History Files

European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes


MapVocontii (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 Vocontii were located along both banks of the Rhodanus (the Greek name for the modern River Rhône - to the Celts it was the Rodonos) between Valence and Avignon. They were neighboured to the north by the Helvii, to the north-east by the Allobroges and Segovellauni, to the east by the Caturiges, to the south by the coastal Salluvii and Commoni, and to the south-west by the Volcae Arecomisci.

The Vocontii tribal name is a very easy one to interpret. Removing the plural suffixes leaves something that is mirrored almost exactly in the proto-Celtic *wo-kāno-, meaning 'excellent'. The name was another of those superlatives so beloved of flashy, proud Celtic warriors - ' the excellents'. The Abrincatui had a similarly flashy name.

The tribe occupied territory in the département of the Vaucluse (specifically between the Durance and the Isere) in the foothills of the Alps. They had major centre at Vaiso (modern Vaison-le-Romaine), which was located near their recently rediscovered oppidum. They were amongst the earliest tribes in Gaul to be subjugated by Rome in 125-124 BC, following which they gained the status of civitas foederati (an allied state). The Ala Augusta Vocontiorum civium Romanorum (August Wing of Vocontii, citizens of Rome) which consisted of Vocontii was stationed in Lower Germany until the beginning of the second century AD. Then it was apparently posted to Britain as part of the train of Emperor Hadrian during his visit. That visit resulted in the building of Hadrian's Wall, and there is evidence of the Vocontii being stationed at Newstead, very likely during the Antonine occupation of the Scottish Lowlands.

(Information by Peter Kessler and Edward Dawson, with additional information from The Celtic Encyclopaedia Volume 4, Harry Mountain, from Roman History, Cassius Dio, from Research into the Physical History of Mankind, James Cowles Pritchard, and from External Links: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars, and Geography, Strabo (H C Hamilton & W Falconer, London, 1903, Perseus Online Edition).)

12th century BC

The Vocontii arrive in the land between the Durance and the Isere as a group of Urnfield-Hallstatt Celts, and there they remain until their first century BC defeat by Rome. They venerate the god Nabelcus, after whom the modern Vaucluse département gains its name. The main site of veneration for Nabelcus is Mount Ventoux.

123 - 121 BC

The Allobroges come into direct conflict with Rome following the latter's defeat of the Salluvii. That tribe's king, Tuto-Motulus, flees northwards and seeks shelter with the Allobroges. They welcome him in, and when Rome demands that he is handed over, they refuse. Having declared war, Rome sends Quintus Fabius Maximus to attack them in 121 BC. He defeats the Allobroges, Arverni, and Helvii, with the Arverni ruler, Bituitus, being displayed in Rome. The Ruteni, Segovellauni, Vocontii, and Volcae Arecomisci are subjugated at the same time. The Vocontii gain the status of civitas foederati as an allied state.

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

58 BC

Despite the death of Orgetorix, the Helvetii decide to go ahead with their planned exodus. Julius Caesar cannot put up with the idea of having such a dangerous force of Celts occupying the more peaceful plains of Gaul, so he force-marches two new legions from Italy to face the threat, although the Ceutrones, Graioceli, and Caturiges attempt to block his passage through the Alps. As he passes through the territory of the Vocontii to enter that of the Allobroges and then the Segusiavi, groups from several local tribes are joining the Helvetii, including the Latobrigi, Raurici, and Tulingi, making them one of the largest and most powerful forces in all of Gaul. Unfortunately, the Battle of Bibracte between Celts and Romans is a total victory for the latter. The Helvetii are mercilessly crushed and are forced back to their homeland. This act sets in motion a train of events that results in the eventual annexation of all of Gaul into the Roman state.

With this action, northern Gaul has been brought under Roman domination, and the history of its population of Celts is tied to that of the empire.

AD 23

Strabo mentions the Vocontii in his Geography. He states: '...the Vocontii... occupy the northerly parts of the mountains. But the Vocontii, stretching alongside the others, reach as far as the Allobroges; they have glens in the depths of their mountainous country that are of considerable size and not inferior to those which the Allobroges have. Now the Allobroges and the Ligures are ranked as subject to the praetors who come to Narbonitis, but the Vocontii are ranked as autonomous.'