Belgic tribes of South-Eastern England and their neighbours

Coin-using tribes of late Iron Age Britain Caesar learned in 54 BC that Belgae from north-east Gaul had settled along the coast of Britain, many retaining the same tribal names as their brethren across the Channel.1Caesar, Gallic Wars, 5.12. This is compatible with the archaeological evidence, if we are generous in our interpretation of the coast. From 125 BC Gallo-Belgic coins appear over the whole of south-eastern Britain. New tribal centres appeared, similar to those in Gaul. Known as oppida, these were large, fortified, lowland settlements. Among their inhabitants were craftsmen making the first British wheel-thrown pottery and minting the first British coins. Tribal coin issues and their distribution add to our knowledge of the tribes of Britain. This cluster of characteristics similar to those in contempory north-east Gaul is known as the Aylesford-Swarling culture, named after two cremation cemeteries in Kent of the Late La Tène period. The region in which it is found was inhabited principally by the Cantiaci, Catuvellauni and Trinovantes. A similar culture, but with enough differences to distinguish it is found to the south, called Atrebatic by Barry Cunliffe, as the Atrebates were living there when we first have evidence of the tribe. To the west and north of this core was a periphery of tribes which adopted coinage.2J. T.Koch, An Atlas for Celtic Studies (2007), pp. 21, 109-110 and maps 50, 76 and 252-67; B. Cunliffe, Iron Age Communities in Britain: An Account of England, Scotland and Wales from the Seventh Century BC until the Roman Conquest, chapter 7. Of these peripheral tribes, the Corieltauvi and Iceni are listed below. The Durotriges and Dobunni can be found among the Celtic Tribes of South-West England.

The Aylesford-Swarling culture. Click to enlarge in pop-up window Caesar's comments on the Belgae have caused confusion over their ethnicity. He describes them as different from the Gauls in language. He says that the bulk of them descended from tribes which long ago came across the Rhine from Germania.3Caesar, Gallic Wars,1.1, 2.4. Yet their recorded tribal, personal and place-names are Celtic (with very few exceptions), both in Britain and Belgic Gaul. They seem to have spoken a language similar to Gaulish, but even more similar to Brythonic, as one might expect from their impact on Britain. It seems that the Belgae had pushed into North-East Gaul from what had been Celtic-speaking lands east of the Rhine, under pressure from the expanding Germani. Thus their ancestry was from what the Romans called Germania, but they were Celts. They had a late La Tène Culture.4J.T. Koch (ed.), Celtic Culture: a historical encyclopedia (2006), pp.195-9. The pressure of the Germani may also explain the arrival of Belgae in Britain. They in turn may have pushed previous inhabitants further north, or even to Ireland.

Ambiani gold stater, 125-100 BCThe earliest Belgic coins appear on both sides of the Channel. The first and most spectacular type has been identified with the Ambiani, since it is found in their Somme Valley territory. A later type, issued between c. 90 and 60 BC, may be associated with King Diviciacus of the Suessiones, remembered as a powerful king in both in Gaul and Britain.5An introduction to British Celtic coinage, from the online Celtic Coin Index, maintained by Oxford University. The fact that neither of these tribes was mentioned in Britain by Ptolemy suggests that the political situation in southern Britain was fluid. An over-king could exact tribute from other tribes, so the Suessiones need not necessarily have had a colony in Britain. Yet the general picture is one of tribes vying for territory, one ousting another, so a colony could have come and gone. The Roman invasion put a stop to inter-tribal warfare and so froze the polities as they happened to stand in 43 AD, except where the Romans restored lands to their allies. The tribal boundaries shown on the map are deduced partly from pre-Roman coinage distributions and partly from Ptolemy. They thus conflate the pre and post-Roman situation and should be seen as only roughly indicative.

Notes

If you are using a browser with up-to-date support for W3C standards e.g. Firefox, Google Chrome, IE 8 or Opera, hover over the superscript numbers to see footnotes online. If you are using another browser, select the note, then right-click, then on the menu click View Selection Source. If you print the article out, or look at print preview online, the footnotes will appear here.

  1. Caesar, Gallic Wars, 5.12.
  2. J. T. Koch, An Atlas for Celtic Studies (2007), pp. 21, 109-110 and maps 50, 76 and 252-67; B. Cunliffe, Iron Age Communities in Britain: An Account of England, Scotland and Wales from the Seventh Century BC until the Roman Conquest, chapter 7.
  3. Caesar, Gallic Wars, 1.1, 2.4.
  4. J.T. Koch (ed.), Celtic Culture: a historical encyclopedia (2006), pp. 195-9.
  5. An introduction to British Celtic coinage, from the online Celtic Coin Index, maintained by Oxford University: http://web.arch.ox.ac.uk/coins/ccindex.htm.
  6. Claudius Ptolemy, The Geography, II.2; T. Codrington, The Roman Roads in Britain (1903), introduction.
  7. Caesar, Gallic Wars, IV.21, VIII, 47-8.
  8. Sextus Julius Frontinus, The Strategemata, II.xiii.11.
  9. M. Russell, Bloodline: The Celtic kings of Roman Britain (2010), p. 76.
  10. Res Gestae Divi Augusti, 32; An introduction to British Celtic coinage, from the online Celtic Coin Index, maintained by Oxford University: http://web.arch.ox.ac.uk/coins/ccindex.htm.
  11. Cassius Dio, Roman History, 60.19; Tacitus, Agricola and Germania, trans. H. Mattingly, with notes by J.B. Rives (2009), Agricola 14, and note 48.
  12. Claudius Ptolemy, The Geography, II.2; J. T. Koch, An Atlas for Celtic Studies (2007), map 15; A.L.F. Rivet and C. Smith, The Place-Names of Roman Britain (1979).
  13. W. H. Manning, Early Roman campaigns in the south-west of Britain, chapter 2 in Birthday of the Eagle: The Second Augustan Legion and the Roman Military Machine ed. R. J. Brewer (2002).
  14. Tacitus, Agricola, 21; B. Cunliffe, The Roman Baths: a view over 2000 years (1993).
  15. Claudius Ptolemy, The Geography, II.2; J. T. Koch, An Atlas for Celtic Studies (2007), map 15.6.
  16. A.L.F. Rivet and C. Smith, The Place-Names of Roman Britain (1979), pp. 353-4.
  17. Caesar, Gallic Wars, V.20; Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica, 5.21.
  18. Caesar, Gallic Wars, V.22.
  19. Res Gestae Divi Augusti, 32; An introduction to British Celtic coinage, from the online Celtic Coin Index, maintained by Oxford University: http://web.arch.ox.ac.uk/coins/ccindex.htm.
  20. M. Lapidge et al., The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England (1999), pp. 269-270.
  21. Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, I.26.
  22. Claudius Ptolemy, The Geography, II.2; J. T. Koch, An Atlas for Celtic Studies (2007), map 15.6A.L.F. Rivet and C. Smith, The Place-Names of Roman Britain (1979), pp. 353-4.
  23. Caesar, Gallic Wars, V.11, 20-21; M. Russell, Bloodline: The Celtic kings of Roman Britain (2010), pp. 21, 44; J. T. Koch (ed.), Celtic Culture: a historical encyclopedia (2006), p. 349-50, 357-8.
  24. Cassius Dio, Roman History, 60.19-21; Cornelius Tacitus, The Annals, 12.32-39; Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars: Caligula, 44; An introduction to British Celtic coinage, from the online Celtic Coin Index, maintained by Oxford University: http://web.arch.ox.ac.uk/coins/ccindex.htm.
  25. M. Russell, Bloodline: The Celtic kings of Roman Britain (2010), pp. 100-112, 140-146.
  26. Claudius Ptolemy, The Geography, II.2.
  27. R.S.O Tomlin, Roman Leicester, a corrigendum: for Coritani, should we now read Corieltauvi ?, Transactions of the Leicestershire Architectural and Archaeological Society, vol. 58 (1983), pp. 1-5.
  28. Claudius Ptolemy, The Geography, II.2. The name appears on their coins with an initial E
  29. Caesar, Gallic Wars, V.21.
  30. T. Codrington, The Roman Roads in Britain (1903), introduction; I.A. Richmond and O.G.S. Crawford, The British Section of the Ravenna Cosmography, Archaeologia, vol. 93 (1949) pp.1-50.
  31. J. Joy, Snettisham: shining new light on an old treasure, British Archaeology, September/October 2015, pp. 18-25.
  32. Caesar, Gallic Wars, VI.17.
  33. Tacitus, Agricola, 16; Cassius Dio, Roman History, 62.1-12.
  34. Claudius Ptolemy, The Geography, II.2; J. T. Koch, An Atlas for Celtic Studies (2007), map 15.6; J. T. Koch, Celtic Culture: a historical encyclopedia (2006), p. 1362.
  35. Tacitus, Agricola and Germania, trans. H. Mattingly, with notes by J.B. Rives (2009), Agricola 14, and note 48.
  36. B. Collingwood and R.P. Wright (eds.), The Roman Inscriptions of Britain (1965), no. 91.
  37. Claudius Ptolemy, The Geography, II.2; K. Cameron, English Place Names (1996), p.34.
  38. M. Russell, Bloodline: The Celtic kings of Roman Britain (2010), p. 21.
  39. Caesar, Gallic Wars, V. 20.
  40. An introduction to British Celtic coinage, from the online Celtic Coin Index, maintained by Oxford University: http://web.arch.ox.ac.uk/coins/ccindex.htm; Coins of England and the United Kingdom: Spink Standard Catalogue of British Coins 37th ed. (2002), no. 46; Cassius Dio, Roman History, 60.21.
  41. J. Wacher, The Towns of Roman Britain, 2nd edn. (1995), pp. 112-132, 207-214 and figs.46 and 94; G. de la Bedoyere, Roman Towns in Britain, 2nd edn. (2003), appendix 1.