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European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes

 

Veragri (Gauls / Celto-Ligurians?)

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).

MapBy the middle of the first century BC, there existed a cluster of smaller tribes in the Alpine region of western Switzerland and the French/Italian border (see map link for all tribal locations). This included the Veragri who were located in western Switzerland, around - and controlling - the Great St Bernard Pass to the immediate south-east of Lake Geneva, and specifically around the city of Octodurum (today's Martigny), along the Upper Rhone.

They were neighboured to the north by the Nantuates, to the east by the Salassi and Graioceli, to the south by the Medulli and Ceutrones, and to the west by the Allobroges.

The tribe's name is an easy one to break down. 'Veragri' is two words combined, the first being 'ver', from 'wiro-', meaning 'a man', plus 'agro-', meaning 'slaughter' in the sense of warfare. They were 'the slaughtermen'. It is interesting to note that 'ver' is used instead of 'vir'. This is more of a German pronunciation, although they used 'wer' instead of 'wir'.

How an Alpine Celtic tribe may have come to receive a Germanic influence is anyone's guess (the nearby Vellavi exhibit the same potential influence). The only easy answer is that it came from Germanic or Belgic tribes, most likely during the Cimbric migration of the late second century BC. However, an examination of the Vellavi name reveals the possibility of a proto-Italic influence, which could have reached the Veragri via the Bell Beaker-influenced Celto-Ligurians or Raeti.

This tribe occupied territory which roughly matched the western section of the modern Valais. They were situated between Martigny-la-Ville and Martigny-Bourg, on the left bank of the Rhône, near the point at which it bends northward towards Lake Geneva. They had an oppidum at Octodorus, and were one of the first tribes to be affected by Julius Caesar's excursions into Gaul.

The Alps

(Information by Peter Kessler and Edward Dawson, with additional information by Trish Wilson, 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 Les peuples préromains du Sud-Est de la Gaule: Étude de géographie historique, Guy Barruol (De Boccard, 1999), and from External Links: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars, and L'Arbre Celtique (The Celtic Tree, in French), and Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz or Dictionnaire Historique de la Suisse or Dizionario Storico dell Svizzera (in German, French, and Italian respectively).)

c.600 BC

Bellovesus and his massed horde of people from the Bituriges, Insubres, and several other tribes begin a migration across the Alps and into northern Italy. This barrier is one which has apparently not previously been breached by Celts, but they are also deterred by a sense of religious obligation, triggered by news reaching them that another group looking for territory, a force of Massalians, is under attack by the Salyes (Ligurians).

Map of Alpine and Ligurian tribes, c.200-15 BC
The origins of the Euganei, Ligurians, Raeti, Veneti, and Vindelici are confused and unclear, but in the last half of the first millennium BC they were gradually being Celticised or were combining multiple influences to create hybrid tribes (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Seeing this as an omen of their own fortunes, the Celts briefly go to the assistance of the Massalians to help them secure their position. Then they make the crossing with some trepidation, heading through the passes of the Taurini and the valley of the Douro.

Following that they defeat Etruscans in battle not far from the Ticinus. Bellovesus and his people settle around the Ticinus and build a settlement called Mediolanum (modern Milan).

This could herald the start of the period in which - if they are not already there - various Celtic tribes settle the western Alps rather than following Bellovesus into Italy, amongst them being the Veragri.

56 BC

Following his successful campaign against the Belgae in the previous year, Caesar heads for Italy. He sends Servius Galba ahead with the Twelfth Legion and part of the cavalry to secure the way. The pass through the Alps has been dominated by the Nantuates, Seduni, and Veragri tribes, making the route a dangerous one for Roman merchants, and now is the time to end that danger.

Great St Bernard's Pass
The region around the Great St Bernard's Pass was a perfect mix of fertile plains and protective high mountains for small but aggressive Celtic tribes in the four centuries or so between their settlement of the area and domination by Rome

Galba conducts a few successful battles and storms several of their forts, until the tribes send embassies and hostages, and peace is concluded. Galba stations two cohorts among the Nantuates, and sets up camp with the legion's remaining cohorts in the village of Octodurus, which belongs to the Veragri.

The village is situated in a valley with a small plain, and is bounded on all sides by very high mountains. Galba takes the unoccupied half of the village as winter quarters for his troops, and fortifies it with a rampart and ditch.

Several days later, the Veragri tribe has vanished from the village and has assembled in the mountains overlooking the valley with a very large force of Nantuates and Seduni. The legion, which is reduced in size after detachments have been made, appears vulnerable to the Celts, who are convinced that the Romans want to conquer all of Gaul.

Western Alps
The Celtic tribes of the Western Alps were relatively small and fairly fragmented, but they made up for that with a level of belligerence and fighting ability that often stunned their major opponents, including the Romans

The Romans decide to defend their position, and are hard-pressed by the superior numbers attacking them, perhaps thirty thousand in all. The six hour battle ends when the exhausted Romans make a last-ditch sally which takes the Celts by surprise and inflicts heavy casualties on them, forcing them to withdraw.

Having survived the onslaught the Romans withdraw in good order, heading westwards into the territory of the Allobroges where they settle into safer winter quarters. Before they leave, however, they burn Octodorus to the ground.

25 - 15 BC

Augustus determines that the Alpine tribes need to be pacified in order to end their warlike behaviour, alternately attacking or extracting money from Romans who pass through the region, even when they have armies in tow. He wages a steady, determined campaign against them during the Alpine Wars, and in a period of ten years he 'pacifies the Alps all the way from the Adriatic to the Tyrrhenian seas' (written by Augustus himself).

14 BC

Emperor Augustus creates the province of Alpes Maritimae (the maritime, or seaward, Alps). It has its capital at Cemenelum (modern Nice, although this is switched in 297 to Civitas Ebrodunensium, modern Embrun). The history of the Alpine region's population of Celts and Celto-Ligurians is now tied to that of the empire.

La Turbie and the Trophy of Augustus
The Tropaeum Alpium ('Trophy of the Alps') stands majestically in the commune of La Turbie on the French Riviera, overlooking the principality of Monaco, and marking the final victory over the Alpine tribes by Augustus

 
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