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European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes


Belli / Belacos (Celtiberians)

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. Some mixed heavily with Iberian tribes to form the Celtiberian admixture.

The Belli were one such tribe, being located in the modern Spanish province of Zaragoza (Saragossa). Specifically, they inhabited the middle Jiloca and Huerva valleys in Zaragoza province, with their territories stretching up to the Guadalope and upper Turia valleys. They were neighboured to the north by the Lusones, to the east by the Iberian Sedetani, to the south by the Turboletae, and to the west by their client tribe, the Titti.

The Belli (otherwise shown as Beli or Belacos), is an easy one to break down. 'Bell' means 'war' or 'fight' (it is more frequently seen as 'vel' in Celtic names). The '-i' at the end is the plural suffix. They were 'the fighters'. There is some confusion regarding the tribe's origins though. Roman authors either claimed that were of Illyrian origin (highly unlikely) or part of a Celto-Belgic tribe, the Bellovaci (the core name, 'Bell', means the same thing). They are quoted in texts as being associated with the 'king of Illyria', which may account for this confusion.

However, the possibility that the first arrivals of proto-Celts (of the Urnfield culture) into Iberia were in fact West Indo-European proto-Italic-speakers (specifically Q-Celto-Italic) does provide some potential basis for this belief, perhaps based on a common vocabulary which was observable even after the arrival of Roman domination in Iberia. The Illyrian tribes are also likely to have originated from proto-Italic-speakers.

The tribe had a close relationship with the Titti and Lusones, sharing most of the characteristics of these tribes. An important major settlement of theirs was Nertóbriga (La Almunia de Dona Godina in Zaragoza), which issued bronze coin in the third century BC. The most prominent settlement and their early capital, however, was Segeda (Povo de Maya, near Zaragoza, the later Celtiberian mint of Sekaiza), which minted currency around the second century BC. This city later lost out to Duron de Belmonte as the capital.

Other Belli urban centres included Contrebia Belaisca (Zaforas de Botorita in Zaragoza), Beligiom (Piquete de la Atalaya de Azuara in Zaragoza), Lesera (El Focal), and Belgeda (Belchile in Zaragoza). It is plausible that by the second century BC they exerted some form of control over the strategic frontier towns of Belia (sited somewhere between the Huerva and Aquas Vivas rivers) and various other outlying territories.

Their economy was based on agriculture, with a healthy side-line in livestock management. They also established a metalworking industry using iron ore which came from the mines of Moncayo, in addition to mining gold in the valley of the River Jalon. Pliny the Elder wondered whether their weapons were manufactured here, but there is no evidence of such production.

Crops included barley, wheat, and olive trees. With their wool they created a thriving textile industry which included the manufacture of cloaks which were similar to the Roman sagum, either worn or provided as part of their tribute. They also produced pottery which contained distinctive circles or semi-circles.

The ruins of Numantia in Iberia

(Information by Trish Wilson, with additional information by Edward Dawson and Peter Kessler, from The La Tene Celtic Belgae Tribes in England: Y-Chromosome Haplogroup R-U152 - Hypothesis C, David K Faux, 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 Europe Before History, Kristian Kristiansen, from War and Society in Celtiberia, Martin Amalgro Gorbea (E-Keltoi UWM), from Los Celtiberos, etnias y estados, Franciso Burillo Mozota, from Los Celtiberos, Alberto Lorrio Alvarado, from Historia de España 2 - colonizaciones y formación de los pueblos prerromanos (1200-218 a.C.), Ángel Montenegro et allii, and from External Links: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars, and The Natural History, Pliny the Elder (John Bostock, Ed), and Gran Enciclopedia Aragonesa (in Spanish), and Celtiberia.net (in Spanish), and Lista de pueblos prerromanos de Iberia (in Spanish, Hispanoteca.eu), and Euskomedia (in Spanish), and Recovery of the Roman circus (Toledodiario.es, in Spanish).)

221 - 219 BC

Hannibal assumes command in Carthage and spends two years consolidating its conquest of Iberia south of the Ebro. Rome perceives this as a threat and makes an alliance with the Iberian city of Saguntum (near modern Valencia), south of the Ebro.

FeatureHannibal besieges the city until it surrenders eight months later, with Turboletae assistance. Rome affects outrage and demands justice from Carthage. Instead, Hannibal is supported and the Second Punic War begins. Hannibal benefits from assistance which is provided by Iberian Mercenaries (see feature link).

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)

In those actions which take place in Iberia the Belli remain neutral. The eventually-victorious Romans create two provinces in the Iberian territories they now dominate, in the form of Hispania Citerior and Hispania Ulterior. Neither includes Celtiberian territory, and the two major sides soon clash.

200s - 100s BC

The Lusones join their neighbours, including the Arevaci (and their Uraci clients), Belli, and Titti, in the Celtiberian confederation in the third or second centuries BC. All of these tribes will fight alongside each other in the forthcoming Celtiberian Wars against an increasingly intrusive Roman presence in the peninsula.

A foreshadowing of this is revealed in attacks against Roman forces both in 197 BC and 195 BC. A consular army which is led by Cato the Elder is brought in to confront the Celtiberians and, whilst it is not able to capture their town of Saguntia (Siguenza), it nevertheless persuades them to cease hostilities after which it returns home.

Ruins of the Celtiberian city of Numantia in Spain
The city of Numantia dates back in its earliest form to around 2000 BC, with Celtiberian control beginning in the first millennium BC when the Arevaci tribe built a grand stone-and-mud city over the earlier site, although today only the later, Roman city is generally visible

In 193 BC a joint force of Celtiberians, Vaccaei, and Vettones band together but are defeated near Toletum (Toledo) of the Carpetani by a Roman force which is led by Marcus Fulvius Nobilior.

183 BC

Another mixed tribal force, possibly incorporating Celtiberians (including Belli and Carpetani) and Vettones, opposes the Romans, with mixed fortunes on both sides. The new alliance is located in the same Toletum territory as before (Carpetani tribal territory). It is able to defeat two praetorian armies before being defeated itself in another clash around the River Tagus.

182 - 179 BC

Praetor Quintus Fulvius Flaccus arrives in Iberia with a new army, determined to take on the Celtiberians (Belli, Carpetani and others). He succeeds in capturing the city of Urbicua, to which the Celtiberians respond by raising an army of 35,000. In order to meet this threat, Flaccus increases his own force to include as many auxiliary units as he is able to raise from friendly tribes.

Roman circus in Toldeo
The Celtiberian settlement of Toletum was turned into a major city during the Roman domination of Iberia, with remains of the circus being seen here

Then he moves to the Carpetani capital of Carpetania where he defeats the Celtiberian army near Aebura (Talavera de la Reina). Celtiberian losses amount to 23,000 dead and 4,700 captured, against minimal losses amongst the Roman forces.

Flaccus captures the city before heading to the city of Contrebia (possibly Contrebia Carbica in Fosos de Bayona, Cuenca, where remains have been found).

The First Celtiberian War (181-179 BC) is underway, with the Arevaci, Belli, Lusones, Pelondones, and Titti especially pushing back against the aggressive Roman presence in Iberia (the Lobetani role in the wars is entirely unknown, however).

A Celtiberian force has been sent to assist the city but is delayed by intemperate weather. Instead it is caught out by the Romans, leading to further immense losses. Flaccus subsequently moves into Celtiberian territory, ravaging the countryside and destroying as many forts as he can before he moves into the territory of the Lusones.

This depiction of Celtiberians ambushing Roman soldiers offers a glimpse of the bitter Roman battle to control Iberia after it had won the Punic Wars

On his way back to Tarraco (Tarragona) he is ambushed while travelling through the Manlian Pass. Although he is able to see off the Celtiberians, his losses are such that he continues to Tarraco where he hands over command to his successor, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus.

Gracchus is as successful as Flaccus, capturing the cities of Munda (not to be confused with the site of Julius Caesar's battle in 45 BC), Certima, and Alce (probably the Alce between Augusta Emerita (Merida) and Caesaraugusta (Zaragoza)).

However, he adopts a more conciliatory tone, negotiating with the tribes to secure treaties and providing proper administration for the region. His actions secure almost thirty years of peace before war breaks out again.

The Belli are the first Celtiberian tribe to adopt coinage in the aftermath of the war, and to post laws in written form on bronze tablets (tabulae), using a modified north-eastern Iberian script - known as the Celtiberian script - for their own language.

Roman silver dinarius
Pictured here are both sides of a Roman silver dinarius from the official mint, dated to around 146 BC - the mounted attacker on the reverse accompanied by his dog is fairly typical as Roman troops would often bring their mastiffs along with them so that, while the soldier was fighting the enemy above with spear and long knife, their dogs would be biting the enemy's legs from below

154 BC

The Second Celtiberian War occurs when Rome declares war on the Belli for building a strong circuit of defensive walls around their town of Segeda. This is despite the building work not being outside of the terms of the existing treaties. The Arevaci and Titti join the Belli to win a few initial victories.

Praetor Quintus Fulvius Nobilior is sent to Iberia with a new army of nearly 30,000 men to take control of the situation. His arrival completely throws the Belli whose walls are not yet complete.

They flee en masse to join the Arevaci where a Belli named Carus is appointed military commander. His first act is to ambush Romans in a thick forest, the victory proving pyrrhic as Carus and many of his own men are also killed.

154 BC


Military commander of the Belli & others. Killed fighting.

153 - 151 BC

Nolibor then suffers a bruising military defeat on the battlefield, followed by various other disasters. In 152 BC Consul Marcus Claudius Marcellus takes command of Rome's forces. His instant impact and progressive treatment of captives impresses the Belli to seek peace terms. The Titti join them in agreeing terms but the Arevaci remain hostile.

Samnite soldiers
Roman military tactics may have owed something to the Samnites, with this efficient and seasoned warrior force matching the Romans and bettering them in the fourth century BC

In 151 BC the new consul, Lucius Licinius Lucullus, is dispatched to Iberia, unaware that Marcellus has already settled the peace terms, even with the Arevaci. Lucullus still insists on fighting, illegally now, and manages to undertake a good deal of plundering.

Hostilities are reignited in the form of the Numantine War, thanks to this city of the Arevaci or Pelondones (ownership is disputed amongst modern scholars) being at the heart of the fighting. All sides are helped along by large numbers of Iberian Mercenaries.

When Numantia is captured thanks to Scipio Aemilianus, the Celtiberian confederation finally collapses and Belli and Titti territory is incorporated into Iberia's Hispania Citerior. Little is know of either tribe after this point, although they do appear to retain their independence until the Sertorian War of 76 BC.

76 BC

As traditional allies of the Berones, the Autrigones help them in fighting off an incursion by the Roman general, Quintus Sertorius, into northern Celtiberia. Other Celtiberians also take part, such as the Arevaci, Lusones, and Pelondones. Sertorius has seized control of Rome's Iberian territories by force of arms, but in the Sertorian War he is quickly driven out of Iberia by Sulla's forces when none of the Iberian tribes will support him.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla
Lucius Cornelius Sulla was the victor in Rome's first full-scale civil war (88-82 BC), after which he became dictator of the Roman republic, thereby laying out a path which others could follow in the same century

The Lusones virtually disappear from the historical record following the war's conclusion in 72 BC. Little is known of them afterwards, with it being most likely that they merge with - or are absorbed by - their Celtiberian neighbours, the Belli and Titti.

The Belli themselves are now gradually pushed back from the upper Jiloca by the Edetani who seize Beligiom, Belgeda, Damania, and Orosis. The Belli are also deprived of access to the east of the River Huerva.

72 BC

Following the conclusion of the Sertorian War, the Cratistii manage to gain independence from the Carpetani but are integrated into southern Celtiberia by Rome. Around this time (roughly 72 BC) the Belli, Cratistii, Olcades, Titti, and Uraci are merged to form the Late Celtiberian people (Celtiberi) of Romanised southern Celtiberia.

In time, following the fading of Roman imperial authority, their territory is incorporated into the vast Visigoth kingdom.

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