History Files
 

Please help the History Files

Contributed: 84

Target: 400

2023
Totals slider
2023

The History Files still needs your help. As a non-profit site, it is only able to support such a vast and ever-growing collection of information with your help, and this year your help is needed more than ever. Please make a donation so that we can continue to provide highly detailed historical research on a fully secure site. Your help really is appreciated.

European Kingdoms

Aquitani Tribes

 

Vascones (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 Vascones, by the first century BC, were one of the more dominant Aquitani tribes. They were based in what is now north-eastern Spain, in the region around the Upper Ebro, on the southern side of the Pyrenees. Their territory today comprises the province of Navarra (formerly the medieval kingdom of Navarre), north-eastern Rioja, and western Aragon (formerly the late medieval kingdom of Aragon).

The tribal capital was Iruña, today known as Pamplona from the Roman renaming of Pompaleo. This act was in honour of Gnaeus Pompeius, who had a base there during the first century BC Sertorian War. Before that, by the third century BC, the Vascones were neighboured to the north, across the western end of the Pyrenees, by fellow Aquitani tribes (and especially by the Tarbelli), to the east by the Iacetani, to the south by the Berones, and to the west by the Varduli.

The 'Vascones' name is a Latinised version which has been preserved into two ways. One way is the term 'Basque' which describes a modern people who live in pretty much the same area as the ancient Aquitani tribes (north-eastern Iberia and south-western France). 'Basque' is actually the French term while the Spanish is 'vasco', closer to the original.

So how did the 'v' become a 'b'? The Spanish pronounce their 'v' as a 'b' which is how the nearby bay, the Baia de Vizcaya, became known as the Bay of Biscay. In later Roman times the area around the Vascones territory became Vasconia (or Wasconia, with the 'w' being pronounced as a 'v'). When the Franks moved into the northern side of the Pyrenees the name mutated into 'Gascony'. And since the Romans recorded the name with the '-on' definite article, they must have gained that name via the Gauls.

Although little is known about the Vascones of the pre-Roman period owing to the difficulty in identifying evidence for specific cultural traits, the mainstream view today is that their territory shows signs of archaeological continuity since the Aurignacian period. They were able to hold the migrating Celtic tribes at bay by building their settlements in areas which were difficult to access, and by adding elaborate defence systems and focussing on agriculture instead of keeping livestock. In time they would begin to dominate their new Celtic neighbours and then, at the end of the Roman empire period, to absorb them.

Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza states: '...the Basques once inhabited a much larger territory than today... During the last Palaeolithic period in Europe the Basque region extended over almost the entire area [in which] ancient cave paintings have been found.

There are some [clues to show] that Basque descends from a language [which was] spoken 35,000 to 40,000 years ago, during the first occupation of [modern] France by [Homo sapiens]... The artists [in] these caves would have spoken a language of the first, pre-agricultural Europeans, from which modern Basque is derived'.

Pyrenees National Park in France

(Information by Trish Wilson, with additional information by Edward Dawson and Peter Kessler, from The Celtic Encyclopaedia, Harry Mountain, from Hispania: Geografía, etnología e historia, Adolf Schultern & Pedro Bosch Gimpera, from La arqueología preromana hispánica, Pedro Bosch Gimpera, from El País Vasco en época romana, Luis Gil Zubillara, from La Tierra del Toro. Ensayo de identificación de ciudades vasconas, Alicia Maria Canto, from Genes, Peoples, and Languages, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza (University of California Press, 2000, pp120-121), and from External Links: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars, and The Natural History, Pliny the Elder (John Bostock, Ed), and Gran Enciclopedia Aragonesa (in Spanish), and Celtiberia.net (in Spanish), and Lista de pueblos prerromanos de Iberia (in Spanish, Hispanoteca.eu), and Euskomedia (in Spanish), and Euskadi Pays Basque, and National Geographic History (in Spanish), and Hand of Irulegi (The Guardian).)

218 - 202 BC

The Second Punic War starts at Saguntum (near modern Valencia) in Hispania, when the Turboletae assist Carthage in sacking this Edetani city. Using Gadir as a base, Hannibal Barca sets out to attack Rome, leading his armies over the Alps into Italy.

At first he wins great victories at Trasimeno and Cannae which all but destroys Roman military strength, but he is denied the reinforcements to pursue his victory by an opposing political faction back at home.

Map of Iberian Tribes 300 BC
The Iberian peninsula prior to the Carthaginian invasion and partial conquest was a melange of different tribal influences (click or tap on map to view full sized)

With Rome subsequently dominant in Iberia, Roman interest generally orientates towards the annexation and conquest of the Ebro valley, which takes place between 202-170 BC.

Around 179/178 BC, General Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus founds a city in the vicinity of Vascones territory which is named after him: Gracurris (formerly known as Ilurci according to Livy, the modern Alfaro). Following this there is increased collaboration between the Vascones and the Romans.

184 BC

Despite their previous alliance with Rome, the Suessetani rebel against Roman expansion, a move which has dire consequences for them when the then-governor of Hispania Citerior, Aulus Terentius Varro, lays siege to their capital. As part of their subsequent defeat, Corbio is destroyed.

The Vascones take immediate advantage. In alliance with the Romans and encouraged by them, the Vascones move in, assimilating most of the Suessetani lands by the end of the second century BC, at which point the Suessetani cease to be an independent tribe. For now though, they still have some fight in them.

Berdún in the territory of the Suessetani
The highly-picturesque hilltop town of Berdún lies between Navarre and Aragon, once within Suessetani territory but taken by the Vascones

181 - 179 BC

The Celtiberian wars start with the First Celtiberian War which sees various tribes (principally the Arevaci, Belli, Lusones, Pelondones, and Titti) push back against the new and somewhat aggressive Roman presence in formerly-Carthaginian territories at the conclusion of the Second Punic War. Rome wins the conflict and draws up treaties with several tribes in the region.

The Suessetani also become involved. Their chief settlement of Segia (today's Ejea de los Caballeros in the province of Zaragoza) is razed to the ground in 184 BC by the Romans under the command of Consul Aulus Terentius Varro. The Vascones subsequently complete their takeover of the tribe's territory, absorbing the survivors into their number and rebuilding Segia as a Vascones settlement.

Celtiberians
This depiction of Celtiberians ambushing Roman soldiers is a glimpse of the bitter Roman battle to control Iberia after the Punic Wars, although the Vascones proved to be somewhat less interested in military resistance against Rome

154 - 151 BC

The Second Celtiberian War occurs when Rome declares war on the Belli for building a circuit of walls around their town of Segeda. The Arevaci and Titti join the Belli to win a few initial victories. Consul Marcus Claudius Marcellus delivers Rome's final victory.

91 - 89 BC

The Etruscans, Frentani, Hirpini, Iapyges, Lucani, Marrucini, Marsi, Paeligni, Picentes, Samnites, Umbri, and Vestini fight against Rome in the Social War (also variously known as the Italian War, or Marsic War).

The so-called 'Bronze of Ascoli' which dates to 89 BC reveals that a unit of Vacones also takes part in the war, fighting as allies or recruits of Rome. Gnaeus Pompey Strabo (father of Gnaeus Pompeius Magna, the founder of Pompaelo), now grants citizenship 'virtutis causa' in recognition to various groups, including nine horsemen of the Vascones tribe of the city of Segia.

80 - 72 BC

The Sertorian War in Hispania causes the Celts of Mediterranean Gaul to be subjected to troop levies and forced requisitions in order to support the military efforts of Metellus Pius, Pompeius, and other Roman commanders against the rebels.

In Iberia the Berones and Autrigones oppose Quintus Sertorius until he is driven out of the peninsula. Celtiberian tribes also take part, such as the Arevaci, Lusones, and Pelondones.

Aiako Natural Park in Basque country
Today's Aiako Harria Natural Park sits in the foothills of the Pyrenees, at the eastern end of Guipúzcoa, and contains three main peaks: Irumugarrieta (806m), Txurrumurru (821m), and Erroilbide (843m)

The Vascones also oppose Quintus Sertorius, allying themselves with Gnaeus Pompeius Magna. In the winter of 75-74 BC he founds the city of Pompaelo in the heart of Vascones territory. In 72 BC the combined forces of Pompey and Metellus Pius put an end to the war by besieging the city of Calagurris (Calahorra on the Navarra-La Rioja border) which had sided with Sertorius.

The Vascones capital of Iruña (modern Pamplona) may also be attacked. A nearby Vascones village is certainly burned. Archaeology which takes place from 2017 onwards shows this and the fact that the village is not repopulated afterwards.

In 2021 the find is made of 'The Hand of Irulegi', which until the fire has probably hung from a door to bring luck. This flat, life-size bronze hand is engraved with dozens of symbols which form the oldest written example (to date) of proto-Basque (aside from a few coin inscriptions). Basque therefore predates the arrival here of the Roman alphabet which had previously been thought to have provided the basis for Basque writing.

The Hand of Irulegi
The 'Hand of Irulegi' was discovered by archaeologists in 2021 in the burned-out ruins of a pre-Roman Basque village which had been destroyed during the Sertorian War (80-72 BC)

 

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.

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'.

River Garonne in France
The Garonne in south-western France provided a defining line between the lands of the Gauls to the north and those of the Aquitani to the south, although by the first century BC this definition had blurred somewhat

Smaller Aquitanian tribes such as the Benearni, Boiates, Iacetani, Iluronenses, Onesii, Sucasses, and Vocassae - 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.

29 - 19 BC

In the matter of the Cantabrian War, the last onslaught between the Iberian Celts of the north-west (principally the Astures and Cantabri) and the Roman forces which are headed by Augustus, the Vascones remain neutral.

In 27 BC, Augustus creates the new province of Hispania Citerior Tarraconense, with a capital at Tarraco (Tarragona), into which the territory of the Vascones is incorporated.

AD 41 - 54

During the reign of Claudius the territories of Hispania are compartmentalised into different municipalities. Both the Vascones and the Berones are included in the circumscription of Caesarea Augusta (Zaragoza). Vascones people serve as auxiliaries in the Roman army but the tribe as a whole appears to adopt few Roman traits at home.

Navarre funerary belt clasp
The Vascones port city of Oiasso (today's Irún) have revealed a surprising selection of grave goods from the period between the ending of Roman controls and the beginnings of the Basque kingdom of Navarre in the eighth century AD

4th century

According to an exchange of letters between Senator Paulinus of Nola (later the bishop of Barcelona) and the poet, Decimus Magnus Ausonius (who lives between 310 and 395), the Vascones have acquired a poor reputation. Their character is described as being along the lines of bandit (iugis latronum), barbarian (gens barbara), and ferocious (feritate).

They are now also considered to be part of the 'Bagaudae' movement, groups of peasant insurgents in the later Roman empire who had first appeared during the third century 'crisis' period and which persist until the very end of the western empire, particularly in the less-Romanised areas of Gaul and Hispania.

507

Defeated by Clovis, king of the Franks, the Visigoths are pushed out of their holdings in southern Gaul and entirely into Iberia where they rebuild the kingdom (although they generally leave the large and powerful Vascones alone).

Map of Western Europe at the death of Clovis in AD 511
At the death of Clovis of the Franks in AD 511, three Frankish regions - Bordeaux, Aquitaine, and Auvergne - lay to the south of Orleans, and just who held Aquitaine (land of the Aquitani) is not known (click or tap on map to view full sized)

c.580

The independent Autrigones state is conquered by its Varduli neighbours. Ultimately whatever is left of it is destroyed or absorbed by the Vascones. This period is poorly-known and little documented by what remains of the civilised world, although the Vascones seem largely to have abandoned their towns in favour of a wilder lifestyle.

587

According to the historian, Adolf Schulten, the main Vascones base had been in the valley of the Ebro. It is from here that they apparently begin to spread across northern Iberia and then across the Pyrenees into Aquitaine in this year, extending as far northwards as the River Garonne, and giving their name to the region in the form of La Gascuña (Vasconia or Guasconia), or Gascony.

632

Dagobert I of the Franks leads an invasion force into Zaragoza (Saragossa) in the Vascones territory of Iberia to support Sisenand of the Visigoths in his revolt against King Swintilla. The combined resistance against Swintilla is successful.

Map of the Visigoth & Suevi kingdoms in AD 470
In AD 469/470 the Visigoths expanded their kingdom to its largest extent, reaching Nantes in the north and Cadiz in the south, but it was not to last - with the accession of Clovis of the Salian Franks, the Visigoths had found an implacable opponent (click or tap on map to view full sized)

635 - 636

Perhaps having seen enough of the Vascones in 632 to understand what opposition he might be facing, Dagobert I of the Franks now invades Vasconia. In 636 he seeks the oath of loyalty from those Vascones who are in the service of the Saxon duke of Bordeaux, Aighina.

660

The situation in the south of Francia is uncertain at this time. Felix becomes duke of Aquitaine in 660, but it is not certain that he succeeds the previous duke or whether there is a break. Felix may be in the service of the Franks, but he may also be independent.

The Aquitani may be his subjects, but they may equally be his allies. His territory encompasses Bordeaux, Narbonensis (including Toulouse), Novempopulania, and Vasconia (of the Vascones), but does not reach as far north as the Loire.

710 - 711

Ceuta, and the Pillars of Hercules, which until very recently had fallen under the control of the Eastern Roman empire via Carthage, are apparently turned over to the Islamic empire by 'Count Julian', as the empire prepares its invasion of Visigothic Iberia.

Map of Western Europe between AD 481-511
Clovis of the Salian Franks wrested Gaul away from Visigoth control in stages, eventually forcing them entirely south of the Pyrenees (click or tap on map to view full sized)

711 - 714

The Visigoth kingdom is overrun by the Moorish Islamic invasion of the Umayyads, at the battles of Jerez de la Frontera and Ecija. Cordova is captured (711), as is Seville and Toledo (712). The Battle of Segoyuela sees Saragossa captured (in 713, capital of the Vascones), and Valencia falls (714).

In opposition to the occupation of Iberia, the small Asturian kingdom is founded in the unconquered and mountainous north-west soon afterwards (718), while various march counties emerge over the course of the next century, including that of Urgel (close to Andorra) of which the first count is a Visigothic noble by the name of Borrell.

As for the Vascones, despite losing Saragossa and retreating somewhat into the foothills of the Pyrenees, they remain unconquered. A pocket kingdom called Nafarroa is founded no later than AD 737 as a Frankish march county up alongside the western Pyrenees. Virtual independence ensures that the Vascones identity survives to emerge into modern history as today's Basques.

The Battle of Roncevaux Pass
The Song of Roland (La Chanson de Roland) was an eleventh century poem by an anonymous author which covered the events of the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in the Pyrenees, between the Franks and the Umayyads of Iberia in 778, shown here in an illustration from a fourteenth century manuscript

 
Images and text copyright © all contributors mentioned on this page. An original king list page for the History Files.