The Volcae (Latin pronunciation: [ˈwɔlkaj]) were a tribal confederation constituted before the raid of combined Gauls that invaded Macedon c. 270 BC and defeated the assembled Greeks at the Battle of Thermopylae in 279 BC. Though a modern view of Celtic tribal configurations has to be pieced together from mentions in Greek and Latin sources, for archaeology determines no tribal identities purely through material culture of the late La Tène Celts, tribes called Volcae were to be found simultaneously in southern France, Moravia, the Ebro River valley, and Galatia in Asia Minor (Anatolia).
Driven by highly mobile groups operating outside the tribal system and comprising diverse elements, the Volcae were one of the new ethnic entities formed during the Celtic military expansion at the beginning of the 3rd century BC. Collecting in the famous excursion into the Balkans, ostensibly, from the Hellene point of view, to raid Delphi, a branch of the Volcae split from the main group on the way into the Balkans and joined two other tribes, the Tolistobogii and the Trocmi, to settle in central Asia Minor and establish a new Gaulish identity as the Galatians.
Volcae of the Danube
Julius Caesar was convinced that the Volcae had originally been settled north-east of the Rhine, in what is now western and central Germany in the basin of the Weser River, for he mentioned the Volcae Tectosages as a Gaulish tribe which still remained in western Germany in his day (Gallic War 6.24):
- "And there was formerly a time when the Gauls excelled the Germans in prowess, and waged war on them offensively, and, on account of the great number of their people and the insufficiency of their land, sent colonies over the Rhine."
- "Accordingly, the Volcae Tectosages, seized on those parts of Germany which are the most fruitful [and lie] around the Hercynian forest, (which, I perceive, was known by report to Eratosthenes and some other Greeks, and which they call Orcynia), and settled there. Which nation to this time retains its position in those settlements, and has a very high character for justice and military merit; now also they continue in the same scarcity, indigence, hardihood, as the Germans, and use the same food and dress; but their proximity to the Province and knowledge of commodities from countries beyond the sea supplies to the Gauls many things tending to luxury as well as civilization. Accustomed by degrees to be overmatched and worsted in many engagements, they do not now even compare themselves to the Germans in prowess."
Caesar related a tradition associating the Celtic tribe of the Volcae to the vast Hercynian forest, though they were more probably to be located in the eastern range of the Mittelgebirge; yet, Volcae of his time were settled in Moravia, east of the Boii. Their apparent movement may indicate that the Volcae were newcomers to the region. Caesar's remark about the wealth of this region may have referred not only to agriculture but also to the mineral deposits there, while the renown attributed to the Volcae "in peace and in war" resulted from their metallurgical skills and the quality of their weapons, both attracting the attention of their northern neighbors. Together with the Boii in the upper basin of the Elbe river to the west and the Cotini in Slovakia to the east, this area of Celtic settlement in oppida led to the exploitation of natural resources on a grand scale and the concentration of skilled craftsmen under the patronage of strong and wealthy chieftains. This culture flourished from the mid second to the mid-1st century BCE, until it buckled under the combined pressure of the Germans from the North and the Dacians from the East.
Allowance must be made for Julius Caesar's usual equation of primitive poverty with admirable hardihood and military prowess and his connection of luxurious imports and the proximity of "civilization", meaning his own, with softness and decadence. In fact, long-established trading connections furnished Gaulish elites with Baltic amber and Greek and Etruscan wares.
Caesar took it as a given that the Celts in the Hercynian Forest were emigrant settlers from Gaul who had "seized" the land, but modern archeology identifies the region as part of the La Tène homeland. As Henry Howarth noted a century ago, "The Tectosages reported by Caesar as still being around the Hercynian forest were in fact living in the old homes of their race, whence a portion of them set out on their great expedition against Greece, and eventually settled in Galatia, in Asia Minor, where one of the tribes was called Tectosages."
Volcae of Gaul
The Volcae Arecomici (Οὐόλκαι Ἀρικόμιοι of Ptolemy's Geography ii), according to Strabo, dwelt on the western side of the lower Rhone, with their metropolis at Narbo (Narbonne): "Narbo is spoken of as the naval-station of these people alone, though it would be fairer to add "and of the rest of Celtica", so greatly has it surpassed the others in the number of people who use it as a trade-centre." They were not alone in occupying their territory, with its capital at Nemausus (Nîmes).
The Volcae Arecomici of their own accord surrendered to the Roman Republic in 121 BC, after which they occupied the Roman province of Gallia Narbonensis (the area around modern day Narbonne), the southern part of Gallia Transalpina. They held their assemblies in the sacred wood of Nemausus, the site of modern Nîmes.
In Roman times, the Volcae Arecomici occupied the district between the Garonne River (Garumna), the Cévennes (Cebenna mons), and the Rhône River, corresponding roughly to the Roman province of Gallia Narbonensis. In Gaul they were divided into two tribes in widely separated regions, the Arecomici on the east, living among the Ligures, and the Tectosages (whose territory included that of the Tolosates) on the west, living among the Aquitanians; the territories were separated by the Hérault River (Arauris) or a line between the Hérault River and the Orb (river) (Orbis).
West of the Arecomici the Volcae Tectosages (whose territory included that of the Tolosates) lived among the Aquitanians; the territories were separated by the Hérault River (Arauris) or a line between the Hérault River and the Orbe River (Orbis). Strabo says the Volcae Tectosages came originally from the region near modern Toulouse, in France, and they were a sept or clan of the Volcae.
The territory of the Volcae Tectosages (Οὐόλκαι Τεκτόσαγες of Ptolemy's Geography ii) in Gaul lay outside the Roman Republic, to the southwest of the Volcae Arecomici. From the 3rd century BC, the capital city of the Volcae Tectosages was Tolosa (modern Toulouse). When the Cimbri and Teutones invaded Gaul, the Tectosages allied themselves with them, and their town Tolosa was sacked in retribution by Quintus Servilius Caepio in 106 BC. Tolosa was incorporated into the Roman Republic as part of the province of Gallia Aquitania with the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar in 52 BC. The Roman conquest of Tolosa ended the cultural identity of the Volcae Tectosages.
The Volcae Tectosages were among the successful raiders of the Delphi expedition and were said to have transported their booty to Tolosa. A significamt part of these raiders however did not return and crossed the Bosporus instead. As a result, Tectosages was also the name of one of the three great communities of Gauls who invaded and settled in Asia Minor in the country called after them Galatia.
Venceslas Kruta suggests that their movement into this region was probably motivated by a Carthaginian recruiting-post situated close by, a main attraction of the region for Celtic mercenaries eager for more campaigning. Indeed, after crossing the Pyrenees in 218 BC, Hannibal in travelling through southern Gaul was greeted by warlike tribes: the Volcae, the Arverni, the Allobroges, and the Gaesatae of the Rhône Valley, who rose to prominence around the middle of the 3rd century BC. From around that time, this part of Gaul underwent a process of stabilization buttressed by the formation of new and powerful tribal confederations as well as the development of new-style settlements resembling the urban centers of the Mediterranean world, of which Tolosa and Nemausus (Nîmes) were no exception.
In 107, the Volcae, allies of the Tigurini, a branch of the Helvetii who belonged to a coalition that formed around the Cimbri and the Teutons, defeated a Roman army at Tolosa. In 106-5, Q. Servilius Caepio was sent with an army to put down the revolt, and as a result, Tolosa was sacked, and thereafter the town and its territory were absorbed into the Roman Province, thereby establishing firm control over the western Gallic trade corridor along the Carcassonne Gap and Garonne river.
Most modern Celticists regard the tribal name Uolcae as being related to Welsh gwalch 'hawk', perhaps related (at the Proto-Indo-European level) to Latin falco 'hawk' (compare the Gaulish personal name Catuuolcus to Welsh cadwalch 'hero', literally 'battle-hawk'), though some prefer to translate Gaulish *uolco- as 'wolf' and, by semantic extension, 'errant warrior'. There seems to be indication that their name is related to their breed of war greyhounds since before the 600 BC when the Tectosages and Tolistobogii Celts sacked Delphi. Survivors left accounts of the fierce Celts and the huge dogs who fought with them and at their side. They were described by Julius Caesar in his war reports, The Gallic Wars.
The name Tectosages, literally 'possession-seekers', meant 'claim-stakers', perhaps closer in sense to 'claim-jumper' or 'land grabber', and a direct cognate is found in Old Irish techtaigidir 'he/she seeks to (re)establish a land claim'.
Continuation of the name
The Volcae were highly influential in Moravia, and together with the Boii and the Cotini and other Danubian tribes, they controlled a highly active network of trade routes connected to the Mediterranean and the German lands. The prowess of these tribes and their proximity led to their name being borrowed into Germanic as *Walhaz, a generic term for "Celt" and eventually "Roman" as the two cultures merged in time. This word has been applied widely to any former Roman provincials, including the Welsh, Italians, and French. Compare: English Welsh, Flemish Dutch waalsch "Walloons", German welsch "French", Switzerland German Churwelsch "Churer Romance" (an old name for Romansh, which used to be spoken in Chur), Old Norse Valir "Roman; French". The word was also borrowed by the Slavs, who used it to refer to the Vlachs (Romanians). Polish applied it not only to Vlachs (Wołosi) but also Italians (Włosi). Moreover, Hungarian name of Italy (Olaszország) and the archaical ethnonym Oláhok (meaning Wallach, i.e., Romanian) are derived from the same root.
More examples in German as used in Switzerland include Welschschweiz "French-speaking Switzerland", Welschdörfli "Romansh Village" a historic section of Chur, and Welschgraben "French trenches" formerly a Burgundian defensive barrier. (See German Welsche)
- Kruta, Venceslas. Celts: History and Civilization. London: Hachette Illustrated, 2004: 204.
- George Long, in editing the Gallic Wars, noted that some manuscripts have Volgae and some Bolgae.
- Green, D. H. Language and History in the Early Germanic World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998: 163.
- Howorth 1908:431.
- Strabo, IV.1.12
- "Capital" applied to Gallic tribes offers misleading expectations.
- "Situated alongside the Arecomici as far as the Pyrenees, are other tribes, which are without repute and small" (Strabo, IV.1.12).
- The Cévennes "formed a natural boundary between the Volcae Arecomici and the Gabali and Ruteni" to the east (Smith 1854).
- "At the time of Hannibal's invasion of Italy, the Volcae had also possessions east of the Rhône" (Smith 1854); see Livy xxi. 26 and Strabo 203).
- "that people of the Volcae who are called Tectosages" (Strabo, IV.1.12 (on-line text).
- Howorth 1908:432.
- In Roman times Illiberis— in Basque, "iri-berri" or "ili-berri", still signifies "new town"— signified more than one place: see Illiberis.
- Kruta, Venceslas. Celts: History and Civilization. (London: Hachette Illustrated), 2004: 82-3.
- Kruta 2004:99.
- Kruta 2004:108.
- Cunliffe, Barry. The Ancient Celts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997: 236
- See John Koch, 'The Celtic Lands', in Medieval Arthurian Literature: A Guide to Recent Research, edited by Norris J Lacy, (Taylor & Francis) 1996:267. For a full discussion of the etymology of Gaulish *uolco-, see Xavier Delamarre, Dictionnaire de la langue gauloise (Editions Errance), 2001:274-6, and for examples of Gaulish *uolco- in various ancient personal Celtic names see Xavier Delamarre Noms des personnes celtiques (Editions Errance) 2007, p. 237.
- from Sims-Williams, Patrick. Ancient Celtic Place-Names in Europe and Asia Minor. Oxford: Blackwell, 2006: 298 quoting Joseph, Lionel S. 'The Origin of the Celtic Denominatives in *-sag-'. Studies in Memory of Warren Cowgill. Berlin: 1987: 156-8
- The same pair of ethnonyms also exist in Czech: Valaši (= Vlachs or Wallachians) & Vlaši (= an archaic denomination for Italians – in modern Czech Italové)
- Christian Settipani, Les Ancêtres de Charlemagne (France: Éditions Christian, 1989).
- John King, Celt Kingdoms
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Ptolemy, Geography at Lacus Curtius site
- William Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854)