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European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes


Vocontii (Gauls / Celto-Ligurians)
Incorporating the Avantici & Sogiontii

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).

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. In general terms 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.

However, they also headed a small confederation of at least some minor Ligurian tribes in a cluster which dotted the local countryside. These tribes were all rapidly becoming Celto-Ligurians in line with these earlier inhabitants of much of the western Alps.

Local units included the Cavari and Memini, and the Albici confederation, all to the immediate south and south-west of the Vocontii, the Reii to the south-east - on the other side of the Sogiontii - with the Avantici to the immediate east, the Tricorii to the north-east, the Iauni to the north-west, and the Tilcastini to the west.

The Vocontii tribal name is a very easy one to interpret. Removing the plural suffixes leaves something which 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 was clearly Celtic, or at least majority Celtic, but its closest neighbours were just as definitely Ligurian, which is while the Vocontii dominated the local confederation.

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 Germania 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.

As for the Vocontii's subordinate Celto-Ligurian neighbours, the Avantici were certainly part of their confederation, situated to their immediate east as they were, along the banks of the Durance in the east of their territory and the River Buëch in the west.

So were the Sogiontii, on the middle reaches of the River Durance, around the town of Sisteron (Segustero). Sisteron is sometimes referred to as 'the gateway to Provence', and is equidistant between Marseille and Grenoble. The three tribes formed a collective block of territory, with the Vocontii in the entire western half and the Avantici and Sogiontii in the eastern half, located north and south respectively. The Bondiontici bordered both to the east.

The pre-Roman principal civitas of the Avantici is held to be the oppidum on the hill of Sanit-Mens, very close to Gap. This is located in the western part of the Département Haute-Alpes, although the tribe's only ancient mention comes via Pliny.

Its territory is considered to correspond to what became known as Region Gapençais, which is roughly the southern half of the Hautes Alpes. During the Roman period their capital was known as Vapinum, now Gap which is a shortening of that same name, on the route between the Rhône valley and the Italian peninsula.

The Alps

(Information by Peter Kessler, Edward Dawson, & Trish Wilson, 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, from the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, William Smith, from Geography, Ptolemy, 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 Geography, Strabo (H C Hamilton & W Falconer, London, 1903, Perseus Online Edition), and The Natural History, Pliny the Elder (John Bostock, Ed), and Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, J Pokorny, 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).)

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 right through to 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.

Map of Late Bronze Age Cultures c.1200-750 BC
This map showing Late Bronze Age cultures in Europe displays the widespread expansion of the Urnfield culture and many of its splinter groups, although not the smaller groups who reached Britain, Iberia, and perhaps Scandinavia too (click or tap on map to view full sized)

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.

69 BC

The territory of the Avantici, along with that of their neighbours, the Bodiontici, is transferred by Galba to the province of Gallia Narbonnensis, with Vapinum (Gap) in the later empire becoming the chief town of civitas Vappencensium in the province of Narbonnensis Secunda, as documented in the Notitia Galliarum. Other neighbours include the Vocontii to the west, the Tricorii to the north, and the Sogiontii to the south.

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 which results in the eventual annexation of all of Gaul into the Roman state.

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)

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 which 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'.

The fact that the Roman empire now unquestionably controls the entire Alpine region - giving it free access to Gaul and Germania - probably hastens the final decline and disappearance not only of any non-Indo-European traits, customs, and languages here, but also of Celtic traits and language.

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