History Files

European Kingdoms



Lepontii (Celto-Ligurians? / Celto-Raeti?)

Prior to domination by Rome, the Alpine region contained various populations which had a complex, obscure, and ethnically-multilayered history. Two major ethnic groups were recorded (aside from intrusions by the Etruscans and Veneti), these being the Euganei on the north Italian plain and the Alpine foothills, and the Raeti in the Trentino and Alto Adige valleys.

There were a great many more minor groups, all of which seem to have formed part of the initial phase of the Golasecca culture. Generally they belonged to one or the other of these though, or to the coastal Ligurians who had gradually penetrated the Alps from the south.

FeatureThere were many groups which formed Europe's Ligurian people, with not even a confederation uniting them all. While potentially Ligurians themselves, the case for the Lepontii (or Leponzi) is highly unclear (see feature link for more on the Ligurians in general). They were located across part of the Italian province of Verbano-Cusio-Ossola (Piedmont), and the southern part of the canton of Ticino, including the southern slopes both of the Simplon and Gotthard passes.

They were neighboured to the north by the Uberi and Vennonetes tribes of the Raeti, to the east by the Camuni (more Raeti), to the south by the mighty Celtic Insubres, and to the west by the Salassi and the mysterious Acitavones.

The main Lepontii settlements were Oscela, today's Domodossola (literally the 'dome of Ossola', or possibly the Cathedral of Ossola), and Bilitio, today's Bellinzona, capital of Ticino. Territory would have included Locarno, a major town around Lake Maggiore which lies between the above settlements. According to Pliny they lived in the Central Alps, between the sources of the Rhone and Rhine.

The Italian version of the Swiss Historical Lexicon (SHL) is more specific in placing them in the Val d'Ossola, just north of Lago Maggiore, the upper part of the Canton of Valais, Val de Binn, which is known for its mineral resources. Along with this they are connected to the region known as Sopraceneri (Ticino), which includes Bellinzona. Locarno, and the town of Leventina. That latter name apparently derives from the tribe's own name.

Further domains included the Valle Mesolcina/Misoxtal, Canton Grisons, which stretches from the San Bernadino to the town of Grono which is not far from Bellinzona. The lexicon also states that this area was of strategic importance due to the number of alpine crossings which link the upper valleys of the Rhine and Rhone to the River Po.

According to the Italian section of the SHL, the Lepontii were quite a cultured people given the evidence from archaeological finds. They acted as trade intermediaries between the Etruscans and the Transalpine Celts and, from 200 BC onwards thanks to their immediate neighbours in the Po valley, were increasingly Romanised.

In fact they seem to have enjoyed a standard of living which was well in advance of any of the Alpine tribes. Archaeological finds reveal bronze pottery, amber, and coral, along with a remarkable economic and cultural development, acquired thanks to control of alpine passes and trade flows. Even the apparel of their women was above that of other tribes.

Part of the Golasecca culture of northern Italy and the southern Alps, neighbouring the Hallstatt to its north which perhaps provided them with their first dose of Celticisation, they are often grouped with the Raeti. Their location seems too far south of the Gotthard for that to be true though - at least, that was their location by the first century BC when Roman writers started recording the tribes in detail.

However, the Celtic advance into the Po Valley between about 600-400 BC forced the Raeti Tribes to relocate into the Alps (according to Pliny the Elder), so using the Gotthard as a Raeti demarcation line may not be valid until about the third century BC.

Opposed to this classification is the theory that they were Ligurians. The distribution of Ligurian tribes around the western Alps by the first century BC shows a kind of bubble of Celtic domination, with Ligurians to the south and west of it - and perhaps north too, if the Lepontii were indeed Ligurians.

Given that, it can be extrapolated (sadly without historical evidence) that Ligurians could have dominated the entire western Alps up the point at which the Celts broke through into the northern Italian plain. The Etruscans largely dominated the central plain itself, between coastal Ligurians and the Raeti of the northern plain.

After the Celtic breakthrough, Ligurians away from the Mediterranean coast were likely squeezed more tightly into the western Alps, or isolated there - where they received doses of Celtic influence to become Celto-Ligurians - and quite possibly into the northernmost part of the plain, while the Raeti were also being forced northwards into the Alpines proper.

Pliny labels the Lepontii as Celts of the Taurisci type, but this is likely because their language had already been Celticised by that stage. Whether Ligurians or Raeti to start with, or even a third group which may have been the driving force for the Golasecca culture, Lepontii ancestry is much more complicated than any simple categorisation.

The Alps

(Information by Trish Wilson, with additional information by Peter Kessler, from The History of Rome, Volume 1, Titus Livius (translated by Rev Canon Roberts), from The Histories, Herodotus (Penguin, 1996), from Les peuples préromains du Sud-Est de la Gaule: Étude de géographie historique, Guy Barruol (De Boccard, 1999), and from External Links: Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples, and Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, J Pokorny, and Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, William Smith (1854, Perseus Digital Library), and The Natural History, Pliny the Elder (John Bostock, Ed), and L'Arbre Celtique (The Celtic Tree, in French), and Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz or Dictionnaire Historique de la Suisse or Dizionario Storico dell Svizzera (in German, French, and Italian respectively).)

600 - 500 BC

Mediolanum (modern Milan) is an Etruscan city at this time. The Lepontii to their immediate north now begin writing tombstone inscriptions using the Etruscan alphabet, one of several alphabets in the Alpine region, all of which are Etruscan-derived. There is the possibility, given related inscriptions in Golasecca, that the ancestors of the Lepontii are the main drivers of this culture.

Etruscan art
Early Etruscan civilisation was heavily influenced by the Phoenicians and Greeks and, in turn, it influenced early Roman (Latin) culture

600 - 580 BC

In 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. They are apparently lead by Bellovesus of the Bituriges tribe.

The Celtic advance into the Po Valley also forces the Raeti Tribes to relocate into the Alps (according to Pliny the Elder). This may not directly impact upon the Lepontii, but it will certainly interrupt trade.

Map of Alpine and Ligurian tribes, c.200-15 BC
The origins of the Euganei, Ligurians, Raeti, Veneti, and Vindelici are confused and unclear, but in the last half of the first millennium BC they were gradually being Celticised or were combining multiple influences to create hybrid tribes (click or tap on map to view full sized)

It also seems to be the trigger for the Lepontii adoption in the sixth century BC of the Lepontic language. This is an Alpine Celtic language which likely replaces this group's earlier, potentially Ligurian, seemingly proto-Celtic language, and eventually leads to a complete Celticisation of the language.

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.

Map of Gaul 100 BC
By about 100 BC the Bituriges were much reduced in stature, being a non-dominant part of the Aeduii confederation, with borders approximate and fairly conjectural (click or tap on map to view full sized)

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 'founded' 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).

c.400 - 391 BC

Following the route set by Bellovesus and the Bituriges around 600 BC, other bodies of Celts have gradually invaded northern Italy, probably due to overpopulation in Gaul and the promise of fertile territory just waiting to be captured.

The first of these is the Cenomani, followed by the Libui and Saluvii, both of which settle near the ancient Ligurian tribe, the Laevi. But it may be this very Celtic ingress into the northern Italian plain which serves to marginalise what become the Celto-Ligurians of the western Alps, perhaps the Salassi, and perhaps also the Lepontii too.

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

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 during the Alpine Wars, 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).

14 BC

Emperor Augustus creates the province of Alpes Maritimae (the maritime, or seaward, Alps). It has its capital at Cemenelum (modern Nice, although this is switched in 297 to Civitas Ebrodunensium, modern Embrun). The history of the Alpine region's population of Celts and Celto-Ligurians is now tied to that of the empire.

La Turbie and the Trophy of Augustus
The Tropaeum Alpium ('Trophy of the Alps') stands majestically in the commune of La Turbie on the French Riviera, overlooking the principality of Monaco, and marking the final victory over the Alpine tribes by Augustus

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