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European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes


MapNamniti / Namnetes (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 Namniti were located along the north bank of the River Loire in Gaul. They were based possibly as far east as the confluence of the Vienne and Creuse tributaries, and perhaps as far to the west as the Atlantic coast, at the base of the Armorican peninsula. They were neighboured by the Veneti to the north-west, while to the north were the Diablintes, and perhaps even the Redones, to the east were the Andes and Turones, and to the south were the Ambiliati and Pictones.

The tribe was also known as the Namnetes, although Ptolemy used Namnitoi in his writings. Their name seems to be quite an old word, if reconstructions of ancient languages are correct. It comes from 'nemos', meaning forest (proto-Indo-European), and its descendants: 'nemetos', again meaning forest and taken from Common Celtic; 'nemus' meaning tree or sacred grove (Latin); 'nemorosus' meaning wooded or covered with trees, or forested (Latin). Even today, there are people living in this region who still claim to be from a Gaulish family. Not French or Breton, but Gaulish. These people have a very non-Mediterranean and non-Nordic appearance. Instead they look as though they have more in common with the stockier Irish, and the central Welsh of Powys. They were protected from absorption into France because the region fell under the control of the Bretons of Brittany in the fifth or sixth century, and they retained their Gaulish ethnicity intermingled with a Breton national identity. The tribal name is shared by a Germanic tribe, the Nemetes, whose goddess was Nemetona. Both names were obviously acquired from the Celts. There was also a Nemetati tribe in Iberia whose town was Volobriga. Given the linguistic and historical data one can presume that these various tribes were most likely named after a goddess, who in turn was associated with groves of trees.

The tribe's territory lay around the mouth of the Loire, and is reflected in the medieval diocese of Nantes, which preserves their name. They had an oppidum at Contigwic (modern Nantes, which was Latinised as Condivincum. This became one of the most important towns in Gaul under Roman control.

(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 Geography, Ptolemy, 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 tribe seems to be relatively open to Roman contact as it submits to Caesar's envoys.

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.

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

3rd century AD

The former Namniti oppidum of Condivincum becomes known as Portus Namnetum - Port of the Namniti. This name largely survives later population and political changes to emerge as modern Nantes.

4th century AD

The arrival of Britons in Armorica in the late fourth century establishes first a British colony and then a kingdom that divides Armorica, or Brittany as it becomes known, from Roman control. It also protects the Gaulish tribes of Armorica from absorption by the incoming Franks, preserving their Gaulish ethnicity intermingled with a Breton national identity. In the tenth century the Namnetes capital at Nantes emerges as a separate county in its own right.

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