The Celtic Tribes of Britain

The Belgae

"Below the Dobuni are the Belgae and the towns:
Iscalis 16*00 53°40
Aquae Calidae 17*20 53°40
Venta 18*40 53°00 ..."

The late-2nd century geographer Claudius Ptolemaeus placed this tribe between the Dobunni to the north, the Dumnonii to the south and the Atrebates to the east. The tribe is thought to have inhabited territories centred on the modern counties of Hampshire, Somerset and Avon.

The Civitas Belgarum
The Principal Tribal Centre

Venta Belgarvm (Winchester, Hampshire)

The cantonal capital of the Belgae was one of the three πολεις attributed to the tribe by Ptolemy but was given no special attributation, indeed, Venta is listed last among the trio (vide supra).

Principal Tribal Sites
Identified by Ptolemy

IscalisThe identification of this πολις remains uncertain, but Ptolemy places it at the mouth of the River Axe near Bawdrip in Somerset.
Aqvae CalidaeTranslated literally as 'The Hot Waters', this town is easily identified as Aquae Sulis (Bath, Avon) which, according to the historian A.L.F. Rivet, was "The most sophisticated town in Roman Britain."
Venta (Belgarvm)(Winchester, Hampshire; see above)

Other Notable Settlements

Aside from the three towns attributed to the tribe by Ptolemy (see above), there are a number of smaller settlements in the territories of the Belgae whose names are known from the ancient geographical sources:

Clavsentvm(Bitterne, Hampshire) A fourth-century fortified port on Southhampton Water, serving Winchester.
Onna(Nursling?, Hampshire) A small settlement on the River Test, north-west of Southhampton.
Abona(Sea Mills, Avon) A port on the Severn Estuary serving Bath.
Verlvcio(Sandy Lane, Wiltshire) A minor settlement between Bath and Mildenhall; possibly the administrative centre of the nearby ironstone workings.
Sorviodvnvm(Old Sarum, nr. Salisbury, Wiltshire) An Iron-Age hillfort of the tribe re-used as a posting station by the Romans.

Unidentified Road Stations

Brige(nr. Broughton, Hampshire) - Antonine posting station on the road from Winchester to Old Sarum.
Vindomis(nr. Andover, Hampshire) - Unidentified Antonine road station between the two tribal capitals of Silchester and Winchester.
Iscalis(somewhere in Avon) - Ptolemy places this town in the Avon area, but it has not yet been identified.

Industrial Settlements

Several other Romano-British settlements have been identified by thier archaeological remains, many of which are associated with nearby Romano-British industries. A pottery industry flourished in the New Forest and Villas were numerous around Winchester and Andover, also on Vectis Insvla (the Isle of Wight), which was subdued by Vespasian c.AD44.

Small settlement on the Fosse Way south of Bath, with a flourishing pewter industry.
Shepton Mallet
A minor settlement with several potteries on the Fosse Way near the border with the Durotriges.
Charterhouse on Mendip
Small settlement serving the Lead/Silver mines nearby, which were operated under control of the Roman military.
Nettleton Shrub
A rural temple and settlement on the Fosse Way possibly marks the frontier with the Dobunni.
Pagan's Hill
(Chew Stoke, Avon)
Probable rural temple.

Caesar's Belgae

The Belgae were a warlike people of ancient Northern Gaul, separated from the Celtae of Gallia Lugdunensis by the rivers Matrona (Marne) and Sequana (Seine). According to Strabo the country of the Belgae extended from the Rhenus (Rhine) to the Liger (Loire). In the opening passage of Caesar's Gallic Wars, the Belgae are described as forming "a third part of Gaul". Belgica was one of the four provinces of Gaul near the Rhine, delineated by Augustus. The British Belgae no doubt descended from a Belgic colony.

"Gaul is a whole divided into three parts, one of which is inhabited by the Belgae, another by the Aquitani, and a third by a people called in their own tongue Celtae, in the Latin Galli. ... The Galli (Gauls) are separated from the Aquitani by the river Garumna (Garonne), from the Belgae by the Matrona (Marne) and the Sequana (Seine). Of all these peoples the Belgae are the most courageous, because they are the most removed from the culture and the civilization of the Province¹, and least often visited by merchants introducing the commodities that make for effeminacy: and also because they are nearest to the Germans dwelling beyond the Rhenus (Rhine), with whom they are continually at war. ... The Belgae, beginning from the edge of the Gallic territory, reach to the lower part of the Rhenus, bearing towards the north and east. ..." (Caesar De Bello Gallico i.1 et seq.)
  1. The Roman province of Gallia Narbonensis, formed c.121BC.

Caesar later tells us:

"The inland part of Britain is inhabited by tribes declared in their own tradition to be indigenous to the island, the maritime part by tribes that migrated at an earlier time from Belgium to seek booty by invasion. ..." (Caesar De Bello Gallico v.12)

Cassius Dio also confirms the assertions of Caesar:

"... The Belgae, who dwelt near the Rhine in many mixed tribes and extended even to the ocean opposite Britain, ... devised plans against the Romans and formed a league, placing Galba at their head. [57BC]" (Dio ΙΣΤΟΡΙΑ XXXIX.i.1-2)

The Belgic Provinces

The codes within brackets above refer to the maps and grid-references in Atlas of the Greek and Roman World in Antiquity by Nicholas G.L. Hammond.

The Continental Connection

The continental Belgae were a people, not a single tribe, but an amalgamation of several large tribal septs, whose major constituents were:

The Belgic Tribes of Britain

The Atrebates

This tribe formed a British colonial state of their own, and they are dealt with in more detail in the RBO WebPage on the Atrebates.

The Ambiani

The Ambiani were probably responsible for the coins known nowadays as Gallo-Belgic A, in circulation around the middle of the second century BC, which are found in the Somme valley in northern France, and in parts of southern Britain.

An inordinate amount of coinage identified with this tribe has been found in southern Britain, more than can be explained by simple trading with the continental Ambiani. It is faily certain from the amount of coinage found, that the coins of the Ambiani were in common use in parts of Britain, and on this basis, it seems probable that the Ambiani themselves occupied the land in which their coins circulated.

The Suessiones

We are told by Caesar himself:

"... Among them [the Suessiones], even within living memory, Diviciacus had been king, the most powerful man in the whole of Gaul, who had exercised sovereignty alike over a great part of these districts, and even over Britain. ..." (Caesar De Bello Gallico ii.4)

The coins now known as Gallo-Belgic C, issued between c.90 and 60BC, have been tentatively identified with King Diviciacus of the Suessiones. This coin is less common in Britain than previous issues, but has a wider distribution, from the coast of Sussex to the Wash, with finds being concentrated around Kent.

The uninscribed coins known as Gallo-Belgic F, which were issued between 60 and 50 BC, have a marked concentration of finds to the east of Paris, in the lands of the Suessiones, and are also found in many coastal areas of southern Britain. This coinage issue was the first to bear the design of a triple-tailed horse on the reverse, which became the standard motif of many issues in southern Britain over the next few decades. This has led scholars to believe that the Suessiones represented a considerable proportion of the Belgic peoples which had migrated to Britain during the second and first centuries BC.

The Armorican States

These were the tribes of north-western Gaul, now the French province of Normandy. Caesar lists the names of several of the major tribes from the region:

"... the states touching the Ocean, called by them the Armoric, among whom are the Curiosolites, Redones, Ambibarii, Caletes, Osismi, Veneti, Lemovices and Venelli. ..." (Caesar De Bello Gallico vii.75)

Of one of these tribes in particular, we were earlier told by Caesar:

"These Veneti exercise by far the most extensive authority over all the sea-coast in those districts, for they have numerous ships, in which it is their custom to sail to Britain, and they excell the rest in the theory and practice of navigation. ..." (Caesar De Bello Gallico iii.8)

The Veneti incurred the wrath of Caesar in 56 BC when they detained two of his tribunes, in order to exchange them for their own hostages thet they themselves had earlier surrendered to Caesar's legate Publius Crassus. Caesar's response was typical when faced with treachery of this kind, he personally conducted a campaign against the Veneti, destroyed all of their ships, razed all of their towns and, in order to discourage any future attempts to detain his tribunes, made an example of the tribe.

"... He therefore put the whole of their senate to the sword, and sold the rest of the men as slaves." (Caesar De Bello Gallico iii.17)

In view of their extensive trade with the island, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the Veneti and perhaps other Armorican states, also had a number of colonies on the south coast of Britain. It must be pointed out that the Veneti were not a true Belgic tribe, being strictly-speaking of Gallic extraction.

The Morini

The Morini inhabited the lands nearest to Britain, it would be illogical to suppose that this tribe did not have colonies in the island, especially in Kent.