After the sharp diminution of the Celts of Central Europe by the Germans (58 BC) and the Romans, Greater Gaul, the country that lies between the Rhine, the Alps and the Pyrenees, became the main Celtic area in mainland Europe. Gaul (as it is usually called for short, because of the Romans), Noricum, Raetia (partly) and Northwestern Pannonia in Central Europe, Gallaicia (Galicia), Asturia and Cantabria in the Iberian peninsula, and finally the British islands, were the last independent Celtic areas.
Shortly before the Roman conquest of Gaul (or Galatia in ancient Greek) by Julius Caesar, about sixty tribes shared its territory. The largest of these tribes (the Arverni, Aedui, Pictones etc.) occupied each one a territory of about 15-20,000 sq. km., with a population of up to 250,000 inhabitants. The Celtic tribes were divided into sub-tribes called pagi. The 60 Celtic peoples of Gaul included a total of 300 sub-tribes. Many of these pagi were originally independent tribes which were gradually incorporated in the largest ones, either by conquest or by conciliation.
The linguists have estimated that the tribes of the Volcae, the Helvii (close relatives of the Helvetii of modern Switzerland), the Turones, the Nervii, the Suessiones, the Veneti, the Venelli and the Aulerci were the oldest that were formed, because the etymology of their national names is rather difficult. Some of these tribes were probably formed initially in Central Europe, mostly in the north of the Alps (the Celtic/Gallic cradle). The peoples with tribal names of numeric type are considered to be later tribal formations, e.g. The Remi (meaning the ‘first ones’ in Gallic Celtic), the Petrokorii (the ‘four tribes’) the Vocontii (‘twenty clans’). The same goes for the tribes whose national names are annominations or epithets, e.g. the Ruteni (the ‘blonde ones’, a Proto-Indo-European verbal type found today in the names of the Russians and the Ruthenians of Eastern Europe), the Leuci (the ‘bright ones’, like the Greek ‘leucos’ meaning the ‘white’), the Belgae (the ‘thunders’, Belgians), the Nemetes (the ‘sacred’), the Aedui (the ‘fiery’), the Pictones (possibly the ‘painted ones’ like the Picts of Pictland/Caledonia, modern Scotland), the Caleti (the ‘hardened’), the Lemovices or Lemovii (‘warriors of the elm’, which was their totemic tree) the Medulli (the ‘mead drinkers’) etc.
Celtic warriors in an impressive artwork. Note the two naked Gaesati/Gaesatae warriors in the frontline, with their hair stiffened with lime or lemon juice. Another warrior blows the ‘carnyx’, the Celtic war trumpet (Copyright: Zvezda /Karatchuk (artist)).
Other Gallic/Galatian tribal names came from geophysical characteristics of the respective tribal territory or from place-names, e.g. the Nantuantes (‘people of the valley’), the Morini (‘people of the sea’ or the ‘mariners’), the Sequani (‘people of the Seine River’, ancient Sequane). The latter lived relatively far from the Seine River in 58 BC, a fact that demonstrates that the Sequani were expelled from their homeland and moved to the south, in modern France-Comte. The Ambarri and the Ambivariti of Gaul, the Ambarri and the Ambisontes of the Po valley, the Ambituti of Asia Minor (Celtic colonists in Anatolia) and the Ambidravi of the Drava River region (a Celtic tribe in modern Croatia) have tribal names that demonstrate their origins from regions with rivers (‘Amb’ meaning the river). Other tribal names correspond to worshipers of tribal deities, e.g. the Vellavi, the Siguellavi and the Catuvellau(n)i whose names mean the worshippers or servants of the Celtic god Bel(l)enus.
The Celtic tribes always tended to split into tribal offshoots forming new tribes, or to send colonists in new regions. The Aulerci of northwestern Gaul split into the new tribes of Cenomani, Eburovices, Diablintes and Andes or Andecavi (Anjou). An isolated Aulercian branch were the Aulerci Branovices who were sent as colonists to South Gaul. Other Aulercian colonists settled in Italy: the Cenomani and the Andes. Especially the Cenomani became one of the most formidable Celtic peoples of the Po Valley. The Andes of Italy were absorbed by the Boii. The Senones for whom Hubert believes that originally they formed a common tribe with the Suessiones (that split into Senones and Suessiones), had a particularly large spread. Senonian branches are located in central Gaul, in Belgium, in the region of Burdigala (modern Bordeaux), near the French Vienna, near Mainz (Germany), in the region of Calais, in the region of the River Meuse and in the Italian region of Ariminum (modern Rimini). The Celts who sacked Rome (about 386 BC) were led by the Senones of Northeastern Italy and by Brennus, a Senonian warlord. Brennus is probably not a personal name but a title meaning the king, e.g. the Welsh word for the king: brennin. Most probably the Romans and the Greeks thought by mistake that ‘Brennus’ was a personal name.
The Medulli split into two distant tribal branches, while the Carnutes of central Gaul sent a number of their tribesmen as colonists in Armorica (Northwestern Gaul). An ancient inscription found near Mainz quotes the otherwise unknown tribe of the Cassii or Casses. The national names of the Gallic tribes Tricasses, Veliocasses, Viducasses and Baiocasses denote that these peoples came from the cleavage and the dispersion of the Cassii of the inscription.
A Celtic torc (neck-ring).
Several researchers have attempted to estimate the population of Gaul in the era of Caesar, but the information that he quotes in his writings about the numbers of Galatian armies that he confronted and the wealth of the Gallic regions that he conquered, are not considered valid. Julius Caesar wanted to thrust himself forward in Roman politics, so he used to exaggerate. In our days, an estimate of 7,000,000-9,000,000 inhabitants in 58 BC is considered to be the most likely for Gaul – an ancient country covering an area of 630,000 sq. km. Maybe this estimate appears to be inflated, but it must be taken in mind that the archeological material, the literary sources and the later censuses of the French state denote that Gaul/France has always been (until the early 19th century AD) more or much more densely populated than the rest of Europe, with the exceptions in Antiquity of Italy and Greece.
The hegemony of the Bituriges tribe on Gaul in the 4th-3rd centuries BC, is the most important that we know today about the Gallic history before 60 BC. The memory of this hegemony in the Galatian tradition is also contained in the national name of the Bituriges meaning in Gallic “the kings of the world.” The political superiority of that tribe is also evidenced by its subsequent cleavage into two branches: the Bituriges Cubi of Central Gaul, and the Bituriges Vivisci at the estuary of the Garonne river. The location of the Vivisci at this natural outlet of Gaul to the Atlantic, denotes that they settled there as colonists sent by the metropolitan Bituriges, the Cubi, during the period of their hegemony in the country. By this colonization, the Bituriges aimed to the control of the trade and the communications of Gaul with the European countries bordering the Atlantic. In the second century BC, the Galatian hegemony passed to the Arverni (in modern Auvergne) until their defeat by the Roman general Ahenobarbus in 122 BC.
Celtic idol with two faces (Janus form)
The Bituriges were becoming more and more enfeebled, and in 60 BC, although they remained a considerable political and military force, they became politically depended on the powerful Aedui. During the period 122-52 BC, the last years of the Galatian independence, the Arverni and the Aedoui were struggling for the hegemony. In 71 BC, the Aedui started a war against the Sequani. The Sequani were in a difficult position and sought allies in the Suebian Germans who lived on the east bank of the Rhine. Ariovistos, the Suebian warlord, crossed the Rhine with thousands of warriors and managed to defeat the Aedui in 61 BC. The Germans conducted numerous raids against many Gallic tribes, until they made several of them their tributary subjects. The Sequani had committed a big mistake by inviting the Suebi in Gallic territory. Diviciacus, the political leader and leading Druid of the Aedui, committed an equally big mistake: he asked the invasive Romans for help against the Germans. The consequences of these events were devastating for the Gauls, as we shall see in a future article.
(1) Wagner Heinrich: STUDIES IN THE ORIGINS OF THE CELTS AND OF EARLY CELTIC CIVILIZATION, Tubingen, 1971.
(2) Peake Harold: THE BRONZE AGE AND THE CELTIC WORLD, Benn Brothers, London, 1922.
(3) Vries de-, J.: KELTEN UND GERMANEN, Bern und Munchen, 1960.
(5) Hubert Henry: THE RISE OF THE CELTS, London, 1987.