History Files

European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes


MapVasates / Vasarii / Volcates / Basavocates (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 Vasates were a minor tribe that 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 to the west by a pocket of the Boii.

The Vasates or Vasatć of Ausonius and Ammianus are probably 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 for Boeates, another term for the Boii who found themselves 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 - Basavocates, Vasarii, Vasates Vocates, and Volcates - breaking down the meaning can be rather long-winded. The core name appears to be heavily altered or influenced by slang into shortened forms. As near as can be seen, the actual name is probably Basavolcates. The first element shows that variance (possibly due to a Belgic influence) where a 'w' sound becomes a 'v' sound and is 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' of ('cuno-'), or a 'servant' of ('magu-' or 'waso-') 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. (This sounds remarkably like Wendy's Lost Boys in Peter Pan!) So they were the servants of the rogues, but 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 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 Vasatć 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.

(Information by Peter Kessler and Edward Dawson, with additional information from Research into the Physical History of Mankind, James Cowles Prichard, from Geography, Ptolemy, 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 Link: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars.)

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. 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 Spain 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).

With this action, southern Gaul and Aquitania have been brought under Roman domination, and the history of its population of Celts and Aquitani is tied to that of the 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 further suggests that the submission of 56 BC had gained the tribes some sort of allied status, but that they had essentially been autonomous until now.

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.

AD 555

Medieval Aquitaine is first confirmed as a possession of the Franks, after a long struggle to wrest it from the hands of the Visigoths. A Merovingian duke by the name of Chramn is appointed to govern Aquitaine.