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European Kingdoms

Iberian Tribes


Cantabri (Hispano-Celts)
Incorporating the Aunigaini, Avarigini, Avnigaini, Blendii, Camarici, Concarni, Coniaci, Conisci, Corcarnii, Morecani, Noegi, Orgenomesci, Plentusii, Salaeni, Seleni, Tamarici, & Vadiniensi

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 Cantabri were a mixed Hispano-Celtic tribal confederation which was located in the northern central Iberian peninsula, along the Atlantic coast. They were neighboured to the east by various Celtic tribes which included Autrigones and Caristii, to the south by Turmodigi and Vaccaei, and to the west by the Astures.

The Cantabri are also referred to as Cantabrians. The name comes from the ancient Greek Kantabroi, although they are more locally known as Cantabrices. 'Cantabri' has two parts: 'cant' and 'abr-', and a plural suffix (-i). One modern breakdown gives 'cant-' as 'mountain', from Ligurian, which would tie in with the idea of Urnfield culture people being Celto-Ligurians.

The problem with 'cant' is that in Celtic it can either be 'singer' or 'hundred'. The other part, 'abr-', looks like an intensifier, equivalent to the English word 'very'. So they would be the 'great singers' or the 'great hundred'. But this was a coalition, not a tribe, with an appropriate name being adopted.

Perhaps 'hundred' simply meant a large number, not an exact hundred. Then the name would make sense as the 'large number' or host, implying that this coalition of tribes was numerous, and especially implying a great many warriors.

Their territory comprised not only most of the modern province of Cantabria, but also the northern part of the provinces of Burgos and Palencia, the north-east section of today's province (and medieval kingdom) of Leon, the east of the medieval principality of the Asturias, and the westerly part of the province of Vizcaya.

Their principal civitas was Aracillum (the archaeological site of Castro de Espina de Gallego, close to the Cantabrian coast and the Rio Besaya river in the Sierra del Escudo mountain range, with this range having been considered the border between La Marina (the coast) and La Montaña). Other important civitates or strongholds include Villeca or Vellica (Monte Cildá, Palencia), Bergida (Castro de Monte Bernorio, Palencia), and Amaya or Amaia (Peña Amaya, Burgos).

According to early classical authors who wrote about them in rather derogatory terms, this confederation consisted of seven tribes. Since then four more have been added to provide a complete list which includes the Aunigaini (Avnigaini) who lived in the vicinity of Piso Capia, Sierra del Dobra, not far from Puente Viesgo, and the Avarigini who lived around the Rio Nansa upper and middle basins, covering the municipalities of Herrerías, Valdáliga, and Rionansa.

Plus there were the Blendii and Plentusii (many historians consider them to be one and the same tribe) between Campoo (central Cantabria including the source of the Ebro) and the coast (Suances), and the Concarni (some confusion, largely due to Ptolemy who placed them in north-eastern Cantabria, although today they are generally placed around Congarna in the Comarca of Liebana).

Then there were the Coniaci who, according to Strabo, were in the vicinity of the source of the Ebro (some today class them as being the same as the Corcarnii), the Conisci of eastern Cantabria, in the valley of the Asón and the north of the province of Burgos, the Morecani around the valley of the Rudron and in southern Cantabria and northern Burgos, the Noegi (little known except that they may have lived in Noesca Ucesia which would place them in today's eastern Asturias), and the Orgenomesci between the River Sella (Asturias) and western Cantabria.

There were the Salaeni or Seleni who, according to Mela, lived around the River Saunio (which Adolf Schulten has claimed was the River Sella in Asturias, making them an Astures Cismontani people), while Joaquín González Echegaray places them between the rivers Besaya and Saja (in central Cantabria), near the municipality of Torrelavega where the two rivers conjoin

And finally there were the Tamarici or Camarici of south-western Cantabria and on the borders of Palencia and Leon, and the Vadiniensi (or Vadineses) of western Cantabria, eastern Asturias, and north-eastern Leon.

The Orgenomesci was composed of clans, one of which - the Pembeli - is remembered in the town of Pembes. The Tamarici also was composed of a number of clans, but the only one known is the Alionigi. The clans of the Vadiniensi are better known, including the Alongi, Aravi, Archeaduni, Arci, Argannaei Aroniaecini, Biracidegini, Boddegi, Bodivesci, Cadarici Cantiani, Corovesci, Doiderigi, Pentioci, and Vernaei Vellici of northern Palencia.

The ruins of Numantia in Iberia

(Information by Trish Wilson and Peter Kessler, 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 Historia de España 2 - colonizaciones y formación de los pueblos prerromanos (1200-218 a.C.), Ángel Montenegro et allii, from Roma contra Cantabros y Astures - Nueva lectura de las fuentes, Martino Eutrimio, from Las Guerras Cantabras, Martin Almagro Gorbea et alli, and from External Links: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars, and Celtiberia.net (in Spanish), and Lista de pueblos prerromanos de Iberia (in Spanish, Hispanoteca.eu), and Euskomedia (in Spanish), and Asociacion Guerras Cantabras (in Spanish), and Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Los Cantabros antes de Roma, Eduardo Peralta Labrado (Acaedmia.edu).)

4th century BC

Not much is known about Cantabri origins. The Roman view on the subject is that they are fourth century arrivals into Iberia, which would make them La Tène Celts. If the Cantabri name has a Ligurian element (see above) then these La Tène Celts probably find an earlier Celto-Ligurian populace to dominate when they enter territory to the western end of the Pyrenees. There they form an intermixed, Celt-dominated Hispano-Celtic tribal identity.

Ligurian coastline
The Ligurian coastline of modern Italy owes its name to the Ligurian people, a pre-Indo-European grouping which probably consisted of several influences prior to being Latinised by the Romans

154 - 133 BC

FeatureThe Numantine War is the final major conflict in the Celtiberian Wars. It is triggered in 154 BC when the Celtiberians of Numantia revolt against Roman domination. The Lusitanian War takes place alongside it, both helped along by large numbers of Iberian Mercenaries (see feature link).

A lull occurs between 151-143 BC before the Numantine War flares up again. The Arevaci are the principle participants but in the end it is largely a case of unified Celtiberians against Romans.

In 137 BC when a combined Cantabri-Vaccaei contingent is on its way to counter a siege of Numantia (primarily the home of the Pelondones), such is the panic in the Roman lines that the commander, Consul Gaius Hostilius Mancinus, is forced to surrender on humiliating terms. However, the final, now-hopeless siege of Numantia sees many of the Celtiberian defenders commit suicide rather than surrender.

1st century BC

By this time the various Cantabri contingents have unified into a single structure. The Romans suspect them of playing a double game in relation to increasing Roman domination, providing their services to the Romans while at the same time supporting anti-Roman rebellions and raiding nearby territories.

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)

80 - 72 BC

The Sertorian War in Hispania causes the Celts of Mediterranean Gaul to be subjected to troop levies and forced requisitions in order to support the military efforts of Metellus Pius, Pompeius, and other Roman commanders against the rebels.

In Iberia the Berones and Autrigones oppose Quintus Sertorius until he is driven out of Iberia. Celtiberian tribes also take part, such as the Arevaci, Lusones, and Pelondones. However, some Celtic polities, including, remarkably, the Helvii, support Sertorius and they pay the price for their support after his assassination.

The Helvii and Volcae Arecomisci are forced to cede a portion of their territory to the Greek city state of Messalina. Caesar mentions this land forfeiture but does not provide any details of the Helvii actions against Rome.

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 Barbarian Europe 52 BC
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 their king, 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 rather more difficult opponents. The campaign against the Sotiates has given them time to raise troops from northern Iberia, many of which had fought with Quintus Sertorius, and they have learnt a great deal from that experience.

River Garonne in France
The Garonne in south-western France provided a defining line between the lands of the Gauls to the north and those of the Aquitani to the south, although by the first century BC this definition had blurred somewhat

49 - 46 BC

The Roman civil war is sparked between Julius Caesar and Pompey as the former crosses the Rubicon. Rome's various allies and subject peoples take sides, including the Cantabri who side with Pompey.

His legates, Lucius Afranius and Marcus Petreius, are outmanoeuvred by Caesar in a largely bloodless campaign which includes the Battle of Lerida (Ilerda) in 49 BC and which puts Hispania out of the war.

Defeated at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC, Pompey flees to Cleopatra VII, daughter of his late ally in Egypt. Ptolemy XIII has him executed. By then the Cantabri have already switched their allegiance to Caesar who wins the civil war at the Battle of Thapsus in 46 BC.

36 - 31 BC

The Roman commanders in Iberia are Gaius Norbanus Flaccus, Lucius Marcus Phillipus, Appius Claudius Pulcher, and Gaius Calvisius Sabinus. Together they declare themselves to be the victors in the ongoing struggle for domination over the Astures, Cantabri, and Vaccaei. Despite the pronouncement, none of these tribes have been subdued.

29 BC

Cantabri raids have continued against their wealthier neighbours to the continued annoyance of the Roman authorities. Now, under the command of Corocotta, they also support the Vaccaei anti-Roman revolt of this year. This is enough for Rome, sparking the Cantabrian Wars.

Astures warriors attack Romans
Astures warriors attack Roman troops in this modern illustration which also shows short trousers, an influence from the east, probably via Mesopotamia

fl 29 - 26/15? BC

Corocotta / Korokota

Chief of the Cantabri (or at least some).

29 - 27 BC

The Cantabrian Wars (29-19 BC, also referred to as the Cantabrian & Asturian Wars) see Rome attacking the final unconquered quarter of Iberia. The attempt under the overall command of Augustus takes a decade and involves at least fifty thousand Roman soldiers (eight legions, auxiliaries, and additions).

That the Romans find the Cantabri to be a formidable force is without doubt. Amongst other things the tribe has almost fifty documented fortified castros, with much of the modern research work on these being undertaken by the Spanish historian and archaeologist, Eduardo Peralta Labrador.

They fight using guerrilla tactics and appear to prefer suicide to surrender, although mass executions also take place at Roman hands. An early battle is important in terms of shaping how the war will be fought.

In the Meseta North area the Romans are commanded by Titus Statilius Taurus. he is able to take control of Vaccaei territory while the Cantabri and Astures flee into the mountains to take refuge.

27 - 26 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 Iberian province of Hispania Tarraconensis (founded in 27 BC).

Caesar Augustus
During his long 'reign' as Rome's first citizen, Augustus brought peace to the city and oversaw its transition from failing republic to vigorous and expanding empire

Augustus takes personal command in 26 BC, determined to end the last Hispanic resistance by the Cantabri and Astures. Such is the situation facing Augustus that he feels it necessary to bring in seven legions from Aquitania: I Augusta, II Augusta, IV Macedonia, V Alaude, VI Victrix, IX Hispana, X Germina, and XX Valeria, along with a large number of auxiliary troops.

In the summer of that year, three legions under the command of Publius Carisius capture the Astures oppidum, Asturica, which Augustus renames Asturica Augusta. These three legions are settled around the region to ensure its cooperation.

They are V Aludae (settlement area unknown), VI Victrix in Asturica (the later Astorga of Leon), and X Gemina in Petavonium (today's Rosinos de Vidriales, Zamora). The Cantabri quickly plunder the Astures crops, causing the Romans to experience their own supply problems.

25 - 19 BC

In spring the Astures revolt. The Romans are forewarned by the Brigaentin Astures and are able to repel the attack. The surviving Astures forces are able to join the Cantabri in the mountains.

Mountains of the Picos de Europa in Spain
The 'Picos de Europa' is the oldest and most spectacular national park in Spain, encompassing as it does a stretch of the Cantabrian mountain range which proved so important to the resistance effort against Rome

Towards the end of the year, after much hardship and loss on both sides, Legate Antistitius finally conquers the important civitas of Aracillum, following a battle inside the associated castro. Rome considers the campaign to be over but hostilities are resumed in 24 BC.

The finish comes in 19 BC, when the Romans are able to launch a seaborne assault from Gaul. Corocotta is recorded as surrendering in person to Augustus (which would place the event in 26-25 BC or 15-14 BC), in return for the sizable reward money on his head which will be distributed amongst his people.

His final fate is uncertain, with both capture and release being mentioned. His people are treated harshly, with forced deportations, burned crops, slaughtered cattle, and slavery being Rome's preferred options.

Even so, rebellions continue until 16 BC and two entire legions have to be stationed there for a further seventy years to ensure the peace. In time, following the fading of Roman imperial authority, Cantabri territory is at least partially incorporated into the north-western Iberian kingdom of the Suevi, although the Visigoths may also claim some southern sections.

Map of the Visigoth & Suevi kingdoms in AD 470
In AD 469/470 the Visigoths expanded their kingdom to its largest extent, reaching Nantes in the north and Cadiz in the south, but it was not to last - with the accession of Clovis of the Salian Franks, the Visigoths had found an opponent who would wrest Gaul away from their control in stages (click or tap on map to view full sized)

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