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European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes


Salassi (Gauls / Ligurians)

MapFeatureIn 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, there was a cluster of smaller tribes in the Alpine region of western Switzerland and the French/Italian border. This included the Salassi who were located in what is now the farthest north-western corner of Italy, in the mountainous region immediately south-east of Lake Geneva. They were neighboured to the north by the Seduni, to the east by the Insubres and the tribes of the Raeti, to the south by the Graioceli, and to the west by the Allobroges (see map for more information).

The Salassi tribal name is problematic in terms of breaking it down to provide a meaning. The first element is 'sal-', which may either be 'salt, saline' or it may be 'dirt or dung'. The second element seems even worse, and the proto-Celtic word list shows two unlikely possible choices, *āso- (?), meaning 'mouth', and *āso- (?), meaning 'seat'. Combining the above produces hilariously strange names, none of which seem believable. The Salassi are accounted as a tribe of the Ligurians, which would certainly explain the difficulty in breaking down their name, so the inclusion of them in a list of Gaulish tribes indicates a Gaulish takeover at some point after 600 BC, when they began flooding into northern Italy from the Alps.

Living to the north of Turin, the Salassi were one of the most powerful Alpine tribes. Their territory covered the great valley of the Durias (or Dora Baltea), better known today as the Val d'Aosta, from the plains of the River Po to the foothills of the Graian and Pennine Alps. Strabo described their lands as a deep and narrow valley, which was enclosed on both sides by lofty mountains. The two passes at the head of this valley were the Great and Little St Bernard, which seem to have been used as a main route of passage through the Alps from a very early time. If Livy is correct, it was through the Great St Bernard Pass which the Boii and Lingones crossed in their migration into northern Italy. Hannibal was believed by Livy to have used the same pass in his invasion of Italy (modern authors have largely accepted the counter-claim by Coelius Antipater that he used the Little St Bernard Pass).

Either claim is a little difficult to believe when one studies the character of the Salassi themselves. They are uniformly described as amongst the most fierce and warlike of the Alpine tribes, a tribe that was habitually predatory. That they would have allowed Hannibal's army to pass unmolested is rather difficult to believe. While the tribe is largely described as Gaulish, there is reason to believe that they may either have been Ligurian in origin like their near-neighbours the Taurini (and they are actually recorded as such by some ancient writers, as mentioned above), or even Italic. Most likely (as also mentioned) they were a melding of a Celtic warrior elite ruling a Celto-Ligurian or Italic group.

(Information by Peter Kessler and Edward Dawson, with additional information from the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, William Smith, from Geography, Ptolemy, and from External Links: Roman History, Cassius Dio, and the Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, J Pokorny, and Geography, Strabo (H C Hamilton & W Falconer, London, 1903, Perseus Online Edition).)

143 BC

Thanks to Dio Cassius and Livy, the Salassi receive their first mention in history when they are attacked without provocation by Consul Appius Claudius. However, he is punished for his aggression by being defeated with the loss of 5,000 men. He soon returns with more men and wreaks his revenge, apparently slaying 50,100 members of the tribe and claiming the honour of a triumph. From this point onwards the tribe appears frequently to be involved in hostilities with Rome. Although they are nominally tributary to the republic, they continually break out in revolt, and go on to ravage the plains in the vicinity of their lands or plunder Roman convoys and harass Roman troops passing through their country.

c.100 BC

Around this date a Roman colony is established at Eporedia (modern Ivrea), at the mouth of the valley. The idea is to keep the Salassi in check, but the colony suffers severely from their incursions. One of the main bones of contention between the Salassi and Romans are the goldwashings that are found in the valley, which can produce a tidy profit. Rome wants that wealth.

Roman ruins at Eporedia
The Roman colony of Eporedia (modern Ivrea) spelled the beginning of the end of Salassi independence, preventing them from expanding their borders and partially tying them to tributary status

c.50s BC

The Salassi are reported to be the tribe responsible for launching an ambush against Julius Caesar as he passes through the Alps. They plunder his baggage. This behaviour is typical of the Alpine tribes, and when they aren't attacking passing Romans and their armies, they are extracting payment from them.

43 BC

Strabo states that Decimus Brutus, on his way into Gaul after the Battle of Mutina, is compelled by the Salassi to purchase his passage with a large sum of money.

35 - 34 BC

The tribe revolts afresh, and for some time they are able to defy the efforts of Antistius Vetus to repress them. The following year they are forced to submit by Valerius Messala. That submission remains far from perfect, however.

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).

Seemingly the Salassi are the very first target, with Terentius Varro being sent against them. He compels the whole nation to lay down their arms (presumably after defeating them in battle), and sells them without distinction as slaves. The number of captives sold in this manner is said to amount to 36,000 persons, of whom 8,000 are of an age to be warriors. With the tribe thereby being removed from the face of the earth, a Roman colony is established at Praetoria Augusta Salassorum (modern Aosta, a butchered form of 'Augusta'), and a road is laid through the valley.

The Salassi name survives the tribe's extinction, being recognised as a geographical distinction both by Pliny and Ptolemy. Some of the tribe's people also survive: a dedication to Augustus is placed near the colony's western gate and is dated to 23 BC, with the inscription reading 'the Salassi who had joined the colony from its beginning'. Following this action, the history of the Alpine region's population of Celts is tied to that of the empire.