'Drava'. The only river with a name like this is the ancient Dravus which has its source in northern Italy and proceeds into modern Slovenia. This tribe seems to have made the river's headwaters its home.

Therefore settlers of the upper Drau (Drava valley), as their name implies, they occupied territory in today's upper Carinthia (Austria) between Oberdrauburg and Villach, and particularly around Spittal an der Drau. The tribe and its Ambisontes neighbours became clients or constituent parts of the Taurisci confederation which occupied territory between the southern edge of the Eastern Alps and the northern Adriatic.

They seem to have arrived earlier than the Taurisci, though, at least sometime in the fourth century BC, and possibly earlier if Livy's details about the Celtic invasion of Italy are correct.

The principal Ambidravi civitas is held to be Teurnia, today's St Peter in Holz, just a few miles to the north-west of Spittal an der Drau. This was close to the centre of the Taurisci mining operations which in part made them so wealthy.

They are also claimed to have had settlements in the nearby Molltal, at the southern end of the Gross-Glockner, and at Lieztal, Nockberge - part of the Gurktal Alps - and perhaps even as far as Lungaus which is in the modern province of Salzburg but is only about thirty-eight kilometres directly to the north of Spittal an der Drau.

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 Harleian Miscellany: A Collection of Scarce, Curious and Entertaining Tracts Volume 4, William Oldys & Thomas Park, from The Celtic Encyclopaedia, Harry Mountain, 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 The Natural History, Pliny the Elder (John Bostock, Ed), and On the Celtic Tribe of Taurisci, Mitka Guštin, 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.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. This event will reshape the Alpine populations into a pattern which is familiar to Romans of the first century BC.

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

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, probably as a result of the same apparent overpopulation which doubtless forces the start of migration into Iberia around a century earlier than this.

That overpopulation is very evident in Gaul, as this is the direction from which the Celts travel. Their advance into the Po Valley means confrontation with Etruscans who dwell between the Apennines and the Alps.

It also forces the Ligurians southwards, and the ancestors of the Lepontii northwards, while the Raeti also have to relocate, concentrating themselves in the Alps (according to Pliny the Elder).

Etruscan art
Early Etruscan civilisation was heavily influenced by the Phoenicians and Greeks and, in turn, it influenced early Roman (Latin) culture

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 which 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.

fl c.600 BC


Nephew of Ambigatus (Bituriges). Settled Carinthia & Styria.

Following divination by the druids, Segovesus heads into the Hercynian Forest, on the east bank of the Rhine (this forms the northern border of the lands known to the ancient writers of the Mediterranean, and the modern Black Forest forms its western part).

Map of Alpine and Ligurian tribes, c.200-15 BC
The origins of the Euganei, Ligurians, Raeti, Veneti, and Vindelici are confused and unclear, but in the last half of the first millennium BC they were gradually being Celticised or were combining multiple influences to create hybrid tribes (click or tap on map to view full sized)

He ends up leading his groups into Carinthia (now in southern Austria) to found the Ambisontes and Ambidravi tribes (and perhaps the Ambilici too). The Ambisontes develop a centre at Salzach (actually just north of Carinthia's modern regional border), while the Ambidravi settle on both sides of the River Drava to the south of the Ambisontes.

c.300 BC

By the Late Iron Age, the area between the southern edge of the Eastern Alps and the northern Adriatic has long been inhabited by diverse prehistoric populations, such as the Lepontii, Ligurians, and Raeti (and also apparently by the early Celtic arrivals mentioned above).

More newcomers arrive into the area around this time in the form of Celtic communities from north of the Danube, the heart of Celtic culture (possibly from so far north that the majority of them are in fact related to the Belgae). The presence of the Celts in this area is first noted by archaeology after 1829, when hoards of Celtic coins are discovered in the area of Celje, in Vrhnika, and in Šmarjeta.

The tribes concerned are determined by the historian Albert Muchar to be the Latovici, Serapili, Sereti, and Taurisci. This seems not to involve the Ambidravi and Ambisontes, presumably because they are already settled.

The modern southern Austrian region of Carinthia marked the upper edge of the Adriatic hinterland which was first occupied by Celts towards the end of the fourth century BC

In addition, their clearly Gaulish names marks them out from the other Taurisci confederation tribes, all of which bear names which could be Belgic. That confederation, the Taurisci, eventually comes to dominate the Ambidravi when the Noricum kingdom becomes an accepted regional reality.

25 - 15 BC

Augustus determines that the Alpine tribes need to be pacified in order to end their warlike behaviour, alternately attacking or extracting money from Romans who pass through the region, even when they have armies in tow.

The Alpine Wars sees the commanders of the recent Cantabrian Wars of Iberia (where they had fought against the Astures and Cantabri confederations) now in the Alps.

These commanders are Tiberius, his brother Drusus, and Publius Silius Nerva (Noricum) who, despite his cack-handed efforts in Iberia, has since become governor of Illyricum.

Carpetani warriors
This artist's impression depicts a selection of Carpetani warriors of Iberia in various designs of armour and costume, some bearing influences which are Carthaginian or Roman

Augustus wages a steady, determined campaign against the tribes, and in a period of ten years he 'pacifies the Alps all the way from the Adriatic to the Tyrrhenian seas' (written by Augustus himself).

The Salassi are the first to fall. Stage two occurs in the Noricum and Pannonia, although this has nothing to do with the Trumpilini, Camuni, Venostes, and Vennonetes who are the first to fall under the imperial heel during stage three.

The Ambisontes are included in this defeat after throwing in their lot with the Raeti and Vindelici, so the Ambidravi may also be associated with this defeat (although they are not mentioned).

When, in 16-15 BC, the Norican kingdom is subdued by Rome, at the hands of Drusus and Tiberius, the Ambidravi and Ambilici certainly are included. Given the fact that the Catubrini lie between Italy and these tribes, they should also be included in these defeats.

La Turbie and the Trophy of Augustus
The Tropaeum Alpium ('Trophy of the Alps') stands majestically in the commune of La Turbie on the French Riviera, overlooking the principality of Monaco, and marking the final victory over the Alpine tribes by Augustus

Later in the Augustinian period Roman weaponry, such as the short gladii and Wiesenau-type helmets, appear in the territory of the Taurisci. Their presence indicates that these Celts, especially those above Gorjanci, frequently opt to serve in Roman auxiliary units and preserve some rights in the middle and end of the first century BC and into the beginning of the first century AD.

The history of the Alpine region's population of Celts and the many other tribes is now firmly tied to that of the empire.

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