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European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes


MapMenapii (Belgae)

FeatureIn general terms, the Romans coined the name 'Gaul' to describe the Celtic tribes of what is now central, northern and eastern France. To the north of these were the tribes of the Belgae, divided from the Gauls by the rivers Marne and the Seine. By the middle of the first century BC, the Menapii were located in what is now the south-western Netherlands, around the Rhine and Maas estuaries between Antwerp and Rotterdam, on both sides of the Scaldis (the modern River Scheldt). They were neighboured to the north-east by the Germanic tribes of the Canninefates and Batavi, while to their east and south were the Paemani and Eburones, to the south were the Nervii, and to the west were the Morini.

The Belgae would seem to be an eastern branch of Celts who migrated to the Atlantic coast some time after their Gaulish cousins had already established themselves to the south. Their dialect probably used a 'b' or a 'v' sound where their western cousins in Gaul used a 'w' sound, opening up different interpretations for their names. The Menapii would have been one of the Fir Bolg tribes. The Celtic word 'fir' is usually taken to mean 'men' while 'bolg' is taken as 'Belgae', the men of the Belgae. These Fir Bolg tribes were probably the same tough Fir Bolg people who invaded Ireland after the fall of Gaul to Julius Caesar, ending up in territory that later formed Laigin. Despite the apparent ease of translating the name, it is in fact highly obscure and some of the more 'obvious' explanations should not be believed.

Julius Caesar stated that the Celts who lived nearest the Rhine waged continual war against the German tribes on the other side. A sea-faring tribe, just like their neighbours, the Morini and Ambiani, the Menapii probably occupied territory to the north of the Maas, between that and the Rhine and perhaps even farther before the first century BC arrival of the Batavi and Canninefates. The Table of Peutinger mentions Castellum Menapiorum as the tribe's oppidum (which can be matched with some degree of certainly with modern Cassel in the Nord département - not to be confused with the Cassel of Hesse). This suggests that the tribe gained territory from the neighbouring Morini, perhaps as part of the latter tribe's punishment for numerous revolts against Rome.

(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 Roman History, Cassius Dio, from Research into the Physical History of Mankind, James Cowles Pritchard, from Geography, Strabo, translated by H C Hamilton Esq & W Falconer, M A, Ed (George Bell & Sons, London, 1903), and from External Link: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars.)

57 BC

The Belgae enter into a confederacy against the Romans in fear of Rome's eventual domination over them. They are also spurred on by Gauls who are unwilling to see Germanic tribes remaining on Gaulish territory and are unhappy about Roman troops wintering in Gaul. The Senones are asked by Julius Caesar to gain intelligence on the intentions of the Belgae, and they report that an army is being collected. Caesar marches ahead of expectations and the Remi, on the Belgic border, instantly surrender, although their brethren, the Suessiones remain enthusiastic about the venture. The Bellovaci are the most powerful among the Belgae, but the confederation also includes the Ambiani, Atrebates, Atuatuci, Caerosi, Caleti, Condrusi, Eburones, Menapii, Morini, Nervii, Paemani, Veliocasses, and Viromandui, along with some unnamed Germans on the western side of the Rhine.

Battle of the Axona
The Battle of the (River) Axona (the modern Aisne in north-eastern France) witnessed the beginning of the end of the Belgic confederation against Rome

The Menapii role in the war is not mentioned, but Caesar either faces down the other Belgic tribes in battle (especially at the Axona) or accepts their surrender during the course of a single campaigning season. With this action, northern Gaul has been brought under Roman domination, while the victorious legions winter amongst the Andes, Carnutes, and Turones.

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. 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 Viridovix of the Venelli 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.

55 BC

As recorded by Julius Caesar in his work, Commentarii de Bello Gallico, the Germanic Tencteri and Usipetes tribes are driven out of their tribal lands in Germania by the militarily dominant Suevi. This probably places them on the middle Rhine. Throughout the winter they attempt to resettle, but fail to find any land. Their wanderings bring them to the mouth of the Rhine, in the territory of the Menapii, who are located on both sides of the river. The Germans attack them, forcing them to withdraw to the western side of the Rhine, where the Menapii are able to defend the river line for some time. They also attack the Condrusi and Eburones tribes. Feigning a withdrawal to lure out the Menapii, the Tencteri and Usipetes defeat them, capture their ships and occupy many of their villages for the winter.

Caesar, alarmed at this threat to the north of territory in Gaul that he has already conquered, takes a force into the region. After much diplomatic effort and some delays, he attacks the Germanic tribes and drives them back into Germania with heavy losses. Both tribes follow the east bank of the Rhine upstream and find refuge with the Sicambri. They remain settled in these lands for much of the remainder of their existence. Caesar crosses the Rhine to follow them and to show the Germans that Romans are not afraid to stage a counter-invasion. Another reason is that a portion of the cavalry of the Usipetes and Tencteri had not been present at the recent battle. Instead they had proceeded to the territories of the Sicambri to join this tribe, remaining defiant, while uniquely amongst the peoples across the Rhine, the Ubii petition Caesar for help against the oppressive Suevi who until recently have been ruled by the powerful Ariovistus.

Several other tribes submit to Caesar, but the Sicambri withdraw from their territories on the advice of the Usipetes and Tencteri. Caesar remains in their lands for a few days before burning down their villages and taking their corn. He moves his forces into Ubii territory to show solidarity with them against the Suevi threat before returning to Gaul. Soon afterwards, he mounts his first expedition to Britain. On his return, two ships carrying troops are blown off course and make port a little farther down the coast. The Morini, who had pleaded for peace with Caesar before his departure, now see the opportunity for some trophies and they surround the troops. Caesar sends cavalry to relieve them and the Romans manage to withdraw after about four hours of fighting. The Morini are subsequently quelled, and an attempt is made to do the same to the Menapii, although they avoid a confrontation by hiding in the woods.

This effectively ends the independence of the Belgic tribes, and the history of its population of Celts is now tied to that of the empire.

55 - ? BC

During or following the conquest of Gaul by the Romans, many tribes flee either in their entirety or in smaller groups, heading for Britain and Ireland. Among these are the Menapii, who establish a colony in the modern County Kilkenny and the west of County Wexford in Ireland (in what becomes the kingdom of Laigin). A little over a century later, elements of the Brigantes join them, settling immediately to their south. The Veneti are already in Ireland, in the northern county of Donegal.