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European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes


MapHelisii (Suevi)

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. They also extended eastwards, into the region that was becoming known as Germania. The Celts had ruled much of this in their heyday, but by the middle of the first century BC they were fragmented, and were either in the process of being expelled by the increasingly powerful Germanic tribes who were migrating southwards from Scandinavia and the Baltic coast, or they were being defeated and integrated into Germanic or other tribes. The Helisii were located in the area which today roughly forms the meeting point between eastern Slovakia, southern Poland and western Ukraine. They were neighboured to the north by Germanic tribes, including the Vandali, to the east by the Venedi, and to the south and west by fellow Celtic tribes including the Harii, Manimi, and Osi.

The Helisii tribal name is an odd one. It begins withy an element that is very similar to the Helvetii and Helveconae, but the 'v' (a 'w' sound) is missing. This means that the name is probably not descended from *selwa, meaning 'possessions' or 'possessors'. Assuming the 's' to 'sh' to 'h' shift that also happened with the other two tribes, then the older form 's/sh' plus 'elis' should be valid. That older first element in the name, 'sel-', appears to be an Indo-European word for a crawling animal, in Germanic usage a seal, in Celtic usage a turtle, snail, or the verb 'to crawl'. Could this be a totem animal such as a turtle, a metaphor for armoured? The tribe may have fought in some kind of armour, or perhaps naked or in linen. Unfortunately the very brief mention of them by Tacitus fails to supply any specifics, so a more precise meaning of Helisii cannot be hazarded.

Tacitus described the Helisii (or Elisii) as one of a number of tribes which together formed the federation of the Lugii, which itself was viewed as being part of the Suevi confederation. The Suevi were a confederation of (usually) Germanic peoples that came into existence by the first century AD, and perhaps earlier. It perhaps also included Celtic tribes that had remained in the region and which were largely absorbed by the later arrivals. The Suevi confederation included the tribes of the Alemanni, Angles, Hermunduri, Langobards, Marcomanni, Quadi, Semnones, and Warini, and perhaps also the Heruli too. None of these tribes were what could be considered 'front line' tribes, living along the border with the Roman empire. Instead they were arrayed behind a large number of other tribes which were better known and better attested by Roman writers. The Suebic tribes remained a little more obscure, at least until they came into direct contact with the empire, and many of the more minor tribes that made up the confederation were almost entirely unchronicled. The Harii, Helveconae, Manimi, and Naharvali were also sometimes included in the Lugii federation.

(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 The Oxford History of England: Roman Britain, Peter Salway, from Complete Works of Tacitus, Alfred John Church, William Jackson Brodribb, & Lisa Cerrato, from Geography, Ptolemy, and from External Link: Geography, Strabo (H C Hamilton & W Falconer, London, 1903, Perseus Online Edition). Other major sources listed in the 'Barbarian Europe' section of the Sources page.)

6th century BC

The Helisii probably belong to the Hallstatt culture of Celts, along with the Bebryces, Boii, Cotini, Harii, Helveconae, Manimi, Naharvali, Osi, and at least some elements of the later Lugii. They are to be found around the central German lands, and in Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia, and the edges of Poland and Ukraine. Around this time a large-scale expansion begins that sees many Hallstatt Celts migrate outwards, towards northern Italy, Gaul, or Iberia. Many others remain, and control the region until pressure from newly-arriving Germanic tribes begins to erode their hold in the second and first centuries BC.

Hallstatt Culture face mask
Displayed here are a Hallstatt face and mask, from the culture of the same name which spanned the Old Iron Age period between 800-450 BC

AD 23

The first historical mention of the Lugii is by Strabo, who seems to place them as members of a tribal federation which includes the Butones (a questionable name, perhaps a misspelling of Gutones), Mugilones, Semnones, Sibini and Zumi. There is no mention of the Harii, Helisii, Helveconae, Manimi, and Naharvali at this time.


Writing in AD 98, Tacitus mentions the Lugii. He is of the opinion that they are a federation of the smaller Gaulish tribes, the Harii, Helisii, Helveconae, Manimi, and Naharvali. Tacitus also mentions the Buri but not as members of the Lugii.


Ptolemy breaks the Lugii down into Lugi Buri, Lugi Diduni, and Lugi Omani. It seems plausible that the Manimi of AD 98 have some relationship to the Omani, based on the similar names, but of the Harii, Helisii, Helveconae, and Naharvali there is no sign once again. Have they been absorbed into the larger Lugii collective, or have they drifted off elsewhere, never to be recorded again by history?


By this time, the Suevi have formed a wide-ranging confederation of tribes that are all known individually but which are counted as being Suevi. The vast number of tribes included in the confederation include the Aestii, Angles, Aviones, Buri, Cotini, Eudoses, Gutones, Hermunduri (who have virtually ceased to exist as a recognisable independent people), Langobards, Lugii (a name applied to several tribes: the Harii, Helisii, Helveconae, Manimi, and Naharvali, although these are not mentioned at this time), Marcomanni, Marsigni, Naristi, Nuitones, Osi, Quadi, Reudigni, Semnones, Sitones, Suardones, Suiones (Swedes), and the Warini.