History Files

European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes


MapMedulli (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, there was a cluster of smaller tribes in the Alpine region of western Switzerland and the French/Italian border. This included the Medulli who were located in western Switzerland, in the valleys of the Maurienne to the south of the Great St Bernard Pass. They were neighboured to the north by the Graioceli, to the east by the Insubres, to the south by the Ceutrones, and to the west by the Allobroges.

The tribe's name can be interpreted in a number of ways, with perhaps the best choices being 'middle' or 'power'. However, 'mead' and 'drunk' offer more fun: *med-alo- (?), meaning 'soft'; *med-e/o- (?), meaning 'be able'; *med-e/o- (?), meaning 'say'; *med-e/o- (?), meaning 'sin'; *med-je/o-, meaning 'measure'; *medjo-, *medi┼Ń, meaning 'middle'; *medjo-samīno-, meaning 'June' (*middle of summer); *med-o- (?), meaning 'power'; *medu-, meaning 'mead'; and finally *medwo-, meaning 'drunk'. They appear to have been the party animals of the Alpine region!

This tribe of the Medulli should not be confused with a division of the Biturices Vivisci which was also known as the Medulli. If there is any relation between the two, then possibly it is this group that was the original core of the tribe, while the Alpine group could have been a migratory splinter that formed part of the Gaulish invasion of Italy in the fifth and fourth centuries BC.

Many of the Gaulish tribes who took up residence in the Alpine region are poorly documented and perhaps mentioned in passing, literally, as Romans proceeded from Italy to Gaul. The Medulli certainly fall into this bracket. Strabo mentions them in his Geography as the tribe which holds the loftiest peaks of the Alps: 'At any rate, the steepest height of these peaks is said to involve an ascent of a hundred stadia, and an equal number the descent thence to the boundaries of Italy. And up in a certain hollowed-out region stands a large lake, and also two springs which are not far from one another. One of these springs is the source of the Druentia, a torrential river which dashes down towards the Rhodanus, and also of the Durias, which takes the opposite direction... The situation of the Medulli is, to put it in a general way, above the confluence of the Isar and the Rhodanus'. Additionally, the Tabula Imperii Romani has the territory of the 'Meldi' lying in the region where the Alpine Val d'Arc merged with the Val d'Isere (fairly close to modern St-Jean de Maurienne), which may link to the Meldi being one of the 'other tribes' of Polybius in his Histories who fought the Carthaginians in 218 BC. This Meldi group should not be confused with the Meldi in the Balkans in the first century BC.

(Information by Peter Kessler and Edward Dawson, with additional information 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).)

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 around 400 BC, followed by the Libui and Saluvii. Then the Boii and Lingones cross the Pennine Alps, with the Senones the last to arrive. The Medulli tribe may also find its home in the Alps as part of this migration, seemingly leaving behind a remnant or core that is later known as part of the Biturices Vivisci.

218 BC

Writing in the mid-second century BC, Polybius provides both the Allobroges and the Segovellauni with their first mention in history. The Allobroges are already established on the western side of the Alps and control many of the important passes through the mountains. They (and 'other tribes' which may include the Medulli) unsuccessfully attempt to resist the passage of Hannibal and his Carthaginian army which is on its way to attack Rome during the Second Punic War. Perhaps not unexpectedly, it seems to be fellow Celts, the Boii, who first show the mountain passes to Hannibal, after the Segovellauni have escorted them through the Allobroges' lands. Tribal politics often means using your enemy's enemy to strike a blow against them.

Western Alps
The Celtic tribes of the Western Alps were relatively small and fairly fragmented, but they made up for that with a level of belligerence and fighting ability that often stunned their major opponents, including the Romans

53 BC

Otherwise apparently playing no noticeable part in the Roman conquest of Gaul up to this point, the Medulli are mentioned when Julius Caesar returns to Port Itius as part of his preparations for a second expedition to Britain. He discovers that forty ships that had been built in the country of the 'Meldi' (the Medulli) had been driven back by a storm and have returned to port. This seems unlikely have been the Alpine Medulli, but it could have been those of the Biturices Vivisci. They shared the Atlantic coast with the Pictones - and the Pictones certainly are ship builders for the Romans.

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, 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). Following this, the history of the Alpine region's population of Celts is tied to that of the empire.