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European Kingdoms

Iberian Tribes


Astures (Hispano-Celts)

FeatureCeltic migration across Europe was a slow, constant process which took place over a millennium or so. Celtic tribes (see feature link) probably arrived in Iberia in two waves, the first traditionally placed around 900 BC. More recent thought tends to identify the early arrivals as Indo-European or proto-Celtic tribes (who would have been part of the Urnfield culture), and argues for a process of infiltration over an extended period, from around 1000 to 300 BC, rather than invasions.

The first arrivals appear to have established themselves in Catalonia, having probably entered via the eastern passages of the Pyrenees. Later groups (more identifiably Celtic and part of the Hallstatt expansion and migrations) ventured west through the Pyrenees to occupy the northern coast of the peninsula, and south beyond the Ebro and Duero basins as far as the Tagus valley.

The Astures were a mixed Hispano-Celtic tribal confederation which was located in the peninsula's north-west, on the northern Atlantic coast. This covered the post-Roman principality of Asturias, the province (and former kingdom) of Leon, the eastern parts of Lugo and Ourense, the northern part of Zamora, and the north-eastern tip of Trás os Montes in Portugal.

They were neighboured to the east by the Cantabri and Vaccaei, to the south by the Vettones and Lusitani, and to the west by the Gallaeci.

The Astures name is also recorded as Asturs and Astyrs. Breaking it down is absurdly simply. The Celtic dialect being used by the Astures was Q-Celtic (the earliest form), so its closest recorded affinities would be to Old Irish. In Old Irish the core word 'astur' refers to a journey, so the Astures were 'the travellers'. Perhaps this referred to the journey across the Pyrenees which had been undertaken by the dominant Celtic side of their mixed ancestry.

A cattle-raising people, the Astures were known for their horses and horse-riding. Their principal oppida were Lancia (today's Villasbariego in Leon), Asturica (now Astorga in Leon), Bergidum (Cacabelos, near Vilalfranca del Bierzo in Leon), Bedunia (Castro de Cebrones in Leon), Curunda (Castro de Avelas in Trás os Montes), and Nemetobriga (A Pobra de Trives), plus their religious centre of Ourense.

In common with others in this region of Spain, the Astures were heavily involved in Castro culture, and many of their sites have now been excavated. The best of these is El Castro de Coana, close to the coast and now a site of special interest.

The tribe's origins are unclear, but the usual mix for this part of Iberia is likely. Native Iberian Bell Beaker horizon folk would have been dominated by arriving bands of proto-Celts (Urnfield culture) and Hallstatt Celts and, perhaps even earlier than this, West Indo-European Proto-Italics, probably of the Bell Beaker culture. Modern scholars classify them similarly to their neighbours, the Gallaeci, making them Q-Celtic-speakers. While that language has been lost, many villages still bear Celtic names and many can be associated with Celtic deities such as Lugh.

Later on, the Romans catalogued them into two groups according to which side they occupied of the mountain range known as Picos de Europa. The Transmontani (including the Luggones) were 'beyond the mountains' from the Roman point of view, while the Cismontani (including the Superati, Susarri, Tiburi, and Zoelae) were on 'this side'. Following Roman conquest the latter were also referred to as the Astures Augustani.

Primarily they were hunter-gatherers, but archaeological evidence shows that they also were into stock-rearing, mostly involving sheep and goats, while on the lower slopes and valleys where the land was arable they grew cereals such as barley. They also bred horses which were known as the Asturcon, and this breed has survived.

Such was their limited potential to be agriculturally self-reliant, they frequently raided their better-off neighbours such as the Vaccaei, something which would finally lead to their undoing.

The ruins of Numantia in Iberia

(Information by Trish Wilson, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from The La Tene Celtic Belgae Tribes in England: Y-Chromosome Haplogroup R-U152 - Hypothesis C, David K Faux, from Spain: An Oxford Archaeological Guide, Roger Collins, from Los pueblos de la España antigua, Juan Santos Yanguas, from Culinaria Spain, Marion Trutter (Ed), from Cultural Atlas of Spain and Portugal, Mary Vincent & RA Stradling, from The Ancient Celts, Barry Cunliffe, from Celtic from the West - Chapter 9, John Koch, from Los Celtiberos, Alberto J Lorrio, from Lo que sabemos de la lucha de lenguas en la Peninisula Ibérica, Llorente Antonio Tovar, from Consideraciones sobre geografia e historia de la España Antigua, Llorente Antonio Tovar, from Los pueblos celtas del Noroeste de la Peninsula Iberica, Manuel Alberro, from Las Guerras Cantabras, Martin Almagro Gorbea et alli, and from External Links: E-Keltoi (digital magazine provided by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Center for Celtic Studies, using the following articles: The Celts in Portugal, Teresa Judice Gamito, and The Celts in Iberia - An Overview, Alberto J Lorrio & Gonzalo Ruiz Zapatero, and Oppida and Celtic Society in Western Spain, Jesus R Alvarez Sanchis, and also Celtic Elements in North Western Spain in pre-Roman times, Marco García Quintela), and Ethnology of the Iberian Peninsula c.200 BC, Fraga da Silva Luis, and The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars.)

c.700 BC

At the end of the Atlantic Bronze Age the second 'wave' of Celtic migration into Iberia begins. This is confusingly named, as it consists of 'first wave' Celts but also takes into account the proto-Celtic Urnfield migrations of around the beginning of the millennium which had supplied Iberia with its initial Celtiberian influx.

A similar migration into Iron Age Italy around a century later suggests large-scale overpopulation in southern Germany at this time.

The Pyrenees as seen from the national park on the French side of the border
The Pyrenees (as seen here from the national park on the French side of the border) has presented a considerable obstacle to many migrating groups and campaigning armies, but there are paths across it, as the proto-Celtic Urnfield people and their Hallstatt culture successors found

The migration into Iberia is not sudden, but is more a general progression of Hallstatt culture tribes arriving at the Pyrenees and forcing their way across. These Hallstatt Celts remain undisturbed by the later La Tène culture Celts until Iberia is conquered by Rome.

These arrivals venture west through the Pyrenees to occupy the northern coast of the peninsula, where the people they find and dominate are probably Iberian natives mixed with West Indo-Europeans who are of the dominant pre-Celtic Proto-Italic group. Forming the Astures confederation, they quickly join the prevailing Castro culture here.

221 - 219 BC

As Carthaginian dominance in areas of Iberia becomes more prominent, the Carpetani are amongst the first to be attacked by them, quite possibly using their Astures mercenaries in support (the first historical mention of the Astures). The Carthaginians are intent on securing their position, their dominance, and also their supply lines prior to campaigning into Italy.

Map of Iberian Tribes 300 BC
The Iberian peninsula prior to the Carthaginian invasion and partial conquest was a melange of different tribal influences (click or tap on map to view full sized)

However, Astures history during the subsequent Second Punic War is unknown, as is their part - if any - in the later Celtiberian Wars (181-179 BC and 154-151 BC), the Lusitanian War (155-139 BC), or the Sertorian War (80-72 BC). They are too far removed to enter notably into Roman records of wars in the east of Iberia.

36 - 31 BC

The Roman commanders in Iberia are Gaius Norbanus Flaccus, Lucius Marcus Phillipus, Appius Claudius Pulcher, and Gaius Calvisius Sabinus. Together they declare themselves to be the victors in the ongoing struggle for domination over the Astures, Cantabri, and Vaccaei. Despite the pronouncement, none of these tribes have been subdued.

29 BC

Cantabri raids have continued against their wealthier neighbours to the continued annoyance of the Roman authorities. Now, under the command of Corocotta, they also support the Vaccaei anti-Roman revolt of this year. This is enough for Rome, sparking the Cantabrian Wars.

29 - 27 BC

The Cantabrian Wars (29-19 BC, also referred to as the Cantabrian & Asturian Wars) see Rome attacking the final unconquered quarter of Iberia and its population of Cantabri (amongst others). The attempt under the overall command of Augustus takes a decade and involves at least fifty thousand Roman soldiers (eight legions, auxiliaries, and additions).

Caesar Augustus
During his long 'reign' as Rome's first citizen, Augustus brought peace to the city and oversaw its transition from failing republic to vigorous and expanding empire

The Romans find the task a formidable one, with both Astures and Cantabri possessing large numbers of castros (much of the modern research work on these castros has been undertaken by the Spanish historian and archaeologist, Eduardo Peralta Labrador).

They fight using guerrilla tactics and appear to prefer suicide to surrender, although mass executions also take place at Roman hands.

An early battle is important in terms of shaping how the war will be fought. In the Meseta North area the Romans are commanded by Titus Statilius Taurus. He is able to take control of Vaccaei territory while the Cantabri and Astures flee into the mountains to take refuge.

27 - 26 BC

Mounting pressure due to raids by the Astures and Cantabri finally force the Autrigones to seek an alliance with Rome. The tribe is aggregated into the new province of Hispania Tarraconensis (founded in 27 BC).

Astures warriors attack Romans
Astures warriors attack Roman troops in this modern illustration which also shows short trousers, an influence from the east, probably via Mesopotamia

Augustus takes personal command in 26 BC, determined to end the last areas of Iberian resistance, by the Cantabri and Astures. Such is the situation facing Augustus that he feels it necessary to bring in seven legions from Aquitania: I Augusta, II Augusta II, IV Macedonia, V Alaude, VI Victrix, IX Hispana, X Germina, and XX Valeria, along with a large number of auxiliary troops.

In the summer of that year, three legions under the command of Publius Carisius capture the Astures oppidum, Asturica, which Augustus renames Asturica Augusta.

Three legions are settled around the region to ensure its cooperation: V Aludae (settlement area unknown), VI Victrix in Asturica (the later Astorga of Leon), and X Gemina in Petavonium (today's Rosinos de Vidriales, Zamora). The Cantabri quickly plunder the Astures crops, causing the Romans to experience their own supply problems.

25 - 19 BC

In spring 25 BC the Astures revolt. The Romans are forewarned by the Brigaentin division of Astures and are able to repel the attack. The surviving Astures forces are able to join the Cantabri in the mountains.

Mountains of the Picos de Europa in Spain
The 'Picos de Europa' is the oldest and most spectacular national park in Spain, encompassing as it does a stretch of the Cantabrian mountain range which proved so important to the resistance effort against Rome

Towards the end of the year, after much hardship and loss on both sides, Legate Antistitius finally conquers the important civitas of Aracillum, following a battle inside the associated castro. Rome considers the campaign to be over but hostilities are resumed in 24 BC.

The finish comes in 19 BC, when the Romans are able to launch a seaborne assault from Gaul. The tribes are treated harshly, with forced deportations, burned crops, slaughtered cattle, and slavery being Rome's preferred options. Even so, rebellions continue until 16 BC and two entire legions have to be stationed there for a further seventy years to ensure the peace.

The Cilurnigos clan of the Astures later form the Ala II Asturum cavalry unit which is stationed at Chesters Roman Fort on Hadrian's Wall in Roman Britannia. The camp there is named Cilurnum after them. The Gigurri tribe provides manpower for the auxiliary cavalry unit which is labelled Ala I Gigurrorum. The Amaci tribal capital of Asturica Amak is renamed as Asturica Augusta.

AD 418 - 718

In the post-Roman period the Astures provide a great deal of trouble to Germanic invaders, the Suevi and Visigoths. The latter enforce their participation within their new kingdom but the Astures continue to rebel.

The fall of the Visigoth kingdom in AD 711-714 does not result in the fall of the Astures. Instead, they form their own Christian kingdom of Asturias in AD 718 and continue to fend off the latest round of invaders.

Map of the Visigoth & Suevi kingdoms in AD 470
In AD 469/470 the Visigoths expanded their kingdom to its largest extent, reaching Nantes in the north and Cadiz in the south (click or tap on map to view full sized)

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