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European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes


Volcae (Gauls)
Incorporating the Volcae Arecomisci & Volcae Tectosages

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 large and powerful tribe of the Volcae (or Volques) was located in south-eastern France, between the Alps and the French coastline. They were neighboured to the north by the Ruteni, to the east by the Helvii, to the south, along the coastline, by the Sordones and the Atacini, and across the Garonne to the west by the Garites and the tribes of the Aquitani which included the Convenae.

The Volcae division which was known as the Arecomisci (or Arecomici) have a name which seems to be that of a location, translated roughly as 'at the place with water', being broken down into 'ar' plus 'comm' plus 'esk'. The Tectosages name is a difficult one.

The second part, '-sages', is formed from 'sag' plus an '-es' plural. It may come from 'segos', meaning 'victory'. The first part, 'Tecto' does not appear to be a Celtic word, which is rather odd, but 'texto' certainly is a Celtic word: *text-(e)je/o-, meaning 'obtain'. The tribe were 'they who obtain victory', which could easily be extended to 'victory winners' or even 'unbeaten'.

The tribe settled a wide swathe of what is now south-eastern France, occupying the entire central and western parts of the later Roman province of Narbonensis. They appear to have become divided into two parts by the River Hérault, with the larger Tectosages group to the west, although elements of this group had previously also migrated to Galatia in Anatolia.

The Arecomisci settled on the Mediterranean coast in the Narbonensis area around Nemasus (modern Nîmes, their ritual centre), and Narbo Martius (modern Narbonne, their naval centre). The Tectosages had their capital at Tolosa (modern Toulouse, which also provided a home to the Tolosates). Julius Caesar mentioned them in his Gallic Wars as a tribe which still had a branch remaining in Germania. This could have been around a site near Hercynia Silva (the Hercynian Forest), and shows a degree of mass migration and splintering which also occurred with the Boii.

Ancient Britons

(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 the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, William Smith, from A Genetic Signal of Central European Celtic Ancestry, David K Faux, from Celts and the Classical World, David Rankin, from Europe Before History, Kristian Kristiansen, from Geography, Ptolemy, 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).)

4th century BC?

In his entry for 53 BC, Julius Caesar writes in his Gallic Wars that there had formerly been a time when the Gauls had excelled the Germanics in prowess, and had waged war on them offensively. On account of the great number of their people and the insufficiency of their land, the Gauls of this period send colonies over the Rhine.

One of these, a division of the powerful Volcae Tectosages, seizes fertile areas of Germany close to the Hercynian Forest, (known to the Greeks as Orcynia), and settle there.

Hercynian Forest
The Riesengebirge was part of the once-vast Hercynian Forest which spread eastwards from southern Germany and which proved a serious impediment to Roman expansion

During the time since their settlement they decline in power and strength to become thoroughly absorbed into Germanic culture, while not even being a match for the Germans in battle. Despite this, their position close to the Roman 'Province' (Narbonensis) means that they are able to maintain contacts with Mediterranean culture and continue to import luxury goods.

Around the same time - the fourth century BC - it is believed that a branch of the Volcae Tectosages joins the latter stages of the Celtic migration into Iberia. There they find some territory in the eastern centre of the peninsula where they dominate a local Iberian tribe, forming a new ruling elite for them as the Olcades.

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.

Map of Alpine and Ligurian tribes, c.200-15 BC
This map shows the post-Celtic, but pre-Roman, occupancy of the Alps and surrounding regions (click or tap on map to view full sized)

He campaigns in Gallia Transalpina (the modern Auvergne and Rhône-Alpes regions) with Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, fighting the Allobroges, Arverni, and Helvii. They are defeated and the consul is awarded the honour of a triumph which is famous for its spectacle, with the Arverni ruler, Bituitus, being displayed in his silver battle armour.

The Ruteni, Segovellauni, Vocontii, and Volcae Arecomisci are subjugated at the same time, although in the latter's case it is at least a voluntary submission. Across the River Hérault, the Volcae Tectosages (and therefore the Tolosates) remain outside the Roman sphere of control.

107 BC

During the Cimbric War it is Consul Lucius Cassius Longinus who enters Gallia Narbonensis to oppose the Cimbri. He is killed along with his lieutenant, Lucius Piso (grandfather of Lucius Calpurnius Piso, father-in-law to Julius Caesar), at the Battle of Burdigala, the chief town of the Bituriges Vivisci.

The victors are the Helvetii, who rout the Roman force under Cassius and humiliatingly force it to 'pass under the yoke' after it has surrendered the bulk of its supplies.

The Teutones wandering in Gaul
An illustration depicting the Teutones wandering in Gaul, part of a large-scale migration from modern Denmark into northern Italy in the second century BC

106 BC

With Roman authority badly damaged by its defeat at Burdigala, a fresh force is sent under the command of Consul Quintus Servilius Caepio to regain control of several towns which includes Tolosa of the Volcae Tectosages (and Tolosates). This is achieved, cementing Roman control in Gallia Narbonensis.

80 - 72 BC

The Sertorian War in Iberia 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.

However, some Celtic polities, including, remarkably, the Helvii, support Sertorius and they pay the price for their support after his assassination. The Helvii and Volcae Arecomisci are forced to cede a portion of their territory to the Greek city state of Messalina. Caesar mentions this land forfeiture but does not provide any details of the Helvii actions against Rome.

Sertorian War
The Sertorian War was fought for control of Hispania between the Roman statesman and general, Quintus Sertorius, and the regime of Sulla, dictator of the Roman republic

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 Aquitania to subdue the tribes there and prevent an all-out war against stretched Roman troops. The Cantabri send assistance to the Aquitani. Subduing the Petrocorii along the way, he recruits auxiliaries from the Gaulish regions of Tolosa, Carcaso, and Narbo (which includes the tribes of the Bebryces, Sordones, Tolosates, and Volcae).

Then he enters the territory of the Sotiates. That tribe has gathered together a large force which attacks the Romans in a drawn-out and vigorously-contested engagement.

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.

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)

News of the event reaches the Arverni that morning, and Vercingetorix summons his people to arms. He sends Lucterius of the Cadurci into the territory of the Ruteni to gain their support, and marches in person to the Bituriges. The latter, under the protection of the Aeduii, send to them for help to resist the Arverni but are forced to join the revolt.

Lucterius continues to the Gabali and Nitiobroges and wins their support, collecting together a large force ahead of an advance into the province of Narbonensis. Caesar gets there first and rallies the garrisons among the Ruteni and Volcae Arecomisci, and Lucterius is forced to retreat.

From there Caesar circles through the territory of the generally pro-Roman Helvii (who provide auxiliaries) to reach that of the Arverni, despite deep winter snows in the mountains.

Vercingetorix, his cavalry subsequently routed in battle, withdraws in good order to Alesia, which Caesar besieges. 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, which does not include the tribes of pro-Roman Gallia Narbonensis.

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

Despite the best levels of heroic defiance, defeat follows and Vercingetorix surrenders to Caesar. Following the pan-Gaulish defeat at Alesia, the Volcae Tectosages submit to Roman authority and administration.

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.

Tolosa of the Tolosates later becomes a major city of the Visigoth kingdom, from AD 418. Narbonne later emerges as a county of the 'Spanish March', during the early years of the Frankish-dominated reconquest of Iberia.

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