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European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes


Libici / Libui (Gauls / Ligurians?)

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, while also extending into Switzerland, northern Italy, and along the Danube (see feature link for a discussion of the origins of the Celtic name).

MapBy the middle of the first century BC, there existed a cluster of Celtic tribes along the eastern edges of the Alpine region of what is now eastern Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and western Austria (see map link for all tribal locations).

There had also been a sizeable influx of Gauls across the western Alps, between about 600 BC at its earliest point and probably continuing into the first two centuries BC. The first century BC writer, Livy (Titus Livius Patavinus), wrote about this, and it created a substantial Celtic population across the north Italian plain.

This influx not only pushed out the previously-dominant Etruscans of the Golasecca culture-dominated north Italian plain (through at-least-partially documented warfare), but certainly also served to compress the predominant Ligurian population here southwards towards the coast. Similarly, the Raeti and Lepontii on the northern side of the plain were compressed into the foothills of the Alps (and, in the Raeti case, right across the central and eastern Alps). The Euganei may have been similarly compressed.

Part of this Celtic influx, the Anamares and Libici or Libui were minor tribes whose precise location is uncertain, although they are known to have occupied part of the south bank of the River Padus in Italy. Both tribes could count as their neighbours the much bigger tribes of the Insubres and Cenomani to the north and east respectively, while the Ligurian Taurini probably formed part of their southern flank.

The Libui tribe was mentioned by Livy, while Pliny the Elder noted them as the Libici(i). Giovanni Strommo places them in Vercellae (modern Vercelli), the very place at which the battle took place between Gaius Marius and the Cimbri in the late second century BC. Italian sources claim that Vercellae was actually the tribe's capital, while noting that the tribe was Ligurian in origin. The same sources place other tribes nearby: the Ligurian Laevi and Orobi, and the otherwise unknown Vertamocori (most likely Ligurians too).

The Libici or Libui name is more problematic. Proto-Celtic did not appear to have a word spelled 'lib-'. One must therefore conjecture that the Romans heard a 'v' sound and understood it as a 'b' sound, because the Roman letter 'v' was sounded as a 'w'. A 'v' sound would originally have been a 'w' sound in proto-Celtic, altered to a 'v' subsequently. In proto-Celtic, 'liwos' means 'colour'. So the tribe may have been 'the colour people'.

That seems rather odd for a tribal name. Another possibility is that the tribe's speech had mutated a different word, 'gliwos', by dropping or softening the initial 'g', and hardening the 'w' into a 'v'. The word 'gliwos' means 'battle', so they would be 'the battlers'. Finally, the possibility that they were in fact Ligurians may have a major bearing on all of the above!

In terms of their existence, the Libui are included amongst those Celts who breached the western Alps in successive waves. The Libici are scarcely mentioned. Neither they nor the Anamares are mentioned during the Gaulish invasion of northern Italy, raising the possibility that they did not exist at that time (or that Pliny got their name wrong).

Instead they could have been formed as offshoots of one of the larger tribes which are better attested in history, or could have been a Ligurian group which was splintered from another by the Celtic influx, and perhaps also received some Celtic influences at an early stage (somewhere in 600-300 BC most likely).

The Alps

(Information by Peter Kessler, Edward Dawson, & Trish Wilson, with additional information from Foundations of Latin, Philip Baldi, 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, from The Celtic Encyclopaedia, Harry Mountain, and from External Links: Jones' Celtic Encyclopaedia, and Polybius, Histories, and The Natural History, Pliny the Elder (John Bostock, Ed).)

c.600 BC

The first century BC writer, Livy (Titus Livius Patavinus), writes of an invasion into Italy of Hallstatt 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.

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

Livy writes that two centuries before major Celtic attacks take place against Etruscans and Romans in Golasecca culture Italy, a first wave of invaders from Gaul fights many battles against the Etruscans who dwell between the Apennines and the Alps.

These would be the same migration and battles which serve to compress the predominant Ligurian population southwards towards the coast. Similarly, the Raeti and Lepontii on the northern side of the plain are compressed into the foothills of the Alps (and, in the Raeti case, right across the central and eastern Alps). The Euganei may be similarly compressed.

At this time, the Bituriges are the supreme power amongst the Celts, but the commander of the force which enters Italy - Bellovesus - also leads fellow settlers. These are members of the Aeduii, Ambarri, Arverni, Aulerci, Bituriges, Carnutes, and Senones.

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)

The body of people which is led by Bellovesus himself apparently consists mainly of Insubres, a canton (or sub-division) of the Aeduii. The Anamares and Libici are not mentioned in this event, either because they are too small to be worthy of it, or because they do not yet exist.

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 tribe of the Laevi. Then the Boii and Lingones cross the Pennine Alps, while in 391 BC the Senones are the last to come. They occupy the country from the River Utis (or Utens) to the Aesis (near Ancona, which marks the border between the Picentes and the Umbri in Italy).

It is this last tribe which Livy states comes to the Etruscan city of Clevsin (Clusium to the Romans), and from there to Rome, although whether alone or with the help of the Cisalpine peoples is unclear.

Clevsin Etruscan urn
An alabaster cinerary urn showing the murder of Clytemnestra by Orestes and Pylades, with them wearing capes and Phrygian caps, discovered in Clevsin, modern Chiusi (External Link: Creative Commons Licence 2.0 Generic - click or tap on image to view full sized)

224 BC

Buoyed by its victory over the Gauls of northern Italy in 225 BC, 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 despite the support offered by the Gaesatae.

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

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 and withdraw intact to Mediolanum.

The stronghold is stormed by the Romans and, 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. The illusive Anamares and Libui disappear from history, subsumed by Roman (Latin) culture and language.

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