History Files

Please help the History Files

Contributed: £84

Target: £400

Totals slider

The History Files still needs your help. As a non-profit site, it is only able to support such a vast and ever-growing collection of information with your help, and this year your help is needed more than ever. Please make a donation so that we can continue to provide highly detailed historical research on a fully secure site. Your help really is appreciated.

European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes


Bigerriones / Bigerri (Gauls? / Aquitani?)

FeatureIn general terms, the Romans coined the name 'Gaul' to describe the Celtic tribes of what is now central, northern, and eastern France. The Gauls were divided from the Belgae to the north by the Marne and the Seine, and from the Aquitani to the south by the River Garonne, while also extending into Switzerland, northern Italy, and along the Danube (see feature link for a discussion of the origins of the Celtic name).

By the middle of the first century BC, a minor tribe called the Bigerriones was located on the eastern flank of the Aquitani groups, all of which were arrayed along the northern side of the Pyrenees. As recorded by Julius Caesar they were neighboured by a swathe of Aquitani tribes to the north and east who lay between them and the Celtic Boii, Biturices Vivisci, and Sotiates. To their west were the Celtic Oscidates.

The core of the tribal name is 'Biger' plus three suffixes in the form of the Celtic '-i' (plural) and '-on' (the definite article) and the Latin '-es' (another plural). The problem here concerns just who or what 'Biger' was, and one which so far remains without resolution. There seems to be no exact match in the Celtic word dictionaries. If the 'g' is converted into a 'k' then the word means 'small'. A conversion from 'g' to 'k' is common in Celtic, although here it cannot be confirmed. Taking a giant leap of faith, the core word may be a contraction of the Celtic 'bewa' (the verb 'to be') plus 'gerro' (meaning 'short'). Perhaps it was a nickname for a leader who was short in height?

This apparent difficulty in translating the name could be due to Aquitani influences. A tribe named the Bigerri is claimed as being Aquitani in origin, despite clearly occupying the same ground as the Bigerriones, thereby confirming them as being one and the same. The Bigerri name is the same as 'Bigerriones', just with a single plural added. Variations of this name are given as Biguerres, Bigerres, or Bigerrions, all of which can easily be equated with 'Bigerriones'.

The Bigerri tribe in the first century BC occupied the upper Adour valley, with that river beginning in the Pyrenees near Lourdes before it flows through Tarbes and Pau on its way towards the Atlantic at Bayonne. To the south of Tarbes is an area which even today is known as Bigorre and which includes the Pic du Midi de Bigorre, one of the high points in the Pyrenees.

The tribe was noted as the Bigerri by Pliny in the first century AD, and is on the list of Verona which dates to the third century AD. They held the stronghold which was known as Castrum Bigorra (today's Saint-Lézern in Haute Pyrenees) which was built on a hilltop before it was replaced by the Civitas Turba or Tarba (today's Tarbes), although both may have been largely Roman creations.

Their immediate neighbours included the Illuronenses to the west, the Ausci to the north, and the Garumni and Convenae to the east. The origin of the words 'Bigerri', 'Bigorre', and 'Bigerra' would seem to be related to the Basque 'Ibai gorri' which means 'red river', which would certainly resolve the naming problem outlined above.

The modern French region of Bigorre (a former medieval county) shows that the tribe's name survived, and that it must have remained settled in Aquitania following conquest by Rome. Given its potential infiltration as a Celtic group into the lands of the Aquitani, or its potential as an Aquitani tribe which perhaps absorbed Celtic elements or people, it was probably only a small tribe, one which had probably been created through the process of sub-dividing larger Celtic tribes or general small-scale population drift towards land which showed promise for cattle or sheep.

Ancient Britons

(Information by Peter Kessler, Edward Dawson, and Trish Wilson, 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, from Diccionario vasco–español–francés, Resurreción María Azkue (two-volume, trilingual dictionary, 1905), from Hauta-lanerako euskal hiztegia, Ibon Sarasola (Gipuzkoako Kutxa, 1990), from Mini hiztegia euskara-euskara, Ibon Sarasola (Lur, Editorial S, 1996), and from External Links: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars, and The Natural History, Pliny the Elder (John Bostock, Ed), and the Etymological Dictionary of Basque, R L Trask (available in PDF format via the Etymological Dictionary, Max Wheeler (Ed, PDF), and Aquitania (University of California), and Celtiberia.net (in Spanish), and Gran Enciclopedia Aragonesa (in Spanish), and Euskomedia (in Spanish).)

56 BC

When war flares up again in Gaul, triggered by Publius Licinius Crassus and the Seventh Legion in the territory of the Andes, Caesar has to turn back from his journey to Illyrium to handle the problem. Crassus is sent to Aquitania to subdue the tribes there and prevent an all-out war against stretched Roman troops. The Cantabri send assistance to the Aquitani.

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)

Subduing the Petrocorii along the way, he recruits auxiliaries from the Gaulish regions of Tolosa, Carcaso, and Narbo (which includes the tribes of the Bebryces, Sordones, and Volcae) before entering the territory of the Sotiates. That tribe has gathered together a large force which attacks the Romans in a drawn-out and vigorously-contested engagement.

The Romans are only just victorious, having outlasted their hot-headed Celtic opponents in terms of stamina. The tribe's oppidum is besieged and they eventually surrender, despite an attempt by Adcantuannus to lead his personal retinue into a death or glory attack and other Celts undermining the siege towers (thanks to the presence of copper in the region these Celts and their Aquitani neighbours are expert miners).

Crassus marches into the territories of the Vocates and Tarusates. They prove to be a rather more difficult opponent. The campaign against the Sotiates has given them time to raise troops from northern Iberia, many of which had fought with Quintus Sertorius, a rebellious governor of Iberia who defied Rome for a decade, and they have learnt a great deal from that experience.

Midi du Bigorre in the French region of Aquitania
The territory into which the Bigerriones had settled was typical of the Aquitani region, which was made up mostly of rugged foothills of the kind which border peoples normally use to survive invasions by later arrivals - the Welsh and early Scots held onto similar territory in Britain to enable them to survive the Anglo-Saxon invasion

They outnumber Crassus perhaps by ten-to-one and hold a very strong position which prevents him from gathering supplies for his men. The only option (aside from an unthinkable retreat) is to engage them in battle, despite the odds. Pinning them down at the front, he sends cavalry around to their rear to scout out any weakness. Their entirely unguarded rear is attacked and, with Romans pressing from two sides, the Aquitani are forced to surrender with heavy casualties.

When news of this defeat spreads, the majority of the tribes of Aquitania surrender to Crassus, including the Ausci, Bigerriones, Cocosates, Elusates, Garites, Garumni, Preciani, Suburates, Tarbelli, Tarusates, and 'Vocasates' (and presumably the unmentioned Oscidates).

Smaller Aquitani tribes such as the Benearni are not mentioned directly but, as they generally sit within the shadow of the much more powerful larger tribes, their surrender is entirely to be expected. Today those on the western bank of the Garonne form part of the largely unofficial Basque Country.

With this action, Aquitania 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.

28 BC

Despite submitting fully in 56 BC, it seems that the conquest of the Aquitani and the neighbouring Celtic tribes is effected only now, by Proconsul Marcus Valerius Messalla. The proconsul is awarded a triumph for his success, suggesting that some fighting had been involved. That further suggests that the submission of 56 BC had gained the tribes some sort of allied status, but that they had essentially been autonomous until now.

Triumph of Titus and Vespasian
The triumph of Marcus Valerius Messalla would have been similar to the one shown in Triumph of Titus and Vespasian, an Italian oil by Giulio Pippi (Romano) - very much a form of street party with a 'royal' procession, and usually held to celebrate a military victory

27 BC - AD 14

During the period of office of Augustus in Rome, the Aquitani tribes are incorporated into the newly-formed province of Aquitania. The province extends from the Liger (the modern Loire) to the Pyrenees, and is bound on the northern side by Mons Cevennus. This is one of the three divisions of the Gauls, the others being Gallia Lugdunensis (Gaul proper) and Belgica.

AD 555

Medieval Aquitaine is first confirmed as a possession of the Franks, after a long struggle to wrest it from the hands of the Visigoths. A Merovingian duke by the name of Chramn is appointed to govern Aquitaine which usually also contains within its territory the region of Gascony.

Images and text copyright © all contributors mentioned on this page. An original king list page for the History Files.