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European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes


Belgae / 'Third Wave' Celts (Belgic-Speakers) (Europe)
6th Century BC? - 1st Century BC

FeatureThe system which has evolved to catalogue the various archaeological expressions of human progress is one which involves cultures. For well over a century, archaeological cultures have remained the framework for global prehistory. The earliest cultures which emerge from Africa and the Near East are perhaps the easiest to catalogue, right up until human expansion reaches the Americas. The task of cataloguing that vast range of human cultures is covered in the related feature (see feature link, right).

IndexIt seems highly likely from detailed analysis that the first wave of Indo-European-speaking peoples to arrive in Western Europe were members of the West Indo-European proto-Italic branch. They displaced - and more often incorporated - early inhabitants who appear physically to have been Mediterranean prehistoric folk who spoke non-Indo-European languages from the Dene-Caucasian language group (see index link for a list of early cultures).

Into this mix was added the proto-Celtic Urnfield culture which greatly expanded Indo-European influence across many regions of Europe which previously had been populated entirely by indigenous Mesolithic or later-arriving Neolithic groups. The Urnfield was directly succeeded by the Hallstatt culture, the first truly Celtic culture.

This expanded outwards to fill much of the territory between modern France and Hungary, ancient Iberia, Germania, and Bohemia, and ancient Britain and the Anatolia of the Galatians. This expansion continued for about four hundred years before it expended itself, but it was immediately succeeded by its own offspring, the 'second wave' La Tène culture.

The 'third wave' of Celts appears to have been formed of tribes which were seaborne and which lived along the North Atlantic and/or Baltic coastlines. Known as Belgae, they would seem to have been a branch of Celts who established themselves in Northern Europe, although precisely where is entirely open to speculation (not to mention some heated debate).

The available evidence suggests a general settlement of areas of northern Germany and perhaps also the northern Poland of the Oxhöft culture. This break from the main body of proto-Celts could have happened at any time between its first arrival in Central Europe - long prior to the twelfth century BC's Urnfield culture - and the height of the Hallstatt.

The differences in dialect between the Belgic and La Tène Celts highlights the break, although perhaps it suggests a shorter break than may be indicated by the time periods shown above. The Belgic dialect probably used a 'b' or a 'v' sound where their southern/western cousins in Gaul used a 'w' sound, opening up different interpretations for their names.

It is doubtful that all Belgae used the same dialect. Some may have used pure Celtic, some Celtic mixed with various Germanic, Neolithic, or even Finnic influences. This alone suggests a wide ranging settlement across Northern Europe, and possibly not even a permanent one. Julius Caesar and other ancient authors certainly saw Germanic elements in many of them, but also affiliations to the Gauls. Those Belgae who were closer to the Rhine would have been less influenced by proto-Germanic tribes than were those who may have been in modern Denmark or along the southern Baltic coast.

For whatever reason, whether it was due to population pressures or movements (the early Germanic tribes being a favourite here as they soon started expanding into Northern Europe themselves), or to climate change, they began to leave (or simply to continue their migratory pattern).

Many migrated west after their La Tène cousins had already established themselves in Gaul, probably following the coastline as they went. Others may to have headed into Eastern Europe, doubtless following the Baltic coastline (and a theorised number of them may even have headed southwards to become the Taurisci).

The western group arrived in the Low Countries and northern Gaul in the fourth and third centuries BC, although their initial arrival probably took place in the late fifth century. Some of these may not even have travelled beyond the Rhine, remaining in Northern Europe to be progressively Germanised, such as (possibly) the Sicambri and the Semnones. Belgae also landed on the east coast of Britain from about the fourth century BC (or perhaps a little later - providing an exact date is impossible), these groups obviously splitting away from the rest as they reached the Atlantic.

These British Belgae slowly infiltrated the south-east of the country so that, by the first century BC, they had formed the Belgae, Cantii, Catuvellauni, Iceni, Parisi, and Trinovantes. The eastern group most likely reached the mouth of the Vistula where it founded permanent settlements along the river's east bank, in what the Romans thought of as Sarmatia (with Germania to the west). It is highly possible that they either became a people who were later known as the Vistula Venedi, or intermixed with them to strengthen their population.

FeatureTheoretically speaking, the migration away from Northern Europe may also have deposited Belgae across Germany, Bohemia, Moravia, and Poland to emerge as the Boii and other similar Central European Celtic tribes. Indeed, it may be the case that the Belgic dialect was simply the Celtic dialect to the east of Gaul and the Rhine - a general 'eastern Celtic' (although the term 'Eastern Celts' does itself tend to be used for groups which were located to the east of Bohemia and which are generally lumped in with the Vistula Venedi - see feature link, right).

When it comes to determining the meaning of the name 'Belgae', Pokorny gives these roots in Gaulish from a proto-Indo-European base, with the latter's 'bhelg̑h-' and 'bhelg̑h-' descending into Gaulish as 'bolg-' and 'bulga'. The first of these, 'Bhelg̑h-', means to 'swell up'. But the crucial word from this root does not seem to come from Gaulish.

Instead it seems to stem from the Anglo-Saxon verb, 'belgan', meaning 'to swell up, or be angry'. This supports the contention that the Belgae were a Celtic-Germanic mix. The Irish description of Cucullaine when his madness is on him comes to mind, swelling up with rage, transforming from a normal man to a monster (apparently borrowed from the Irish for use as the Incredible Hulk!).

However, given the consonant shift proposed above, then 'Belgae' would indicate that its 'b' replaced an older (?) form of a 'w' sound. This supplies 'Welgae' as a possible older form of the name, and rather astonishingly that 'wel-' sounds incredibly similar to the name German-speakers used to describe Celts!

So the possibility is raised that the original ethnic name was 'Wel' and, while the Belgae were in northern Central Europe, this mutated into 'vel' and then 'bel', while in the west and south the 'w' of 'wel' acquired a hard 'k' or 'g' in front of it to form 'kwel' or 'gwel', therefore giving rise to words such as 'celtae' and 'galati' (Galatians).

The name 'Belgae', minus the Latin plural suffix, is 'belg'. If Belgic speech hardened a 'w' sound then 'belg' would have been 'welg'. The 'g' on the end may simply be an '-ig' suffix which is still in use today in Latin and English variants, as '-ic' and '-ish' respectively. So 'Belg' would be 'Belig/Belic'.

If Germanic-speakers adopted their name for Celts from the proposed Celts' own word for themselves, 'wel', then 'belg' (belig) and 'welsh' (waelisc) are exact cognates, the same word in different pronunciations. Whether they were Celts, Belgae, Galatians or Welsh, it was all the same word mutated by several centuries of progress.

Ancient Britons

(Information by Peter Kessler and Edward Dawson, with additional information from Continuity and Innovation in Religion in the Roman West, R Haeussler, Anthony C King & Phil Andrews, from Liber Prodigiorum, Julius Obsequens, from Periocha, Livy, from Res Gestae, Ammianus Marcellinus, from Valerius Maximus, Pseudo-Quintilian, and Paulus Orosius, from Epitome of Roman History, Florus, Historia Romana, Cassius Dio, from Flavius Eutropius, from Strategemata, Frontinius, from 'Breviary', Sextus Festus, from St Jerome Emiliani (Hieronymus), from Getica, Jordanes, from The Celts in Macedonia and Thrace, G Kazarov, from The Origin of the Gundestrup Cauldron, Antiquity, Vol 61, 1987, A K Bergquist & T Taylor, from The Getae in Southern Dobruja in the Period of the Roman Domination: Archaeological Aspects, S Torbatov, from On the Ocean, Pytheas of Massalia (work lost, but frequently quoted by other ancient authors), from Geography, Ptolemy, and from External Links: Journal of Celtic Studies in Eastern Europe and Asia-Minor, and The Natural History, Pliny the Elder (John Bostock, Ed), and Scordisci Swords From Northwestern Bulgaria, and The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars, Perseus Digital Library, and Polybius, Histories, and the Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, J Pokorny, and Geography, Strabo (H C Hamilton & W Falconer, London, 1903, Perseus Online Edition).)

5th century BC

The Veneti are a tribe, or confederation, or major grouping which occupies a (semi-theoretical) swathe of territory in Eastern Europe. To their west are the Hallstatt Celts and the so-called Northern Celts who may be equated with the ancestors of the Belgae.

For a seagoing people like the Belgae, it would have been a fairly simple process to sail along the southern waters of the Baltic and enter a wide river mouth such as the Vistula (one of two viable theories) - settlement quickly followed, spreading south along the river's east bank between the fifth or fourth centuries BC and the first and second AD

Differences in Belgic dialects from the La Tène Celts suggests that they have picked up some influences during their settlement or migrations, most notably from the proto-Germanic tribes of Scandinavia.

Although this idea is not universally accepted, generally it is thought that the Belgae begin to migrate around this time, with some heading west towards the Atlantic coast and potentially others heading east, probably following the Baltic coastline.

The Atlantic coast division of Belgae settles on territory in the modern southern Netherlands, Belgium, northern France, and Brittany (and are joined by a group known as the Veneti who exhibit notable differences, according to Julius Caesar).

The Baltic division reaches the Vistula and founds permanent settlements along its east bank, in what the Romans later think of as Sarmatia (with Germania to the west). There they encounter and probably integrate with units of Venedi.

Belgic settlement in, or migration across, Northern Europe almost certainly involved some of them entering the Cimbric peninsula where they interacted with early German tribes there, influencing them and being influenced by them

4th century BC

The Celts (Gauls) of the La Tène culture begin expanding in all directions. The Boii tribe soon occupies (or already occupies) the region which forms modern Czechia, giving their name to Bohemia (itself only more recently replaced by the Czech name). It may be the Boii or companion tribes which expand La Tène culture into Silesia where it stops the neighbouring Face-Urn culture from expanding.

To the west, the Bellovaci cross the Rhine in this century, settling along the rivers Oise and Somme. They establish fresh sacred sites at Saint-Maur and Gournay-sur-Aronde, and later mint their own coins. The Votadini of eastern Britain also quickly exhibit La Tène burial styles, although whether imported or directly imposed is unclear.

In his entry for 53 BC, Julius Caesar writes in his Gallic Wars that there had formerly been a time when the Gauls excelled the Germans in prowess, and waged war on them offensively. On account of the great number of their people and the insufficiency of their land, the Gauls had sent colonies over the Rhine.

Pomeranian jars
A Pomeranian/Face-Urn culture tomb chest constructed at a time of greater metallurgy skills but with weaker ceramic skills when compared to the preceding Lusatian culture

One of these, a division of the powerful Volcae Tectosages, had seized fertile areas of what is now Germany, close to the Hercynian Forest (known to the Greeks as Orcynia), and had settled there.

Additionally, according to Julius Caesar, the Belgic tribe of the Atrebates had invaded northern Gaul from previous territory in Germany. They repeat the invasion in the second century BC, probably to settle there permanently.

It is unlikely to be coincidental that Belgic tribes begin to leave Germany just as Gauls are greatly expanding into it from the south, while Germanics are also expanding from the north.

c.325 BC

FeaturePytheas of Massalia undertakes a voyage of exploration to north-western Europe, becoming the first scholar to note details about the Celtic and Germanic tribes there (see feature link).

One of the tribes he records is the Ostinioi - almost certainly the Osismii - who occupy Cape Kabaïon, which is probably pointe de Penmarc'h or pointe du Raz in western Brittany. This means that the tribe has already settled the region by the mid-fourth century BC, probably alongside their neighbours of later years, the Veneti, Cariosvelites, and Redones.

Ptolemy's map of Britain
The details recorded by Pytheas were interpreted by Ptolemy in the second century AD, and this 1490 Italian reconstruction of the section covering the British Isles and northern Gaul shows Ptolemy's characteristically lopsided Scotland at the top

279 - 277 BC

Celtic tribes are arriving in the Balkans and Asia Minor by this time. In one encounter with the peoples already there, the Antigonid empire successfully smashes an invasion of Celts into Greece.

Caesar later notes in his journals that 'sometime' before the first century BC the Belgic tribes had emigrated from east of the Rhine. In fact, according to many authors, the archaeological record argues for an earlier date for the first Belgic settlers in northern Gaul.

Artefacts of continental European origin which date from the third century BC strongly suggest that the Belgae cross into Britain at about the same time as they settle in northern Gaul. They appear to arrive as fairly small warrior groups which quickly integrate into the elite of the local communities. Other groups seem to remain behind, in northern Germany, to be assimilated by Germanics such as the Marsigni.

Tribes which can be categorised as Belgae include the Ambiani, Atrebates, Bellovaci, Caleti, Morini, Menapii, Nervii, Remi, Suessiones, Veliocasses, and Viromandui. Caesar states that one tribe, the Atuatuci, are descended from the Celto-Germanic Cimbri and Teutones.

Western Slovakia
The landscape of western Slovakia, lying a little way to the east of the Marsigni, but perhaps not that far, offers a dramatic contrast in landscape, making the region protectable, but also very verdant and productive

Caesar also describes four others - the Caerosi, Condrusi, Eburones, and Paemani - as German tribes (although Ambiorix, a later leader of the Eburones, has a Celtic name).

Other tribes which may be included amongst the Belgae are the Leuci, Mediomatrici, Treveri, and Tungri. The Remi are the most prominent tribe and their capital, Durocortum (modern Reims in France), becomes the capital of the Roman province of Gallia Belgica.

c.250 BC

Germanic settlements have spread only a little farther south-westwards along the North Sea coastline, and eastwards into the heart of modern Poland and northern Germany.

One exception to this is the Bastarnae (whose ethnic background is highly uncertain, but evidence tends to support the idea that they are originally Celtic). They have already reached the Balkans by this time.

Between this point and the beginning of the first century AD, Germanic expansion and migration continue this slow progression, extending into modern Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, and southwards towards modern Switzerland, central Germany, and Czechia, Slovakia, and Hungary. All the while, Celtic tribes are being edged out or absorbed.

Many Belgic groups showed marked Germanic influences, so were they Celts with German words and warriors, or Germans with Celtic words and warriors? The truth probably lies somewhere in between

c.150 BC

Metal coinage comes into use in Britain. There is now widespread contact with continental Europe through Britain's southernmost Celtic tribes and potential Belgic tribes in the south-east.

113 - 102 BC

In Franconia, members of the Celto-Germanic Helvetii peoples join a large-scale migration of Cimbri and Teutones from their homeland in what later becomes central and northern Denmark.

The wandering tribes enter Gaul from Germany in 109 BC, causing chaos amongst the Celtic tribes there and rendering critical the situation in the region. It is almost certainly this invasion which sparks a migration of Belgic peoples from the Netherlands and northern Gaul into south-eastern Britain, although such a migration may already have started on a smaller scale.

1st century BC

By the first century BC the Venedi are known to occupy a great swathe of territory which stretches from East Prussia and modern Kaliningrad, to western Belarus and western Ukraine. They may even have absorbed Belgic groups which have migrated into the Vistula from the north, although the lack of any written evidence makes their history extremely uncertain and open to interpretation.

Western Ukraine
Western Ukraine covers the modern Volyn, Ivano-Frankovsk, Lvov, Rovno, Ternopol and Chernovtsy regions, and its sweeping plains and gentle hills would have provided perfect farming territory for any Venedi who settled here

c.60 BC

Diviciacus of the Suessiones (not to be confused with Diviciacus of the Aeduii) holds sway not only among a large proportion of the continental European Belgic tribes but also over parts of south-eastern Britain, according to Julius Caesar.

This would suggest a form of high kingship over those Belgic tribes which had recently migrated there, such as the Belgae, Cantii, and perhaps the Catuvellauni and Trinovantes. This unity of tribes is reflected in their characteristic triple-tailed horse coins from about 60 BC.

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, a potentially Northern Celt formation, together with a variety of other Cisalpine tribes which include the Norici and Iapydes (not all of which are Celtic in origin).

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, stating that the Taurisci are a warrior-like tribe which often plunders Roman territory in the hinterlands of Tergestica (modern Trieste) - this at a time when the various Celtic peoples have largely been Romanised or Germanised.

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

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 Alps; 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.

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.

58 BC

The Gallic Wars of Julius Caesar begin when he becomes governor of Gaul. Over the course of the next decade or so, he conquers all of the Gaulish tribes. His efforts begin with a showdown against Ariovistus of the Suevi at the Battle of Vosges.

Vosges Mountains
The Vosges Mountains probably lay on the southern borders of Leuci territory, which would explain their building of a hillfort there and which was also the scene of the battle of 58 BC

57 BC

The (western) 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 Germanics on the western side of the Rhine.

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, attacking the Remi town of Bibrax along the way. Rather than face such a large force with a reputation for uncommon bravery, Caesar elects to isolate them in groups using his cavalry.

Map of Gaul 100 BC
The Aeduii confederation is shown here, around 100 BC, with borders approximate and fairly conjectural, based on the locations of the tribes half a century later - it can be seen that the Aulerci at least migrate farther north-west during that time, although the remainder largely stay put (click or tap on map to view full sized)

He confronts the Bellovaci in battle, during which they learn that Diviciacus and the Aeduii are approaching their territories. They leave the battlefield in some disorder to attempt to head off the Aeduii, but Roman troops are able to follow them and cut down large numbers of men before breaking off.

The next day, Caesar leads his army into the territories of the Suessiones, to capture the town of Noviodunum. With this victory, the Suessiones surrender and Caesar marches on the surviving Bellovaci, who take refuge in their town of Galled Bratuspantium.

Diviciacus of the Aeduii pleads for the former allies of his people, whose leaders in the confederacy against Rome had already fled to Britain. With the Bellovaci subdued, Caesar receives the surrender of the Ambiani, while 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 Romans are supported by auxiliaries sent by the Treveri, while the Nervii are backed up by the Atrebates. The attack surprises the Romans, but they rally and turn potential defeat into a near-massacre of the Nervii.

Ardennes Forest
The thick forest of the Ardennes formed part of the Treveri homeland when they arrived there in the early or mid-second century BC

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 which had been 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.

According to Caesar, the Aulerci, Cariosvelites, Osismii, Redones, Sesuvii, Venelli, and Veneti, all of whom are located along the Atlantic coast, are subdued by the legion of Publius Licinius Crassus. With this action, northern Gaul has been brought under Roman domination, while the victorious legions winter amongst the Andes, Carnutes, and Turones.

Following his successful campaign against the Belgae in the previous year, Caesar heads for Italy. He sends Servius Galba ahead with the Twelfth Legion and part of the cavalry to secure the way.

With Gaul now apparently at peace, Caesar sets out for Illyricum. Once he has left, war flares up again, triggered by Publius Licinius Crassus and the Seventh Legion in the territory of the Andes. This swiftly flares up into a full-scale Gaulish rebellion. Even the Veneti send for auxiliaries, from their cousins in Britain.

Romans attack a Veneti vessel
Roman auxiliaries in the form of the Aeduii attack a Veneti vessel in Morbihan Bay on the French Atlantic coast during the campaign of 56 BC

Julius Caesar rushes back to northern Gaul. Before engaging the Veneti, he sends troops to the Remi, Treveri, and other Belgae to encourage them to keep to their allegiance with Rome and to hold the Rhine against possible incursions by Germanics who may be planning to join the Veneti. This works, with even the previously militant Bellovaci remaining subdued during this revolt.

55 BC

As recorded by Julius Caesar in his work, Commentarii de Bello Gallico, the Germanic Tencteri and Usipetes tribes cross the Rhine from Germania and attack first the Belgic Menapii and then the Condrusi and Eburones.

The tribes of the Caerosi, Condrusi, Eburones, and Paemani are Belgic peoples who are sometimes thought by scholars to be Germanic, although much of the evidence seems to suggest that they are either Celts, or are ruled by a Celtic nobility.

The Ambivariti are mentioned only once, by Julius Caesar, and then only vaguely. Their location is not given, except by association with the Menapii, to whom they seem to be neighbours.

Germanic warriors
This romanticised illustration of Germanic warriors bore little similarity to the rough and ready warriors of the Germanic tribes along the Rhine

This is in connection with a raid on them by Germanics in 55 BC, at which time they are probably based between modern Breda and Antwerp. Thereafter they disappear from history, not to be mentioned by any other classical writer.

54 BC

Julius Caesar starts the year by visiting Illyricum to put down incursions by the Pirustae. He raises a local force that readies itself to repel the invaders, forcing the Pirustae to negotiate a peace. From there, he returns to Gaul and assembles a fleet at Port Itius, intent on a second expedition to Britain.

The expedition brings Caesar into contact with the insular Atrebates, Cantii, Catuvellauni, and Trinovantes. Following his return, he is forced to winter his troops in different quarters in Gaul owing to the poor harvests of that year.

One legion is given to Caius Fabius to be quartered in the territories of the Morini, while Quintus Cicero takes another to the Nervii, Lucius Roscius takes one to the lands of the Essui, and Titus Labienus goes to the Remi 'in the confines of the Treveri'. Three more legions are stationed amongst the Belgae and one with the Eburones who are commanded by Ambiorix and Cativolcus.

Nervii at the battle of the Sabis
This print of Boduognatus, king of the Nervii, shows him and his warriors fighting the Romans at the battle of the Sabis, thought to be the modern River Selle

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. 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 continental European Atrebates along the way.

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

Caesar arrives to relieve Cicero and is attacked by about 60,000 Gauls. Despite the massive disparity in numbers compared to Caesar's own seven thousand, the Gauls are put to flight with great losses, although the Romans suffer casualties of ten percent.

Although the situation is calmed by this victory, Cavarinus of the Senones is condemned to death by his people and is forced to flee to the Romans for protection. This serves as a commitment by the tribe to oppose Julius Caesar during his Gallic campaigns.

The act seems to rally support from amongst most of the Gauls, except the Aeduii and Remi, who remain loyal to Rome, although the Gauls are unable to encourage any Germanics to cross the Rhine and support them due to the recent defeats of Ariovistus of the Suevi and of the Tencteri expedition, something that has dissuaded them from a third attempt.

53 BC

Having left a strong guard with the Treveri following the conclusion of their revolt, Caesar again crosses the Rhine to deal with their Germanic supporters. Unwilling to be drawn too deep into Germania, Caesar fortifies the bridge which connects to the Ubii and stations twelve cohorts there.

Romans versus Gauls
Organising the various tribes of Gaul into a unified resistance took some doing, but Vercingetorix of the Arverni appears to have held a level of authority which made him a leader not to be refused, and thousands of warriors flocked to join him

Caesar then enters the country of the Eburones, supported by a contingent of Senones cavalry led by the exiled Cavarinus, their former puppet king. Despite having the cavalry of the Treveri in support, the rebellious Ambiorix flees before the Romans and Cativolcus commits suicide by poisoning.

Despite this apparent capitulation, the country of the Eburones proves difficult for the Romans, being woody and swampy in parts. Caesar invites the neighbouring people to come and plunder the tribe and, after stubborn resistance, Caesar burns every village and building he can find in their territory, drives off all the cattle, and confiscates all of the tribe's grain.

The Germanic Sicambri take the opportunity to cross the Rhine and surprise many of the plunderers, seizing a large part of the Eburones' cattle. The Eburones are destroyed by this action and no further mention is made of them in history. Their land is occupied by the Tungri.

However, greater events are afoot. On 13 February 53 BC the disaffected Carnutes had massacred every Roman merchant who had been present in the town of Cenabum, as well as killing one of Caesar's commissariat officers. This is the spark which ignites a massed Gaulish rebellion.

Ambiorix, king of the Eburones
This print of Ambiorix, king of the Eburones, is inspired by his statue of 1866 in Tongeren in Belgium, with both statue and print reflecting the nineteenth century revival of the Celts in the young Belgian nation state

While Julius Caesar has been occupied in the lands of the Belgae, Vercingetorix has renewed the Arverni subjugation of the Aeduii. He has also restored the reputation of Arverni greatness by leading the revolt which is building against Rome.

Despite his former allegiance to Julius Caesar, in the winter of 53-52 BC Commius of the Atrebates uses his contacts with the Bellovaci to convince them to contribute two thousand men to an army. This army will join other Gauls to form a massive relief force at Alesia in the last stage of the revolt.

The Lemovices are also amongst the first tribes to commit to joining Vercingetorix, contributing ten thousand men. The Mediomatrici send five thousand, and the Andes, Ruteni, and Turones are also amongst the first to commit.

The warriors of the Pictones decide to supply eight thousand warriors, but their chief, Duratios, stands firm in his desire to maintain his alliance with Rome, and this difference of opinion causes a split in the tribe.

Map of European Tribes
This vast map covers just about all possible tribes which were documented in the first centuries BC and AD, mostly by the Romans and Greeks, and with an especial focus on 52 BC (click or tap on map to view at an intermediate size)

52 BC

The Aulerci, Cadurci, Lemovices, Parisii, Pictones, Senones, and Turones have all joined Vercingetorix of the Arverni, as do all of the tribes which border the ocean. The Treveri support the revolt but are pinned down by Germanic tribes.

Vercingetorix sends Lucterius of the Cadurci into the territory of the Ruteni to gain their support, and marches in person to the Bituriges. The latter, under the protection of the Aeduii, send to them for help to resist the Arverni but are forced to join the revolt.

Lucterius continues to the Gabali and Nitiobroges and wins their support, collecting together a large force ahead of an advance into the province of Narbonensis. Caesar gets there first and rallies the garrisons among the Ruteni and Volcae Arecomisci, and Lucterius is forced to retreat.

From there Caesar circles through the territory of the generally pro-Roman Helvii (who provide auxiliaries) to reach that of the Arverni, despite deep winter snows in the mountains.

Amphoralis Museum in Potiers, France
Lemonum (modern Potiers) was the chief tribal settlement of the Pictones Celts in first century BC Gaul, while today's Amphoralis Museum provides a glimpse of life in pre-Roman France

Vercingetorix, after sustaining a series of losses at Vellaunodunum, Genabum, and Noviodunum, summons his men to a council in which it is decided that the Romans should be prevented from being able to gather supplies. A scorched earth policy is adopted, and more than twenty towns of the Bituriges are burned in one day.

Then the two sides gravitate towards an eventual confrontation at Gergovia, a town of the recently resettled Boii. Now the generally pro-Roman Aeduii are free to lead a force which is not in support of Caesar at Gergovia but is instead against him. The Nitiobroges also aid Vercingetorix there. Caesar loses the siege after having to split his forces to face the unexpected threat, a rare defeat for him in Gaul.

Vercingetorix, his cavalry eventually routed in battle, withdraws in good order to Alesia, a major fort which belongs to the Mandubii. The remaining cavalry are dispatched back to their tribes to bring reinforcements.

Caesar begins a siege of Alesia, aiming on starving out the inhabitants. Indeed, matters become so bad inside the fort that the Mandubian women and children are ejected (possibly in the hope that the Roman lines will part to let them pass), but Caesar effectively traps them in the no-man's-land between the opposing forces and allows them to starve.

The site of Alesia
The site of Alesia, a major fort belonging to the Mandubii tribe of Celts, was the scene of the final desperate stand-off between Rome and the Gauls in 52 BC

Four relief forces amounting to a considerable number of men and horses attempt to relieve Vercingetorix, but the combined relief force is soundly repulsed by Julius Caesar's remarkable strategy of simultaneously conducting the siege of Alesia on one front whilst being besieged on the other.

Seeing that all is lost, Vercingetorix surrenders to Caesar. The garrison is taken prisoner, as are the survivors from the relief army. Vercingetorix is imprisoned in the Tullianum in Rome for five years and Gaul falls to the republic.

AD 43 - 44

The Roman invasion of Britain brings them into direct contact with the Atrebates, Belgae, Cantii, Catuvellauni, Dobunni, and Trinovantes. Within a year they have also conquered, subjugated, or becomes overlords to the Corieltavi, Cornovii, Durotriges, Iceni, and Parisi.

47 - 79

With the south and east of Britain subdued, the Roman campaign against the hardy tribes of western Britain now begins. The Deceangli are attacked first, followed by the Ordovices and Silures. The Demetae appear to be subdued in AD 51 but complete conquest is not effected until AD 79. The Dumnonians are also subdued by AD 55.

Vercingetorix statue
The Vercingetorix monument was created by the sculptor, Aimé Millet, and was installed in 1865 on Mont Auxois in France

69 - 70

Under the authority of self-proclaimed emperor, the Lingones noble, Julius Sabinus, Gaius Julius Civilis leads a Batavian insurrection against a Rome which is distracted by the events of the 'Year of the Four Emperors'.

He is supported by the Bructeri, Canninefates, Chauci, Cugerni, and Tencteri, while the Sinuci are also mentioned as a people who live in the region (although their involvement in the revolt is uncertain).

The tribes send reinforcements and Civilis is initially successful. Castra Vetera is captured and two Roman legions are lost, while two others fall into the hands of the rebels. In AD 70 the Chatti, Mattiaci, and Usipetes join in, besieging the legionary fortress at Mogontiacum (modern Mainz).

Eventual Roman pressure, with aid from the Mediomatrici, Sequani, and Tungri, forces Civilis to retreat to the Batavian island where he agrees peace terms with General Quintus Petilius Cerialis.

The Gaulish and Germanic Batavian revolt of AD 69-70 was a major contributor to the instability experienced in the Roman empire during the 'Year of Four Emperors'


Remarkably, the Treveri still exist as a recognisable group after nearly four hundred years of inclusion within the Roman empire. The best-known piece of evidence for Late Gaulish is found in St Jerome's (331-420) commentary on St Paul's letter to the Galatians, written in the year 386/387 (the calculation is somewhat imprecise).

In it he says that the language of the Treveri in the Belgica is similar to that of the Galatians. Apart from the Greek language, which is spoken throughout the entire east of the empire, the Galatians have their own language which is almost the same as that of the Treveri.

It serves to confirm that, whatever their mixed, potentially Celto-Germanic origins, the Treveri (and by extension all Belgae) speak a Celtic language, and not Germanic.

8th century

The Venedi gradually disappear between the sixth and eighth centuries. Pressure from Germanic groups to their west, but more especially from migrating Slavs from the east sees them assimilated.

A personification of the early Wends was presented by a gospel book of 990 which showed them as the Sclavinia (early Slavs, of which the westernmost groups were known as Wends), plus Germania, Gallia, and Roma, all of whom were bringing tribute to Holy Roman emperor Otto III

The northernmost parts of their territory - potentially Belgic regions - are absorbed by various natives which include the Prussians and Lithuanians, while the Veleti Union which lays on the west bank of the Oder, bordering the Pomeranians, slowly becomes Slavicised.

The heyday of the Celts may be over by this stage, but Celts remain independent in Wales until the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, while those in Cornwall and Brittany enjoy a good deal of autonomy, as do those of Strathclyde.

The older communities of Ireland, formed of a mixture of Neolithic hunters, and proto-Celtic and Celtic settlers, retain their independence until the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Apart from the Strathclyde Britons, all of these groups retain a strong Celtic identity in modern times, the only Celts across Europe to do so.

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