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European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes


Vasates / Vasarii / Vocates / Volcates / Vocasates (Gauls? / Aquitani?)

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, while also extending into Switzerland, northern Italy, and along the Danube (see feature link for a discussion of the origins of the Celtic name).

By the middle of the first century BC, the Vasates were a minor tribe which was located within Aquitania. They were neighboured to the north by the Biturices, across the Garonne to the east by the Nitiobroges, to the south by the Sotiates and Tarusates, and to the west by the Boiates, a pocket of the much larger Boii, as well as being embedded amongst a swathe of much smaller Aquitani tribes in the region.

The Vasates or Vasatæ of Ausonius and Ammianus are probably also the Vocates of Julius Caesar, the Basavocates of Pliny, and the Vasarii of Ptolemy. However, the Vocates name could also have been a misreading or mishearing of 'Boeates' (Boiates), another term for a division of Boii which found itself in Aquitania. As well as also being the Volcates (or a division of them), was this tribe also the otherwise unknown Vocasates?

With so many variants of its name, breaking down a meaning can be rather long-winded (even with the Basavocates being handled on a separate page). The core name appears to be heavily altered or influenced by slang into shortened forms. As near as can be seen, the actual main tribal name is probably 'Basavolcates'. The first element shows that variance (possibly due to a Belgic influence) in which a 'w' sound becomes a 'v' sound and was recorded by Romans as 'b' because, to a Roman, the letter 'v' is always a 'w' sound.

Possible original words for it include *wesu-, meaning 'good', *bossa or *bosta, meaning 'fist, palm of hand', or 'gwas', meaning 'servant' (the modern Welsh 'gwas' would indicate an older form of 'was'). The first two are not quite right, but the third possibility fits perfectly with known Celtic naming habits in Britain. A 'follower' of some deity would be a 'dog' ('cuno-') of [god], or a 'servant' ('magu-' or 'waso-') of [god]. The second element is *wolko-, *wolkā, meaning 'wolf' or 'hawk'. If we postulate an unrecorded wolf or hawk deity, then they could have been the followers of that deity.

Reconstructing from the known names an original form of 'Vasovolcates' (the 'b' in Basavolcates' would probably have been a Roman 'correction'), it can be seen that the name comprised the words 'vaso', meaning 'servant boy', and 'volc', meaning 'hawk' - but the human extended meaning is 'a rogue'. So they were the 'rogue (wild) servant boys' (which sounds remarkably like Wendy's 'Lost Boys' in Peter Pan!).

If, then, it can be taken that they were the servants of the rogues, could this infer that they were a sub-tribe of the Volcates, or were they and the Volcates one and the same thing? One has to suspect that it's the same tribe, but the two halves of the name are used as short forms, nicknames. The same practice can be seen in modern forms, such as 'The Red Hot Chili Peppers' being called either the 'Chilis' or the 'Red Hots'.

The tribe inhabited the aforementioned little territory of Bazadois, along the southern bank of the Garonne, extending southwards into the modern département of Les Landes. Their principal settlement was at Cossium, which became known as Vasatæ and is now Bazas, a commune in France's Gironde département. They had migrated into Aquitania by the time they encountered the Romans. Knowing that Roman troops were approaching, the 'Volcates' and Tarusates sought aid from their Iberian neighbours and for the first time Romans faced troops who were trained in Roman tactics. Ultimately, however, the Romans were victorious and Aquitania's freedom was ended.

Ancient Britons

(Information by Peter Kessler, Edward Dawson, and Trish Wilson, with additional information by Trish Wilson, from the Encyclopaedia of European Peoples, Carl Waldman & Catherine Mason, from the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, William Smith, from Geography, Ptolemy, 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), from A Genetic Signal of Central European Celtic Ancestry, David K Faux, from Celts and the Classical World, David Rankin, from Europe Before History, Kristian Kristiansen, 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), and from External Links: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars, and The Natural History, Pliny the Elder (John Bostock, Ed), and 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 Euskomedia (in Spanish).)

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 Aquitania to subdue the tribes there and prevent an all-out war against stretched Roman troops. The Cantabri send assistance to the Aquitani.

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)

He recruits auxiliaries from the Gaulish regions of Tolosa, Carcaso, and Narbo (which includes the tribes of the Bebryces, Sordones, and Volcae) before entering the territory of the Sotiates, using the lands of the Nitiobroges as a bridgehead by agreement with the tribe.

That tribe has gathered together a large force which attacks the Romans in a drawn-out and vigorously-contested engagement. The Romans are only just victorious, having outlasted their hot-headed Celtic opponents in terms of stamina.

The tribe's oppidum is besieged and they eventually surrender, despite an attempt by Adcantuannus to lead his personal retinue into a death or glory attack and other Celts undermining the siege towers (thanks to the presence of copper in the region these Celts and their Aquitani neighbours are expert miners).

Midi du Bigorre in the French region of Aquitania
The territory into which the tribe had settled was typical of the Aquitani region, which was made up mostly of rugged foothills of the kind that border peoples normally use to survive invasions by later arrivals - the Welsh and early Scots held onto similar territory in Britain to enable them to survive the Anglo-Saxon invasion

Crassus marches into the territories of the Vocates and Tarusates. They prove to be a rather more difficult opponent. The campaign against the Sotiates has given them time to raise troops from northern Iberia, many of which had fought with Quintus Sertorius, a rebellious governor of Iberia who defied Rome for a decade, and they have learnt a great deal from that experience.

They outnumber Crassus perhaps by ten-to-one and hold a very strong position which prevents him from gathering supplies for his men. The only option (aside from an unthinkable retreat) is to engage them in battle, despite the odds.

Pinning them down at the front, he sends cavalry around to their rear to scout out any weakness. Their entirely unguarded rear is attacked and, with Romans pressing from two sides, 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 (and presumably the unmentioned Oscidates).

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, Onesii, and Sucasses - and even larger ones like the Consoranni and Convenae - 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. Nine tribes of Aquitania are included in contemporary territorial rearrangements when a delegation requests them of Rome.

The Vasates are amongst these nine tribes - alongside the Aturenses, Benearni, Elusates, Iluronenses, Lactorates, Tarbelli and others - all of which gain a new province in the form of Novempopulania.


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.

Roman bridge at Albi
Toulouse was a Roman city until AD 418, but even a century and-a-half of subsequent barbarian rule would not have erased the very strong Roman appearance of the city, with a similar effect being visible in nearby Albi, pictured here

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