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European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes


MapLexovii (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. By the middle of the first century BC, the Lexovii were located in Gaul, in the eastern half of Normandy, between the towns of Caen and Rouen, although they have also been placed in Brittany alongside the Cariosvelites. They were neighboured to the north by the Caleti, across the Sequana (the River Seine), to the east by the Bellovaci, to the south-east by the Veliocasses, to the south by the Eburovices, and to the west by the Boiocasses.

The tribe's name may come from a root such as 'lexow' or similar, once the suffixes have been removed. Unusually, perhaps, this provides too many possibilities that are almost right and nothing that is quite right - everything from 'lagu' (a lake), to 'leg' (a flat stone), to 'laxto' (milk), to 'legu' (small). Since the tribe was a very small one (it sent only 3,000 men against Caesar in 52 BC), perhaps their neighbours named them legu, 'small'? That, along with any other possibility is only a wild guess, though. There is also the chance of an unknown cognate of the Latin word for law, lex legis, meaning law, statute or covenant, or agreement. This is problematic, though, because the Latin 'rex' becomes the Celtic 'rix', so would the Latin 'lex' become the Celtic 'lix'? That, for the moment, is not known. Finally, there is also a cognate of 'lexis', or 'leg', meaning 'to speak'. So the tribe could have been 'the speakers' - handy if you're also a successful trader as they were.

The tribe's territory abutted the Dives, the Risle, the Perche hills, and the Channel. They seem to have inhabited the region from an early date, with archaeological evidence showing occupation by the seventh century BC. By the fifth century BC they were strongly established farmers, using wheeled ploughs and shovels and growing corn, vegetables, vines and flax, the latter of which was woven into brightly-dyed fabrics. Their oppidum was Noviomagus (modern Lisieux), with another centre at St Desire. Strabo noted the tribe's extensive trading activities with the Mediterranean and the British Isles, and it was Noviomagus that was their most important trading centre, with its great wharves and docks.

(Information by Peter Kessler and Edward Dawson, with additional information from The La Tène Celtic Belgae Tribes in England: Y-Chromosome Haplogroup R-U152 - Hypothesis C, David K Faux, from Geography, Ptolemy, from Roman History, Cassius Dio, from Research into the Physical History of Mankind, James Cowles Pritchard, and from External Links: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars, and Geography, Strabo (H C Hamilton & W Falconer, London, 1903, Perseus Online Edition).)

600s BC

The Lexovii are one of the earlier Celtic arrivals in the region, along with the Cadurci. They settle during the seventh century, and within two centuries the Lexovii have established farms and an oppidum at Noviomagus. The port there allows the tribe to trade extensively, with vessels travelling across the English Channel to Britain and also round the Atlantic coast of Europe and into the Mediterranean.

fl 56 BC


Single ruler of the Cariosvelites, Lexovii, & Venelli.

56 BC

Following his successful campaign against the Belgae in the previous year, Caesar sets out for Illyricum. Once he has left, war flares up again, triggered by Publius Licinius Crassus and the Seventh Legion in the territory of the Andes. With supplies of corn running low, he sends scavenging parties into the territories of the Cariosvelites, Esubii, and the highly influential Veneti. The latter revolt against this infringement of their lands and possessions, and the neighbouring tribes rapidly follow their lead, including the Ambiliati, Diablintes, Lexovii, Menapii, Morini, Namniti, Nannetes, and Osismii (and probably the Boiocasses, smaller neighbours of the Aulerci and Lexovii). The Veneti also send for auxiliaries from their cousins in Britain. Julius Caesar rushes back to northern Gaul, to a fleet that is being prepared for him by the (Roman-led) Pictones and Santones on the River Loire. The Veneti and their allies fortify their towns, stock them with corn harvests from the surrounding countryside, and gather together as many ships as possible. Knowing that the overland passes are cut off by estuaries and that a seaward approach is highly difficult for their opponents, they plan to fight the Romans using their powerful navy in the shallows of the Loire.

Before engaging the Veneti, Caesar sends troops to the Remi, Treveri, and other Belgae to encourage them to keep to their allegiance with Rome and to hold the Rhine against possible incursions by Germans who may be planning to join the Veneti. This works, with even the previously militant Bellovaci remaining subdued during this revolt. Crassus is sent to Aquitania and Quintus Titurius Sabinus to the Cariosvelites, Lexovii and Venelli, to prevent them sending reinforcements to the Veneti. Sabinus finds that their single chieftain, Viridovix, has joined the revolt, along with the Aulerci and Sexovii, who have killed their magistrates for wanting to remain neutral. Sabinus remains in his well-fortified camp, resisting the taunts of the Venelli and their allies until they venture too far forwards, allowing a Roman sally across the defensive ditch and into the fleeing Celtic ranks. This area of the revolt is instantly extinguished.

Romans attack a Veneti vessel
Roman auxiliaries in the form of the Aeduii attack a Veneti vessel in Morbihan Bay on the French Atlantic coast during the campaign of 56 BC

The campaign by Caesar against the Veneti is protracted and takes place both on land and sea. Veneti strongholds, when threatened, are evacuated by sea and the Romans have to begin again. Eventually the Veneti fleet is cornered and defeated in Quiberon Bay by Legate Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus. The Veneti strongholds are stormed and much of the Veneti population is either captured and enslaved or butchered. The confederation is destroyed and Roman rule is firmly stamped upon the region.

Now only the Morini and Menapii remain in opposition to Rome, never having sent their ambassadors to agree peace terms. Caesar leads his army to their territory but they withdraw into the forests and marshes, having realised that head-on conflict will be fruitless. However, guerrilla warfare simply results in the Romans decimating the countryside and burning the villages, and the invaders return to winter quarters amongst the Aulerci and Lexovii and other recently conquered tribes, having seen off the latest threat.

52 BC

While Caesar is tied down in Rome, the Gauls begin their revolt, resolving to die in freedom rather than be suppressed by the invaders. The Carnutes take the lead under Cotuatus and Conetodunus when they kill the Roman traders who have settled in Genabum. News of the event reaches the Arverni that morning, and Vercingetorix summons his people to arms. His cavalry subsequently routed in battle, he withdraws in good order to Alesia, a major fort belonging to the Mandubii. The remaining cavalry are dispatched back to their tribes to bring reinforcements. Caesar begins a siege of Alesia, aiming on starving out the inhabitants.

The site of Alesia
The site of Alesia, a major fort belonging to the Mandubii tribe of Celts, was the scene of the final desperate stand-off between Rome and the Gauls in 52 BC

Four relief forces amounting to a considerable number of men and horses are assembled in the territory of the Aeduii by the council of the Gaulish nobility. Among those demanded from the tribes of Gaul are three thousand men each from the Aulerci Eburovices, Bellocassi, Lexovii, and Veliocasses. Together they attempt to relieve Vercingetorix at the siege of Alesia, but the combined relief force is soundly repulsed by Julius Caesar. Seeing that all is lost, Vercingetorix surrenders to Caesar. The garrison is taken prisoner, as are the survivors from the relief army. They are either sold into slavery or given as booty to Caesar's legionaries, apart from the Aeduii and Arverni warriors who are released and pardoned in order to secure the allegiance of these important and powerful tribes.

With this action, all of Gaul has been brought under Roman domination, and the history of its population of Celts and Aquitani is tied to that of the emerging Roman empire.

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