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The Helvetii were a Celtic tribe or, probably more accurately, a confederation of Celtic tribes. Although originating in what is now Germany, they occupied most of the Swiss plateau at the time of their contact with the Roman Republic in the 1st century BC. They feature prominently in Julius Caesar’s commentaries on the Gallic War.

According to Caesar, the Helvetians were divided into four subgroups, which he called pagi. While Caesar only names the Verbigeni (Bell.Gall. 1.27) and the Tigurini (1.12), Poseidonios mentions the Tigurini and the Toygenoi (Τωυγενοί). The latter may or may not be identical with the Teutones named by Livy. Ancient writers usually classify the Teutons as “Germanic” and the Helvetii as “Gallic”, but these ethnic attributions are debatable.

Etymology

The endonym Helvetii may be derived from the root elw that is seen in Welsh, meaning "gain" or "profit", and the Old Irish prefix il-, meaning "many" or "multiple". The name has also been interpreted as meaning "rich in land," from elu-, "numerous," and *etu-, "terrain, grassland."

The Neo-Latin name of Switzerlandmarker, Confoederatio Helvetica (shortened to Helvetia) is derived from the name of the Helvetii.

History

Earliest historical sources and settlement

The name of the Helvetians is first mentioned in a graffito on a vessel from Mantuamarker (ca. 300 BC). The inscription in Etruscan letters reads eluveitie, which has been interpreted as the Etruscan form of the Celtic (h)elvetios (“the Helvetian”), presumably referring to a man of Helvetian descent living in Mantua.

In his Natural History (ca. 77 AD), Pliny provides a foundation myth for the Celtic settlement of Cisalpine Gaul in which a Helvetian named Helico plays the role of culture hero. Helico had worked in Rome as a craftsman and then returned to his home north of the Alps with a dried fig, a grape, and some oil and wine, the desirability of which caused his countrymen to invade northern Italymarker.

The Greek historian Poseidonios (ca. 135–50 BC), whose work is preserved only in fragments by other writers, offers the earliest historical record of the Helvetii. Poseidonios described the Helvetians of the late 2nd century BC as “rich in gold but peaceful”, without giving clear indication to the location of their territory. His reference to gold washing in rivers has been taken as evidence for an early presence of the Helvetii in the Swiss plateau, with the Emmemarker as being one of the gold-yielding rivers mentioned by Poseidonios. This interpretation is now generally discarded, as Poseidonios’ narrative makes it more likely that the country some of the Helvetians left in order to join in the raids of the Teutones, Cimbri, and Ambrones was in fact southern Germanymarker and not Switzerlandmarker.

That the Helvetians originally lived in southern Germany is confirmed by the Alexandrianmarker geographer Claudius Ptolemaios (ca. 90–168 AD), who tells us of an Ελουητίον έρημος (i.e. “Helvetic deserted lands”) north of the Rhinemarker. Tacitus knows that the Helvetians once settled in the swath between Rhinemarker, Mainmarker, and the Hercynian forest. The abandonment of this northern territory is now usually placed in the late 2nd c. BC, around the time of the first Germanic incursions into the Roman world, when the Tigurini and Toygenoi/Toutonoi are mentioned as participants in the great raids.

First contact with the Romans

The Germanic tribes of the Cimbri and Ambrones probably reached southern Germany around the year 111 BC, where they were joined by the Tigurini, and, probably the Teutoni-Toutonoi-Toygenoi. (The precise identity of this tribal group has to be left open here.) The tribes began a joint invasion of Gaul, including the Roman Provincia Narbonensis, which led to the Tigurini’s victory over a Roman army under L. Cassius Longinus near Agendicummarker in 107 BC, in which the consul was killed. According to Caesar, the captured Roman soldiers were ordered to pass through under a yoke set up by the triumphant Gauls, a dishonour that called for both public as well as private vengeance. Caesar is the only narrative source for this episode, as the corresponding books of Livy’s histories are only preserved in the Periochae, short summarising lists of contents, in which hostages given by the Romans, but no yoke, are mentioned. In 105 BC, the allies annihilated another Roman army near Arausiomarker, and went on to harry Spain, Gaul, Noricum, and northern Italy. They split up in two groups in 103 BC, with the Teutones and Ambrones marching on a western route through the Provincia and the Cimbri and Tigurini crossing the eastern Alps (probably by the Brenner passmarker). While the Teutones and Ambrones were slaughtered in 102 BC by Gaius Marius, the Cimbri and the Tigurini wintered in the Padan plain. The following year, Marius virtually destroyed the Cimbri in the battle of Vercellae. The Tigurini, who had planned on following the Cimbri, turned back over the Alps with their booty and joined those of the Helvetians who had not participated in the raids.

Caesar and the Helvetii campaign of 58 BC

Caesar narrates the confrontation with the Helvetii in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico, Book 1, Chapters 2-29. Use of this text as an historical document must take into account Caesar's purpose in publicizing his own achievements, which is likely to distort the significance of events and the motives of those who participated.

In the first book of the Commentaries, the nobleman Orgetorix is presented as the leader of a new Helvetian migration, in which the entire tribe was to leave their territory (which is now described as corresponding more or less to the Swiss plateau) and to establish a supremacy over all of Gaul. This exodus was meticulously planned over three years, in the course of which, Orgetorix approached two noblemen from neighbouring tribes, Casticus of the Sequani and Dumnorix of the Aedui. This eventually led to his demise, as he was accused of conspiring with Casticus and Dumnorix to seize the kingship, a crime punishable by death among certain tribes. Though Orgetorix managed to avoid a verdict by assembling a total of ten thousand followers and bondsmen at the court, he was later on persecuted by the Helvetian magistrates and died under unexplained circumstances.

Nevertheless, the Helvetii left their homes in 58 BC, burning twelve oppida, four-hundred villages and their farmsteads (an early instance of scorched earth tactics). They were joined by a number of tribal groups from neighbouring regions: the Rauracimarker (at the Rhine knee), the Latobrigi (perhaps around Lake Constancemarker), the Tulingi (of unknown origin, maybe even a Germanic tribe), and a group of Boii, who had besieged Noreia. According to Caesar, these peoples abandoned their homes completely, not leaving anyone behind, with the intention of settling among the Santoni (the modern Saintonge, roughly between Poitiersmarker and Bordeauxmarker).

When they reached the boundaries of the Allobroges, the northernmost tribe of the Provincia Narbonensis, they found that Caesar had already dismantled the bridge of Genevamarker to stop their advance. The Helvetians sent “the most illustrious men of their state” to negotiate, promising a peaceful passage through the Provincia. Caesar stalled them by asking for some time for consideration, which he used to assemble reinforcements and to fortify the southern banks of the Rhône. When the embassy returned on the agreed-upon date, he was strong enough to bluntly reject their offer. The Helvetii now chose the more difficult northern route through the Sequani territory, which traversed the Jura Mountains, but bypassed the Provincia. After ravaging the lands of the Aedui tribe, who called upon Caesar to help them, they began the crossing of the Saône, which took them several days. As only a quarter of their forces were left on the eastern banks, Caesar attacked and routed them. According to Caesar, those killed had been the Tigurini, on whom he had now taken revenge in the name of the Republic and his family. After the battle, the Romans quickly bridged the river, thereby prompting the Helvetii to once again send an embassy, this time led by Divico, another figure whom Caesar links to the ignominious defeat of 107 BC by calling him bello Cassio dux Helvetiorum (i.e. “leader of the Helvetii in the Cassian campaign”). What Divico had to offer was almost a surrender, namely to have the Helvetii settle wherever Caesar wished them to, although it was combined with the threat of an open battle if Caesar should refuse. Caesar demanded hostages to be given to him and reparations to the Aedui and Allobroges. Divico responded by saying that “they were accustomed to receive, not to give hostages; a fact the Roman people could testify to“, this once again being an allusion to the giving of hostages by the defeated Romans at Agenmarker.

In the cavalry battle that followed, the Helvetii prevailed over Caesar’s Aedui allies under Dumnorix’ command, and continued their journey, while Caesar’s army was being detained by delays in his grain supplies, caused by the Aedui on the instigations of Dumnorix, who had married Orgetorix’ daughter. A few days later, however, near the Aeduan oppidum Bibractemarker, Caesar caught up with the Helvetii and faced them in a major battle, which ended in the Helvetii’s retreat and the capture of most of their baggage by the Romans.

Leaving the largest part of their supplies behind, the Helvetii covered around 60 km in four days, eventually reaching the lands of the Lingones (the modern Langresmarker plateau). Caesar did not pursue them until three days after the battle, while still sending messengers to the Lingones warning them not to assist the Helvetii in any way. The Helvetii then offered their immediate surrender and agreed both to providing hostages and to giving up their weapons the next day. In the course of the night, 6000 of the Verbigeni fled from the camp out of fear of being massacred once they were defenceless. Caesar sent riders after them and ordered those who were brought back to be “counted as enemies”, which probably meant being sold into slavery.

In order for them to defend the Rhine frontier against the Germans, he then allowed the Helvetii, Tulingi and Latobrigi to return to their territories and to rebuild their homes, instructing the Allobroges to supply them with a sufficient supply of grain. The Aedui were granted their wish that the Boii who had accompanied the Helvetii would settle on their own territory as allies. The nature of Caesar’s arrangement with the Helvetii and the other tribes is not further specified by the consul himself, but in his speech Balbo of 56 BC, Cicero mentions the Helvetii as one among several tribes of foederati, i.e. allied nations who were neither citizens of the Republic nor her subjects, but obliged by treaty to support the Romans with a certain number of fighting men.

According to the victor, tablets with lists in Greek characters were found at the Helvetian camp, listing in detail all men able to bear arms with their names and giving a total number for the women, children and elderly who accompanied them. The numbers added up to a total of 263,000 Helvetii, 36,000 Tulingi, 14,000 Latobrigi, 23,000 Rauracimarker, and 32,000 Boii, all in all 368,000 heads, 92,000 of whom were warriors. A census of those who had returned to their homes listed 110,000 survivors, which meant that only about 30 percent of the emigrants had survived the war.

Caesars report has been partly confirmed by excavations near Geneva and Bibractemarker. However, much of his account has not yet been corrobated by archaeology, whilst his narrative must in wide parts be considered as biased and, in some points, unlikely. For a start, only one out of the fifteen Celtic oppida in the Helvetii territory so far has yielded evidence for destruction by fire. Many other sites, for example the sanctuary at Mormont, do not exhibit any signs of damage for the period in question, and Celtic life continued seemingly undisturbed for the rest of the 1st century BC up to the beginning of the Roman era, with an accent rather on an increase in prosperity than on a “Helvetic twilight”. With the honourable status as foederati taken into account, it is hard to believe that the Helvetii ever sustained casualties quite as heavy as those given by the Roman military leader.

In general, numbers written down by ancient military authors have to be taken as gross exaggerations. What Caesar claims to have been 368,000 people is estimated by other sources to be rather around 300,000 (Plutarch), or 200,000 (Appian); in the light of a critical analysis, even these numbers seem far too high. Furger-Gunti considers an army of more than 60,000 fighting men extremely unlikely in the view of the tactics described, and assumes the actual numbers to have been around 40,000 warriors out of a total of 160,000 emigrants. Delbrück suggests an even lower number of 100,000 people, out of which only 16,000 were fighters, which would make the Celtic force about half the size of the Roman body of ca. 30,000 men. The real numbers will never be determined exactly. Caesar’s specifications can at least be doubted by looking at the size of the baggage train that an exodus of 368,000 people would have required: Even for the reduced numbers that Furger-Gunti uses for his calculations, the baggage train would have stretched for at least 40 km, perhaps even as far as 100 km.

In spite of the now much more balanced numerical weight we have to assume for the two opposing armies, the battle seems far less glorious a victory than Caesar presented it to be. The main body of the Helvetii withdrew from the battle at nightfall, abandoning, as it seemed, most of their wagons, which they had drawn up into a wagenburg; they retreated northwards in a forced night march and reached the territory of the Lingones four days after the battle. What Caesar implies to have been a desperate flight without stopping could actually have been an ordered retreat of moderate speed, covering less than 40 km a day. Caesar himself does not appear as a triumphant victor in turn, being unable to pursue the Helvetii for three days, “both on account of the wounds of the soldiers and the burial of the slain“. However, it is clear that Caesar’s warning to the Lingones not to supply his enemies was quite enough to make the Helvetii leaders once again offer peace. On what terms this peace was made is debatable, but as said before, the conclusion of a foedus casts some doubt on the totality of the defeat.

As Caesar’s account is heavily influenced by his political agenda, it is difficult to determine the actual motive of the Helvetii movement of 58 BC. One might see the movement in the light of a Celtic retreat from areas which were later to become Germanic; it can be debated whether they ever had plans to settle in the Saintonge, as Caesar claims (Bell. Gall. 1,10.). It was certainly in the latter’s personal interest to emphasise any kind of parallel between the traumatic experience of the Cimbrian and Teutonic incursions and the alleged threat that the Helvetii were to the Roman world. The Tigurini’s part in the destruction of L. Cassius Longinus and his army was a welcome pretext to engage in an offensive war in Gaul whose proceeds permitted Caesar not only to fulfil his obligations to the numerous creditors he owed money to, but also to further strengthen his position within the late Republic. In this sense, even the character of Divico, who makes his appearance in the Commentarii half a century after his victory over L. Cassius Longinus, seems more like another hackneyed argument stressing Caesar’s justification to attack, than like an actual historical figure. That the victor of Agenmarker was still alive in 58 BC or, if yes, that he was physically still capable of undertaking such a journey at all, seems more than doubtful. Nevertheless, Divico became somewhat of a hero within the Swiss national feeling of the 19th century and in the course of the “Geistige Landesverteidigung”[1766] of the 20th century.

The Helvetii as Roman subjects

The Helvetii and Rauracimarker most likely lost their status as foederati only six years after the battle of Bibracte, when they supported Vercingetorix in 52 BC with 8,000 and 2,000 men, respectively. Sometime between 50 and 45 BC, the Romans founded the Colonia Iulia Equestris at the site of the Helvetian settlement Noviodunum (modern Nyonmarker), and around 44 BC on Rauracan territory, the Colonia Rauricamarker. These colonies were probably established as a means of controlling the two most important military access routes between the Helvetian territory and the rest of Gaul, blocking the passage through the Rhône valley and Sundgau.

In the course of Augustus’ reign, Roman dominance became more concrete. Some of the traditional Celtic oppida were now used as legionary garrisons, such as Vindonissamarker or Basileamarker (modern Baselmarker); others were relocated, such as the hill-fort on the Bois de Châtel, whose inhabitants founded the new “capital” of the civitas at nearby Aventicummarker. First incorporated into the Roman province of Gallia Belgica, later into the Germania Superior and finally into the Diocletian province of Maxima Sequanorum, the former territories of the Helvetii and their inhabitants were as thoroughly romanised as the rest of Gaul.

The rising of 68/69 AD

What seems to have been the last action of the Helvetii as a tribal entity happened shortly after the death of emperor Nero in 68 AD. Like the other Gallic tribes, the Helvetii were organised as a civitas; they even retained their traditional grouping into four pagi and enjoyed a certain inner autonomy, including the defence of certain strongholds by their own troops. In the civil war which followed Nero’s death, the civitas Helvetiorum supported Galba; unaware of his death, they refused to accept the authority of his rival, Vitellius. The Legio XXI Rapax, stationed in Vindonissamarker and favouring Vitellius, stole the pay of a Helvetian garrison, which prompted the Helvetians to intercept Vitellian messengers and detain a Roman detachment. Aulus Caecina Alienus, a former supporter of Galba who was now at the head of a Vitellian invasion of Italy, launched a massive punitive campaign, crushing the Helvetii under their commander Claudius Severus and routing the remnants of their forces at Mount Vocetiusmarker, killing and enslaving thousands. The capital Aventicummarker surrendered, and Julius Alpinus, head of what was now seen as a Helvetian uprising, was executed. In spite of the extensive damage and devastations the civitas had already sustained, according to Tacitus the Helvetii were only saved from total annihilation owing to the pleas of one Claudius Cossus, a Helvetian envoy to Vitellius, and, as Tacitus puts it, “of well-known eloquence”.

Confirmed and assumed Celtic Oppida in Switzerland

The distribution of La Tène culturemarker burials in Switzerland indicates that the Swiss plateau between Lausannemarker and Winterthurmarker was relatively densely populated. Settlement centres existed in the Aaremarker valley between Thunmarker and Bernmarker, and between Lake Zurichmarker and the river Reuss. The Valaismarker and the regions around Bellinzonamarker and Luganomarker also seem to have been well-populated; however, those lay outside the Helvetian borders.

Almost all the Celtic oppida were built in the vicinity of the larger rivers of the Swiss midlands. Not all of them existed at the same time. For most of them, we do not have any idea as to what their Celtic names might have been, with one or two possible exceptions. Where a pre-Roman name is preserved, it is added in brackets.

Notes

  1. There might have been an error in transmission which transformed the Τουτονοί into Τουγενοί, thus leading to the traditional Strabonic form Τωυγενοί; see Staehelin, 1948, S. 59; Strabo 4.1.8, 7.2.2.
  2. For an example of a modern approach to the difficult question of ethnic distinctions between Celtic and Germanic, see: Ludwig Rübekeil, Diachrone Studien zur Kontaktzone zwischen Kelten und Germanen, Vienna 2002.
  3. Xavier Delamarre, Dictionnaire de la langue gauloise (Éditions Errance, 2003), pp. 162 and 168.
  4. Reproduction in R.C. De Marinis, Gli Etruschi a Nord del Po, Mantova, 1986.
  5. Pliny the Elder, Historia naturalis 12.2.
  6. Strabon 7.2.2.
  7. SPM IV Eisenzeit, Basel 1999, p. 31f.
  8. Ptol. 2.11.6.
  9. Germ. 28.2.
  10. Poseidonios saw the Toutonoi/Teutoni as a subgroup of the Helvetii. Cf. Furger-Gunti, p. 76f.
  11. Bell.Gall. 1.12.
  12. L. Cassius cos. a Tigurinis Gallis, pago Heluetiorum, qui a ciuitate secesserant, in finibus Nitiobrogum cum exercitu caesus est. / Milites, qui ex ea caede superauerant, obsidibus datis et dimidia rerum omnium parte, ut incolumes dimitterentur, cum hostibus pacti sunt. (Periochae LXV)
  13. See the various essays of Julius Caesar as Artful Reporter: The War Commentaries as Political Instrument, edited by Kathryn Welch and Anton Powell (Classical Press of Wales, 1998).
  14. Cf. Bell.Gall. 7.4.
  15. They might be attested at Bregenz (CIL 3,13542). Cf. SPM IV, 37.
  16. Ethnonyms on -ing- are not found among Celtic tribes, but they do occur in the names of Germanic peoples such as the Silingi
  17. Is pagus appellabatur Tigurinus; nam omnis civitas Helvetia in quattuor pagos divisa est. Hic pagus unus, cum domo exisset, patrum nostrorum memoria L. Cassium consulem interfecerat et eius exercitum sub iugum miserat. Ita sive casu sive consilio deorum immortalium quae pars civitatis Helvetiae insignem calamitatem populo Romano intulerat, ea princeps poenam persolvit. Qua in re Caesar non solum publicas, sed etiam privatas iniurias ultus est, quod eius soceri L. Pisonis avum, L. Pisonem legatum, Tigurini eodem proelio quo Cassium interfecerant. Bell. Gall. 1.12.
  18. Bell. Gall. 1.14.
  19. Cic. Balb. 32.
  20. Bell. Gall. 1.29.
  21. Furger-Gunti, 118ff.
  22. Cf. G Walser, Caesar und die Germanen. Studien zur polit. Tendenz römischer Feldzubgerichte.” Historia, Einzelschrifen, Vol. 1, 1956.
  23. To illustrate this staple of exaggeration with an example, one can take a look at the numbers given for the forces of two Valaisan tribes as a basis for calculation. Caesar tells us (Bell. Gall. 3.1-6.) that his legate Galba was attacked by an army of 30,000 men of the Veragri and the Seduni, who lived around their capitals Octodurus and modern Sierre. Geiser (Un monnayage celtique en Valais. Schweizerische numismatische Rundschau 63, p. 55-125, 1984) has been able to determine the extent of the former tribe’s territory, and it will be safe to assume that the Veragri and Seduni together occupied about half the cultivated land of the Valais, with the Nantuates and Ubii inhabiting the other half. As commonly done for Celtic nations, in order to arrive at the total number of people, we multiply the number of fighting men by four, thus arriving at a total population of 120,000 for the two tribes combined. By adding an equal number of people for the two other tribes, one arrives at a total of 240,000 inhabitants for the Valais valley in the 1st century BC. In contrast, the modern-day Swiss canton has only 278,000 inhabitants, including the urban settlements.
  24. Furger-Gunti, 102.
  25. H. Delbrück Geschichte der Kriegskunst im Rahmen der politischen Geschichte, Vol. 1, 1900, pp. 428 and 459f.
  26. Furger-Gunti, 104.
  27. Furger-Gunti (p. 116) allows only 60 km for the distance between Bibracte and the fines Lingonum, while Langres and Autun are in fact separated by more than twice this distance. For the average speed of pre-motorised travel, cf. Norbert Ohler Reisen im Mittelalter, p. 141.
  28. Cf. Birkhan, 243f.
  29. CIL 13,5076 names the Tigurini as one of these pagi.
  30. Tacitus Hist. 1.67-69.
  31. Cf. Furger-Gunti 1984, S. 50–58.
  32. Bern, Engehalbinsel, Römerbad


Literature

  • Andres Furger-Gunti: Die Helvetier: Kulturgeschichte eines Keltenvolkes. Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Zürich 1984. ISBN 3-85823-071-5
  • Alexander Held: Die Helvetier. Verlag Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Zürich 1984.
  • Felix Müller / Geneviève Lüscher: Die Kelten in der Schweiz. Theiss, Stuttgart 2004. ISBN 3-8062-1759-9.
  • Felix Staehelin: Die Schweiz in Römischer Zeit. 3., neu bearb. und erw. Aufl. Schwabe, Basel 1948
  • Gerold Walser: Bellum Helveticum: Studien zum Beginn der Caesarischen Eroberung von Gallien. (Historia. Einzelschriften 118). Steiner, Stuttgart 1998. ISBN 3-515-07248-9
  • SPM IV Eisenzeit - Age du Fer - Età del Ferro, Basel 1999. ISBN 3-908006-53-8.


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