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The Belgae were a group of tribes living in northern Gaul, on the west bank of the Rhinemarker, in the 3rd century BC, and later also in Britain. They gave their name to the Roman province of Gallia Belgica, and later, to the modern country of Belgiummarker.

Origins of the Belgae

Julius Caesar describes Gaul at the time of his conquests (58 - 51 BC) as divided into three parts, inhabited by the Aquitani, Galli (who in their own language were called Celtae) and Belgae, all of whom had their own customs, laws and language. He noted that the Belgae, being farthest from the developed civilization of Rome and closest to the Germanic people, were the bravest of the three groups, because "merchants least frequently resort to them, and import those things which tend to effeminate the mind".

Whether the Belgae were of Celtic or Germanic origin, or a combination of both, is unclear. Caesar's sources informed him "that the greater part of the Belgae were sprung from the Germanic peoples, and that, having crossed the Rhine at an early period, they had settled there, on account of the fertility of the country". He also says that the Germanic people who lived to the west of the Rhine were allied to the Belgae, and describes four of the tribes who made up the Belgic alliance, the Eburones, Condrusi, Caerosi and Paemani, as Germanic. The later historian Tacitus records that the Nervii and Treveri were also eager to claim Germanic rather than Gaulish origin. On the other hand, most of the Belgic tribal and personal names recorded are identifiably Gaulish, including that of Ambiorix, a leader of the Eburones, one of the tribes named as Germanic. , even though Strabo mentions their presence (Belgae) up to the Loiremarker. The Romans were not precise in their ethnography of northern barbarians: by "Germanic" Caesar may simply have meant "originating east of the Rhine" (Germani cisrhenani), with no distinction of language intended. It seems that, whatever their Germanic ancestry, at least some of the Belgic tribes spoke a variety of the Gaulish language by Caesar's time . It is possible that the Germanic-Gaulish language border crossed through Belgium then about as the Dutch-French language border does today.

The medieval Gesta Treverorum compiled by monks of Triermarker claims that the Belgae were descendants of Trebata, an otherwise unattested legendary founder of Trier, the Roman Augusta Treverorum, "Augusta of the Treveri".
Map of northeastern Gaul around 70 CE.

Tribes of the Belgae

Caesar names the following as Belgic tribes:

The later mentioned Tungri could simply be another name for the Eburones, as Caesar had officially wiped out this tribe. Other tribes that may have been included among the Belgae were the Leuci, Treveri and Mediomatrici. Posidonius includes the Armoricani 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; to counter 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 Aisnemarker behind, near Bibrax (between modern Laonmarker and Reimsmarker) 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. Caesar's informants advised him that whichever tribe Caesar attacked first, the others would come to their 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 (Soissonsmarker). 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 Amiensmarker and Beauvaismarker). 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 Sabis, previously thought to be the Sambremarker, recently the Sellemarker is thought to be more probable . 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 annihilated in the battle, and is effusive in his tribute to their bravery, calling them "heroes" (for more details see Battle of the Sabis).

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 Morini, 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 the emperor Augustus 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 Constancemarker (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, Triermarker) and Belgica Secunda (capital Reimsmarker) formed part of the diocese of Gaul.

Belgae outside Gaul

The Belgae had made their way across the English Channelmarker into southern Britain in Caesar's time. Caesar tells us they had first crossed the channel as raiders, only later settling on the island. Their territory was bordered to the north by the Atrebates, and Dobunni; to the west by the Durotriges; and to the east by the Regnenses.

A large number of coins of the Ambiani dating to the mid-2nd century BC have been found in southern Britain and the remains of a possible Belgic fort have been unearthed in Kent. Within memory of Caesar's time, a king of the Suessiones (also referred to as Suaeuconi) 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, some of the tribes of south-eastern Britain were Belgic or were 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 (Portsmouthmarker) and Venta Belgarum (Winchestermarker).

T.F. O'Rahilly suggests that a branch of the Belgae also settled in Irelandmarker, represented by the historical Builg and the mythological Fir Bolg.


The name Belgae may come from the Proto-Celtic *belo which means "bright" and is allied to English word " Bale" (as in "bale-fire") and it's Old English ancestor bael (from the Proto-Germanic *bālo), the Lithuanian baltas, meaning "white" or "shining" (from which the Baltic takes its name) and Slavic belo/bilo/bjelo/... meaning "white" (which gives town names like Beograd, Biograd, Bjelovar, etc. all meaning "white city") (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.

Another proposed etymology of the name Belga(e) is: *bel = proto-Indo-European word for round, inflated object (compare 'ball'), in the figurative sense: "circle, army, alliance", and -*ga, a Gaulish word for "man, warrior". Bel-gae would then mean "men of the alliance". The origin of the word would then be Gaulish. This meaning would match the description of Caesar.

According to T.F. O'Rahilly, the name Belgae derives from an Indo-European root bhel, meaning "flash", with bheleg meaning lightning. This suggests that the Belgae were originally named 'descendants of the lightning god'.

See also


  1. Julius Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Gallico, 1.1
  2. Julius Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Gallico 2.4
  3. Julius Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Gallico 2.3
  4. Tacitus, Germania 28
  5. Koch, J.T. Celtic Culture: A historical encyclopedia (2006) ISBN 1-85109-440-7
  6. Julius Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Gallico 2.4, 5.2
  7. Earthworks discovered at Sharsted Court near Newnham were of possible Belgic origin. See
  8. Sheppard Frere, Britannia: a History of Roman Britain, third edition, Pimlico, 1987; John Creighton, Coins and power in Late Iron Age Britain, Cambridge University Press, 2000
  9. T. F. O'Rahilly (1946), Early Irish History and Mythology (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies), 1946

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