History Files

European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes


MapSeduni (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, there was a cluster of smaller tribes in the Alpine region of western Switzerland and the French/Italian border. This included the Seduni who were located on the modern border between Switzerland and Italy, hugging the Alpine stretches of the Rhône. They were neighboured to the north by the Helvetii, to the east by the tribes of the Raeti, to the south by the Salassi, and to the west by the Veragri and Nantuates.

The Seduni tribal name is a little bizarre when broken down, although the process is very straightforward. Taking off the plural ending leaves a core word, 'sed-', meaning 'sit'. Does that mean that the tribe were 'the seated'? Could it be extrapolated further to mean 'settled' or 'permanent' in that they were not going anywhere. The tribe's territory was part of the very birthplace of the Celtic peoples, so they may have been in the same place from the days of the Urnfield culture. Curiously, the tribe's name may be better suited to meaning 'settlers' in the German sense instead of 'to sit' in a Celtic or Latin sense. Was there some kind of Germanic or Belgic mix here? The similarity between Seduni and the Germanic 'sedna/setna', meaning 'settlers' is striking (the Sedusii had precisely the same name in a mildly different form). The nearby Raurici tribe exhibit similar potential Germanic/Belgic influences, despite there being no record of such influences in this region at this time.

The tribe occupied territory in the region of modern Sion, on the upper Rhône, with an oppidum at Sedunum (Sion itself, now the capital of the Valais canton in south-western Switzerland). Along with their near neighbours they controlled one of the important passes through the Alps, and they made life extremely difficult for the Romans in the first century BC. Sion itself has been occupied since at least 6200 BC, whilst early Neolithic farmers arrived there around 5800 BC. A population increase in the Middle Neolithic saw a sharp spread in farming activities, while the continuous stelae-production culture there seems to have come to an end around 2300 BC. Proto-Celtic occupation would have come in the second millennium BC.

(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, 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, and Defeat of the Vocates and Tarusates, J Rickard.)

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.