History Files

European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes


MapCatalauni / Catavellauni (Belgae)

FeatureIn general terms, the Romans coined the name 'Gaul' to describe the Celtic tribes of what is now central, northern, and eastern France. To the north of these were the tribes of the Belgae, divided from the Gauls by the rivers Marne and the Seine. By the middle of the first century BC, the Catavellauni were a minor tribe that was located on the southern Belgae-Gaulish border, on the right bank of the Sequana (the modern River Seine). They were neighboured to the north-west by the Parisii and Suessiones, to the north-east by the Remi, to the east by the Leuci, to the south by the Tricasses, and across the Seine to the west by the Senones.

With the plural suffix removed, the tribe's Catavellauni name is formed of two words, with 'cat', which means battle, being the first element. Don't be fooled by the 'Catalauni' mishearing or misspelling by ancient authors (which is perpetuated by many modern authors). Perceived conventional wisdom in regard to the second element in Catavellauni, 'vel', is that it means 'leader', which would produce something like 'the battle leader'. A problem here is that it is in the German sequence, not the Celtic. In the latter language the modifier comes after the noun. As this tribe were Belgics, this could be due to heavy contact with the Germanic tribes of Scandinavia in the Iron Age, before the migration westwards. The Belgae group would seem to be an eastern branch of Celts who moved west at a later stage. Their dialect probably used a 'b' or a 'v' sound where their western cousins in Gaul used a 'w' sound, opening up different interpretations for their names. Another possibility is that linguists are wrong about the meaning of 'vel', and that its original meaning is different. In Old English, 'wæl' means slaughter, carnage, a shambles. In Latin 'bello' means 'war' (conventional wisdom says that 'bello' is a mutated form of 'duello'). But perhaps 'vel' is a proto-Celtic-Italic word for a field of slaughter, also adopted into Germanic, or perhaps it came the opposite way, from Germanic into northern Gaulish. Perhaps 'Catuvel' means 'cat' or 'cad' (battle) plus 'vel' or 'wal' (slaughter). Similar complicated problems exist with an examination of the Belgic Veliocasses tribe.

This examination of both names produces a suspicion that the 'vel' element could in fact be 'wallo' or 'wello', which is also the proto-Celtic noun for 'fight' or 'war' (or close to it), assuming that it is cognate in Latin as 'bell' (with the '-um' suffix from 'bellum' removed), and assuming that 'duell' (with the '-um' suffix again removed) is from 'duo' plus 'vell' or 'bell', meaning a fight between two parties. 'Vell' is a possibility because in Oscan (the language of the Opici and several other Iron Age Italic tribes), 'volloíom' means to destroy, which supports the supposition regarding 'vell'. In proto-Indo-European (PIE), *wal seems to mean 'strong', 'powerful'. This may have mutated into multiple extended meanings. This gives us yet another possible meaning for the Catavellauni: 'strong in battle' ('battle strong' in its Celtic word order). Was 'vell' extended in early Q-Celtic to reference war itself, as it comes down to us from Latin?

The tribe occupied the central Plainee de Champagne, which lies along the upper valley of the Matrona (the modern Marne). As with the Carnutes, the Catavellauni were dominated by the powerful Remi, although they were not mentioned by Caesar during his campaigns, only by later authors (Ammianus Marcellinus and Flavius Eutropius, amongst others). Their tribal capital was Durocatalaunum (modern Châlons-sur-Marne). The tribe were united in a policy of mutual support by the nearby Mediomatrici and the Leuci, and the latter may once have been a client unit of the Mediomatrici. As for their origins, they were Belgae, which means that they migrated from the east, probably from areas of northern Germany or the Pomeranian of Poland, Bohemia or Moravia, and quite possibly divided in two along the way, with one part going to Britain to become known as the Insular Catuvellauni.

(Information by Peter Kessler and Edward Dawson, with additional information from Res Gestae, Ammianus Marcellinus, from Flavius Eutropius, from the Encyclopaedia of European Peoples, Carl Waldman & Catherine Mason, 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 Link: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars.)

57 BC

The Belgae enter into a confederacy against the Romans in fear of Rome's eventual domination over them. They are also spurred on by Gauls who are unwilling to see Germanic tribes remaining on Gaulish territory and are unhappy about Roman troops wintering in Gaul. The Senones are asked by Julius Caesar to gain intelligence on the intentions of the Belgae, and they report that an army is being collected. Caesar marches ahead of expectations and the Remi, on the Belgic border, instantly surrender (probably along with the Catavellauni and the Tricasses).

Battle of the Axona
The Battle of the (River) Axona (the modern Aisne in north-eastern France) witnessed the beginning of the end of the Belgic confederation against Rome

53 - 52 BC

The Catavellauni are not mentioned by Julius Caesar in his Gallic Wars. Despite the later importance of their Catuvellauni cousins in Britain, the Continental Catavellauni appear to be relatively insignificant. They are probably lumped together with the Remi in any references that involve them, and are similarly restrained by Roman garrisons from taking part in the general Gaulish rebellion of Vercingetorix.

AD 273

According to Flavius Eutropius, 'Campi Catalauni' the main town of the Catavellauni, is the scene of a battle between Roman Emperor Aurelian and his main opponent, Esuvius Tetricus, ruler of the Imperium Galliarum. The Imperium Galliarum collapses when Aurelian defeats Tetricus, who subsequently surrenders and is permitted to pursue a useful and distinguished career in Roman life.


Another battle takes place near Châlons, probably as part of the fight against the Barbarian Conspiracy of 367. Roman General Iovinus defeats a 'Germanic' army.


The most famous of battles takes place in the Catavellauni district. To preserve their new domains, the Visigoths and Franks fight on the side of Rome to halt the advance of the Huns at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains. The Huns call on their subject allied tribes, which include the Gepids, Ostrogoths, Scirii, and Taifali. Rome also has units of independent Alani, Armoricans, and Taifali on its side.

Attila the Hun
Despite his great success over the barbarian tribes of eastern and Central Europe, Attila's stalemate against an allied Roman-led army in 451 was a blow to his prestige, and his death soon afterwards caused his empire to crumble

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