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European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes


MapInsubres (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 Insubres were located in northern Italy in the vicinity of modern Milan. They were neighboured to the west by the Salassi, to the north by the Seduni, and to the north and east by tribes of the Raeti.

There was a division of the Italic tribe of the Umbri which was known as the Insurbes. This is either a contraction of a longer name containing 'umbri' or a pun of some sort on 'umbri', warping it into a third possibility. As a tribal name, Insurbes (or Insubri) sounds very similar to the Gaulish Insubres, and swapped adjacent letter or sound positions are very common in proto-Italo-Celtic, so subres could become surbes. In Latin there is subruo subruti subrutum: to undermine, overthrow, destroy. This prompts the suggestion that Insurbes could mean those who revolted or destroyed. The element 'sub' means 'beneath' or 'under', so 'destroyed' would probably be an extension, with a core meaning of 'from beneath'. There is unlikely to be a direct relationship between the Gaulish and the Umbrian tribes, but it is a notable coincidence that they appear to carry a name that means the same thing: 'in-' plus 'sub-' plus 'umbro', plus the possible pun of insurrection made by removing the 'm'. Did they revolt against the main tribe to form their own independent grouping, and did the Gaulish Insubres do the same thing, gaining themselves the same name?

The chief oppidum of the Gaulish Insubres was Mediolanum (modern Milan). They appear to have begun as a canton (or sub-division) of the Aeduii around 600 BC, at least according to Livy. They were led into northern Italy by Bellovesus of the Bituriges, the first Celts to breach the Alps, and settled in the far north, around the waters of the Ticinus (the modern Ticino). Did they gain their name by rebelling against one of these powerful tribes?

(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 History of Rome, Volume 1, Titus Livius, translated by Reverend Canon Roberts, from Life of Marcellus, Plutarch, Epitome of Roman History, Lucius Annaeus Florus, and from External Links: Perseus Digital Library, and Polybius, Histories.)

c.600 BC

The first century BC writer, Livy (Titus Livius Patavinus), writes of an invasion into Italy of Celts during the reign of Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, king of Rome. As archaeology seems to point to a start date of around 500 BC for the beginning of a serious wave of Celtic incursions into Italy, this event has either been misremembered by later Romans or is an early precursor to the main wave of incursions. Livy writes that two centuries before major Celtic attacks take place against Etruscans and Romans in Italy, a first wave of invaders from Gaul fights many battles against the Etruscans who dwell between the Apennines and the Alps.

Gauls on expedition
An idealised illustration of Gauls on an expedition, from A Popular History of France From The Earliest Times Volume I by Francois Pierre Guillaume Guizot

At this time, the Bituriges are the supreme power amongst the Celts (who already occupy a third of the whole of Gaul). Livy understands that this tribe had formerly supplied the king for the whole Celtic race, either suggesting a previously more central governance of the Celts that is now beginning to fragment or the typical assumption that one powerful king rules an entire people. The prosperous and courageous, but now-elderly Ambigatus is the ruler of the Bituriges, and over-population means a division of its number is required. Ambigatus sends his sister's sons, Bellovesus and Segovesus, to settle new lands with enough men behind them to put down any opposition. Bellovesus heads towards Italy, inviting fellow settlers to join him from six tribes, the Aeduii, Ambarri, Arverni, Aulerci, Bituriges, Carnutes, and Senones. The body of people led by Bellovesus himself apparently consists mainly of Insubres, a canton (or sub-division) of the Aeduii.

fl c.600 BC


Nephew of Ambigatus of the Bituriges. Settled northern Italy.

474 BC

It seems that the Celtic arrival in northern Italy has not been entirely welcomed. The Etruscans, who themselves have been migrating northwards to the River Po from central Italy, have been clashing increasingly with the Celts for domination of the region.

A pivotal showdown takes place at the Battle of Ticinum in this year (which must be located close to the main Celtic settlement of Mediolanum which had been captured by the Bituriges and Insubres of Bellovesus around a century before).

The Etruscan force, which is little more than a well-armed militia, is butchered by the Celts in a ferociously fought battle. This victory confirms Celtic domination of the region for the next couple of centuries, so that it is called Gallia Cisalpina (Gaul on 'our' side of the Alps, 'ours' being the Latin and Italic side).

From this conquest it is likely that Celtic groups fan out in search of their own slice of territory, all the while being under the protection of Mediolanum. This is the most likely period for the Tarvisii finding a home near the Adriatic and soon interbreeding with nearby Veneti locals to produce a Celto-Veneti hybrid group (if indeed that is what the Tarvisii are).

According to local history, the territory of the Ausuciates falls under the domination of the powerful Insubres. The Ausuciates would appear to gain a Celtic ruling elite, with the tribe's name being adapted by these incomers to Auxucii (from which today's Ossuccio descends, and with the name being recorded by the Romans).

231 - 225 BC

The two most extensive Gallic tribes of northern Italy, the Boii and Insubres, send out the call for assistance against Rome to the tribes living around the Alps and on the Rhône. Rather than each of the tribes sending their own warriors, it appears that individual warriors are hired from the entire Alpine region as mercenaries. Polybius calls them Gaesatae, describing it as a word which means 'serving for hire'. They come with their own kings, Concolitanus and Aneroetes, who have probably been elected from their number in the Celtic fashion.

Celtic warriors
While most of the Gauls of the third century BC fought fully clothed, their Gaesatae mercenaries tended to fight with nothing more than their weapons, and not even the trousers shown here

The Gaesatae are offered a large sum of gold on the spot and the wealth of Rome is also pointed out - wealth that can be theirs if they stick to their task. The mercenaries are easily persuaded, and are proud to remind the other Gauls of the campaign that had been undertaken by their own ancestors in which they had seized Rome. This strongly suggests that a proportion of the Gaesatae (probably including their kings) are descended from members of the Senones tribe, as it was this tribe that had led the occupation of Rome in 389 BC.

Rome has been informed of what is coming, and hurries to assemble the legions. Even its ongoing conflict with the Carthaginians takes second place, and a treaty is hurriedly agreed with Hasdrubaal, commander in Iberia, which virtually confirms Carthaginian rule there. Such is Rome's haste that they approach the Gaulish frontier before the Gauls have even stirred.

It is 225 BC when the Gaesatae forces cross the Alps and enter the valley of the Padus with a formidable army, furnished with a variety of armour. The Boii, Insubres, and Taurini accompany them but the Cenomani and Adriatic Veneti are persuaded to side with Rome, forcing the Gauls to detach a force to guard their flank. Despite this, their main army consists of about a hundred and seventy thousand foot and horse, which petrifies the Romans and reminds them of 389 BC. As well as the four new legions, they are accompanied by Etruscans, Sabines, Sarsinates, and Umbri, and more Cenomani and Veneti. Defending Rome and its territories are Ferrentani, Iapygians, Latins, Lucanians, Marrucini, Marsi, Messapians, Samnites, and Vestini, plus two more legions on Sicily and in Tarentum.

The first battle, when it comes, is near Faesulae, outside the subjugated Etruscan city of Clevsin. The Romans are decimated and routed by superior Gaulish tactics. A fresh army under Lucius Aemilius arrives, and Aneroetes counsels retreat with their booty and army intact, ready to launch a fresh attack when ready. Consul Gaius Atilius lands at Pisae with the Sardinian legion and the Gauls find themselves caught between two Roman armies. The battle is fierce, and the Gauls gain the head of Gaius Atilius. However, the battle turns against them and large numbers of Gauls are cut down or taken prisoner, including Concolitanus. Aneroetes is able to flee with his band of followers, and they commit suicide together.

224 BC

Buoyed by its victory, Rome attempts to clear the entire valley of the Padus. Two legions are sent under the command of the consuls of that year, and the Boii are terrified into submission. However, incessant rain and an outbreak of disease prevents the legions from achieving anything greater.

223 BC

Two fresh consuls lead two more legions into the Padus, marching through the territory of the Anamares, who live not far from Placentia (some readings of the original text translate this as the Ananes and their home in the Marseilles region, which would be impossible given the nature of this campaign). They secure the friendship of this tribe and cross into the country of the Insubres, near the confluence of the Adua and Padus. Some skirmishing aside, peace is agreed with this tribe, and the Romans head for the River Clusius. There they enter Cenomani lands, with these allies providing some reinforcements. Then the Romans return to the Insubres and begin laying waste to their land. The tribe is faced with no choice but to fight, and their defeat is all but inevitable.

? - 222 BC

Viridomarus / Britomartus

A king of the Insubres. Killed.

222 BC

With peaceful overtures by the Insubres being firmly rejected by Rome, the tribe calls on the Gaesatae once more. Together they fight the Romans but Acerrae is attacked and destroyed, robbing the Gauls of their only fortified stronghold. They are again defeated at the Battle of Clastidium, and Viridomarus is killed in single combat by the Roman commander, Marcus Claudius Marcellus. Mediolanum is subsequently stormed by the Romans. Following some hard fighting, the Insubres are left with no option but to surrender, their unnamed chief making a complete submission to Rome. This act effectively ends the Gallic War in northern Italy, as Rome now dominates all of the tribes there.

Viridomarus can be a source of confusion, as his name has been translated in various ways from the original source material. In fact, Viridomarus, Vertomarus, and Britomarus are all one and the same person. The source name is probably Viritos, the Roman spelling, with the 'v' actually being a Celtic 'w' for 'Wiro-', meaning 'man'. 'Wirito-' would either be a 'little man' or a 'manly man', and a possible baby's name would be Wiritos. The second part of Viridomarus is 'maro-', meaning 'large'. So Viritomarus (Wiritomaros) would be a 'manly man' or. more amusingly, a 'Big Little Man'! Since Celtic is so close to Latin, 'wiritos' could instead be cognate with 'virtus', meaning 'manliness'. (A similar confusion with pronunciation could be behind the origins of Britain as a name.)

By this time, after a few hundred years in northern Italy, the Insubres may have integrated to an extent with surrounding Etruscans, Italics (most likely the Umbri), Ligurians, and Raeti. Modern archaeology seems to prefer a local origin for these particular Celts, but this is more likely to be a result of the aforementioned process of integration.

218 - 217 BC

The Second Punic War starts at Saguntum (near modern Valencia) in Iberia. Using Gadir as a base, Hannibal Barca sets out to attack Rome, leading his Carthaginian armies over the Alps into Italy. He has to fight off resistance by Gaulish tribes such as the Allobroges along the way but is supported by other Gauls such as the Insubres, who rebel against their Roman occupiers. At first he wins great victories at Trasimeno and Cannae which all but destroys Roman military strength, but he is denied the reinforcements to pursue his victory by an opposing political faction back at home. As the tidal wave of invasion passes by and dies down, Roman domination of the Boii, Gaesatae, Insubres, Lingones, and Taurini is renewed.

Western Alps
The Celtic tribes of northern Italy were large and dangerous to the Romans, unlike their fellow Celts in the Western Alps, who were relatively small in number and fairly fragmented, although they made up for that by being even more belligerent than their easterly cousins

200 - 194 BC

The Insubres support the Carthaginians again in 200 BC. Between then and 194 BC there are several minor clashes between the tribe and Rome, but then this changes. Whatever the reason for the change in tack, the Insubres now definitively ally themselves with Rome and as a result are able to gain a measure of self-determination.

89 - 49 BC

The tribe gains Latin citizenship and, in 49 BC, Roman citizenship. They appear to be fully Romanised by this date aided, probably, by their shared language roots. The city of Mediolanum eventually becomes medieval Milan. During the late Middle Ages, it emerges as the centre of an increasingly powerful territory called Insubria, which is better known by its alternative title, the lordship of Milan.

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