History Files

European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes


Biturices Vivisci (Gauls)
Incorporating the Belendi & Medulli

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, the Biturices Vivisci were a relatively minor tribe which was occupying territory around modern Bordeaux. They were neighboured to the north by the Santones, to the east by the Petrocorii, and to the south by the Vasates and a pocket of Boii which may have gained some Aquitani influences and which is often referred to as the Boiates.

The Biturices or Bituriges tribal name (both forms can be used) breaks down as *bitu- and *rīg-. The proto-Celtic dictionary gives 'bitu' as 'world', but on taking a closer look it can be seen that it is closer to the Latin 'vita'. Cross-checking the proto-Indo-European root shows all the cognates, some of which also use that sequence.

So while the conventional meaning of 'bitu' is listed as 'world', it appears actually to mean 'life', cognate with the Latin 'vita', the Lithuanian 'gyvata' and Old Irish 'bethu', all meaning life, not world. The Old Irish version is the particular give-away for this.

The second part of the name, *rīg-, means 'king' ('rik' or 'rix' are variations on 'rīg'), so the tribe's name did not mean the typically-quoted (and arrogant-sounding) 'kings of the world', it meant 'kings of life'. The name may be related to the tribe's prominent links with druidism and their political influence which was so heavily targeted by Julius Caesar.

As for the 'Vivisci' epithet used by Ausonius, Strabo shows it as 'Iosci', Pliny renders it as 'Ubisci', and Ptolemy as 'Vibisci'. In Latin the noun 'vita' comes from an alteration of the verb 'vivere', meaning 'to live'. The core part of 'Vivisci' is 'viv' (the verb 'to live') plus the '-isc' suffix (the adjective-forming suffix). In English their name, Biturices Vivisci, would mean the 'living kings of life'.

English sticks an adjective before the noun it modifies, while Latin and Celtic instead places the adjective after the noun (except, it seems, in cases in which there was strong Germanic influence). The intriguing question is why the 'kings of life' would need to reaffirm their name in this way. Possibly it was another reference to druidism.

This group of Biturices was a division of the Bituriges Cubi tribe which was located to the north-east, in central Gaul. They seem to have been cut off from their cousins by the middle of the first century BC as the Santones and Lemovices intruded to the north of the Garonne (although this intrusion could have happened later, as a result of Roman interference).

They occupied the fertile region around their chief settlement of Burdigala (modern Bordeaux). That name may have had Aquitani origins, and it also survives today in the River Bourde which lies to the south of Bordeaux (river names generally do not alter whoever rules the territory around them).

Records from the second century BC indicate that the tribe could be broken down into several sub-divisions by this time: the aforementioned Boiates (of Buch), which is now the south-western corner of the modern Gironde département; the Belendi (or Pelendi) of Belin, which lies immediately to the south of Bordeaux and which bears the name of this particular tribal sub-division which was neighboured by the Convenae and Onesii; and the Medulli of Medoc, the north-western region of Gironde which forms a point at the junction of the River Garonne and the Atlantic.

The Belendi division of the tribe gained their name from the proto-Celtic *belo-, beleno- (?), which means 'bright'. How this referred to the Belendi is unknown, but they may have been Aquitani, which would certainly distort any name breakdown. The Pelondones of Iberia are suspected of being a division of theirs, with a southwards migratory path to the Pyrenees being entirely feasible. They were located close to the Onobrisates, a confirmed Aquitani tribe.

The Medulli should not be confused with the tribe of the Medulli who were to be found in the Alps in the first century BC. Their name can be interpreted in a number of ways, with perhaps the best choices being 'middle' or 'power'.

However, 'mead' and 'drunk' offer more fun: *med-alo- (?), meaning 'soft'; *med-e/o- (?), meaning 'be able'; *med-e/o- (?), meaning 'say'; *med-e/o- (?), meaning 'sin'; *med-je/o-, meaning 'measure'; *medjo-, *mediåã, meaning 'middle'; *medjo-samīno-, meaning 'June' (*middle of summer); *med-o- (?), meaning 'power'; *medu-, meaning 'mead'; and finally *medwo-, meaning 'drunk'.

Ancient Britons

(Information by Peter Kessler and Edward Dawson, with additional information by Trish Wilson, from the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, William Smith, 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 Geography, Ptolemy, and from External Links: Geography, Strabo (H C Hamilton & W Falconer, London, 1903, Perseus Online Edition), and The Natural History, Pliny the Elder (John Bostock, Ed).)

c.400 BC?

The Bituriges have until about now formed what is probably one of the largest and most powerful tribes in Western Europe. It seems to be around this time that they divide into two groups which become the Bituriges Cubi and Biturices Vivisci.

Remains of the wall of Augustobriga (Muro de Agreda)
The remains of the wall of the Pelondones settlement of Augustobriga (today's Muro de Agreda), which would seem to be very close to the tribal oppidum of Visontium (External Links: Diego Delso, delso.photo, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International)

This split could also be linked to the one which Livy describes for the greater Bituriges tribe around 600 BC. It could also be the point at which the possibly-related Pelondones decide to follow a general migratory path into Iberia.

The first group settles in central France while the second prefers to head for Bordeaux and the coast. The split could be caused by a difference of viewpoint between two powerful groups in the tribe, either with the druids or the warrior elite but, either way, both appear to retain the parent tribe's name in varying forms and both remain key centres of druidic activity.

c.300 BC

By this stage the Bituriges Vivisci have settled a fertile region upon which they have founded their chief settlement of Burdigala (modern Bordeaux). Nestled on the edge of Aquitani lands, they may even end up dominating or absorbing Aquitani influences.

107 BC

During the Cimbrian War it is Consul Lucius Cassius Longinus who enters Gallia Narbonensis to oppose the Cimbri in defence of Rome's Allobroges allies. He is killed along with his lieutenant, Lucius Piso (grandfather of Lucius Calpurnius Piso, father-in-law to Julius Caesar), at the Battle of Burdigala, the chief town of the Bituriges Vivisci.

The Teutones wandering in Gaul
An illustration depicting the Teutones (close allies of the Cimbri) wandering in Gaul, part of a large-scale migration from modern Denmark into northern Italy in the second century BC

The victors are the Helvetii, who rout the Roman force under Cassius and humiliatingly force it to 'pass under the yoke' after it has surrendered the bulk of its supplies.

106 BC

With Roman authority badly damaged by its defeat at Burdigala, a fresh force is sent under the command of Consul Quintus Servilius Caepio to regain control of several towns which includes Tolosa of the Volcae Tectosages. This is achieved, cementing Roman control in Gallia Narbonensis.

c.60 BC

The Bituriges Vivisci oppidum of Burdigala falls under Roman control. This apparently takes place around the same time as the Helvetii begin an invasion of the lowlands of Gaul, and Julius Caesar recruits two new legions to face the threat.

Although Caesar doesn't mention the Vivisci in his writings, securing Burdigala could be a reaction to the invasion, a securing of lines of communication, as well as also securing important lead and tin supplies from this region.

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)

53 BC

Otherwise apparently playing no noticeable part in the Roman conquest of Gaul up to this point, the Medulli are mentioned when Julius Caesar returns to Port Itius as part of his preparations for a second expedition to Britain.

He discovers that forty ships which had been built in the country of the 'Meldi' (the Medulli) had been driven back by a storm and have returned to port. This seems likely to have been the Medulli of the Atlantic coast, which they share with the Pictones - and the Pictones certainly are shipbuilders for the Romans.

AD 28

The Bituriges Vivisci are incorporated into the province of Aquitania by Emperor Augustus. Burdigala later becomes the province's capital, and the fortunes of the region's population of Celts are now tied to the history of the Roman empire.

The later medieval diocese of Bordeaux appears to reflect the extent of the tribe's territory, part of which extends to the east of the Garonne. The neighbouring Aquitani gradually coalesce in a region which comes to be known as Vasconia (modern Gascony).

Third century Roiman Burdigala
Roman Burdigala in the third century AD, clearly showing its expansion from a Celtic tribal oppidum to a sizeable thriving town

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