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European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes


Beroni / Berones (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 Berones were a Celtic tribe which was located in northern Iberia, although precise borders are unavailable. Their territory covered the depression of the Ebro, from the Sierra de Cantabria mountain range to the River Cidacos, which included parts of the current provinces of Álava, Burgos, La Rioja, and Navarra. They were neighboured by the Autrigones to the west, the Caristii, Varduli, and Vascones to the north, the Iacentani, Losones, and Pelondones to the east and south-east, and the Turmodigi to the south.

A name breakdown is not easy, although separating out the core is: 'ber-' plus (definite article) '-on' plus (Latin plural) '-es'. That leaves a name of 'the Ber' or 'the Bero'. That core, 'ber-' is the problem. Taken at simple (and simple-minded!) face value it means 'to bear, to carry', from the proto-Celtic 'bero'. If that is accurate then they would have been 'the bearers, the carriers'.

If, however, it is acknowledged that vowel shifts occur when Celts are isolated from other Celts, then an 'a' for the vowel has possibilities: 'baran', meaning 'anger' (*barjo- means 'anger'), to form 'the angry'. But that doesn't quite work as the vanished 'n' in 'baran' needs to be accounted for (the 'n' in Berones is part of the Latin plural, a later addition). Was it dropped? An alternative option is 'barro', referring to a point or pointed object. Lots of things are pointy, including barley grain, which is cognate. But it could also be slang for a spear. None of these options are definitive.

The tribe's important settlements included Oliva (Lybia or Libia, today's Herramélluri in La Rioja), Tritium, today's Tricio, La Rioja, the site of a later Roman mausoleum of the third century AD, and Varia, with the latter being the chief settlement and being identified with the prehistoric archaeological site of La Custodia in the municipality of Viana in Navarra.

They also had a defensive 'castro' or fort which was located in the nearby area of El Cerro de Cantabria (Monte Cantabria). It was next to the site of Varia that the Romans later founded their civitas of Vareia, according to some hypotheses.

Other sites included: Bilibium (today's Bilibio, otherwise known as Haro la Vieja), located on the northern slopes of the cliffs of Bilibio where the Ebro enters La Rioja through the Concha de Haro; La Hoya Laguardia, Alava, the site of a pre-Roman village which was rediscovered in 1935; San Martin de Berberana in the municipality of Angocillo, La Rioja, on the right bank of the Ebro (possibly the site of the Berones civitas known as Barbariana); and various other lesser sites, some of which are still waiting for archaeologists to investigate them.

There has been much debate about the origins of this tribe, and possible Celtic origins in particular given that indications point to them being culturally Celtic, although with a clear differentiation from the earlier-arriving Celtiberian peoples.

Strabo at least alluded to their explicitly Celtic identity. Their territory after about 300 BC remained immediately to the south of the Aquitani, although there remains the possibility that these non-Indo-European proto-Basque people still provided some cultural influence of their own given they they may also have influenced the nearby Caristii and Varduli.

The Berones have been described as a colonising, farming, and cattle-ranching people who occupied the Ebro valley for centuries. There they developed a culture whose Celtic elements extended their influence as far as Lower Aragon. Their Celtic identity is clear from their toponymy, the coins they minted, and their tesserae.

Some places of worship have been identified which have been linked to the Berones, such as the cave of Santa Leocadia in the Alava council district of Marquínez (within the municipality of Bernedo), where a relief is preserved in which the Celtic deity of Epona is represented. Besides their farming they were also involved in metallurgy and pottery work.

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 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 Los berones; enigmas y leyendas en un mundo fantastico y mitoligico, Alfredo Gil de Rio, from El enigma de los berones; a la búsqueda del pasado, Alfredo Gil del Rio, from Génesis autorística de las fuentes del siglo I a. C. sobre los berones, Luciano Perez Vilatela, from Para una Etnogeografia de la Cuenca Media del Ebro, Guillerno Fatas Cabeza, and from External Links: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars, 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).)

5th century BC

In the post-Hallstatt period the Berones and others become more urbanised, leading to a more complex social structure. The Berones are likely to have taken part in the Hallstatt migration of Celts into northern Iberia at some point in the late eighth century BC or during the seventh century BC.

Settlement in the La Rioja region of Spain
The modern La Rioja region is well known for its wine production, having been settled in or around the seventh century BC by the Berones tribe of Celts

Now, in the Berones settlements of the fifth century BC, small conglomerations of scattered houses which are typical of Celtic culture are being replaced by more complex urban centres with a better defensive structure. These are the beginnings of pre-Roman cities in the region.

At the same time the tribe's social structure is changing, with an aristocratic elite playing an essential role in the matter of governance, added to which there exist cultural ties between a number of tribes, whether by common tradition or through family connections, or possibly via common ancestors who had taken part in the migrations which saw the Berones arrive in Iberia.

after 300 BC

Following a brief period of expansion, the Autrigones are thrust back to their lands on the mountain ranges of the upper Ebro to the north of the Arlanzon valley, during the third and/or second centuries BC. They subsequently ally themselves with the Berones and evolve into a tribal society which is similar to that of the peoples of north-west Iberia.

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)

181 - 151 BC

The Berones seem to take no direct part in the Celtiberian wars between these dates. The First Celtiberian War (181-179 BC) sees the Arevaci, Belli, Lusones, Pelondones, and Titti push back against the new and somewhat aggressive Roman presence in formerly-Carthaginian territories at the conclusion of the Second Punic War. Rome wins the conflict and draws up treaties with several tribes in the region.

The Second Celtiberian War (154-151 BC) occurs when Rome declares war on the Belli for building a circuit of walls around their town of Segeda. The Arevaci and Titti join the Belli to win a few initial victories. Consul Marcus Claudius Marcellus delivers Rome's final victory.

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

1st century BC

By now the Autrigones have fallen under the influence of the Celtiberians, unlike the Berones who remain outside the Celtiberian confederation. The Autrigones are subsequently organised into a federation of autonomous mountain-top fortified towns or civitates, which are located on the mountain ranges of the upper Ebro.

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. Celtiberian tribes 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

c.27 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 Iberia's Hispania Tarraconensis (founded in 27 BC), but it remains only partially Romanised and never becomes Christian.

It does, however, provide the Roman imperial army with auxiliary troops until the late empire period, as do the Berones who remain brave and reliable servants of Rome.

AD 41 - 54

During the reign of Claudius the territories of Hispania are compartmentalised into different municipalities. Both the Vascones and the Berones are included in the circumscription of Caesarea Augusta (Zaragoza). In time, following the fading of later Roman imperial authority, Berones territory is incorporated into the vast Visigoth kingdom.

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