History Files

European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes


MapBrigantii (Gauls)

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, and they also extended into Switzerland, northern Italy, and along the Danube. By the middle of the first century BC, the Brigantii were located around the northern shores of Lacus Brigantinus in Rhaetia (the modern Lake Constance). They were neighboured to the north and east by the Vindelici, to the south by various tribes of the Raeti, and to the west by the Helvetii.

The Brigantii tribal name had the same origins as that of the Brigantes in Britain and the Brigantes of Ireland, after the goddess Brigantia most likely. Her name derived from a word for a fort or hill, probably in the sense of it being a protected home. The word is seen in English as 'burg' and 'borough' for a town, and in German 'burg' (castle) and 'berg' or 'birg' (a mountain).

The tribe occupied areas of the Alps, in a region called Cispadane Gaul by Strabo and confirmed as Rhaetia by Pliny the Elder. They had a capital at Brigantion (modern Bregenz in Austria), and Strabo links them with the city of Cambodunum (modern Kempten) which is in south-western Bavaria. They may have also extended into what is now eastern France with settlements at Brigantorum (modern Brianconnet) and Brigantio (modern Briançon) in Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur. To further support a claim of Brigantii extension into France, there is an inscription to Brigantia (termed Brigindo in this case) in Auxey on the Côte d'Or, to the north of both towns. Julius Caesar stated that the Celts who lived nearest the Rhine, which included the Brigantii, waged continual war against the encroaching Germanic tribes on the other side.

The tribe's exact relationship with the Brigantes of Britain is unclear. Several classical writers noted that there were Celtic tribes whose territories were found in both the Continent and Britain, such as the Belgae or the Parisii. It is possible that the Brigantes were a contingent of Brigantii that moved into Britain around the same time as the Belgae, perhaps in the form of a fleeing elite which included priests or priestesses together with nobles. However, it seems more likely that both tribes were simply followers of the Celtic goddess Brigantia. The Brigantes of Britain were first encountered at a later date, of course, but by that time they were already very well-established in the region and unlikely to be recent arrivals.

(Information by Peter Kessler and Edward Dawson, 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, and from External Links: Jones' Celtic Encyclopaedia, and Geography, Strabo (H C Hamilton & W Falconer, London, 1903, Perseus Online Edition), and The Natural History, Pliny the Elder (John Bostock, Ed).)

5th century BC

The Brigantii migrate into the Cispadane Gaul region of the Alps, arriving in an area that has already been settled for a millennium. Strabo later states that they are a sub-tribe of the Vindelici, who occupy territory to the north-east. This could indicate the route taken by the Brigantii to reach their new home, but it also raises the possibility that they are not Gauls, or perhaps only partially so. The Vindelici have an uncertain ancestry, possibly being a blend of Celts and Ligurians, making it possible that the Brigantii are Ligurians commanded by a Gaulish elite. Even referring to the Brigantii as Celts is merely the modern naming convention that has been inherited from the Romans. Thinking of the term as valid or invalid may be irrelevant. 'Celt' may simply be what some West Indo-European speakers call themselves and others not - and with the Celts long in the ascendance in Central Europe, some non-Celtic people may arbitrarily adopt the term in order to fit in.

An artist's recreation of the Brigantii settlement of Cambodunum, which was located in what is now south-western Bavaria, part of the heartland of early Celtic development

The arrival of the Brigantii probably causes some disturbance amongst the established native tribes, and some fighting, no doubt. The Brigantii soon establish a settlement called Brigantion (according to Strabo), which becomes one of their most heavily-fortified locations. No doubt the native tribes still pose a threat.

218 BC

Writing in the mid-second century BC, Polybius provides both the Allobroges and the Segovellauni with their first mention in history. The Allobroges are already established on the western side of the Alps and control many of the important passes through the mountains. They (and 'other tribes' which may include the Medulli) unsuccessfully attempt to resist the passage of Hannibal and his Carthaginian army which is on its way to attack Rome during the Second Punic War.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, it seems to be fellow Celts, the Boii, who first show the mountain passes to Hannibal after the Segovellauni have escorted them through the Allobroges' lands, according to Livy in Ab Urbe Condita. Tribal politics often means using your enemy's enemy to strike a blow against them and the Boii are already a vast tribe who may be flexing their political muscle at this time. The Boii also show that they are able to understand the speech of the Alpine tribes, demonstrating that Gaulish Celtic is the dominant language in the region, whatever the ancestry of the tribes in question.

52 BC

With the defeat of the pan-Gaulish revolt at Alesia, all of Gaul is brought under Roman domination, and the history of its population of Celts is tied to that of the empire. However, the Celts of the Alps still seem to retain their independence for over a generation. By this stage, any non-Celtic influences in the Alpine tribes has largely been absorbed.

25 - 15 BC

Augustus determines that the Alpine tribes need to be pacified in order to end their warlike behaviour, alternately attacking or extracting money from Romans who pass through the region, even when they have armies in tow. He wages a steady, determined campaign against them, and in a period of ten years he 'pacifies the Alps all the way from the Adriatic to the Tyrrhenian seas' (written by Augustus himself). The Brigantii and their immediate neighbours are defeated by 15 BC, with Brigantion being captured. The settlement is converted into a Roman military camp.

c.AD 50

Brigantion gains the status of municipality - Brigantium. The town also serves as the command headquarters for the Roman navy on Lake Constance. Towards the end of the century, Brigantium and the neighbouring Vindelici are incorporated into the province of Raetia.

Lake Constance
Lake Constance (now part of Switzerland) was a Roman lake during the first century AD, with the local headquarters at Brigantium, former tribal capital of the Brigantii


The Alemanni break the Roman limes in strength, causing widespread damage. The archaeological evidence reveals a lack of continuity in the provincial Roman population. Roman encampments and settlements, including the villae rusticae (farms), are abandoned and destroyed. One such settlement is Brigantion, former fortified town of the Brigantii. With extraordinary effectiveness the Alemanni penetrate as far as Italy where they are at last halted. Emperor Gallienus defeats them in battle at Mediolanum (Milan) in 259, but the limes region is not resettled until the fourth century, and it is the Alemanni who conquer it.

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