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European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes


Nervii (Belgae)
Incorporating the Centrones & Pleumoxii

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, but bordered to their east by a slowly growing Germanic populace which only increased its pressure on them over time (see feature link for a discussion of the origins of the Celtic name).

By the middle of the first century BC, the Nervii were located in the far north-west of Gaul, along what is now the French-Belgian border region, between the provinces of Picardy and Hainault. They were neighboured to the north-west by the Morini, to the north by the Menapii, to the east by the Eburones, Atuatuci, and Tungri, to the south-east by the Condrusi, to the south by the Viromandui, and to the west by the Atrebates.

The Belgae would seem to be a northern 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 Nervii name is obscure, but it may be based on the proto-Celtic *nero-, meaning 'hero'. 'The heroes' perhaps, due to their valiant efforts in warfare?

The Centrones should should not be confused with the Alpine tribe of the Ceutrones, although as usual there could be a distant relationship between the two if the latter were migrants who were part of the fifth and fourth century Celtic invasion of northern Italy.

This Gaulish group of Centrones is mentioned only by Julius Caesar, however, and even their precise location is unknown. Their name is not necessarily too obvious in its meaning. Removing the suffixes leaves 'kentr-' (singular, 'centros'), which is a thorn or a cockerel's spur. This could be a metaphor for the points of the warriors' spears, providing them with their name, 'the spears'.

The Pleumoxii (or Pleumo) were also mentioned by Julius Caesar alone, which suggests that their existence was either fleeting, or that they were in the process of being absorbed by their overlords, the Nervii. Their location was unknown, but it must have adjoined Nervii territory.

The Encyclopaedia of European Peoples classifies them either as allies or a sub-group. Their name is obscure, and cannot be explain with any certainty. There is almost a match in proto-Celtic in *klewos-, meaning 'fame', but this misses the 'm'. Latin has 'pluma', meaning 'feather', but no cognate is given in the proto-Celtic word list. Since they are Celts one has to suspect a pun, so a name which says both 'famous' and 'feather' may be possible - delivering a humorous double meaning.

The Nervii oppidum was at Bagacum or Bavacum (modern Bavay). The tribe was described by outsiders as being exceedingly pugnacious and insular - to the point of not permitting foreign merchants to approach them or allowing themselves the use of wine or other luxuries because they were deemed to be 'effeminate and destructive of warlike spirit'.

It was an approach which was almost Spartan in its simplicity, although Julius Caesar still condemned them for being effeminate. He related that, although they spoke in a Celtic tongue, they claimed German descent as if this would distinguish them from the Gauls.

In fact, they could be yet another tribe with mixed heritage (possibly with a Germanic or part-Germanic ruling nobility, although the Belgic tribes often displayed signs of being influenced by Germanic tribes). Their belligerence would seem to mark them out as being more Germanic than Celtic. They used their warlike spirit to fight Julius Caesar in 57 BC, but were cut to pieces and virtually exterminated as a tribe.

Ancient Britons

(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 The Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, William Smith, from Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, Harry Thurston Peck, from the Encyclopaedia of European Peoples, Carl Waldman & Catherine Mason, and from External Links: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars, and The Germany and the Agricola of Tacitus: The Oxford Translation, Revised With Notes, Cornelius Tacitus, and The Illustrated History of Belgium.)

fl 57 BC


Leader of the Nervii at Sabis.

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.

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

57 BC

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.

Caesar encourages his ally, Diviciacus of the Aeduii, to attack the Bellovaci and divert part of the Belgic forces. The remaining Belgae march against the Romans en masse, attacking the Remi town of Bibrax along the way. Rather than face such a large force with a reputation for uncommon bravery, Caesar elects to isolate them in groups using his cavalry.

Nervii at the battle of the Sabis
This print of Boduognatus, king of the Nervii, shows him and his warriors fighting the Romans at the battle of the Sabis, thought to be the modern River Selle

He defeats the Bellovaci at the Battle of the Axona, and forces the Suessiones to surrender. Then the surviving Bellovaci also surrender, along with the Ambiani, while the Nervii, refusing any surrender, assemble with the Atrebates and Viromandui to offer battle.

The Atuatuci are expected to join them, but the Nervii launch an early surprise attack at the Battle of the Sabis (probably the River Selle). The Romans are supported by auxiliaries sent by the Treveri, while the Nervii are backed up by the Atrebates.

The attack surprises the Romans, but they rally and turn potential defeat into a near-massacre of the Nervii. With this action, northern Gaul has been brought under Roman domination, while the victorious legions winter amongst the Andes, Carnutes, and Turones.

Ardennes Forest
The thick forest of the Ardennes formed part of the Treveri homeland when they arrived there in the early or mid-second century BC

54 BC

The expedition to Britain by Julius Caesar goes ahead, following which he is forced to winter his troops in different quarters in Gaul owing to the poor harvests of that year.

One legion is given to Caius Fabius to be quartered in the territories of the Morini, while Quintus Cicero takes another to the Nervii, Lucius Roscius takes one to the lands of the Essui, and Titus Labienus goes to the Remi 'in the confines of the Treveri'.

Three more legions are stationed amongst the Belgae and one with the Eburones who are commanded by Ambiorix and Cativolcus.

The recent assassination of Tasgetius of the Carnutes, born of very high rank and a descendant of chiefs of the tribe, raises the fear in the Romans that the tribe will revolt. Lucius Plancus takes a legion to winter amongst them, but his investigations into the murder are interrupted.

Ambiorix, king of the Eburones
This print of Ambiorix, king of the Eburones, is inspired by his statue of 1866 in Tongeren in Belgium, with both statue and print reflecting the nineteenth century revival of the Celts in the young Belgian nation state

About fifteen days after the legions enter winter quarters, Ambiorix and Cativolcus of the Eburones instigate the revolt mentioned above, prompted primarily by pressure from their people.

A legion under Quintus Titurius Sabinus and Lucius Aurunculeius Cotta is defeated, with both generals being killed and the survivors committing suicide in their fort to avoid capture. Only a few men escape to relate the news to Caesar. Ambiorix marches his cavalry to the Atuatuci, with the infantry following on. The Atuatuci are roused by tales of his victory and then so are the Nervii.

Together they launch an attack on the legion of Cicero, razing much of his fort and hard-pressing the defenders. Word of this reaches Marcus Crassus amongst the Bellovaci, just twenty-five miles away, and Caius Fabius also marches from the lands of the Morini, with both forces having to negotiate their way through the lands of the Atrebates along the way.

Map of European Tribes
This vast map covers just about all possible tribes which were documented in the first centuries BC and AD, mostly by the Romans and Greeks, and with an especial focus on 52 BC (click or tap on map to view at an intermediate size)

Caesar arrives to relieve Cicero and is attacked by about 60,000 Gauls. Despite the massive disparity in numbers compared to Caesar's own 7,000, the Gauls are put to flight with great losses, although the Romans suffer casualties of ten per cent.

Although the situation is calmed by this victory, Cavarinus of the Senones is condemned to death by his people and is forced to flee to the Romans for protection. This serves as a commitment by the tribe to oppose Julius Caesar during his Gallic campaigns.

It also seems to rally support from amongst most of the Gauls, except the Aeduii and Remi who remain loyal to Rome, although the Gauls are unable to encourage the Germans to cross the Rhine and support them due to the recent defeats of Ariovistus of the Suevi and of the Tencteri expedition.

Romans versus Gauls
Organising the various tribes of Gaul into a unified resistance took some doing, but Vercingetorix of the Arverni appears to have held a level of authority which made him a leader not to be refused, and thousands of warriors flocked to join him

Those defeats has dissuaded the Germans from a third attempt. However, following the death of Indutiomarus of the Treveri, no further action is taken against the Romans in this year.

52 BC

While Caesar is tied down in Rome, the Gauls begin their revolt, resolving to die in freedom rather than be suppressed by the invaders. The Carnutes take the lead under Cotuatus and Conetodunus when they kill the Roman traders who have settled in Genabum. News of the event reaches the Arverni that morning, and Vercingetorix summons his people to arms.

His cavalry subsequently routed in battle, he withdraws in good order to Alesia, a major fort belonging to the Mandubii. The remaining cavalry are dispatched back to their tribes to bring reinforcements. Caesar begins a siege of Alesia, aiming on starving out the inhabitants.

The site of Alesia
The site of Alesia, a major fort belonging to the Mandubii tribe of Celts, was the scene of the final desperate stand-off between Rome and the Gauls in 52 BC

Four relief forces amounting to a considerable number of men and horses are assembled in the territory of the Aeduii by the council of the Gaulish nobility. Among those demanded from the tribes of Gaul are five thousand men each from the Ambiani, Mediomatrici, Morini, Nervii, Nitiobroges, Petrocorii, and Suessiones.

Together they attempt to relieve Vercingetorix at the siege of Alesia, but the combined relief force is soundly repulsed by Julius Caesar.

Seeing that all is lost, Vercingetorix surrenders to Caesar. The garrison is taken prisoner, as are the survivors from the relief army. They are either sold into slavery or given as booty to Caesar's legionaries, apart from the Aeduii and Arverni warriors who are released and pardoned in order to secure the allegiance of these important and powerful tribes.

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

Vercingetorix and Caesar in 52 BC
Having surrendered with honour to Caesar in 52 BC, Vercingetorix remained a potent symbol of resistance to Roman domination, so his murder in 46 BC dealt a terminal blow to hopes of renewed Celtic freedom

2nd century AD

Inscriptions found at Rough Castle on the Antonine Wall in Britain suggest that the sixth cohort of the Nervii (an infantry unit) is stationed there.

4th century?

Bagacum is destroyed during the barbarian invasions and never regains the former position of importance it had once held. It is replaced as the tribal capital by Camaracum, although both are soon taken by the Salian Franks.

It does remain inhabited, however, and by the thirteenth century AD it is fortified as part of the defences of the county of Hainult in north-western France.

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