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European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes


MapAtuatuci / Aduatuci (Belgae)

FeatureIn general terms, the Romans coined the name 'Gaul' to describe the Celtic tribes of what is now central, northern, and eastern France. To the north of these were the tribes of the Belgae, divided from the Gauls by the rivers Marne and the Seine. By the middle of the first century BC, the Atuatuci were located in what is now central Belgium on the plain to the north of Namur and eastwards of Brussels. They were neighboured to their north by the Eburones, to the north-east by the Cugerni, to the east by the Tungri, to the south by the Caerosi and Condrosi, and to the west by the Nervii.

The Belgae would seem to be an eastern branch of Celts who migrated to the Atlantic coast some time after their Gaulish cousins had already established themselves to the south. Their dialect probably used a 'b' or a 'v' sound where their western cousins in Gaul used a 'w' sound, opening up different interpretations for their names. This tribe's name is formed of two elements, 'atua' or 'adua' and 'tuc'. The last element is probably a mention of the god Dagda ('dag'), which frequently crops up in tribal names. The first element is much tougher to understand. It may be an unknown Celtic word that is related to the Latin 'adduco' which means to lead, induce, persuade. Perhaps the tribe were led by Dagda, although this is a guess based on very flimsy evidence.

FeatureJulius Caesar stated that the Celts who lived nearest the Rhine waged continual war against the German tribes on the other side. However, Caesar also describes the Aduatuci as being Germans themselves, having descended from the Cimbri and Teutones. What he doesn't mention is that both the Cimbri and Teutones appear to have borne some elements of Celtic society, although they were primarily Germanic. This trait seems to have been common with all Germanic peoples in the Cimbric peninsula, with them straddling both definitions. The subject is discussed in greater detail in the accompanying feature. The Cimbri tribal name is wholly Celtic, and means 'compatriots' or 'companions' in the sense that they were people with a common background and heritage. So was the tribe itself really Celtic, or perhaps Germanic with a Celtic elite ruling it? Moreover were the Aduatuci at least as Celtic, or even more so, having been living for half a century in territory that was filled with Belgic tribes?

The tribe had an oppidum called Atuatuca (modern Tongeren in north-eastern Belgium), but they also possessed at least one fort. The location of this fort is not known for certain, but various candidates have been proposed over the years, including a previously-abandoned fort at Hastedon (modern St Servais, a little to the north of Namur), and a location to the south of modern Thuin in the Hainault region.

(Information by Peter Kessler and Edward Dawson, 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, and from External Link: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars.

113 - 109 BC

Teutobod and Boiorix lead a large-scale migration of Cimbri and Teutones from their homeland in what later becomes central and northern Denmark. Along the way they pick up Celto-Germanic Helvetii peoples (in territory that later becomes Franconia), but also drop off fragments such as the Atuatuci. Their passage sparks a partial tribal movement by elements of the Boii who invade the Norican region south of the Danube.

57 BC

The Belgae enter into a confederacy against the Romans in fear of Rome's eventual domination over them. They are also spurred on by Gauls who are unwilling to see Germanic tribes remaining on Gaulish territory and are unhappy about Roman troops wintering in Gaul. The Senones are asked by Julius Caesar to gain intelligence on the intentions of the Belgae, and they report that an army is being collected.

Caesar marches ahead of expectations and the Remi, on the Belgic border, instantly surrender, although their brethren, the Suessiones remain enthusiastic about the venture. The Bellovaci are the most powerful among the Belgae, but the confederation also includes the Ambiani, Atrebates, Atuatuci, Caerosi, Caleti, Condrusi, Eburones, Menapii, Morini, Nervii, Paemani, Veliocasses, and Viromandui, along with some unnamed Germans on the western side of the Rhine.

Battle of the Axona
The Battle of the (River) Axona (the modern Aisne in north-eastern France) witnessed the beginning of the end of the Belgic confederation against Rome

Caesar encourages his ally, Diviciacus of the Aeduii, to attack the Bellovaci and divert part of the Belgic forces. The remaining Belgae march against the Romans en masse, The Bellovaci are defeated at the Battle of the Axona, and the Suessiones are forced to surrender, as are the surviving Bellovaci and Ambiani. The Nervii, refusing any surrender, assemble with the Atrebates and Viromandui to offer battle. The Atuatuci are expected to join them, but the Nervii launch an early surprise attack at the Battle of the Sabis (probably the River Selle). The attack surprises the Romans, but they rally and turn potential defeat into a near-massacre of the Nervii.

The Atuatuci, who had been marching to the assistance of the Nervii, return home once they hear that they have missed the battle. They are attacked there by the Romans and are completely defeated. The region inhabited by the Atuatuci on the western side of the Rhine is left entirely depopulated when Caesar sells all surviving tribal members into slavery, which amounts to something like fifty-three thousand individuals. With this action, northern Gaul has been brought under Roman domination, while the victorious legions winter amongst the Andes, Carnutes, and Turones.

54 BC

The recent assassination of Tasgetius of the Carnutes, born of very high rank and a descendant of chiefs of the tribe, raises the fear in the Romans that the tribe will revolt. Lucius Plancus takes a legion to winter amongst them, but his investigations into the murder are interrupted. About fifteen days after the legions enter winter quarters, Ambiorix and Cativolcus of the Eburones instigate the revolt mentioned above, prompted primarily by pressure from their people. A legion under Quintus Titurius Sabinus and Lucius Aurunculeius Cotta is defeated, with both generals being killed and the survivors committing suicide in their fort to avoid capture. Only a few men escape to relate the news to Caesar. Ambiorix marches his cavalry to the Atuatuci, with the infantry following on. Despite what cannot have been more than a rag-tag guerrilla force of warriors after their complete dismemberment by the Romans in 57 BC, the Atuatuci are roused by tales of his victory and then so are the Nervii. Together they launch an attack on the legion of Cicero, razing much of his fort and hard-pressing the defenders.

Word of this reaches Marcus Crassus amongst the Bellovaci, just twenty-five miles away, and Caius Fabius also marches from the lands of the Morini, with both forces having to negotiate their way through the lands of the Atrebates along the way. Caesar arrives to relieve Cicero and is attacked by about 60,000 Gauls. Despite the massive disparity in numbers compared to Caesar's own 7,000, the Gauls are put to flight with great losses, although the Romans suffer casualties of ten per cent. This defeat must surely signal the end for what little remains of the Atuatuci.

South Limberg
The gentle rolling landscape of the Limberg region would have made idea pasture and farming land for the Belgic tribes, but its proximity to the Maas would have provided the woods and swamps which served as a refuge in times of need

53 BC

The Atuatuci are not mentioned again in history but, curiously, a tribe called the Tungri appear in this year, occupying very similar territory once they take over the land of the Eburones. Could they be formed of an amalgamation of the Atuatuci and Eburones survivors, both of whom have a Germanic element to their make-up, just like the Tungri? This becomes even more likely when it is remembered that the Tungri have a capital at Atuatuca (modern Tongeren), which is also attested as being the tribal centre of the Atuatuci.

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