II. The Tribes

How many Celtic tribes were there in Gaul?

Strabo’s Geography (2.4.3) describes some 28 Gallic tribes that lived along the Rhone, Saone and Seine Rivers and several borders of Gaul. He mentions them in this order:

  • beginning with the Segusiavi of Lugdunum
  • Aedui with their hillfort or oppidum at Bibracte
  • Sequani who were at loggerheads with their Aedui neighbours
  • Helvetti who lived near the Swiss Alps
  • Mediomatrici close to the Rhine and Germanic tribes
  • Lingones just west of the Sequani in central Gaul
  • Leuci just north of the Lingones
  • Strabo returns to Lugdunum area to describe the Allobroges to the east of Lugdunum
  • Arverni and Canutes to the west of Lugdunum are added
  • Trebocchi and Treveri both in the north of Gaul get a brief mention
  • Many others follow too such as the Nervii, Senones, Remi, Atrebatii, Eburones, Menapii, Morini, Bellovaci, Ambiani, Suessiones, Caleti ,Parisii, Meldi and the Lexovii.

Strabo and other ancient sources’ tribal descriptions are mainly based on geographical and ethnic terms. Caesar divided Gaul into three ethnic tribal groups: Celtae, Aquitani and Belgae.

Augustus was to use Caesar’s ethnic/territorial tribal divisions as the basis of his reorganisation of Gaul in 27 B.C. into the so-called ‘Trois Gaules’ or Three Gauls: Lugdenensis, Aquitania and Belgica. The Roman civitas (capital) of the Three Gauls was Lugdunum. Here the 60 tribes of Gaul were proclaimed. Their council met annually to elect priests especially to the Altar of Augustus and Rome that was inaugurated in 12 B.C.

Altar of Augustus and Rome at Lugdunum Altar of Augustus and Rome at Lugdunum

Augustus’ administration based on 60 tribes was probably based on the main tribes and do not account for ‘client’ tribes called pagi (pagus sing.). For example, the Velavii and Gaballi were clients or pagi of the Arverni whose ‘bonds of obligation’ probably asked them for armed assistance when under threat from rival tribes (Cuncliffe, 1999: 108). In a document presented to the Roman Senate after the death of Augustus, 305 Gallic peoples are mentioned. [Joseph, II, 345). In Julius Cæsar's time there were said to be about 330 peoples in Gaul (Plutarch, Cæsar, 15). These figures give us some indication of the extent of large and smaller tribes that made up the Gallic polity prior to the Roman conquest.

Livy mentions the Insubres as a subgroup of the Aedui from central Gaul in the 5th cent B.C. If these subgroups or pagi were numerous perhaps the French archaeologist J.G. Buillot was correct in calling this group of tribes a ‘federation’ of Aeduans, namely an alliance of several tribes of varying wealth and power (Buillot, 1836:5). Unfortunately, very few of these ‘subgroups’ or pagi can be identified. Roman inscriptions offer rare insights.

An interesting inscription that does reveal the understated number of Gallic tribes is La Turbie Trophy (Trophée des Alpes) erected by Augustus in 7 B.C. It is over 50 metres high with a podium of 12 metres that supported 24 columns. The podium inscription listed 44 defeated Alpine Gallic tribes many of whom are lost to history:

A model of La Turbie TrophyA model of La Turbie Trophy














La Turbie Trophy today in Provence, France.La Turbie Trophy today in Provence, France.

La Turbie Trophy map

Problem of ‘interpretatio’

It must be kept in mind that the Romans defined the Celts and their tribes through their own eyes. This is called 'interpretatio' and the result is that the Roman view is often far too simplistic. Ancient writers were concerned with the Roman audience not Celtic ones! Simple settlement and cultural patterns were created for these tribal settlements largely for administrative and at first militaristic purposes; however, tribal settlement patterns, as revealed by recent archaeology, have proven to be far more complex.



Recent more ‘complex’ Celtic Gaul interpretations


Proximity to the Mediterranean culture:

One new way to look at the tribes of Gaul is in relation to their proximity to the Mediterranean culture. Those tribes nearest the Greco-Roman influences such as Roman colonies and towns in southern Gaul (Narbonensis province) with their more prolific trade contacts were far more affected and changed by the ‘new order’ of Roman culture than those Gallic tribes in the far north or west of Gaul. In fact, southern and central Gaul tribes had already adopted and adapted to a significant degree of Roman trade well before Caesar’s conquest began in 58 B.C. This is evident in the wine trade.

At indigenous Gallic centres like hillforts called 'oppida' vast finds of Italian Dressel I type amphorae numbering in tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of jars testify to the Gallic tribes’ introduction to the Roman cultural world from the 2nd century B.C. and more so after 150 B.C.

The Gauls were importing Italian wine for their own reasons rather than to conform to a Roman way of life (Ebel1988:575). Prestige gain by elite warriors in widely distributing wine to their loyal followers, religious festivals and drinking privileges to special craftsmen all played a role in indigenous wine culture. Furthermore, judging from the archaeological record, the ancient writers gave an exaggerated image of excess drinking of the Gauls from very early times like Halstatt and early La Tene periods (Loughton 2009:77-78) where amphorae shortages are evident.  Finally, the image created by the ancient writer Diodorus Siculus (5.26.3) of a desperate Gaul exchanging a slave for an amphora of wine is also misleading as it could relate to only one region of Gaul that had a shortage at a time of scarcity. Judging all Gauls over several centuries by one anecdotal incident is obviously flawed. Spain also has many examples of vast amphorae deposits (Loughton 2009: 85).

Legend: 1- rim, 2 - neck, 3 - handle, 4 - shoulder, 5 - belly or body, 6 - foot Legend: 1- rim, 2 - neck, 3 - handle, 4 - shoulder, 5 - belly or body, 6 - foot




Along with wine and olive oil amphorae, ceramics, fibulae and ornaments have all been found in late La Tene tribal settlements. In fact, there existed a diverse and developing ‘prestige goods’ economy before the Roman conquest. The potter's wheel, coins, glass and iron working were also in use.



Zonal world-systems theory: A twist to this proximity theory is what is called zonal world-systems where the core urban settlements dominate followed by the periphery zones supplying trade in raw materials and finally the margin zones that exist in the political and economic ‘wilderness’. For example, Rome would be the core city culture with Massilia (Marseilles) after 600 B.C. on the periphery supplying raw materials in exchange for amphorae (wine from Campania) and the many Gallic oppida in the margin zone at first exchanging hides and iron goods.


The diagram below show the role of the different zones:


Sherratt, Andrew (2004) Trade Routes: the Growth of Global Trade, ArchAtlas, January 2008, Edition 3Sherratt, Andrew (2004), 'Trade Routes: the Growth of Global Trade', ArchAtlas, January 2008, Edition 3






‘Consumer’ and ‘Cultural’ revolutions

The Gallic tribes that had proximity and/or accessible transport routes near the Mediterranean cultures had a good start to the ‘consumer revolution’ or massive change in material wealth. The wealth of the Gauls in terms of the increase in the quantity and quality of material things (e.g. pottery and jewellery) especially accelerated in the Early Roman Empire period under Augustus and the Julio-Claudians 'princeps' or rulers.

Professor Greg Woolf calls 50 B.C. to the end of the 1st century A.D. the ‘formative years’ of change (Woolf, 2003:173). Not only had a ‘consumer revolution’ began in Gaul but from 31 B.C. a bigger, more encompassing “cultural revolution” impacted on Gaul. A new 'Gallo-Roman' culture was about to be created distinct from the earlier Celtic culture and surprisingly, from the Roman culture!

The ‘drivers’ for this accelerated change under the Romans were already in existence in pre-Roman Gallic society including:

  • Pre-existing trade routes and merchant contacts
  • elite warriors living in semi-urban 'oppida' (hillforts)
  • some skilled artisans in 'vici' (villages)
  • 'aedeficia' - farms (Drinkwater;1983:136-137).

For example, the Aedui tribe in central Gaul had at least 5 semi-urban centres dealing with administrative, commercial and industrial matters. These were Bibracte, Chalon, Macon, Decize and ‘Noviodunum’. The Bituriges had at least 4: St Marcel, Chateaumeillant, Bourges and Levroux. A strong local loyalty probably existed towards each of these centres.

The ‘pre-eminence’ or power of each oppidum site was dependent on the ‘fluid nature’ of Gallic politics and the influence of elite warriors at the time (Drinkwater; 1983: 137). The wealth, status and power of oppida waxed and waned according to numerous circumstances that could influence the rise and fall of the elite warriors who dominated them.

Case studies interpretations:

Another way that archaeologists/historians have studied the Celtic tribes is on a case by case basis. In this case study technique a Celtic tribe is seen like piece in a vast regional mosaic, each having its own story to tell both before and after the Roman conquest.

Berry region

One such case study looked at the Berry region of Gaul belonging to the Bituriges federation of tribes. Here a number of rivers including the Cher, Creuse, Allier and Indre descend from the Massif Central heights into the Loire River. Some 30-40 late La Tene sites have been found with at least 12 of those enclosed settlements (oppida) ranging from 15-30 hectares in size.

This study showed the relative self-sufficiency of 30-40 the late La Tene settlements and how it changed to a growing interdependence and ranking of 20 Gallo-Roman settlements in Berry. In the Roman era, the Bituriges federation population saw some settlement redistribution to the benefit of 'higher-order central places' like Argentomagus near present day Argenton-sur-Creuse. Crucially, under the Romans the process of differentiation or status ranking had begun (Woolf, 2003:131-132).

Besancon study

Another case study in 1992 at Besancon (Vesontio), the capital of the Sequani tribe, saw 20,000 cubic metres of earth excavated from a car park during a ‘rescue’ excavation. Some 837 objects were recovered excluding pottery, glass, coins and iron nails. Only 93 of these objects were dated to the 70 odd years before Roman conquest; the other 744 from two centuries of Roman Vesontio.

Besancon map

Although the late La Tene finds were not trivial such as fibulae, rings, bracelets, mirror and helmet fragments, it is the vast quantity and range of objects used by ordinary people in Roman Besancon that testifies to the ‘consumer revolution’ that occurred especially in the ‘formative’ Julio-Claudian era (Woolf, 2003: 172-173).

‘French Project’ Burgundy study

Another amasing case study was a historical ecology investigation by Carole Crumley, Scott Madry and William Marquardt of the University of North Carolina into the ‘Regional Dynamics’ of the Burgundy region in France. The first major project, 1975-1987, explored the historical ecology of Burgundy (France) from before the Roman conquest (Celtic Iron Age) to the present. The volume Regional Dynamics: Burgundian Landscapes in Historical Perspective (Academic Press, Inc., 1987) reported that work. ‘Historical ecology’ is the study of the "relationships among living organisms or between them and the physical environment." (Crumley 1996:1)

France map France Map

Professor Crumley’s current research in Burgundy (since 1991) traces changes in settlement and land use from Celtic times two thousand years ago to the present, paying particular attention to the cultural transmission of ecological values that have ensured the long term durability of today’s Burgundian landscape such as hedges, forests and home gardening practices. The La Tène Celts of Gaul and in particular, the Aedui tribe of this land, fare extremely well in comparison to the Romans’ detrimental impact on the environment. This change will be explored in more detail later in the Roman Gaul section.

All in all this ‘French Project’ study in Burgundy has gathered a massive amount of ‘multiscalar’ data analysis for both:

  • physical structures (e.g. routes of commerce and topographic reasons for oppida) and
  • socio-historical structures (e.g. patronage/clientage, kinship/alliance, political events) (Marquardt 1992:119)

Research used in this case study included a wide range of written evidence such as individuals’ journals and diaries, government records, old maps as well as natural sciences like palynology (pollen grain studies), paleoethnobotany (study of fossilized seeds and grain) and zooarchaeology (study of the relationships of humans to plants and animals in the past) and of course, geology. Radio carbon dating and dendrochronology were used to secure absolute dates. GPS and GIS computer systems were also used for data retrieval and analysis. Aerial photography (satellite and aircraft-based) was used too.

Some of the case study’s conclusions will be alluded to in this website:

Therefore, the case studies approach allows insights into inter-regional variations as well as allowing one more puzzle piece to be slotted into the ‘big picture’ of defining the Celts.

Today, this case studies approach has become common in France mainly due to lack of government funds for ‘research’ archaeology and the pace of commercial developments that need frantic ‘rescue’ archaeology largely paid for by the developers. Unfortunately, ‘rescue’ archaeology often does not allow for the full context of a site to be studied, it’s piecemeal but far better than nothing!

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