The Belgae were a group of tribes living in northern Gaul, between the English Channel and the west bank of the Rhine, from at least the 3rd 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 with the Fir Bolg in Ireland. The Belgae gave their name to the Roman province of Gallia Belgica, and very much later, to the modern country of Belgium.
Without explaining the details, Caesar and other classical authors described them both as Gauls, but also as distinct from "Celtic" Gauls, and as having Germanic ancestry. Their exact ethnic affiliations have remained the source of discussion today, (which is sometimes politicized), but they clearly had affiliations of various types with both other Gauls to their south, and Germanic people east of the Rhine.
The general consensus among linguists is that the ethnic name Belgae comes from the Proto-Celtic root *belg- or *bolg- meaning "to swell (particularly with anger/battle fury/etc.)", cognate with the Dutch adjective gebelgd, "to be very angry" and verbolgen, "being angry", and the Old English verb belgan, "to be angry" (from Proto-Germanic *balgiz), derived ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root *bhelgh- ("to swell, bulge, billow"). Thus, a Proto-Celtic ethnic name *Bolgī could be interpreted as "The People who Swell (particularly with anger/battle fury)".
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 southwest, 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 were different in terms of customs, laws and language. He noted that the Belgae, being farthest from the developed civilization of Rome and closest to Germania over the Rhine, were the bravest of the three groups, because "merchants least frequently resort to them, and import those things which tend to effeminate the mind".
Ancient sources such as Caesar are unclear about the things used to define ethnicity today. He describes the Belgae as both Celtic (or at least Gaulish) and Germanic (at least some of them, and at least by descent). 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. On the other hand it has been proposed that there could have been more than one language within the region, and also possibly differences between the language of the elite and the rest of the population. Many modern scholars believe that the Belgae were a firmly Celtic-speaking group. However, 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. Finally, some researchers, notably Maurits Gysseling, suggest that prior to Celtic and Germanic influences the Belgae may have comprised a distinct Indo-European branch, termed Belgian.
Caesar's sources informed him "that the greater part of the Belgae were sprung from the Germanic peoples, and that, having crossed the Rhine at an early period, they had settled there, on account of the fertility of the country". He also says that the Germanic people who lived to the west of the Rhine were allied to the Belgae.
However, Caesar's use of the word "Germani" needs special consideration. He uses it in two ways. He describes a major grouping of northeastern 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, in order 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, says that the tribal group in this area were indeed the original Germani, and that in his time they had taken up the new name, Tungri. He claimed that the use of the word Germani to refer to other peoples, including those across the Rhine, all stemmed from these original tribes who settled amongst the Belgae, who had been the first of their race to cross the Rhine. Concerning the other Belgae, the extent and nature of their connection to the east of the Rhine is unclear. Tacitus also records that the Nervii and Treveri were also eager to claim Germanic rather than Gaulish origin.
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 over the 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 remarked that Germanic language speakers might have been no closer than the river Elbe in the time of Caesar. On the other hand, studies of placenames such as those of Maurits Gysseling, have been argued to show evidence of the very early 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 2nd century BC. On the other hand strong evidence for old Celtic placenames is found in the Ardennes and to the south of them. According to Strabo, the country of the Belgae extended along the coast where fifteen tribes were living from the Rhenus (Rhine) to the Liger (Loire), the «Paroceanites» (maritime Belgae) which is supported by Cassius Dio who mentions : "The Belgae, who dwelt near the Rhine in many mixed tribes and extended even to the ocean opposite Britain". .
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" 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 medieval Romance-Germanic language border", but van Durme accepts that Germanic did not block "Celticisation coming from the south" so "both phenomena were simultaneous and interfering".
The medieval Gesta Treverorum compiled by monks of Trier claims that the Belgae were descendants of Trebeta, an otherwise unattested legendary founder of Trier, the Roman Augusta Treverorum, "Augusta of the Treveri".
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|
Later, 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 well.
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.
The 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 rearguard, 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, the Suessiones surrendered, whereupon Caesar turned his attention to the Bellovaci, who had retreated into the fortress of Bratuspantium (between modern Amiens and Beauvais). They quickly surrendered, as did the Ambiani.
The Nervii, along with the Atrebates and Viromandui, decided to fight (the 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 four thousand. The rest, about fifty-three 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 the 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|
|Capital||Venta Belgarum (Winchester)|
The 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 unclear.
A large number of coins of the Ambiani dating to the mid-2nd 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, it seems likely that, by the time of the Roman conquest, some of the tribes of south-eastern Britain were ruled by a Belgic nobility and were culturally influenced by them. The later civitas (administrative division) of Roman Britain had towns including Portus Adurni (Portchester), and Clausentum (Southampton). The civitas capital was at 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 historical 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 Belgae.
- 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, Commentarii de Bello Gallico, 1.1
- Geography 4.1
- 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
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- Kipfer, Barbara Ann. 2007. Encyclopedic dictionary of archaeology. P.63
- King, Anthony. 1990. Roman Gaul and Germany. P.32
- Lamarcq, Danny; Rogge, Marc (1996), De Taalgrens: Van de oude tot de nieuwe Belgen, Davidsfonds page 44.
- M. Gysseling, Enkele Belgische leenwoorden in de toponymie, in Naamkunde 7 (1975), pp. 1-6.
- Julius Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Gallico 2.4
- Julius Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Gallico 2.3
- Tacitus, Germania 28
- 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 excavated.
- Wightman, Edith Mary (1985), Gallia Belgica, University of California Press page 12-14.
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- Earthworks discovered at Sharsted Court near Newnham were of possible Belgic origin. See "History of Doddington". The Doddington Village Appraisal (1997). 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.