The Cantabri (Ancient Greek: Καντάβροι | Kantabroi) were a pre-Roman Celtic people and large tribal federation that lived in the northern coastal region of ancient Iberia in the second half of the first millennium BC. These peoples and their territories were incorporated into the Roman Province of Hispania Tarraconensis in the year 19 BC, following the Cantabrian Wars.
A detailed analysis of place-names in ancient Cantabria shows a strong Celtic element along with an almost equally strong "Para-Celtic" element (both Indo-European) and thus disproves the idea of a substantial pre-Indo-European or Basque presence in the region. This supports the earlier view that Jürgen Untermann considered the most plausible, coinciding with archaeological evidence put forward by Ruiz-Gálvez in 1998, that the Celtic settlement of the Iberian Peninsula was made by people who arrived via the Atlantic Ocean in an area between Brittany and the mouth of the River Garonne, finally settling along the Galician and Cantabrian coast.
The Cantabri inhabited the highlands of the northern Spanish Atlantic coast, comprising the whole of modern Cantabria province, the eastern Asturias, the nearby mountainous regions of Castile-León and the northern fringes of Palencia and Burgos provinces. By the 1st century BC they comprised eleven or so tribes – Avarigines, Blendii, Camarici (or Tamarici), Concani, Coniaci/Conisci, Morecani, Noegi, Orgenomesci, Plentuisii, Salaeni, Vadinienses and Vellici/Velliques – gathered into a tribal confederacy with the town of Aracillum (Castro de Espina del Gallego, Sierra del Escudo – Cantabria), located at the strategic Besaya river valley, as their political seat. Other important Cantabrian strongholds included Villeca/Vellica (Monte Cildá – Palencia), Bergida (Castro de Monte Bernorio – Palencia) and Amaya/Amaia (Peña Amaya – Burgos).
Literary and epigraphic evidence confirms that, like their Gallaeci and Astures neighbours, the Cantabri were polytheistic, worshipping a vast and complex pantheon of male and female Indo-European deities in sacred oak or pine woods, mountains, water-courses and small rural sanctuaries.
Druidism does not appear to have been practiced by the Cantabri, though there is enough evidence for the existence of an organized priestly class who performed elaborated rites, which included ritual steam baths, festive dances, oracles, divination, human and animal sacrifices. In this respect, Strabo mentions that the peoples of the north-west sacrificed horses to an unnamed God of War, and both Horace and Silius Italicus added that the Concani had the custom of drinking the horse’s blood at the ceremony.
According to Pliny the Elder Cantabria also contained gold, silver, tin, lead and iron mines, as well as magnetite and amber, but little is known about them; Strabo also mentions salt extraction in mines, such as the ones existent around Cabezón de la Sal.
Regarded as savage and untamable mountaineers, the Cantabri long defied the Roman legions and made a name for themselves for their independent spirit and freedom. Indeed, Cantabri warriors were regarded as being tough and fiercest fighters, suitable for mercenary employment, but prone to banditry. The earliest references to them are found in the texts of ancient historians such as Livy and Polybius who mention Cantabrian mercenaries in Carthaginian service fighting at the Battle of the Metaurus in 207 BC. Another author, Cornelius Nepos, claims that the Cantabrian tribes first submitted to Rome upon Cato the Elder’s campaigns in Celtiberia in 195 BC, and later Cantabri warbands fought for the Vaccaei and Celtiberians in the Celtiberian Wars of the 2nd century BC. Such was their reputation that when a battered Roman army under consul Gaius Hostilius Mancinus was besieging Numantia in 137 BC, the rumour of the approach of a large combined Cantabri-Vaccaei relief force was enough to cause the rout of 20,000 panic-stricken Roman legionaries, forcing Mancinus to surrender under humiliating peace terms.
By the early 1st century BC however, the Cantabri began to play a double game by lending their services to individual Roman generals on occasion but, at same time, supported rebellions within Roman Spanish provinces and carried out raids in times of unrest. This opportunistic policy led them to side with Pompey during the final phase of the Sertorian Wars (82–72 BC), and they continued to follow the Pompeian cause until the defeat of his generals Afranius and Petreius at the battle of Ilerda (Lérida) in 49 BC. Prior to that, the Cantabri had unsuccessfully intervened in the Gallic Wars by sending in 56 BC an army to help the Aquitani tribes of south-eastern Gaul against Publius Crassus, the son of Marcus Crassus serving under Julius Caesar.
Under the leadership of the chieftain Corocotta, the Cantabri’s own predatory raids on the Vaccaei, Turmodigi and Autrigones whose rich territories they coveted, according to Florus, coupled with their backing of a Vaccaei anti-Roman revolt in 29 BC, ultimately led to the outbreak of the First Cantabrian Wars, which resulted in their conquest and partial annihilation by Emperor Augustus. The remaining Cantabrian population and their tribal lands were absorbed into the newly created Transduriana Province.
Nevertheless, the harsh measures devised by Augustus and implemented by his general Marcus Vispanius Agrippa to pacify the province in the aftermath of the campaign only contributed to further instability in Cantabria. Near-constant tribal uprisings (including a serious slave revolt in 20 BC that quickly spread to neighbouring Asturias) and guerrilla warfare continued to plague the Cantabrian lands until the early 1st century AD, when the region was granted a form of local self-rule upon being included in the new Hispania Tarraconensis province.
Although the Romans founded colonies and established military garrisons at Castra Legio Pisoraca (camp of Legio IIII Macedonica – Palencia), Octaviolca (near Valdeolea – Cantabria) and Iuliobriga (Retortillo – Reinosa), Cantabria never became fully romanized and its people preserved many aspects of Celtic language, religion and culture well into the Roman period. The Cantabri did not lose their warrior skills either, providing auxiliary troops (Auxilia) to the Roman Imperial army for decades and these troops participated in the conquest of Britain by Emperor Claudius in AD 43.
The Cantabri re-emerged, like also their neighbours the Astures, amid the chaos of the Migration Period of the late 4th century, only to be absorbed by the Visigoths in the early 6th century. Thenceforward the Cantabri started to be Christianized and gradually assimilated, though they only became fully Latinised in their language and culture after the Muslim Conquest of Iberia in the 8th century.
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- Though most modern historians have cast serious doubts upon the veracity of this particular episode, since other sources (Livy, Appian, Polybius) don’t mention it at all.
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