History Files

European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes


MapNantuates (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 Nantuates, who were located along the southern shore of Lake Geneva. They were neighboured to the north by the Helvetii, to the east by the Seduni, to the south by the Veragri, and to the west by the Allobroges and Ambarri.

Also called the Nantuatae, the difference is not actually in their name, but in the plural ending added onto it. The Nantuates name appears to derive from a word for valley. The proto-Celtic wordlist has *nanto, meaning 'valley', and modern Welsh has 'nant' [nentydd, f.] - (n.), meaning 'brook; gorge, ravine'. The sense seems to be of a mountain valley. After this is what at first glance appears to be the Latin suffix, '-atus' (the modern '-ate'), but that is probably wrong. An intriguing possibility is a word for 'reclaim' or 'reacquire'. The proto-Celtic word list has *tu-ati- (Welsh), [*dī-ati (Brythonic.) plus '-ande-so'], meaning 'reclaim' (?), so they could have been the 'people of the reclaimed valley', perhaps? Switzerland was part of the early Celtic homeland so, theoretically speaking, was this a once-populated area that was being reclaimed after a period of abandonment?

Caesar noted the tribe's location in his Gallic Wars, close to today's western Swiss border with France. The village of Morgins in the canton of Valais in southern Switzerland claims to have been a Nantuates border region with the Allobroges. The town's name is said to originate from a Celtic word for border, something that is probably based on the proto-Celtic *mrogi-, meaning 'border'. Around ten or eleven kilometres to the south-west is the French town of Morzine, a very similar name that probably has the same origins. The intervening le Pas de Morgins is still the only road to link the French and Swiss resorts of the Portes du Soleil. Strabo calls the tribe the Aetuatae, but he also placed them in the valley of the Rhine.

(Information by Peter Kessler and Edward Dawson, with additional information from Research into the Physical History of Mankind, James Cowles Prichard, from Roman History, Cassius Dio, and from External Links: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars, and Defeat of the Vocates and Tarusates, J Rickard, and Geography, Strabo (H C Hamilton & W Falconer, London, 1903, Perseus Online Edition).)

56 BC

Following his successful campaign against the Belgae in the previous year, Caesar heads for Italy. He sends Servius Galba ahead with the Twelfth Legion and part of the cavalry to secure the way. The pass through the Alps has been dominated by the Nantuates, Seduni, and Veragri tribes, making the route a dangerous one for Roman merchants, and now is the time to end that danger. Galba conducts a few successful battles and storms several of their forts, until the tribes send embassies and hostages, and peace is concluded.

Galba stations two cohorts among the Nantuates, and sets up camp with the legion's remaining cohorts in the village of Octodurus, which belongs to the the Veragri. The village is situated in a valley with a small plain, and is bounded on all sides by very high mountains. Galba takes the unoccupied half of the village as winter quarters for his troops, and fortifies it with a rampart and ditch.

Great St Bernard's Pass
The region around the Great St Bernard's Pass was a perfect mix of fertile plains and protective high mountains for small but aggressive Celtic tribes in the four centuries or so between their settlement of the area and domination by Rome

Several days later, the Veragri tribe has vanished from the village and has assembled in the mountains overlooking the valley with a very large force of Nantuates and Seduni. The legion, which is reduced in size after detachments have been made, appears vulnerable to the Celts, who are convinced that the Romans want to conquer all of Gaul. The Romans decide to defend their position, and are hard-pressed by the superior numbers attacking them, perhaps 30,000 in all. The six hour battle ends when the exhausted Romans make a last-ditch sally that takes the Celts by surprise and inflicts heavy casualties on them, forcing them to withdraw. Having survived the onslaught the Romans withdraw in good order, heading westwards into the territory of the Allobroges where they settle into safer winter quarters.

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.