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European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes


MapBellovaci (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 Bellovaci were located in what is now eastern Normandy and western Picardy, to the north of Paris. They were neighboured to the north by the Ambiani, to the north-east by the Atrebates, to the east by the Viromandui, to the south by the Suessiones, and to the west by the Veliocasses and Caleti.

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. The Bellovaci name is sometimes broken down as 'bell', meaning 'mouth', but this is inaccurate. 'Bell' means 'war' or 'fight' (it is more frequently seen as 'vel' in Celtic names). The second part, 'vac', is indeed 'empty' in Celtic but in this case the real word is more likely to be 'vacto' ('waxto'), rather than 'vac'. The proto-Celtic *waxt-isamo is 'worst', *waxto- would be 'bad', and *waxto-ratā- would mean 'action' or 'deed'. The Bellovaci were very militant, so what would be more appropriate than to call themselves the 'bad fighters' or 'evil fighters'?

The Bellovaci town of Galled Bratuspantium which was attacked by Julius Caesar in 57 BC, has in 'Galled' the same word that is seen in the formation of 'Gallatia', and the Callaici and Celtici in Iberia, among others. It has the same sequence of basic consonants as the names Celtae and Keltoi. Julius Caesar stated that the tribe was the most powerful of the Belgic tribes in terms of valour, influence, and the number of men they could raise for warfare. This made them one of the most dangerous of his opponents, an assessment borne out by the tough fighting he encountered against them in 57 BC.

(Information by Peter Kessler and Edward Dawson, with additional information from The Oxford History of England: Roman Britain, Peter Salway, and 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 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.)

4th century BC

The La Tène 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.

1st century BC

By the beginning of the first century BC, and perhaps for an indeterminate period before it, the Aeduii are at the head of a tribal confederation that also includes the Ambarri, Aulerci, Bellovaci, Bituriges Cubi, Brannovices, Mandubii, Parisii, Segusiavi, and Senones. Against this confederation in the contest for supremacy in Gaul are the Arverni, to its immediate south, and the Sequani to its east.

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)

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, 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. He confronts the Bellovaci at the Battle of the Axona, 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 anti-Roman leaders in the confederacy against Caesar had already fled to Britain. With the Bellovaci subdued, Caesar receives the surrender of ther tribes and goes onto defeat the rest in battle in the course of a single campaigning season. This action means that northern Gaul has been brought under Roman domination.

56 BC

Following his successful campaign against the Belgae in the previous year, 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. With supplies of corn running low, he sends scavenging parties into the territories of the Cariosvelites, Esubii, and the highly influential Veneti. The latter revolt against this infringement of their lands and possessions, and the neighbouring tribes rapidly follow their lead, including the Ambiliati, Diablintes, Lexovii, Menapii, Morini, Namniti, Nannetes, and Osismii. The Veneti also send for auxiliaries from their cousins in Britain. Julius Caesar rushes back to northern Gaul, to a fleet that is being prepared for him by the (Roman-led) Pictones and Santones on the River Loire. The Veneti and their allies fortify their towns, stock them with corn harvests from the surrounding countryside, and gather together as many ships as possible. Knowing that the overland passes are cut off by estuaries and that a seaward approach is highly difficult for their opponents, they plan to fight the Romans using their powerful navy in the shallows of the Loire.

Before engaging the Veneti, Caesar 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 Germans who may be planning to join the Veneti. This works, with even the previously militant Bellovaci remaining subdued during this revolt. Crassus is sent to Aquitania and Quintus Titurius Sabinus to the Cariosvelites, Lexovii and Venelli, to prevent them sending reinforcements to the Veneti. Sabinus finds that Viridovix of the Venelli has joined the revolt, along with the Aulerci and Sexovii, who have killed their magistrates for wanting to remain neutral. Sabinus remains in his well-fortified camp, resisting the taunts of the Venelli and their allies until they venture too far forwards, allowing a Roman sally across the defensive ditch and into the fleeing Celtic ranks. This area of the revolt is instantly extinguished.

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

The campaign by Caesar against the Veneti is protracted and takes place both on land and sea. Veneti strongholds, when threatened, are evacuated by sea and the Romans have to begin again. Eventually the Veneti fleet is cornered and defeated in Quiberon Bay by Legate Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus. The Veneti strongholds are stormed and much of the Veneti population is either captured and enslaved or butchered. The confederation is destroyed and Roman rule is firmly stamped upon the region.

pre-53 - 52 BC


Killed by Rome.

53 BC

On 13 February 53 BC the disaffected Carnutes massacre every Roman merchant who is present in the town of Cenabum, as well as killing one of Caesar's commissariat officers. This is the spark that ignites a massed Gaulish rebellion. While Julius Caesar is 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 that 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 2,000 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 10,000 men. The Mediomatrici send 5,000 men, and the Andes, Ruteni, and Turones are also amongst the first to commit. The warriors of the Pictones decide to supply 8,000 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. The warriors join the chief of the Andes who heads for Lemonum to besiege Duratios. The king sends a messenger to the Roman legate, Caius Caninius, who comes to his aid from the territory of the Ruteni. This small force is soon backed up by a more effective unit under Caius Fabius and a Pictonii civil war is averted.

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

52 BC

While Caesar is tied down in Rome, the Gauls begin their revolt, resolving to die in freedom rather than be suppressed by the invaders. The Carnutes take the lead under Cotuatus and Conetodunus when they kill the Roman traders who have settled in Genabum. News of the event reaches the Arverni that morning, and Vercingetorix summons his people to arms. Subsequently his cavalry are routed in battle, so he withdraws in good order to Alesia, a major fort belonging 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.

Four relief forces amounting to a considerable number of men and horses are assembled in the territory of the Aeduii by the council of the Gaulish nobility. Demanded from the tribes of Gaul are many thousands of men from a vast array of the tribes of Gaul. Of all of these the Bellovaci withhold their contribution, claiming that they will wage war against the Romans on their own account, free of external command. However, at the request of Commius of the Atrebates, they send two thousand men in consideration of a tie of hospitality which exists between them and him.

Together they attempt to relieve Vercingetorix at the siege of Alesia, 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.

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

52 - 51 BC

After the fall of Alesia, Commius of the Atrebates returns north and joins Correus. The two men command the last major Gallic army to directly oppose Caesar, and for some time they manage to hold off the Romans, retreating into swamps and woods and avoiding battle.

Commius travels into Germanic lands to the east of the Rhine in an attempt to find allies, eventually returning with five hundred cavalry. He survives an ambush in which Correus is killed, and when the surviving Bellovaci and Veliocasses nobles decide to submit to Caesar he flees across the Rhine and takes refuge with the same German tribe which had provided the cavalry.

With this action, all of Gaul has been brought under Roman domination, and the history of its population of Celts and Aquitani is tied to that of the emerging Roman empire.

Following the final defeat of the Gaulish tribes, the Bellovaci's oppidum is renamed Caesaromagus by Rome. The name essentially means 'the field of Caesar'. The modern town of Beauvais in Picardy is apparently a direct descendant of this and still bears a variant of the tribe's name (although both of these assertions are contested by some scholars). Bailleul sur Thérain is an alternative possibility.

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