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A map of ancient Gaul and Belgica, and the location of the Gallic and Belgic tribes.
A map of ancient Gaul and Belgica, and the location of the Gallic and Belgic tribes.

The Belgae were a group of nations or tribes living in north-eastern Gaul, on the west bank of the Rhine, in the 1st century BC, and later also attested in Britain. Their name survives in modern Belgium. The name Belgae may come from the Proto-Celtic *belo which means "bright"and is allied to English word "bale" (as in "bale-fire"), the Anglo-Saxon "bael", and the Lithuanian "baltas", meaning "white" or "shining" (from which the Baltic takes its name) (See Beltane). Thus the Gaulish god-names "Belenos" (*Bright one) and "Belisama" (probably the same divinity, originally from *belo-nos = our shining one) may also come from the same source.

Julius Caesar in his De Bello Gallico divided the people of Gaul at the time of his conquests (58 - 51 BC) into three broad groups: the Aquitani, Galli (who in their own language were called Celtae) and Belgae, all of whom had their own customs and language. He noted that the Belgae, being furthest from the developed civilisation of Rome and closest to the Germans, were the bravest of the three.


Origins of the Belgae

Whether the Belgae were Celts or Germanic tribes occupied 19th century and early 20th century historians. Caesar claims that most of the Belgae were descended from tribes who had long ago crossed the Rhine from Germania. However most of the tribal and personal names recorded are identifiably Celtic. It seems likely that the Belgae had a mixture of Celtic and Germanic ancestry. Perhaps they were Germanic people ruled by a Celtic 鬩te, or were a political alliance of Celtic and Germanic tribes, or, like the later Normans, were a formerly Germanic-speaking people who adopted the language of the lands they migrated to. In any case, the Romans were not precise in their ethnography of northern barbarians: by "German" Caesar may simply have meant "originating east of the Rhine", with no distinction of language intended.

It is also said that the Belgae were descendants of Trebata, the legendary founder of Trier.

Tribes who belonged to the Belgae included the Remi, Bellovaci, Suessiones, Nervii, Atrebates, Ambiani, Morini, Menapii, Caleti, Veliocasses and Viromandui. Caesar says one tribe, the Atuatuci, were descended from the Germanic Cimbri and Teutones, and describes four others, the Condrusi, Eburones, Caerosi and Paemani, as German tribes (although Ambiorix, a later leader of the Eburones, has a Celtic name). Other tribes that may have been included among the Belgae were the Leuci, Treveri, Tungri and Mediomatrici. Posidonius includes the Armoricani in Brittany 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, and in response to 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 to the lands of the Bellovaci, the Belgae decided to disband their combined force and return to their own lands. Whichever tribe Caesar attacked first, the others would come to its 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, and many of the Belgae were killed.

Caesar next marched into the territory of the Suessiones and besieged the town of Noviodunum (Soissons). Seeing the Romans' siege engines, the Suessiones surrendered, and 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 Sambre. Their attack was so quick and unexpected that some of the Romans didn't have time to take the covers off their shields or even put on their helmets. The element of surprise briefly left the Romans exposed. However Caesar grabbed a shield, made his way to the front line, and quickly organised his forces. The two legions who had been guarding the baggage train at the rear arrived and helped to turn the tide of the battle. Caesar says the Nervii were almost anihilated in the battle, and it is effusive in his tribute to their bravery, calling them "heroes".

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 Morinii, 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 Augustus Caesar 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.

The Belgae outside Gaul

The Belgae had made their way across the English Channel into southern Britain in Caesar's time (De Bello Gallico ii:4 and v:12). Caesar tells us they had first crossed the channel as raiders, only later settling on the island.

A large number of coins of the Ambiani dating to the mid-2nd century BC have been found in southern Britain, and within memory of Caesar's time a king of the Suessiones 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, most of the tribes of south-eastern Britain were Belgic or at least ruled by a Belgic aristocracy.

The later civitates (administrative divisions) of Roman Britain included one bearing the name of the Belgae, whose towns included Magnus Portus (Portsmouth) and Venta Belgarum (Winchester).

It is possible that a branch of the Belgae also settled in Ireland, represented by the historical Builg and the mythological Fir Bolg.


External links

Wikipedia contributors, 'Belgae', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 11 February 2006, 21:11 UTC, [1]

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