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European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes


MapSuessiones / Suaeuconi (Belgae)
Incorporating the Silvanecti, Ulmanetes, & Ulvanectoi

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. By the middle of the first century BC, the Suessiones were located in north-eastern Gaul around modern Soissons and between the rivers Marnes and Oise. They were neighboured to the north-west by the Bellovaci, to the north-east by the Viromandui, to the east by the Remi, to the south by the Catalauni and Parisii, and to the west by the Veliocasses.

The Belgae would seem to be an eastern 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. Also known as the Suaeuconi, the Suessiones name breaks down into 'Suess' plus '-ion' plus '-es'. The suffixes can be disposed of, but just what on earth a 'suess' was is anyone's guess at the present time. It may have a Germanic origin, but even there its meaning is totally obscure. Later Norse has 'sust' which means a club, mace or flail, but this can only very tenuously be linked to the original word.

Their tribal capital was at Noviodunum (or 'new hill fort', suggesting a recent move from an older capital). Their name survived them in the city which bore their name and became the major regional Roman centre of Soissons. Julius Caesar noted that within living memory a king of the Suessiones had exercised sovereignty over much of the Belgic tribes of the Continent, and also over parts of Britain. The theme of high kingship, or a single tribal king who holds authority for a time over all of his neighbours is a recurring one in Celtic history. Several claims to high kingship can be made amongst the Gauls, and the position later became part of Britain's cultural history in relation to the Britons, thanks to Geoffrey of Monmouth. Quite how the Suessiones fit into Britain's list of high kings is unclear, but perhaps Diviciacus simply held a superior claim to high kingship so that Britain's high king deferred to him. The evidence for the stratification of kingship at this level is far too insubstantial for any firm conclusions to be drawn.

The Silvanecti were a minor Belgic tribe that occupied territory around the Valois, Īle-de-France, with an oppidum at Augustomagus (modern Senlis). Pliny's Natural Histories names them as the Ulmanetes or Ulbanectes and describes them as liberi, indicating that they enjoyed a certain amount of autonomy within the Roman province of Gallia Belgica II. Julius Caesar states that they were a client of the Suessiones and that they fought with them as part of the Belgic alliance (of 57 BC). They may only have gained a semblance of independence following the defeat of the Belgae, perhaps in much the same way as the Belgae and Regninses of Britain seemingly did after the Roman conquest there.

Breaking down the tribal names produces interesting results. Silvanecti is formed of two parts, with 'silva' being the Latin word for 'forest'. The second part is the common Celtic name, Nectan, with a possible meaning of *nexti-, 'night', cognate with the Latin 'nox, noctis' which has the same meaning. So the Romanised version of this name (which is all that we have) refers to them as the 'forest of night'. Ulmanetes and Ulvanectoi is the same name, the former with a Latin plural suffix and the latter with a Greek plural suffix. With these suffixes removed we have Ulmanet and Ulvanect. Remove the 'nect' and we see 'ulma' and 'ulva'. The possibilities for these include *sulo-widā- (?), meaning 'matter' (if the 's' was really an 'sh' and was reduced then perhaps this would explain the existence of 'silva'. But in what sense 'matter' is being used is unclear. Putting this aside, a breakdown of *sulo-widā- produces nothing for 'sulo' but *widā- means 'sight' and *su- means 'good'. This seems to evoke a sense of 'looking good', ie. beautiful. So the combination might be a name meaning 'beautiful night'. This is so close to the general sense of 'forest of night' that they must both be the same name that has been mangled by cultural and language differences, either that or a name that was the same until the recent past. Either way, the Silvanecti and Ulmanetes were closely related.

(Information by Peter Kessler and Edward Dawson, with additional information from The Oxford History of England: Roman Britain, Peter Salway, and The La Tene Celtic Belgae Tribes in England: Y-Chromosome Haplogroup R-U152 - Hypothesis C, David K Faux, and from External Link: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars.)

mid-200s BC

A large number of Gallo-Belgic A coins are to be found in southern Britain at this time or soon afterwards. This suggests heavy trade with the Ambiani tribe in northern Gaul, but also the probability that Ambiani have settled in Hampshire, possibly as the earliest representatives of the tribe of the Belgae. The Suessiones may be another Belgic tribe that is settling heavily in Britain from this time.

fl early 1st c BC

Diviciacus / Deioikhiakhos

'The greatest man in Gaul'. High king of the Belgae?

Diviciacus (not to be confused with Diviciacus of the Aeduii) holds sway not only among a large proportion of the Continental Belgic tribes, including the Suessiones, but also over parts of south-eastern Britain, according to Julius Caesar. This would suggest a form of high kingship over the Belgic tribes that had recently migrated there, such as the Belgae, Cantii, and perhaps the Catuvellauni and Trinovantes.

c.90 - 60 BC

Gallo-Belgic C coins can be found in Britain which are tentatively identified with Diviciacus. Finds are concentrated amongst the Cantii, but can be found as far west as the Sussex coast, in the territory of the Regninses, and up to the Wash.

Gallo-Belgic quarter stater
Shown here is a gold Gallo-Belgic quarter stater of the C-type, which can be dated between 80-60 BC, at least a couple of decades before the first of Julius Caesar's expeditions to Britain

c.60 - 50 BC

Gallo-Belgic F coins are also found in many coastal areas of Britain, introducing the triple-tailed horse design on the reverse that becomes widespread over the next few decades. The existence of so many coins that are linked to the Suessiones, or which ape their design, suggests to scholars that the Suessiones form a considerable portion of the Belgic peoples who migrate to Britain from the second century BC. These coins are also concentrated in the territory of the Continental Parisii.

58 BC

When Julius Caesar enters that part of Gaul that is still independent of Roman administration, a number of Belgic polities form a defensive alliance and together they acclaim Galba of the Suessiones as their commander-in-chief. Perhaps this is merely a pragmatic choice, but Galba could already be a favourite for the role due to the apparent position of high king borne by his predecessor and a tradition of dominance that could be enjoyed by the tribe.

? - 57 BC


Led the tribe in the war against Caesar. Another high king?

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. 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.

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

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. As part of the Battle of the Axona, the Bellovaci are cut down in large numbers before breaking off. The next day, Caesar leads his army into the territories of the Suessiones, to capture the town of Noviodunum. With this victory, the Suessiones surrender and Caesar deals with the other Belgic tribes one by one, accepting their surrender or defeating them in battle during the course of a single campaigning season. With this action, northern Gaul has been brought under Roman domination.

This Celtic defeat probably results in a certain level of migration. Britain is still a land of free Celtic tribes, many of which are still closely linked to their cousins in the Belgic and Gaulish territories, so it is likely that many fleeing Suessiones go there. This would be the best explanation for the many Gallo-Belgic F coins that are in circulation in Britain during this period, mostly in coastal sites that are easy for Suessiones emigrants to reach.

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.

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 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.

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

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.

5th century AD

The Gauls are far too immersed in Roman culture for their tribal system to re-emerge during the gradual fading of imperial authority. Roman government in the area that is centred on Soissons is maintained from AD 418, even though the region is becoming increasingly isolated from Italy and surrounded by Frankish states to the north and east and the Visigoth kingdom to the south. It briefly survives the fall of the Roman empire as the domain of Soissons.