History Files

Please help the History Files

Contributed: 175

Target: 400

Totals slider

The History Files still needs your help. As a non-profit site, it is only able to support such a vast and ever-growing collection of information with your help, and this year your help is needed more than ever. Please make a donation so that we can continue to provide highly detailed historical research on a fully secure site. Your help really is appreciated.

European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes


MapPictones / Pictavii (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 Pictones were located along western Gaul's Atlantic coast, in the region of Poitou. They were neighboured to the north by the Ambiliati, Namniti and Andes, to the north-east by the Turones, to the east by the Bituriges Cubi, and to the south by the Lemovices and Santones.

As with most Celtic and Germanic tribal names, the Pictones name was made up of a core word plus two suffixes, one Celtic/German indigenous and one Latin, '-on' and '-es'. The remaining core is 'pict', which is a simple description of the appearance of the tribe's people. It's a word that has a clear origin in Latin, but perhaps also one in proto-Celtic. The tribe were 'the painted men', covered in blue woad tattoos. The name was applied equally to various early Celts of northern Britain, eventually uniting them as one people called Picts.

The tribe occupied territory in the modern départements of Vienne and Deux-Sèvres (Haut-Pitou) in western central France. They apparently had a system of rule which employed a single king whose powers were regulated by a council of warrior chiefs. This was certainly in place during Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul in the mid-first century BC. The tribe's oppidum was Lemonum (the 'place of elms'), which survived as Lemonum Pictonum under Roman administration and entered modern usage as Poitiers (a corruption of 'pictonum'). It occupied a great open plain at the meeting point of the rivers Clain and Boivre. The tribe itself does not seem to have been especially warlike. It seems that the threat posed by the Helvetii in their migration towards the Atlantic coast in 59 BC persuaded the Pictones to side with the Romans, just as their neighbours, the Santones, were doing.

(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.)

2nd century BC

As with many of the Gaulish tribes, the Pictones begin to mint their own coins from the end of the second century BC. It is a trend that has been imported via Greece and Rome.

fl 58 - 52 BC


King of the Pictones during Caesar's conquest of Gaul.

61 - 58 BC

Despite the death of Orgetorix, the Helvetii decide to go ahead with their planned exodus. Aquitania seems to be their target, where they hope to tie up with the Boii who have settled there, close to the Atlantic coast, although Julius Caesar understands their target to be the land of the Santones, a little to the north of the Boii. The Pictones, undoubtedly alarmed by this invasion of lands very close to them, side with the Romans in their eventually successful resistance against the Helvetii.

Amphoralis Museum in Potiers, France
Lemonum (modern Potiers) was the chief tribal settlement of the Pictones Celts in first century BC Gaul, while today's Amphoralis Museum provides a glimpse of life in pre-Roman France

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 use a Pictones-built ship of their own to 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.

53 BC

The warriors of the Pictones decide to supply 8,000 warriors to Vercingetorix of the Arverni in his massed Gaulish revolt against Roman domination. Despite his waning influence, Duratios stands firm in his desire to maintain his alliance with Rome, and this difference of opinion causes a split in the tribe. The warriors join the chief of the Andes who heads for Lemonum to besiege Duratios. The king sends a messenger to the Roman legate, Caius Caninius, who comes to his aid from the territory of the Ruteni. This small force is soon backed up by a more effective unit under Caius Fabius and a Pictonii civil war is averted.

For the most part, the Pictones have remained loyal to Rome, and they are apparently rewarded by a grant of territory that is taken from the Andes. The Pictones prosper and their towns are developed and expanded. The tribe itself is only partially Romanised, though, and retains much of its original culture.

52 BC

Despite being expelled from the town of Gergovia by his uncle, Gobanitio, and the rest of the nobles in their fear of such a risky enterprise, Vercingetorix gathers together an army. The Aulerci, Cadurci, Lemovices, Parisii, Pictones, Senones, and Turones all join him, as do all of the tribes that border the ocean. The Treveri support the revolt but are pinned down by German tribes.

Vercingetorix, his cavalry routed in battle, 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. 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 eight thousand each from the Helvii (despite the tribe's pro-Roman standing), Parisii, Pictones, and Turones.

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

Together they attempt to relieve Vercingetorix at the siege of Alesia, but the combined relief force is soundly repulsed by Julius Caesar's remarkable strategy of simultaneously conducting the siege of Alesia on one front whilst being besieged on the other. 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 is tied to that of the empire. In time Lemonum Pictonum becomes the Pictavia of the Merovingians of Orleans (modern Poitiers).

Images and text copyright © all contributors mentioned on this page. An original king list page for the History Files.