Belgae Celtic Tribe

The Belgae were a large confederation of tribes living in northern Gaul,  from at least the third century BC.  The Belgae gave their name to the Roman province of Gallia Belgica and, much later, to the modern country of Belgium. During the late 2nd or early 1st century BC, a small band of Belgae crossed to Britain. The Celtic Belgae were centred on Venta Belgarum (modern Winchester) in the county of Hampshire, and perhaps extending into Somerset and Avon. They were neighboured to the north-east by the Atrebates, to the south-east by the Regninses, and to the west by the Durotriges and Dobunni. Like their Atrebatean neighbours, they were probably a Belgic tribe from the North Sea or Baltics, part of the third wave of Celtic settlers in Britain.

The Civitas Belgarum – The Principal Tribal Centre

“Below the Dobuni are the Belgae and the towns: Iscalis 16*00 53°40 Aquae Calidae 17*20 53°40 Venta 18*40 53°00 …”. Above quote from the Geographia of Ptolemy (II.ii)

The late-2nd century geographer Claudius Ptolemaeus placed this tribe between the Dobunni to the north, the Dumnonii to the south and the Atrebates to the east. The tribe is thought to have inhabited territories centred on the modern counties of Hampshire, Somerset and Avon.

Venta Belgarvm (Winchester, Hampshire)

The cantonal capital of the Belgae was one of the three attributed to the tribe by Ptolemy but was given no special attributation, indeed, Venta is listed last among the trio (vide supra).

Principal Tribal Sites Identified by Ptolemy

  • Iscalis: The identification of this site remains uncertain, but Ptolemy places it at the mouth of the River Axe near Bawdrip in Somerset.
  • Aqvae Calidae: Translated literally as ‘The Hot Waters’, this town is easily identified as Aquae Sulis (Bath, Avon) which, according to the historian A.L.F. Rivet, was “The most sophisticated town in Roman Britain.”
  • Venta (Belgarvm): (Winchester, Hampshire; see above)

Other Notable Settlements

Aside from the three towns attributed to the tribe by Ptolemy (see above), there are a number of smaller settlements in the territories of the Belgae whose names are known from the ancient geographical sources:

  • Clavsentvm
    (Bitterne, Hampshire) A fourth-century fortified port on Southhampton Water, serving Winchester.
  • Onna
    (Nursling?, Hampshire) A small settlement on the River Test, north-west of Southhampton.
  • Abona
    (Sea Mills, Avon) A port on the Severn Estuary serving Bath.
  • Verlvcio
    (Sandy Lane, Wiltshire) A minor settlement between Bath and Mildenhall; possibly the administrative centre of the nearby ironstone workings.
  • Sorviodvnvm
    (Old Sarum, nr. Salisbury, Wiltshire) An Iron-Age hillfort of the tribe re-used as a posting station by the Romans.

Unidentified Road Stations

  • Brige
    (nr. Broughton, Hampshire) – Antonine posting station on the road from Winchester to Old Sarum.
  • Vindomis
    (nr. Andover, Hampshire) – Unidentified Antonine road station between the two tribal capitals of Silchester and Winchester.
  • Iscalis
    (somewhere in Avon) – Ptolemy places this town in the Avon area, but it has not yet been identified.

Industrial Settlements

Several other Romano-British settlements have been identified by thier archaeological remains, many of which are associated with nearby Romano-British industries. A pottery industry flourished in the New Forest and Villas were numerous around Winchester and Andover, also on Vectis Insvla (the Isle of Wight), which was subdued by Vespasian c.44AD.

Caesar’s Belgae

The Belgae were a warlike people of ancient Northern Gaul, separated from the Celtae of Gallia Lugdunensis by the rivers Matrona (Marne) and Sequana (Seine). According to Strabo the country of the Belgae extended from the Rhenus (Rhine) to the Liger (Loire). In the opening passage of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, the Belgae are described as forming “a third part of Gaul”. Belgica was one of the four provinces of Gaul near the Rhine, delineated by Augustus. The British Belgae no doubt descended from a Belgic colony.

“Gaul is a whole divided into three parts, one of which is inhabited by the Belgae, another by the Aquitani, and a third by a people called in their own tongue Celtae, in the Latin Galli. … The Galli (Gauls) are separated from the Aquitani by the river Garumna (Garonne), from the Belgae by the Matrona (Marne) and the Sequana (Seine). Of all these peoples the Belgae are the most courageous, because they are the most removed from the culture and the civilization of the Province¹, and least often visited by merchants introducing the commodities that make for effeminacy: and also because they are nearest to the Germans dwelling beyond the Rhenus (Rhine), with whom they are continually at war. … The Belgae, beginning from the edge of the Gallic territory, reach to the lower part of the Rhenus, bearing towards the north and east. …” (Caesar De Bello Gallico i.1 et seq.)

  1. The Roman province of Gallia Narbonensis, formed c.121BC.

Caesar later tells us:

“The inland part of Britain is inhabited by tribes declared in their own tradition to be indigenous to the island, the maritime part by tribes that migrated at an earlier time from Belgium to seek booty by invasion. …” (Caesar De Bello Gallico v.12)

Cassius Dio also confirms the assertions of Caesar:

“… The Belgae, who dwelt near the Rhine in many mixed tribes and extended even to the ocean opposite Britain, … devised plans against the Romans and formed a league, placing Galba at their head. [57BC]” (Dio ??????? XXXIX.i.1-2)

The Belgic Provinces

  • Belgae Tribe of Southern Britain. Tribal capital Venta Belgarum (Winchester, Hampshire). (22CDd 23Cb)
  • Belgica Province of Northern Europe. Provincial capital Colonia Augusta Treverorum (Trier, ?). (21FGcd 23EFGb) Following the Division of Empire c.395AD, the province of Belgica was divided in two, both regions coming under the direct control of the Magister equitum Galliarum or the ‘Master of the Knights of Gaul’:
    • Belgica Prima with chief towns Samarobriva Ambianorum (Amiens, France) and Durocortorum Remorum (Reims, France). (29Gd)
    • Belgica Secunda which retained the Regional capital and mint at Augusta Treverorum (Trier, Germany) with another major town at Divodurum Mediomatricorum (Metz, France); both on the Mosella (Moselle in France, Mosel in Germany). (29Fd)

The codes within brackets above refer to the maps and grid-references in Atlas of the Greek and Roman World in Antiquity by Nicholas G.L. Hammond.


The Continental Connection

The continental Belgae were a people, not a single tribe, but an amalgamation of several large tribal septs, whose major constituents were:

  • Ambiani Sea-faring nation dwelling along the valley of the Samara (Somme), and on the eastern Belgic coast of the Oceanus Britannicus (English Channel), where it narrows towards the Fretum Gallicum (Straits of Dover). Their tribal capital was Samarobriva, now Amiens on the banks of the Somme, in the Picardy region of France.
  • Atrebates Bordered to the north, south and west by the sea-faring nations the Menapii, the Ambiani and the Morini respectively, and on all other sides by friendly Belgic states. Their tribal capital was Nemetacum, now known as Arras, on the Scarpe River in the Artois region of northern France.
  • Catalauni Occupying the central Plaine de Champagne along the upper valley of the Matrona (Marne), this tribe bordered with the Gallic Tricasses to the south and south-west, and the Germanic Lingones to the south-east, but was surrounded on all other sides by friendly Belgic states. Their tribal capital was Durocatalaunum (Chƒ¢lons-sur-Marne, France).
  • Leuci Inhabited the uplands of the Lorraine, between the upper reaches of the rivers Mosella (Moselle) and Mosa (Meuse). Though supported by the friendly Belgic Mediomatrici and Catalauni to the north and west, they were surrounded by the Germanic Raurici, Sequani and Lingones to the east, south-east and south. Their tribal capital was Tullum (Toul, France), on the Moselle.
  • Mediomatrici Inhabited the upper valley of the Mosella in the northern Lorraine, between the Treveri in the north and the Leuci to the south, they also bordered with the Germanic Nemetes on the east. Their tribal capital was Divodurum (Metz, France), on the Moselle.
  • Menapii Inhabited the southern shores of the Oceanus Germanicus (North Sea) in the area now known as Flanders which lies mostly in Belgium, though their tribal capital Castellum Menapiorum, was at Cassel in France.
  • Morini Occupied the territory nearest to Britain, overlooking the Fretum Gallicum (Strait of Dover), their major towns were Gesoriacum/Bononia and Tarvenna, known nowadays as Boulogne and Thƒ©rouanne, both in the Artois region of France.
  • Nervii A powerful tribe of central Belgica, bordering on the north with the minor Germanic tribe the Texuandri, but supported on all other sides by their Belgic neighbours, notably the eastern Tungri and the western Atrebates. Their tribal capital lay at Bagacum, now Bavai near Maubeuge, on the upper Sambre in France.
  • Remi Occupied the northern Plaine de Champagne on the southern fringes of the Ardennes, between the rivers Mosa (Meuse) and Matrona (Marne), and along the river valleys of the Aisne and its tributaries the Aire and the Vesle. They were surrounded on all sides by friendly Belgic states, and their tribal capital was at Durocortum (Reims, France), on the Vesle.
  • Treveri This important tribe inhabited the lower valley of the Mosella, within the southern fringes of the vast Arduenna Silva (Ardennes Forest). They were bordered on the north, west and south by the friendly Belgic tribes the Tungri, the Remi and the Mediomatrici, respectively, while to the east were the Germanic Vangiones. Their tribal capital Colonia Augusta Treverorum (Trier, Germany), was also the site of a Roman colony, and the provincial capital of Belgica itself.
  • Tungri Occupied the lands of the northern Arduenna Silva (Ardennes), along the lower valley of the Mosa (Meuse). They shared borders to the north and east with Germanic tribes, but were bolstered by the Belgic Nervii on the west and the Remi and Treveri to the south. Their tribal capital lay at Atuatuca, modern Tongeren in the Limburg district of Belgium.

The Belgic Tribes of Britain

The Atrebates

This tribe formed a British colonial state of their own, and they are dealt with in more detail in the RBO WebPage on the Atrebates.

The Ambiani

The Ambiani were probably responsible for the coins known nowadays as Gallo-Belgic A, in circulation around the middle of the second century BC, which are found in the Somme valley in northern France, and in parts of southern Britain.

An inordinate amount of coinage identified with this tribe has been found in southern Britain, more than can be explained by simple trading with the continental Ambiani. It is faily certain from the amount of coinage found, that the coins of the Ambiani were in common use in parts of Britain, and on this basis, it seems probable that the Ambiani themselves occupied the land in which their coins circulated.

The Suessiones

We are told by Caesar himself:

“… Among them [the Suessiones], even within living memory, Diviciacus had been king, the most powerful man in the whole of Gaul, who had exercised sovereignty alike over a great part of these districts, and even over Britain. …” (Caesar De Bello Gallico ii.4)

The coins now known as Gallo-Belgic C, issued between c.90 and 60BC, have been tentatively identified with King Diviciacus of the Suessiones. This coin is less common in Britain than previous issues, but has a wider distribution, from the coast of Sussex to the Wash, with finds being concentrated around Kent.

The uninscribed coins known as Gallo-Belgic F, which were issued between 60 and 50 BC, have a marked concentration of finds to the east of Paris, in the lands of the Suessiones, and are also found in many coastal areas of southern Britain. This coinage issue was the first to bear the design of a triple-tailed horse on the reverse, which became the standard motif of many issues in southern Britain over the next few decades. This has led scholars to believe that the Suessiones represented a considerable proportion of the Belgic peoples which had migrated to Britain during the second and first centuries BC.

The Armorican States

These were the tribes of north-western Gaul, now the French province of Normandy. Caesar lists the names of several of the major tribes from the region:

“… the states touching the Ocean, called by them the Armoric, among whom are the Curiosolites, Redones, Ambibarii, Caletes, Osismi, Veneti, Lemovices and Venelli. …” (Caesar De Bello Gallico vii.75)

Of one of these tribes in particular, we were earlier told by Caesar:

“These Veneti exercise by far the most extensive authority over all the sea-coast in those districts, for they have numerous ships, in which it is their custom to sail to Britain, and they excell the rest in the theory and practice of navigation. …” (Caesar De Bello Gallico iii.8)

The Veneti incurred the wrath of Caesar in 56 BC when they detained two of his tribunes, in order to exchange them for their own hostages thet they themselves had earlier surrendered to Caesar’s legate Publius Crassus. Caesar’s response was typical when faced with treachery of this kind, he personally conducted a campaign against the Veneti, destroyed all of their ships, razed all of their towns and, in order to discourage any future attempts to detain his tribunes, made an example of the tribe.

“… He therefore put the whole of their senate to the sword, and sold the rest of the men as slaves.” (Caesar De Bello Gallico iii.17)

In view of their extensive trade with the island, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the Veneti and perhaps other Armorican states, also had a number of colonies on the south coast of Britain. It must be pointed out that the Veneti were not a true Belgic tribe, being strictly-speaking of Gallic extraction.

The Morini

The Morini inhabited the lands nearest to Britain, it would be illogical to suppose that this tribe did not have colonies in the island, especially in Kent.