Belgae (/ˈbɛldʒiː/ or /ˈbɛlɡaɪ/) were a large Gaulish
confederation of tribes living in northern Gaul, between the
English Channel, the west bank of the Rhine, and northern bank of the
river Seine, from at least the third century BC. They were discussed
in depth by
Julius Caesar in his account of his wars in Gaul. Some
peoples in Britain were also called
Belgae and O'Rahilly equated them
Fir Bolg in Ireland. The
Belgae gave their name to the Roman
Gallia Belgica and, much later, to the modern country of
Belgium; today "Belgae" is also Latin for "Belgians".
2 Origins of the Belgae
4 Tribes of the Belgae
5 Conquest of the Belgae
Belgae outside Gaul
7 See also
9 External links
The consensus among linguists is that the ethnic name
Proto-Celtic root *belg- or *bolg- meaning "to swell
(particularly with anger/battle fury/etc.)", derived ultimately from
the Proto-Indo-European root *bhelgh- ("to swell, bulge, billow").
Proto-Celtic ethnic name *Bolgī could be interpreted as "The
People who Swell (particularly with anger/battle
Origins of the Belgae
Julius Caesar describes
Gaul at the time of his conquests (58–51 BC)
as divided into three parts, inhabited by the
Aquitani in the
Gauls of the biggest central part, who in their own
language were called Celtae, and the
Belgae in the north. Each of
these three parts was different in terms of customs, laws, and
language. He noted that the Belgae, were "the bravest of the three
peoples, being farthest removed from the highly developed civilization
of the Roman Province, least often visited by merchants with
enervating luxuries for sale, and nearest to the Germans across the
Rhine, with whom they are continually at war". Ancient sources such
as Caesar are not always clear about the things used to define
ethnicity today. While Caesar or his sources described the
distinctly different from the Gauls,
Strabo stated that the
differences between the Celts (Gauls) and Belgae, in countenance,
language, politics, and way of life was a small one, unlike the
difference between the
Aquitanians and Celts. The fact that the
Belgae were living in
Gaul means that in one sense they were Gauls.
This may be Caesar's meaning when he says "The
Belgae have the same
method of attacking a fortress as the rest of the Gauls." 
Some translators of Caesar have given crucially different
interpretations of his meaning in another passage on the Belgae. W. A.
McDevitte and W. S. Bohn (1869) rendered the Latin of Caesar in Bello
Gallico, II.4 as "When Caesar inquired ... he received the following
information: that the greater part of the
Belgae were sprung from the
Germans, and that having crossed the
Rhine at an early period, they
had settled there, on account of the fertility of the country". A
more modern translation gives the same section as: "the envoys stated
that most of the
Belgae were descended from tribes which long ago came
Rhine from Germany and settled in this part of
account of its fertility."
So Caesar's use of the word "Germani" needs special consideration. He
uses it in two ways. He describes a grouping of tribes within the
Belgic alliance as the "Germani", distinguishing them from their
neighbours. The most important in his battles were the Eburones.
The other way he uses the term is to refer to any tribe considered to
be of similar ancestry and traditions, with ancestry east of the
Rhine. So the Germani amongst the
Belgae were called Germani
cisrhenani, to distinguish them from other Germani, such as those
living on the east of the Rhine, in the presumed homeland of the
Germani. The later historian
Tacitus was informed that the name
Germania was recent in his day. "The first people to cross the Rhine
and oust the Gauls, those now called Tungri, were then called Germani.
It was the name of this nation, not a race, that gradually came into
general use. And so, to begin with, they were all called Germani after
the conquerors because of the terror these inspired, and then, once
the name had been devised, they adopted it themselves." In other
words, the collective name Germani had first been used by the
Belgae for the intruders from beyond the Rhine, and was later adopted
as a collective name by the Germani themselves.
Caesar's book The Gallic Wars begins: "All
Gaul is divided into three
parts, one of which the
Belgae inhabit, the
Aquitani another, those
who in their own language are called Celts, in ours Gauls, the third.
All these differ from each other in language, customs and laws."
However, many modern scholars believe that the
Belgae were a
Celtic-speaking group but that at least part of the
Belgae may also have had significant genetic, cultural, and historical
connections to peoples east of the Rhine, including Germanic peoples,
judging from archaeological, placename, and textual evidence.
It has also been argued based on placename studies that the older
language of the area, though apparently Indo-European, was not Celtic
(see Nordwestblock) and that Celtic, though influential amongst the
elite, might never have been the main language of the part of the
Belgic area north of the Ardennes. For example, Maurits
Gysseling, suggest that prior to Celtic and Germanic influences the
Belgae may have comprised a distinct Indo-European branch, termed
On the other hand, most of the Belgic tribal and personal names
recorded are identifiably Gaulish, including those of the Germani
cisrhenani, and this is indeed also true of the tribes immediately
Rhine at this time, such as the
Tencteri and Usipetes.
Surviving inscriptions also indicate that
Gaulish was spoken in at
least part of Belgic territory.
The Romans were not precise in their ethnography of northern
barbarians: by "Germanic", Caesar may simply have meant "originating
east of the Rhine" (the homeland of the Germani cisrhenani) with no
distinction of language intended. The east of the
Rhine was not
necessarily inhabited by Germanic speakers at this time. It has been
Germanic language speakers might have been no closer
than the river
Elbe in the time of Caesar. However, studies of
placenames such as those of Maurits Gysseling, have been argued to
show evidence of the pre-Roman presence of early Germanic languages
throughout the Belgic area north of the Ardennes, where the Germani
cisrhenani lived. The sound changes described by "Grimm's law" appear
to have affected names with older forms, apparently already in the
second century BC. Strong evidence for old Celtic placenames, though,
is found in the
Ardennes and to the south of them. According
to Strabo, the country of the
Belgae extended along the coast where 15
tribes were living from the Rhenus (Rhine) to the Liger (Loire).
Strabo also says that "
Augustus Caesar, when dividing the country into
four parts, united the Keltae to the Narbonnaise; the
preserved the same as Julius Caesar, but added thereto fourteen other
nations of those who dwelt between the Garonne and the river Loire,
and dividing the rest into two parts, the one extending to the upper
districts of the
Rhine (Gallia Belgica) he made dependent upon
Lugdunum, the other [he assigned] to the
Apart from the Germani, the report of Caesar seems to indicate that
more of the
Belgae (most of them in fact) had some Germanic ancestry
and ethnicity, but this is not necessarily what defines a tribe as
Belgic. Edith Wightman proposed that Caesar can be read as treating
only the southwestern Belgic tribes, the Suessiones, Viromandui, and
Ambiani and perhaps some of their neighbours, as the true ethnic
Belgae, as opposed to those in a political and military alliance with
them. She reads Caesar as implying a "transition zone" of mixed
ethnicity and ancestry for the Menapii, Nervii, and Morini, all living
in the northwest of the Belgic region, neighbours to the Germani
cisrhenani in the northeast. (Caesar also mentions his allies the
Remi being closest to the Celts amongst the Belgae.)
It seems that, whatever their Germanic ancestry, at least some of the
Belgic tribes spoke a variety of the Celtic
Gaulish language as their
main language by Caesar's time, and all of them used such languages in
at least some contexts. Luc van Durme summarizes competing
evidence of Celtic and Germanic influence at the time of Caesar by
saying that "one has to accept the rather remarkable conclusion that
Caesar must have witnessed a situation opposing Celtic and Germanic in
Belgium, in a territory slightly more to the south than the early
Germanic language border", but van Durme accepts that
Germanic did not block "Celticisation coming from the south" so "both
phenomena were simultaneous and interfering".
Gesta Treverorum compiled by monks of
Trier claims that
Belgae were descendants of Trebeta, an otherwise unattested
legendary founder of Trier, the Roman Augusta Treverorum, "Augusta of
According to Strabo; the Belgian tribes (in orange) including the
Armoricani (in purple)
Tribes of the Belgae
Caesar names the following as Belgic tribes:
Belgae of "Belgium"
Belgae sometimes described as if not in "Belgium"
Germani Cisrhenani, in northeast, sometimes called Belgae, sometimes
contrasted with Belgae
Southeast: Not mentioned as Belgae, but part of Roman Gallia Belgica
Southwest: possibly not in "Belgium":
Northwest and considered remote by Romans:
South, allies of Rome:
Descendants of the Cimbri, living near Germani Cisrhenani:
Possibly Belgae, later within Belgica Prima:
Not Belgae, later in Germania Superior:
Tacitus mentioned a tribe called the
Tungri living where the
Germani cisrhenani had lived, and he also stated that they had once
been called the Germani, (although Caesar had claimed to have wiped
out the name of the main tribe, the Eburones). Other tribes that may
have been included among the
Belgae in some contexts were the Leuci,
Treveri, and Mediomatrici.
Posidonius includes the Armoricani, as
Conquest of the Belgae
Caesar conquered the Belgae, beginning in 57 BC. He writes that the
Belgae were conspiring and arming themselves in response to his
earlier conquests; to counter this threat, he raised two new legions
and ordered his Gallic allies, the Aedui, to invade the territory of
the Bellovaci. Wary of the numbers and bravery of the Belgae, he
initially avoided a pitched battle, resorting mainly to cavalry
skirmishes to probe their strengths and weaknesses. Once he was
satisfied his troops were a match for them, he made camp on a low hill
protected by a marsh at the front and the river Aisne behind, near
Bibrax (between modern
Laon and Reims) in the territory of the Remi.
Belgae attacked over the river, but were repulsed after a fierce
battle. Realising they could not dislodge the Romans and aware of the
approach of the
Aedui into the lands of the Bellovaci, the Belgae
decided to disband their combined force and return to their own lands.
Caesar's informants advised him that whichever tribe Caesar attacked
first, the others would come to their defence. They broke camp shortly
before midnight. At daybreak, satisfied the retreat was not a trap,
Caesar sent cavalry to harass the rear guard, followed by three
legions. Many of the
Belgae were killed in battle.
Caesar next marched into the territory of the
Suessiones and besieged
the town of Noviodunum (Soissons). Seeing the Romans' siege engines,
Suessiones surrendered, whereupon Caesar turned his attention to
the Bellovaci, who had retreated into the fortress of Bratuspantium
Amiens and Beauvais). They quickly surrendered, as did
The Nervii, along with the
Atrebates and Viromandui, decided to fight
Atuatuci had also agreed to join them, but had not yet arrived).
They concealed themselves in the forests and attacked the approaching
Roman column at the river Sabis (previously thought to be the Sambre,
but recently the
Selle is thought to be more probable). Their attack
was quick and unexpected. The element of surprise briefly left the
Romans exposed. Some of the Romans did not have time to take the
covers off their shields or to even put on their helmets. However,
Caesar grabbed a shield, made his way to the front line, and quickly
organised his forces. The two Roman legions guarding the baggage train
at the rear finally arrived and helped to turn the tide of the battle.
Caesar says the
Nervii were almost annihilated in the battle, and is
effusive in his tribute to their bravery, calling them "heroes" (for
more details see Battle of the Sabis).
The Atuatuci, who were marching to their aid, turned back on hearing
of the defeat and retreated to one stronghold, were put under siege,
and soon surrendered and handed over their arms. However, the
surrender was a ploy, and the Atuatuci, armed with weapons they had
hidden, tried to break out during the night. The Romans had the
advantage of position and killed 4000. The rest, about 53 thousand,
were sold into slavery.
In 53 BC, the Eburones, led by Ambiorix, along with the Nervii,
Menapii, and Morini, revolted again and wiped out 15 cohorts, only to
be put down by Caesar. The
Belgae fought in the uprising of
Vercingetorix in 52 BC.
After their final subjugation, Caesar combined the three parts of
Gaul, the territory of the Belgae, Celtae, and Aquitani, into a single
unwieldy province (Gallia Comata, "long-haired Gaul") that was
reorganized by the emperor
Augustus into its traditional cultural
divisions. The province of
Gallia Belgica was bounded on its east by
Rhine and extended all the way from the North Sea to Lake
Constance (Lacus Brigantinus), including parts of what is now western
Switzerland, with its capital at the city of the
Remi (Reims). Under
Diocletian, Belgica Prima (capital Augusta Trevirorum, Trier) and
Belgica Secunda (capital Reims) formed part of the diocese of Gaul.
Belgae outside Gaul
Belgae in Britain
Belgae and neighbours in Britain
Venta Belgarum (Winchester)
Belgae had made their way across the
English Channel into southern
Britain in Caesar's time. Caesar asserts they had first crossed
the channel as raiders, only later establishing themselves on the
island. The precise extent of their conquests is unknown. After the
Roman conquest of Britain, the civitas of the
Belgae was bordered to
the North by the British Atrebates, who were also a Belgic tribe, and
to the east by the Regnenses, who were probably
linked to the
Belgae as well. The arrival and spread of
Aylesford-Swarling pottery across the southeastern corner of Britain
has been related to the Belgic invasion since
Arthur Evans published
his excavation of
Aylesford in 1890 which was then thought to show
"the demonstrable reality of a Belgic invasion", according to Sir
Barry Cunliffe, although more recent studies tend to downplay the role
of migration in favour of increasing trade links; the question remains
A large number of coins of the
Ambiani dating to the mid-second
century BC have been found in southern Britain and the remains of a
possible Belgic fort have been unearthed in Kent. Within memory of
Caesar's time, a king of the
Suessiones (also referred to as
Suaeuconi) called Diviciacus was not only the most powerful king of
Belgic Gaul, but also ruled territory in Britain.
Commius of the
Atrebates, Caesar's former ally, fled to Britain after participating
in Vercingetorix's rebellion and either joined or established a
British branch of his tribe. Based on the development of imagery on
coins, by the time of the Roman conquest, some of the tribes of
south-eastern Britain likely were ruled by a Belgic nobility and were
culturally influenced by them. The later civitas (administrative
Roman Britain had towns including Portus Adurni
(Portchester), and Clausentum (Southampton). The civitas capital was
Venta Belgarum (Winchester), which was built on top of an Iron Age
oppidum (which was itself built on the site of two earlier abandoned
hillforts), which remains the Hampshire county town to this day.
T.F. O'Rahilly claims in his invasion model that a branch of the
Belgae also settled in Ireland, and were later represented by the
Iverni (Érainn), Ulaid, and other kindreds. He claims a
variety of evidence suggests memories of this were preserved in later
Irish tradition, and also makes an elaborate linguistic case.
According to his theory, the name of the legendary
Fir Bolg (whom
O'Rahilly identifies with the Érainn) is the Irish equivalent of
"Belgic foot" in Foot (unit).
^ "Belgae". Collins Dictionary. n.d. Retrieved 24 September
^ Sage M, Michael. "The Republican Roman Army: A Sourcebook. p134". 11
January 2013. Routledge. Retrieved 17 January 2015.
^ Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie (ZcP). Volume 44, Issue 1,
Pages 67–69, ISSN (Online) 1865-889X, ISSN (Print) 0084-5302, //1991
^ Koch, John. Celtic Culture: a historical encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO
2006, p. 198.
^ Pokorny, Julius. Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch (1959),
Bern - Muenchen - Francke, pp. 125-126.
^ Maier, Bernhard. Dictionary of Celtic religion and culture, Boydell
& Brewer, 1997, p. 272.
^ Pokorny, Julius, "The pre-Celtic inhabitants of Ireland", Celtic,
DIAS, 1960 (reprint 1983), p. 231.
^ Julius Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul, trans. S. A. Handford, revised
with a new introduction by Jane F. Gardner (Penguin Books 1982), I.1.
^ Geography 4.1
^ Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul, trans. S. A. Handford, revised with a
new introduction by Jane F. Gardner (Penguin Books 1982), II.1.6.
^ Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul, trans. S. A. Handford, revised with a
new introduction by Jane F. Gardner (Penguin Books 1982), II.4.
^ Julius Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Gallico 2.4
^ Tacitis, Germania, trans. H. Mattingly, revised by J. B. Rives
(Penguin Books 2009), 2.
^ Koch, John T. 2006. Celtic culture: a historical encyclopedia. P.196
^ Bell, Andrew Villen. 2000. The role of migration in the history of
the Eurasian steppe. P.112
^ Swan, Toril, Endre Mørck, Olaf Jansen Westvik. 1994. Language
change and language structure: older Germanic languages in a
Comparative Perspective. P.294
^ Aldhouse-Green, Miranda Jane. 1995. The Celtic World. P.607.
^ Kipfer, Barbara Ann. 2007. Encyclopedic dictionary of archaeology.
^ King, Anthony. 1990. Roman
Gaul and Germany. P.32
^ a b Lamarcq, Danny; Rogge, Marc (1996), De Taalgrens: Van de oude
tot de nieuwe Belgen, Davidsfonds page 44.
^ a b c M. Gysseling, Enkele Belgische leenwoorden in de toponymie, in
Naamkunde 7 (1975), pp. 1-6.
^ Inscriptions in Celtic language on instrumentum were discovered in
Bavai and in
Arras (cf. P-Y. Lambert, La langue gauloise, éditions
errance 1994), on the contrary, never an inscription in a Germanic
language dating back before the fall of the Roman Empire was
^ a b Wightman, Edith Mary (1985), Gallia Belgica, University of
California Press page 12-14.
^ Strabo, Geographica, Book IV chapter IV, 3
^ Hamilton, H.C. (trans.), The Geography of Strabo, Vol. 1, George
Bell & Sons, 1892, p. 265.
^ Koch, J.T. Celtic Culture: A historical encyclopedia (2006)
^ "Genesis and Evolution of the Romance-Germanic Language Border in
Europe", Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development
(Language Contact at the Romance-Germanic Language Border)
^ Wightman, Edith Mary, Gallia Belgica, p. 27
^ Julius Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Gallico 2.4, 5.2
^ Archaeologia 52, 1891
^ Cunliffe, Barry W., Iron Age Communities in Britain, Fourth Edition:
An Account of England, Scotland and Wales from the Seventh Century BC,
Until the Roman Conquest, near Figure 1.4, 2012 (4th edition),
Routledge, google preview, with no page numbers
^ Earthworks discovered at
Sharsted Court near Newnham were of
possible Belgic origin. See "History of Doddington". The Doddington
Village Appraisal (1997). Archived from the original on 8 October
2007. Retrieved 28 December 2007.
^ Sheppard Frere, Britannia: a History of Roman Britain, third
edition, Pimlico, 1987; John Creighton, Coins and power in Late Iron
Age Britain, Cambridge University Press, 2000
^ T. F. O'Rahilly, Early Irish History and Mythology. Dublin Institute
for Advanced Studies. 1946.
Belgae at Roman-Britain.org
Iron Age tribes in Britain
Part of: Celti