The Celtic Tribes of Britain

The Parisi

"Near which¹ on the Opportunum Sinus² are the Parisi
and the town Petuaria 20*40 56°40."

  1. i.e. the Brigantes tribe.
  2. Bridlington Bay, which formed the natural border to the east.

The Parisi tribe inhabited North Humberside and were surrounded to the north, west and south-west by the Brigantes and on the south by the Coritani. Rather more advanced than the former tribe, but culturally inferior to the latter.

Other passages in Ptolemy Book II Chapter 2 give the ancient names of other geographical features within the territories of the Parisi:

The Civitas Parisorum
The Principal Tribal Centre

Petvaria [Parisorvm] (Brough-on-Humber, Humberside)

The suspected cantonal capital and the only Πολις ascribed to the tribe by Ptolemy; its official status was only that of a vicus.

Other Places of Note


Industry in the canton is represented by potteries at Norton, Crambeck, East Knapton and Throlam. It has been suggested that Eburacum (York) was originally attributed to the Parisi, but became detached from Parisian rule by the establishment of the colonia.

The Tribal Territories

The Parisi Tribal Territories The burials of the Parisi were quite distinctive. Generally they were without grave-goods, but some have been found with swords or even chariots. A number of the richer graves are enclosed within small, rectangular earthworks. These burial practices are mirrored by the Gallic tribes of the Seine valley, but are very uncommon elsewhere in Britain.
Key to Map
Map compiled from Iron Age Communities in Britain, by Barry Cunliffe (Fig.15:2, p.290).

It is interesting to note that the Tribal capital name Petuaria (Brough-on-Humber), is derived from the Celtic 'petuario' meaning 'fourth', suggesting perhaps four regions within the tribal territory.

Compare modern Welsh pedwarydd, 'fourth'.

The Continental Parisii

The Parisii were a people of Celtic Gaul, who lived along the banks of the Sequana (Seine), and on an island in the river known as Lutetia; the island is nowadays famous as the site of the Notre Dame Cathedral in the centre of Paris, the capital city of modern France. Julius Caesar in his Gallic Wars, provides vital information on the political history of this continental Gallic tribe:

"... At the beginning of spring [52BC] a convention of Gaul was proclaimed, according to his [Caesar's] practice. The arrival of all except the Senones, Carnutes, and Treveri¹ made him think this exception the beginning of an armed rebellion: and to give the impression that he counted all else of secondary importance, he removed the convention to Lutetia, a town of the Parisii. (These were the next neighbours to the Senones, and in the previous generation had formed one state with them; but it was believed that they had held aloof from the present design.) ..." (Caesar De Bello Gallico vi.3)
  1. The former two were powerful Gallic tribes from the Pleine de la Beauce region of the middle Loire valley, centered around modern Orleans in France, while the latter were a Belgic tribe from the Ardennes area around modern Luxembourg; Caesar by this action interposed himself between the Gallic and Belgic tribes, thus preventing them from joining forces and posing a formidable threat.

The continental Parisii were not to take Caesar's bullying for long however, for they joined forces with their near neighbours the Suessiones and declared themselves against him in the general rising of Vercingatorix in 52BC. Caesar was thereupon forced to send his lieutenant Labienus with four legions to see to this northern threat, while he personally led his remaining six legions against Vercingatorix and the Arverni at Gergovia (La Gergovie) in southern France (vide Caesar G.W. vii.4, & 34 et seq.).

"While this was happening with Caesar, Labienus had left the draft of recruits newly arrived from Italy at Agedincum¹ to guard the baggage, and with four legions started for Lutetia, a town of the Parisii, situated on an island in the Sequana river [Seine]. ..." (Caesar De Bello Gallico vii.57)

Realising the formidable defences afforded Lutetia by the river, Labienus first turned his forces against the Suessiones, capturing their city of Metiosedum, which was likewise situated on an island in the Seine, though evidently less formidably defended. From this base the Roman tribune then led his army downstream along either bank of the river towards the Parisian capital. Hearing of the Roman's imminent approach off refugees from the recently sacked town, the citizens of Lutetia were compelled to abandon their city and set it afire before withdrawing into the nearby marshes.

Suffering defeat at the hands of Caesar's able lieutenant Labienus did little to subdue the spirit of the tribe, however, for when Vercingetorix called upon the peoples of Gaul to aid him during the siege of Alesia, the Parisii fielded eight thousands troops to answer the call (vide Caesar G.W. vii.75). The Gallic uprising of Vercingatorix was doomed to failure, and the Gallic leader was several years later led in Triumph through the streets of Rome and ceremonially strangled on the Capitol; of the continental Parisii, no further mention by Caesar is made.

Bibliographical Links

See: Peoples of Roman Britain : The Parisi by Herman Ramm (Duckworth, 1978);
The Geography of Claudius Ptolemaeus, trans. by E.L. Stevenson (Dover, New York, 1991);
Atlas of Great Britain by the Ordnance Survey (Country Life, 1982);
Historical Map and Guide: Roman Britain by the OS (4th Ed., 1990);