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European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes


Ambilici / Amblini (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 Ambilici or Amblini were located mainly in the Gailtal, the Gailtal Alps in western Carinthia, and the valley of the River Gail which runs parallel to the River Drau before actually joining it at Villach. This area is in southern Austria, across the joint border with Italy and Slovenia. They were neighboured to the north by the Ambidravi, to the east by the bulk of the Taurisci confederation, to the south by the Carni and Catubrini, and to the west by tribes of the Raeti.

Little is known about this tribe, but its name helps to confirm its location. As with the similar Ambarri, Ambisontes, and Ambitouti tribal names, the best explanation for the origin of the Ambilici name is that it breaks down into 'ambi', meaning 'both sides', and 'lic', plus the Latin plural '-i'. In other words, they lived on both sides of a river or valley which had a name which fell along the lines of 'Lic'. The prime candidate is the Licos (today's Gail). 'Amblini' would appear to be a contraction of 'Ambilici'.

They are also held to have settled in the Kanaltal (Val Canale in Italian) which separates the Carnic Alps from the Julian Alps and which forms something of triangle between Austria, Italy, and Slovenia. Their principal civitas was Gurina, at the foot of the Jauke, today part of the community of Dellach in Gailtal, about forty-five kilometres to the west of Villach, a location which still reveals evidence of earlier settlements.

At one time Gurina lay on the main route between the salt mines in the Noricum province of Salzburg (Hallein, Hallstatt) and those who were settled in northern Italy, such as the Veneti. If the Ambilici did control the Kanaltal region then they also controlled mining products which were moving from the Noricum into Italy.

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).

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.

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

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.

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).

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, while the Ambidravi settle on both sides of the River Drava to the south of them, with the Ambilici nearby.

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.

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)

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.

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 other tribes is now firmly tied to that of the empire.

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