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European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes


MapSantones / Santoni (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 Santones were located in western Gaul, in the region between the Garonne and Angoulême. The tribe was neighboured to the north by the powerful Pictones, to the east by the Lemovices, to the south-east by the Petrocorii, and to the south by the Biturices.

Breaking down the tribe's name has not yielded any results so far. Whatever its original meaning, it seems to have been hijacked by a different, Latin meaning. Removing the '-on' and '-es/-i' suffixes leaves 'sant-', but what on earth that means is anyone's guess. The Romance languages' word for 'holy' immediately springs to mind of course, but that has 'sancto' as its root, not 'santo'. The tribe are remembered in modern locations in France, both of which sound pretty holy, but perhaps the Latin word for 'holy' was applied by the Romans, thinking that it meant the same thing as the tribe's Celtic name. People tend to recast names into something with which they are familiar, even if it is not correct. Even a reverse look-up starting with Pokorny's proto-Indo-European dictionary produces no result, so it seems that the original meaning of Santones has been lost. However, riding to the rescue is an alternative spelling of the tribe's name, Sentones. Removing the suffixes leaves 'sen', which means 'old'. They were 'the old people' - not in today's sense of retirees of course, but probably in the sense of being a tribe established long ago. Given their location, perhaps they were amongst the first Celts to arrive in the region.

The tribe occupied the area around Saintonage in western Gaul, one of those 'holy-sounding' names which preserves the tribe's memory in modern form. They had an oppidum at Mediolanum (modern Saintes, which also clearly remembers the tribe's name, not that of the location), which lies to the north of the River Gironde. This was another of many tribes that was threatened by the migration of the Helvetii in 58 BC and which sided with Julius Caesar as the only way of preventing the migration. They also provided Caesar with part of his fleet in 56 BC, which he vitally needed to be able to combat the Veneti. After that the Santones appear to have been friendly and cooperative Roman allies, hence their lack of subsequent mention in the historical record.

(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 Links: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars, the Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, J Pokorny, and Past Horizons Adventures in Archaeology.)

58 BC

The Helvetii decide to go ahead with their planned exodus, and Aquitania seems to be their target, where they hope to tie up with the Boii who have settled there, close to the Atlantic coast. Julius Caesar understands their target to be the land of the Santones, a little to the north of the Boii. He recruits two new legions to face the threat and the Battle of Bibracte sees the Celtic confederation crushed by a total of six Roman legions. The shattered remnants of the Helvetii are forced back to their homeland, a move that creates a train of events which results in the eventual annexation of all of Gaul into the Roman state.

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.

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

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.

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.

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 twelve thousand men each from the Bituriges, Carnutes, Ruteni (mostly archers), Santones, Senones, and Sequani. 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.

2nd cent AD

The modern city of Saintes stands on the site of the former oppidum of Mediolanum. In 2013, whilst working on the site of a building development, archaeologists discover a Gallo-Roman burial site. It contains hundreds of graves, with some individuals showing evidence of shackling. The site is located approximately 250 metres to the west of Mediolanum's amphitheatre, and seems to be part of an important Gallo-Roman necropolis. The excavation reveals several double burials, and a multiple burial pit that contains five people, including two children and two young women. Almost all of the excavated burials yield no grave goods.

Burial from Saintes
This view shows a detailed glimpse of burial No 2073, the fourth of four bonded burials (see below), and still wearing the yoke with which he was buried

The one notable exception is the burial of a young child into which have been deposited vases that are dated to the second half of the second century AD. This burial also contains two coins placed on the eyes of the child. The funerary practice for this grave is very different from those observed in the other burials in this site. The archaeologists also find four adults with shackles on their left ankle, while the fourth also has a 'bondage collar' or yoke around the neck. A young boy also has a more rudimentary riveted object around his left wrist. Research is ongoing.

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