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European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes


Veneti (Armorica / West Indo-Europeans)

FeatureIn general terms, the Romans coined the name 'Gaul' to describe the Celtic tribes of what is now central, northern, and eastern France (with extensions deeper into the European continent). 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 Veneti were located in Armorica, part of Gaul, in what is now the southern coastline of Brittany. This area came to be known as Vannetais based on that Veneti name, located between Vannes and St Nazaire. The Veneti were neighboured to the north-west by the Osismii, to the north-east by the Redones, to the east by the Diablintes, and to the south-east by the Namniti.

However, this powerful tribe were not Belgae, and neither were they Gauls. It is thought they were a splinter group of a much greater Veneti collective which occupied the eastern side of the Vistula, in Eastern Europe. These people were the Vistula Venedi, but their origins, and those of the Armorican Veneti, are highly obscure and open to much debate (and disagreement).

The Belgae are thought to have migrated across Northern Europe from around the fifth or fourth centuries BC. Some of them seem to have migrated eastwards towards the mouth of the Vistula. It is here that a good deal of uncertainty surrounds them. It was generally thought that they provided the origins for the Celticised Vistula Venedi, but it now seems more likely that they simply intermixed with them to strengthen their population.

The Vistula Venedi may well have been in position since at least the twelfth century BC, and perhaps as early as the start of the second millennium BC (see the main Veneti page for full details). They appear to have been river sailors (with sailing being a trait they seemed to share with the Belgae), seemingly having gained control of the length of the Vistula and its tributary, the Bug.

At around the same time as the Belgae were migrating, part of this Venedi population seems to have undertaken its own sea journey. It reached the Armorican peninsula where it was noted by Julius Caesar as being different from the Gauls of his time, but also different from the Belgae. There was also a third group of Veneti in Iron Age Italy, known as the Adriatic Veneti.

Once in Armorica, these Veneti became the major seafaring nation on the Atlantic coast. Their ships were accustomed to crossing the Channel in large numbers to maintain contacts in Britain and they dominated other groups which were engaged in sea trade in the region.

However, the Veneti moved their ships in a markedly more primitive manner than other peoples in Europe, something which indicates a lack of previous contact with civilisation during their early existence, and supports the idea of them having migrated from the Vistula. Caesar pointed to the Veneti only using sails, with no oars. Contrast this with Mediterraneans who used sails and oars, and with early Germans in the north who used only oars. It can be seen that there was very limited early contact between Germanics and Venedi, with Germanics not yet having reached the mouth of the Vistula.

The scarcity of Venetic coins in Britain compared to those of other tribes of Armorica suggests that the Veneti themselves were carriers rather than merchants. The island now known as Belle-Île-en-Mer (ar Gerveur in modern Breton, or Guedel in Old Breton), which is situated to the south of Brittany, was known by the Romans as Vindilis, preserving the link to the tribe.

Following defeat by Rome, elements of the tribe may have fled to Britain and Ireland, where they formed two tribes of Venicones, one in Pictland and the other in Donegal as the Venicnii, by AD 140. The tribe also appears to have had strong links with the Dumnonii tribe in Britain even prior to the Roman conquest. This relationship seems to be maintained during the Roman period by those who did not leave Armorica, so much so that Dumnonian Britons felt free to migrate into the region from the fourth century onwards to escape instability in Britain.

Vistula lagoon, Poland

(Information by Peter Kessler and Edward Dawson, with additional information from The La Tene Celtic Belgae Tribes in England: Y-Chromosome Haplogroup R-U152 - Hypothesis C, David K Faux, from On the Ocean, Pytheas of Massalia (work lost, but frequently quoted by other ancient authors), 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), and from External Link: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars.)

c.325 BC

FeaturePytheas of Massalia undertakes a voyage of exploration to north-western Europe, becoming the first scholar to note details about the Celtic and Germanic tribes there.

One of the tribes he records is the Ostinioi - almost certainly the Osismii - who occupy Cape Kabaïon, which is probably pointe de Penmarc'h or pointe du Raz in western Brittany. This means that the tribe has already settled the region by the mid-fourth century, probably alongside their neighbours of later years, the Veneti, Cariosvelites, and Redones.

Ptolemy's map of Britain
The details recorded by Pytheas were interpreted by Ptolemy in the second century AD, and this 1490 Italian reconstruction of the section covering the British Isles and northern Gaul shows Ptolemy's characteristically lopsided Scotland at the top

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, in a single campaigning season, the Belgic tribes are defeated or surrender to Rome.

According to Caesar, the Aulerci, Cariosvelites, Osismii, Redones, Sesuvii, Venelli, and Veneti, all of whom are located along the Atlantic coast, are subdued by the legion of Publius Licinius Crassus. With this action, northern Gaul has been brought under Roman domination.

56 BC

Following his successful campaign against the Belgae in the previous year, Caesar sets out for Illyricum. Once he has left, war flares up again, triggered by Publius Licinius Crassus and the Seventh Legion in the territory of the Andes.

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)

With supplies of corn running low, he sends scavenging parties into the territories of the Cariosvelites, Esubii, and the highly influential Veneti. The latter revolt against this infringement of their lands and possessions, and the neighbouring tribes rapidly follow their lead, including the Ambiliati, Diablintes, Lexovii, Menapii, Morini, Namniti, Nannetes, and Osismii.

The Veneti also send for auxiliaries from their cousins in Britain. Julius Caesar rushes back to northern Gaul, to a fleet which is being prepared for him by the (Roman-led) Pictones and Santones on the River Loire.

The Veneti and their allies fortify their towns, stock them with corn harvests from the surrounding countryside, and gather together as many ships as possible. Knowing that the overland passes are cut off by estuaries and that a seaward approach is highly difficult for their opponents, they plan to fight the Romans using their powerful navy in the shallows of the Loire.

Before engaging the Veneti, Caesar sends troops to the Remi, Treveri, and other Belgae to encourage them to keep to their allegiance with Rome and to hold the Rhine against possible incursions by Germanics who may be planning to join the Veneti. This works, with even the previously militant Bellovaci remaining subdued during this revolt.

Romans attack a Veneti vessel
Roman auxiliaries in the form of the Aeduii on board a Gaulish-built ship attack a Veneti vessel in Morbihan Bay on the French Atlantic coast during the campaign of 56 BC

Crassus is sent to Aquitania and Quintus Titurius Sabinus to the Cariosvelites, Lexovii and Venelli, to prevent them sending reinforcements to the Veneti. Sabinus finds that Viridovix of the Venelli has joined the revolt, along with the Aulerci and Sexovii, who have killed their magistrates for wanting to remain neutral.

Sabinus remains in his well-fortified camp, resisting the taunts of the Venelli and their allies until they venture too far forwards, allowing a Roman sally across the defensive ditch and into the fleeing Celtic ranks. This area of the revolt is instantly extinguished.

The campaign by Caesar against the Veneti is protracted and takes place both on land and sea. Veneti strongholds, when threatened, are evacuated by sea and the Romans have to begin again.

Eventually the Veneti fleet is cornered and defeated in Quiberon Bay by Legate Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus. The Veneti strongholds are stormed and much of the Veneti population is either captured and enslaved or butchered. The confederation is destroyed and Roman rule is firmly stamped upon the region.

Map of Britain AD 10
By the end of the first century BC and the start of the first century AD, British politics often came to the attention of Rome, and the borders of the tribal states of the south-east were pretty well known (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Elements of the tribe may flee to Britain and Ireland where they form two tribes of Venicones, one in what becomes Pictland and the other in County Donegal as the Venicnii, where both are attested by Ptolemy by AD 140.

While this may seem a controversial assertion to some scholars, Julius Caesar's claim to have killed or enslaved all of the Veneti is clearly self-serving propaganda aimed at his Roman constituency.

He has almost certainly got many of them, and quite a bit of their navy, but families with access to boats will have gone to sea at night and sailed to Britain or Ireland, both of which are outside Roman control. Families which have been unable to escape to sea will have fled inland into the highland (arden) forest of Armorica. After hiding there they are able to re-emerge once the legions depart, and are able to re-inhabit their 'Vannetais'.

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.

Romans versus Gauls
Organising the various tribes of Gaul into a unified resistance took some doing, but Vercingetorix of the Arverni appears to have held a level of authority which made him a leader not to be refused, and thousands of warriors flocked to join him

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 six thousand men combined from the tribes of Armorica (including the Ambibari, Caleti, Cariosvelites, Lemovices, Osismii, Redones, Venelli, and Veneti).

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.

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

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.

With this action, all of Gaul 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.

AD 140 - 143

The Romans move north to the Forth-Clyde line, roughly the southern Pictish boundary, reoccupying British Lowland Scotland and beginning construction of the more basic Antonine Wall.

It is around this time that the geographer, Ptolemy, notes the tribes to the north of the wall. Some of them receive their one and only mention in history and it is thought that at least one or two tribes may have been created by refugees fleeing the Roman invasion of the south.

The traditional view of Picts as the 'painted people' is based on a description given by the Romans, and the use of blue woad as a body paint does seem to have been highly prevalent in the far north of Britain

The tribes mentioned include the Caereni, Caledonii (along either side of Loch Ness southwards from the Moray Firth to Ben Nevis), Carnonacae, Cornavii (possibly formed by members of the Cornovii tribe fleeing from the south), Creones, and Decantae (on the western side of the mouth of the Moray Firth, possibly formed by fleeing Cantii).

Then there are the Epidii, Lugi, Smertae, Taexalli, Vacomagi (on the eastern side of the mouth of the Moray Firth), and Venicones (on the peninsula between the Firth of Tay and the Firth of Forth, possibly refugee Veneti from continent Europe).


FeatureAfter fighting off raids by the Picts, Cunedda and his branch of Romanised Venicones in Britain are transferred from the Manau dependency of the Guotodin kingdom, traditionally by Magnus Maximus (see feature link).

They are moved to the former territory of the Deceangli in western Britain (today's north-western Wales) to secure the region from Irish raiders, and it is here that they found the kingdom of Venedotia where their descendants remain.

Hill fort site at Tillicoultry
The former site of the hill fort of Tillicoultry is one candidate for the Venicones capital, although the Roman presence this far north was so transitory (relatively speaking) that firm detail about almost anything in Scotland is hard to come by

4th century

Starting in the late 300s, but picking up pace in the fifth and sixth centuries, the former Veneti homeland is colonised by Britons. The Dumnonii tribe in particular seem to have retained close links with the Celts of Armorica, in the form of the Veneti tribe.

During the Roman period, those links have been used as trade routes. Now, as the political situation in Britain begins to become increasingly unstable, there is a drift of resettlement from the south-west into Armorica.

This becomes much heavier in the late fourth century, and turns into a flood in the mid-fifth century. Initially the new kingdom which is formed by the Britons even retains a late form of the Veneti tribal name in the 'Kingdom of Vannetais'.

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