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European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes


Ambisontes (Gauls / Celto-Raeti?)

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).

MapBy the middle of the first century BC, there existed a cluster of Celtic tribes along the eastern edges of the Alpine region of what is now eastern Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and western Austria (see map link for all tribal locations). This included the Ambisontes (or Ambisontii), a relatively minor tribe which was located in the Noricum, in the Salzkkammergut region of lakes and Alpine ranges on the northern side of the Grossglockner, near Salzburg.

This included today's district of Pinzgau (medieval Bisontia), Zell am See in the south-western province of Salzburg, and the upper reaches of the River Salzach. They were neighboured to the north by a pocket of the Alauni, to the north-east and east by the bulk of the Taurisci confederation, to the south by the Ambidravi, and to the west by the Vindelici and tribes of the Raeti.

The tribe's name is easy enough to break down. The first part, 'ambi-', is the same as for the Ambarri, Ambidravi, Ambilici, and Ambitouti - meaning 'both sides', probably of a river. The second part is 'sont-', which refers to the River Isontia, the name given to the upper reaches of the Salzach. So they were the tribe 'on both sides of the Isontia'.

The tribe and its Ambidravi neighbours were 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. That invasion was largely driven through the western Alps between Lake Constance and Nice, where their influence created Celto-Ligurian hybrid tribes out of the local Ligurians.

The Ambisontes appear to have been part of a similar build-up of Celts at the other end of the Alps. The location of the Ambisontes alongside the Raeti groups could have produced similar minor degrees of hybridisation as those seen in Celto-Ligurians, in theory producing Celto-Raeti elements, although nothing of this kind seems to have been notable enough to be recorded by ancient writers.

Their principal civitas has now been identified as the former Celtic settlement of Biberg (Kelbach), not far from Zell am See and part of the Saalfelden communities, with many of the archaeological finds being dated back to the third century BC. This wealth of finds provides evidence that the tribe did indeed have settlements in Hallein and Halstatt. This in turn suggests their territory also comprised Salzburg and the vicinity.

The Alps

(Information by Peter Kessler, Edward Dawson, & Trish Wilson, from The La Tene Celtic Belgae Tribes in England: Y-Chromosome Haplogroup R-U152 - Hypothesis C, David K Faux, 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 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 Cassius Dio, and from External Links: On the Celtic Tribe of Taurisci, Mitka Guštin, and Geography, Strabo (H C Hamilton & W Falconer, London, 1903, Perseus Online Edition), and The Natural History, Pliny the Elder (John Bostock, Ed), 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. 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.

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

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.

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.

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)

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).

He ends up leading his groups into Carinthia (now in southern Austria) to found the Ambisontes and Ambidravi tribes. The Ambisontes develop a centre on the River 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 older populations, such as the Raeti, Ligurians, and Veneti, with Celtic tribes to their north for the past three centuries.

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

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 Belgae).

The presence of the Celts in this area is first confirmed 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. In addition, their clearly Gaulish names marks them out from the other Taurisci confederation tribes, all of which bear names which could be Belgic.

c.60 - 40 BC

From the latter part of the first century BC and into the next century, various historians mention a variety of tribes and their affiliates which are uniformly identified as being Taurisci, together with a variety of other Cisalpine tribes which include the Norici and Iapydes (not all of which are Celtic in origin).

Ritually destroyed sword
The Taurisci burial site at Zvonimirovo lies midway between Zagreb and Osijek in modern Croatia, and has yielded artefacts which can be dated between the Middle Ages and the third century BC, including this ritually destroyed sword

Strabo mentions the Taurisci in his Natural History as being strictly Celtic, as does Livy writing the History of Rome around 10 BC. Pliny the Elder, writing his own Natural History in the mid-first century AD, does the same, along with Apian and Cassius Dio in the second and third centuries AD, saying that the Taurisci are a warrior-like tribe which often plunders Roman territory in the hinterlands of Tergestica (modern Trieste).

By this time, the Taurisci have picked up a good deal of local influence, partially from the Scordisci and partially from the remaining indigenous population.

The other tribes which are mentioned as individual groups of the Taurisci confederation include: the Carni, who occupy the Carnian Alps, on the edge of the south-eastern Alpine region; the Latovici between Krka and Sava; the Varciani along the Sava towards Sisak; the Serapili and Sereti along the River Drava on the edge of Pannonia; and the Iasi towards Varaždin.

Jakimovo treasure horde
A silver or gilt plate depicting a Scordisci chieftain, part of the Jakimovo horde discovered in north-western Bulgaria, dated to the second or first century BC

Ancient authors also list several smaller indigenous communities, such as the Illyrian Colapiani along the River Kolpa, the Celtic Ambisontes in the Soča Valley, the Subocrini around Razdrto, and the Rundicti in the Kras and Notranjska regions.

The Great Tauriscan tribal community with some identified smaller tribes (such as the Latovici) has never developed into a state formation, but it is becoming known collectively as the Norici.

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.

He wages a steady, determined campaign against them during the Alpine Wars, 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).

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

The Ambisontes are included in this defeat after throwing in their lot with the Raeti and Vindelici. Given the fact that the Catubrini lie between Italy and this tribe, they should also be included. Following this, the history of the Alpine region's population of Celts is tied to that of the empire.

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