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European Kingdoms

Aquitani Tribes


Tarbelli (Aquitani)

Today's Basques of northern Spain have their historical origins in the tribes of the Aquitani. Akin in some ways to the general disposition of Iberian tribes, they straddled the Pyrenees by the time the Romans arrived to record their existence.

Their tribes could be found occupying much of modern Gascony in France, along with a swathe of territory between the central Pyrenees on the Iberian side, and westwards to the Bay of Biscay, very roughly between the modern counties of Aragon and Cantabria (home of the Cantabri).

The Aquitani were not Celts, and neither were they Iberians. The much-later-arriving Indo-European Gauls merely abutted the Aquitani and were not related to them, and neither were the Iberian tribes of today's Spain and Portugal. Strabo distinguished the Aquitani tribes from the Gauls in Western Europe both in their physical type and in their language, although the Aquitani were influenced by their Indo-European neighbours and, in turn, influenced them.

The Tarbelli were an Aquitani tribe which was located in the south-western corner of France. According to Ptolemy they held territory which extended westwards from the borders of the Biturices Vivisci to reach the Pyrenees, from the south of the Landes (in south-western France), to the current French Basque Country, from Chalosse to the valleys of the Adour, and the Gaves of Pau and Oloron.

However, during the period in which Julius Caesar was busy quelling revolts in Gaul and Aquitania, the Tarbelli were separated from the Bituriges Vivisci by the Boiates (whom Caesar did not mention). It does seem likely that, under the influence of the Romans, several smaller tribes (with the Boiates amongst them) were probably annexed to the Tarbelli and grouped with them.

In all likelihood, even in Caesar's time, certain tribes such as the Cocosates and Sibusates may have been part of the Tarbelli collective. In his 'Gallic Wars' Caesar names the Tarbelli as being one of those tribes which surrendered peacefully to Crassus following his decisive battles with the Sotiates and Cantabri.

The Tarbelli could be classed as overlords of several tribes, in fact, including the Aturenses of the Middle Adour (Aire-sur-Adour) or the Tarusates of the Midouze Valley (Tartas), the Sibusates of the Lower Adour (Saubusse), the Iluronenses of the Gave d'Oloron, the Benearni, the Ptiani of the Gave de Pau (Béarn), and probably the Bigerri of the upper valley of the Adour (Bigorre).

The main Tarbelli settlement was at Aquae Tarbellicae (modern-day Dax), in what Ausonius described as 'those lands in which the people of the Tarbelles roar'. Rome built the north-south Ab Asturica Burdigalam road which intersected with that settlement, but Rome renamed it Aquae Augustae.

The Tarbelli may well be the most direct ancestors of the modern Basques of Aquitaine. With several settlements along the Atlantic coast, their own ancestors must have been amongst those who were first visited by Phoenician explorers and traders, and they would also have formed part of the Atlantic Bronze Age in the second millennium BC.

Those Aquitani who inhabited the Pyrenean valleys moved their flocks and herds between seasonal pastures, while those in the interior of Gascony prioritised wheat-based agriculture while also being proficient in ironworking and silver and goldsmithing - notably the Tarbelli of Chalosse. Under Roman domination their main settlement became the Latinised 'Civitas Tarbellorum', making it one of the earliest-known political structures in proto-Basque history.

For such a large and powerful tribe it is unusual that they did not form an auxiliary unit of their own within the empire. The equally powerful Vascones had one after all. Instead it seems they had to integrate alongside other Aquitani into units such as the Cohors I Aquitanorum. Later reorganisation saw Aquitania divided into three provinces, with the territory of Tarbelli becoming part of Novempopulania (Aquitania Tertia).

In the first century AD, Pliny nicknamed them Tarbelli quatuorsignani ('Tarbellei with four signs, ensigns', standards, or peoples), which offers the suggestion that they may have formed a federation of four tribes - which would certainly explain the many smaller tribes which were linked with them.

The later development of the proto-Basque civitates of the Benearni and Iluronenses in their respective valleys, today's Béarnaise, somewhat limited the Tarbelli domains, although to judge by the Novempopulania map (created around AD 600 based on third century reorganisations) it seems that either they took over the domain of the Oscidates or the Oscidates territory was merged into theirs.

Some authors (such as Delamarre) see in the radical *tarb-/*tarv- the Gallic word 'taruos' which means 'bull'. The term Tarbelli would then mean the little bulls. This theory is readily supported by the Dacquois inhabitants of Dax who defend a bullfighting tradition. Others seem to be tempted to compare their name with that of the city of Tarbes, but the ancient name for this city is Turba and it was a possession of the Bigerriones who could, at best, have been a client tribe of the Tarbelli.

Pyrenees National Park in France

(Information by Trish Wilson, with additional information by Edward Dawson and Peter Kessler, from Diccionario vasco–español–francés, Resurreción María Azkue (two-volume, trilingual dictionary, 1905), from Hauta-lanerako euskal hiztegia, Ibon Sarasola (Gipuzkoako Kutxa, 1990), from Mini hiztegia euskara-euskara, Ibon Sarasola (Lur, Editorial S, 1996), from Geography, Ptolemy, from Dictionnaire de la langue gauloise: une approche linguistique du vieux-celtique continental, Xavier Delamarre (Third Edition, Errance, 2018, in French), and from External Links: the Etymological Dictionary of Basque, R L Trask (available in PDF format via the Etymological Dictionary, Max Wheeler (Ed, PDF), and Aquitania (University of California), and Celtiberia.net (in Spanish), and Gran Enciclopedia Aragonesa (in Spanish), and The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars, and Euskomedia (in Spanish), and The Natural History, Pliny the Elder (John Bostock, Ed).)

56 BC

When war flares up again in Gaul, triggered by Publius Licinius Crassus and the Seventh Legion in the territory of the Andes, Caesar has to turn back from his journey to Illyrium to handle the problem. Crassus is sent to subdue the tribes of the Aquitani - although the Vascones seem not to be involved themselves - and prevent an all-out war against stretched Roman troops.

Map of European Tribes
This vast map covers just about all possible tribes which were documented in the first centuries BC and AD, mostly by the Romans and Greeks, and with an especial focus on 52 BC (click or tap on map to view at an intermediate size)

The Cantabri send assistance to the Aquitani, but the Petrocorii are subdued early, while auxiliaries are recruited from the (Gaulish) Bebryces, Sordones, and Volcae. The Sotiates attack the Romans in a drawn-out and vigorously-contested engagement in which the Romans are only just victorious, having outlasted their hot-headed Celtic opponents in terms of stamina.

The Vocates and Tarusates prove to be a rather more difficult opponent, outnumbering Crassus perhaps by ten-to-one and holding a very strong position. However, and despite the odds, the Aquitani are forced to surrender with heavy casualties.

When news of this defeat spreads, the majority of the tribes of Aquitania surrender to Crassus, including the Ausci, Bigerriones, Cocosates, Elusates, Garites, Garumni, Preciani, Suburates, Tarbelli, Tarusates, and 'Vocasates'.

Pyrenees National Park
The Pyrenees National Park on the French side of the western-central Pyrenees reveals a level of lush terrain and grazing opportunities which can surprise anyone who thinks of the range as being pure, uninhabitable mountains

Smaller Aquitani tribes such as the Benearni and Onesii - and even larger ones like the Consoranni, Convenae, and Sibusates - are not mentioned directly but, as the smaller ones generally sit within the shadow of the much more powerful larger tribes, their surrender is entirely to be expected. Today those on the western bank of the Garonne form part of the largely unofficial Basque Country.

With this action, Aquitania 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.

28 BC

Despite submitting fully in 56 BC, it seems that the conquest of the Aquitani and the neighbouring Celtic tribes is effected only now, by Proconsul Marcus Valerius Messalla. The proconsul is awarded a triumph for his success, suggesting that some fighting had been involved.

That award further suggests that the submission of 56 BC had gained the tribes some sort of allied status, but for the most part up until this point they had been able to remain essentially autonomous.

Triumph of Titus and Vespasian
The triumph of Marcus Valerius Messalla would have been similar to the one shown in Triumph of Titus and Vespasian, an Italian oil by Giulio Pippi (Romano) - very much a form of street party with a 'royal' procession, and usually held to celebrate a military victory

27 BC - AD 14

During the period of office of Augustus in Rome, the Aquitani tribes are incorporated into the newly-formed province of Aquitania. The province extends from the Liger (the modern Loire) to the Pyrenees, and is bound on the northern side by Mons Cevennus. This is one of the three divisions of the Gauls, the others being Gallia Lugdunensis and Belgica.


During his reign, Rome's Emperor Diocletian oversees the formulation of the Notitia Galliarum. One of the cities which are included in its pages is the city of 'ciuitas Elloronensium' (with 'ciutas' meaning 'civitas'). This Latin name is understood to derive from that of the people who are living in the city of Iluro (today's Oloron-Sainte-Marie).

However, this population is labelled the Iluronenses, and this is their first mention in history. Their territory is in the same vicinity as the former territory of the Oscidates and Suburates, but neither of those tribes are now mentioned.

Emperor Maximianus
Despite having been raised to office by Diocletian in AD 285, Maximianus seemingly couldn't avoid plotting and planning, even when having been forgiven and readmitted to high office


FeatureAs the Roman empire rapidly fades across the century, according to the Notitia Dignitatum (see feature link) it seems that the Tarbelli capital of Aquae Tarbellicae loses importance in favour of Lapurdum (Bayonne), seat of the tribune of the 'Cohort of Novempopulania'.

As a tribe, the Tarbelli disappear under the weight of invasions by the Alani, Suevi, and Vandali (in 406) and then by the Visigoths, and finally thanks to the dissolution of the empire (in 476). Their neighbours, the Vascones, emerge to take prominence, with their territory even becoming a medieval duchy called Vasconia.

However, the boundaries of Tarbelli territory are generally preserved by the medieval diocese of Dax. The diocese of Bayonne later detaches itself from Dax but this too generally preserves Tarbelli borders.


In the early medieval period the Aquitani lands are first confirmed as a possession of the Franks, after a long struggle to wrest them from the hands of the Visigoths. A Merovingian duke by the name of Chramn is appointed to govern Aquitaine, which contains within it the region of Gascony.

Map of Western Europe at the death of Clovis in AD 511
The founder of the Merovingian Frankish kingdom was Clovis, who followed an aggressive policy of conquest to build up the kingdom over much of modern France, although Aquitaine was a very late addition (click or tap on map to view full sized)

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