The Viromandui or Veromandui (French: Viromanduens, Viromand(ue)s, Vermandois) were a tribe of the Belgae, occupying a small region in northern Gaul. We know about them primarily from Julius Caesar's De Bello Gallico, a book chronicling Caesar's early conquests against the Gauls.
The Viromandui at the time of the Roman conquest
The boundaries of their domain, before Roman conquest, remain partly uncertain, but it is known that the Viromandui lived around modern-day Aisne, Somme and Oise in Picardy, France. These areas are known to have belonged to the Viromandui due to direct historical evidence: the limits of civitas Viromanduorum are kept by the diocese of Noyon.
However historical records of their military movements and military strength suggests that they were a much larger tribe than could be supported in this area and it is predicted by some scholars that, "Although their lands included at least the diocese of Noyon, they almost certainly extended into Laon and parts of northern Oise."
Their main stronghold at the conquest period is modern day Vermand. It was a small oppidum (only 14 hectares). There is no demonstration that this stronghold was a town at this time (as elsewhere in Northern Gaul).
Battle of the Sabis
The Viromandui are perhaps most famous for being a part of a Belgic alliance against the expansion of Julius Caesar. Alongside the Nervii and the Atrebates, they fought against Julius Caesar in the Battle of the Sabis, around 57 BC, named for the river that split the battlefield. We know about this battle because it is described extensively in Julius Caesar’s De Bello Gallico. He tells how the Belgae surprised the Romans by charging out of the woods while the legions were still constructing the Roman camp. In the initial part of the battle, the Romans lost their camp and took heavy losses, prompting their Gallic allies to desert them. However, they reformed their lines and were finally able to rout the Viromandui and Atrebates, wiping out the Nervii, who reportedly “fought to the last, fighting on top of the corpses of their brethren.” After this battle Caesar went on to destroy all the strongholds of all the Belgic tribes, breaking their power and making them part of the Roman Empire.
The Viromandui and Nervi used cavalry in very small numbers, concentrating on infantry whenever possible. Defensively, they often defeated their enemies' cavalry by forming defensive "hedges", described by Caesar as impenetrable walls of sharpened branches and skillfully cut saplings wrapped in thorns. Using these tactics they resisted the Romans by striking from the safety of their dense forests and marshes.
Because the Belgae were the furthest from Rome and the closest to Germania, Julius Caesar considered them “the bravest among the Gauls.” The culture of the Viromandui was undoubtedly centered on warfare, as seen from the excavations at Gournay, Ribemont, and Vermand.
They led a relatively simple and austere existence. For example, they forbade merchants that sold wine and other luxuries from doing business in their lands. They viewed these and Roman culture in general as a weakening and corrupting influence on their society. They resisted to the very end, although many of the other tribes of the Belgae surrendered to Rome.
“…When their enemies fall [the Gauls] cut off their heads and fasten them about the necks of their horses; and turning over to their attendants the arms of their opponents, all covered with blood, they carry [the heads] off as booty, singing a paean over them and striking up a song of victory, and these first-fruits of battle they fasten by nails upon their houses, just as men do in certain kinds of hunting with the heads of wild beasts they have mastered. The heads of their most distinguished enemies they embalm in cedar-oil and carefully preserve in a chest, and these they exhibit to strangers, gravely maintaining that in exchange for this head some one of their ancestors, or their father, or the man himself, refused the offer of a great sum of money. And some men among them, we are told, boast that they have not accepted an equal weight of gold for the head they show, displaying a barbarous sort of greatness of soul; for not to sell that which constitutes a witness and proof of one's valor is a noble thing.…”
This passage readily shows how their culture held bravery and martial prowess as higher values than the attainment of wealth. It is also interesting to see that Diodorus admits that its noble for them to have this attitude, even though he finds the act of taking heads as trophies to be barbaric.
Their religion was druidic in nature, and intertwined often with their martial way of life. Archaeologist Jean-Louis Bruneaux describes this facet of their culture. In particular he describes their methods of intimidating enemies with their gory rituals.
“…That the Gauls sacrificially burned their enemies would surely have daunted anyone planning to wage war against them. Upon approaching a ritual site, a potential attacker might have seen smoke from burning bones rising from the sacred precinct. Or he might have seen the captured armor of conquered enemies fastened to tall poles or a tangled assemblage of headless corpses lying along the outer wall.”
Here Brunaux describes the excavation of Gournay-sur-Aronde, one of the Viromandui's villages:
“…Two thousand iron weapons and pieces of armor found by archaeologists in a ditch adjacent to the sanctuary at Gournay-sur-Aronde were once displayed as intimidating war trophies. Examination showed that the swords and scabbards, war girdles, shields, and lances were originally arranged as some 500 individual suits of armor, either standing on the platform of the gateway or hung from poles around the sacred inner precinct.”
Although it is sometimes considered an unfounded accusation by the Romans, human sacrifice was a significant part of their religious activity. However, animal sacrifice was much more common.
“Evidence of human sacrifice was even more striking at Ribemont-sur-Ancre … a particularly spectacular deposit of bones comprising some 80 skeletons was found outside the sacred area along the sanctuary's outer wall. All headless, the skeletons had been piled up and tangled together along with weapons, the bodies contorted into unnatural positions.”
The Viromandui are mentioned in 7 texts:
- Viromanduos, in Periochia 104 from Livy, Ab Urbe Condita ;
- Veromandui in Pliny the Elder, Natural History, IV, 106 ;
- Ουιρομανδυες or Ρομανδυες in Ptolemy, II, 9, 6 ;
- Augusta Veromanduorum in Antonine Itinerary, 379, 4;
- Aug. Viromunduorum on Tabula Peutingeriana;
- Veromandi in Orosius, VI, 7, 1 ;
- civitas Veromand[u]orum in Notitia Galliarum VI, 5.
TheViromandui or their capital Augusta are also mentioned on following inscriptions:
- Viromanduo = Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum XIII, 1465 (Clermont-Ferrand)
- civi Viromanduo = CIL XIII, 8409, 8341 et 8342 (Koln, I c.)
- Viromand(uo) = CIL XIII, 1688 (Lyon, autel des Gaules)
- Civit (ati) Vi(romanduorum) = CIL XIII, 3528 (Saint-Quentin, end of II or III c.)
- Avg(vstae) Viromandvorv(orum) = CIL VI, 32550 = 2822 et 32551 = 2821 (Rome, middle of III c.)
Their new capital, founded by the Romans, was the town of Augusta Viromanduorum, modern-day St. Quentin, 11 km from the oppidum of Vermand. This town is not very well known. It extended over 40 hectares (possibly up to 60) and looks like a small city (for Gaul).
It is possible that Vermand, which survived as a small town with a great sanctuary and large pottery fabrics, was the civitas capital in the late Roman period. Augusta seems largely abandoned at the end of the 3rd century. Besides, Vermand still well occupied, with large cemeteries explored in late 19th century (more than 700 graves excavated). In the second half of 4th century, these cemeteries contained several graves of German auxiliaries and their women (with objects typical of the Elbe area), with a chief one, known at the tombeau militaire (the very nice and rare objects found in this rich grave are now in the Metropolitan Museum of New-York). The name of Vermand comes from Veromandis (meaning "at the Veromandui") and indicates this status of civitas capital.
- James E. Dunlap. "Tribal Boundaries in Belgic Gaul". Classical Philology, Vol. 26, No. 3. (Jul., 1931), pp. 318-321.
- Raphael Zon. "Forests and Human Progress". Geographical Review, Vol. 10, No. 3. (Sep., 1920), pp. 139-166.
- C. Julius Caesar. De Bello Gallico. English translation by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn (1869) available on the Perseus Project.
- John N. Hough "Caesar's Camp on the Aisne". The Classical Journal, Vol. 36, No. 6. (Mar., 1941), pp. 337-345.
- Hawkes. "New Thoughts on the Belgae". Antiquity. [0003-598X] 1968, Vol. 42, Issue 165 p.6.
- Jean-Louis Brunaux. "Gallic Blood Rites". Archaeology, Mar/Apr2001, Vol. 54 Issue 2, p54, 4p, 7c.
- Diodorus Siculus. Bibliotheca historica. Book V:29.
- Jean-Luc Collart, « Au Bas-Empire, la capitale des Viromandui se trouvait-elle à Saint-Quentin ou à Vermand ? », in Roger Hanoune dir. « Les villes romaines du Nord de la Gaule. Vingt ans de recherches nouvelles ». Actes du XXVe colloque international de HALMA-IPEL UMR CNRS 8164, Villeneuve-d’Ascq, 2007, p. 349-393 (Revue du Nord. Hors série. Collection Art et Archéologie ; 10).
- The Celtic Tribes of Britain on www.Roman-Britain.org.
- Gallic Settlements: oppida from the French Ministry of Culture and Communication.
- Antiquité : Les origines de la ville from a website on Saint-Quentin.
- Archéologie en Picardie (2000) from the French Ministry of Culture and Communication. (in French)