Belgae

Summary

The Belgians (in Latin Belgae, singular unusual Belga) are a group of ancient populations who occupied northern Gaul, between the English Channel and the left bank of the Rhine, north of the Seine, at least since the third century BC. They also colonized territories on the island of Brittany (or insular Brittany) and in Ireland. Under the Roman Empire, they gave their name to the province of Belgian Gaul, which partly overlapped their territory. The names Belgae (Belgians) and Belgica (Belgium) are used in medieval and modern Latin to designate the ancient Netherlands. Today, Belgians refer to the inhabitants of the independent Belgium since 1830.

The Belgian word would come from the Celtic *bhelgh “to inflate oneself, to be furious” (see the Gallic *bulga “leather bag” and the Old Irish bolg “bellows, belly”). It should be understood either as “the furious”, “the belligerent”, “the belligerent”, or as “the proud, the boastful, those who inflate themselves like a wineskin”. The Celtic *bhelgh derives from the Indo-European root *bhel- “to swell”, “to bulge” (Angl. bulge “hump” related to bubble). The Fir Bolg (or Fîr Bholg), in Irish Celtic mythology, are a people of warriors and craftsmen, third invaders of Ireland, whose name means “bag-men”. They are above all gifted in the arts of fire and blacksmithing.

There is another type of Indo-European roots *bh(e)legh “to shine, to inflame” or *bhel “shining, bright, white” which can explain the name of federations of peoples, named in classical Latin Belgae. The devotion linked to the god Bel or Belenos would seem to attest to this other etymology. Bavay, ancient capital of Celtic Belgium would have had in its center a statue devoted to the god Bel. The Belchen mountains in the Vosges and in the Black Forest, often placed under the patronage of the Celtic god Belenos, could be the place of attachment of the migrant ancestors. This organizing and unifying solar god, corresponding in the sky to the god of the people and of war on earth, as well as the massive and rounded peaks which, since the 18th century, have been called balloons in French, would have a common root with the ethnic or federative name. The Belgians were born on the banks of the Rhine, as their many legends remind us.

It should be noted that the term balkan or balkô is also a proto-Germanic word designating a ridge, a chain or an edge that was found in Norse balkr, Old High German balcho and Old English balca having produced balk (obstacle, hindrance, block) in modern English, all ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *bhelg. “Belgians” could therefore be an exonym of the Cisrhenian Germans for the Gauls inhabiting northern Transalpine Gaul.

Belges or Belgis is also the name still quoted in the Middle Ages by some chroniclers (ex: Jacques de Guyse) of a town in the province of Hainaut, which could have become Bavay according to most chroniclers of the time; Jacques de Guyse, after others, attributes to this city a foundation then considered as mythical by Bavo, prince of Phrygia and cousin of Priam who would have ended up in the territory of the old Belgian Gaul with a part of his army, after the Trojan war (episode quickly considered by many authors as a fable, which could for example have been copied by Lucius in the XIIIth century, perhaps in a Latin novel of the XIIth century).

Origins

For a long time the Belgae were considered as a Gallic people, or as a Germanic people dominated by a Gallic aristocracy (hypothesis suggested by the fact that the names of the Belgian chiefs are of Celtic origin, as well as the old toponyms and not Germanic). More precise analyses of the names of their tribes, their chiefs and their gods lead to these various hypotheses: certain tribes would be authentically Gallic (others would show Germanic characters (Nervii, Aduatuci, Condruses, Menapi, Treveri…) according to Caesar (De bello gallico ii 4) certain authors suggest a third group, with Italian affinities (Pémanes, Menapi…). In the 3rd century B.C., we can identify a series of coins of oriental origin characteristic of the Danube environment for the Celtic populations of the “Haine group” (metal coins discovered at Leval-Trahegnies and Solre-sur-Sambre). Recent genetic studies have focused on haplogroups R-P312-3

The first Celts

In 500 BC, inhabited by Celts, the province of Belgica was influenced by the La Tène period and traded with the Mediterranean world. The Ardennes was one of the new centers of Celtic civilization in the 5th century. During the La Tène period (450 B.C. C. until the Roman conquest), the territory of Celtic Europe expanded by diffusionism or migration towards the following regions British Isles (island Celts), half-western France (Gaulish-Transalpine and Aquitanians), Great South-Eastern France (Celto-Ligurians), Benelux (Belgians), southern Po Plain (Gaulish-Cisalpine), Iberian Peninsula (Celtiberians, Lusitanians and Gallaeci), Cimbrian Peninsula and Friesland, Pannonia (Scordians), Central Anatolia (Galatians of the Great Expedition). It is estimated that the Belgians, coming from the middle Rhine valley and the right bank north of the Main, arrived in northern Gaul around 300 B.C. There they supplanted the Gauls. In about 270 BC, in one of the largest battles in Celtic Gaul, the North Gallic Belgians or Cisrhenian Germans fought victoriously against the Armoricans or Belgian Gauls during the summer at the site of Ribemont-sur-Ancre. This has been deduced from the study of coins found on the site and from the study of pollens. The victorious northern Belgians became the Ambiens by mixing with the Gauls, some of whom were driven back to Armorica, between Lisieux and Le Mans. From the 2nd century BC, oppidums were founded: L”Étoile, La Chaussée-Tirancourt, Méricourt-sur-Somme, etc. The various tribes living on these territories at that time were the Eburons, the Aduatuques, the Rèmes, the Nerviens, the Véromanduens, the Suessions, the Menapiens, the Morins and the Trevires. Julius Caesar mentions that the Belgians resisted the incursions of the Cimbres at the end of the second century BC. The Aduatuques would be the remains of a group of 6000 Cimberian warriors and their families (about 15,000 people) who remained in northern Gaul after being defeated by the Roman army.

Caesar, in the Gallic War, describes the populations living in Gaul as follows:

“Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Belgae, aliam Aquitani, tertiam qui ipsorum lingua Celtae, nostra Galli appellantur. Hi omnes lingua, institutis, legibus inter se differunt. (The whole of Gaul is divided into three parts: the Belgae inhabit one, the Aquitanians the other and those who are called Celts in their own language and whom we call Gauls in ours occupy the third. These nations differ in language, institutions and laws).”

He goes on to say, in his famous “eulogy” of the Belgian people, that the Belgians are the bravest of these three peoples because they are the furthest from the culture and civilization of Rome. He also explains that the Belgians are descended from tribes that had crossed the Rhine long before. According to him, the Belgians had acquired a rough reputation by fighting the Germans. Modern archaeology, however, contradicts Caesar: the Belgians were by no means backward, they even introduced the first coins in (Great) Britain. And it is among the Trevians that the first known harvesting machine appears throughout history (pushed by an ox or a donkey, it is a box on wheels equipped with teeth at the front which tears off the ears of corn which fall into a box.

Location

Moreover, according to Strabo, their territories were located between the Rhine and the Loire and according to Julius Caesar they were separated from the Celts or Gauls by the Marne and the Seine, a somewhat arbitrary delimitation by Caesar since he knew very little about the peoples of northwestern Gaul, having mainly delegated his legates to subjugate the tribes of Armorica. Thus, the Belgian tribes of the Morins and Menapiens are allied with others of the littoral of which Osismes and Lexoviens at the time of the Roman maritime campaign against the Vénètes. Caesar also indicates that it would be Belgians who occupied at the time of the Gallic War the maritime territories of insular Brittany, what seems to confirm Dion Cassius by mentioning however: “Belgians, who lived near the Rhine in many mixed tribes and extended until the Ocean in front of (Great) Brittany”. Zosimus and Procopius make the Armoricans (Arboricans) the inhabitants of the Belgian territories whose neighbors were the Franks who regularly tried to wage war against them without success and thus ended up peacefully introducing themselves among them. It appears then that the denomination of the ”Belgians” will apply henceforth (towards 220 AD) only to the whole of the Germanic cisrhenians (this last attribute is moreover not mentioned any more) occupying the higher and lower Germanies and the Norman coasts (Saxon Coast) until the Atlantic (Ocean), what Eutrope also raises. A mention of Strabo (Geography book IV, 1) informs us that the Belgians and other peoples (Germans, Armoricans? ) occupied the maritime regions north of the Garonne: “Thus in principle, while the name of Aquitains applied to the people who occupy, with the northern part of the Pyrenees mount, all the slope of Cemmène (Massif Central) below the river Garounas and until the edges of the Ocean, the name of Celts indicated those which extend to the opposite, on one side, until the sea of Massalia and Narbonne, and, on the other, until the first slopes of the Alps, and the name of Belgians included, with the remainder of the people living along the Ocean until the mouths of the Rhine, a part of those which border the Rhine and the Alps.  “Some Belgians seem to have migrated then towards the Balkans: one reports them in Bulgaria in -298, they cross Illyria and attack Macedonia (-260) and are defeated by Attale Ier. Belgian elements are integrated thereafter with the Galatians.

Belgians from Brittany and Ireland

Some of the Belgae peoples began to migrate to the British Isles as early as 200 BC and settled there permanently. Caesar writes about Brittany: “The maritime part is occupied by peoples that the lure of booty and war have brought out of Belgium; they have almost all kept the names of the countries from which they originated, when, with arms in hand, they came to settle in Brittany, and cultivate the soil” (Gallic War, V, 12). The link will continue to exist between these “two” Belgae peoples: the chief Commios, fleeing the Romans, takes refuge in Brittany among the Breton Belgae. The Fir Bolg (or Fîr Bholg), in Irish Celtic mythology, are a people of warriors and craftsmen, having constituted the third wave of invaders of Ireland. The Marine Menapiens were traders. They have sometimes been called “Phoenicians of the North”. They also had a substantial fleet, using techniques equivalent to those of their Venet allies (oak construction), which enabled them to establish commercial colonies as far as the Irish Sea and Scotland (including Menapia, mentioned by Ptolemy in the south-east of Ireland). The Menapians are the only known Celtic tribe specifically named on Ptolemy”s map of Ireland, where they located their first settlement – Menapia – on the Leinster coast around 216 BC. They later settled around Lough Erne and became known as the Fir Manach and gave their name to Fermanagh and Monaghan.

The Roman conquest

In 57 BC, Julius Caesar, having learned that the Belgians had concluded an alliance against Rome, headed towards their territory with eight legions. The Belgian army united under the leadership of a certain Galba (or Adra according to Dion Cassius), king of the Suessions, who was joined by some Germanic troops. Caesar provides a detailed list of the peoples having taken part in this coalition, for a total of 306 000 warriors according to him, distributed as follows: Bellovacs (60,000), Suessions (50,000), Nervians (50,000), Morins (25,000), Aduatuques (19,000), Atrebates (15,000), Ambiens (10,000), Calètes (10,000), Véliocasses (10 000), Viromanduens (10 000), Menapiens (9 000), in addition to 40 000 Germanic (Condruses, Éburons, Caeroesi and Pémanes), numbers to be taken with precautions. The Rèmes allied themselves with Caesar, who set up his camp on the Aisne. The first confrontation took place along this river and ended with the retreat of the Belgians (battle of the Aisne). Caesar then besieged the oppidum of the Suessions, who finally submitted without fighting. The Bellovacs and the Ambiens did the same. The Nervians, the Atrebates, the Viromanduans and the Aduatuques then formed a new coalition against the Romans, but Caesar defeated them at the battle of the Sabis. The Aduatuques are subjected soon after. At the end of this campaign, Belgium was conquered. At the end of the summer of 56 BC, Caesar attacked the Morins and Menapiens. He ravaged their land, but could not subdue them. In 55 BC, his legates finally subdued the Morins and Menapiens and the Roman legions wintered in Belgian Gaul.

The Roman province of Gallia Belgica in the early imperial period corresponded practically to all the cities of the old Belgian federation, i.e. the territories between the Rhine and the Seine, which should not be confused with the territory to which Caesar gave the name of Belgium, the part of Belgian Gaul situated between the Oise and the Scheldt. At the beginning, the capital of the great province is Durocortorum (Reims) then, at an undetermined date (but probably not before the end of the High-Empire), the capital is transferred to Augusta Treverorum (Trier).

The nature of the language (or languages) spoken by the Belgians is uncertain, since they have left no written records. The hypotheses in this field are based mainly on the testimonies of ancient authors; on the study of the proper names of their tribes, their chiefs and their gods, quoted in ancient texts; as well as on the analysis of the toponymy of the region they occupied.

A large part of the onomastics of Belgian Gaul can be explained by Gallic. There are, however, a number of terms that can be explained within the framework of the comparative linguistics of Indo-European languages, but have phonetics distinct from those of both Celtic and Germanic languages. On this basis, as well as on Julius Caesar”s assertion that the Belgians differed from the Gauls in language, some specialists, such as Maurits Gysseling, Hans Kuhn, Rolf Hachmann and Wolfgang Meid, postulate the ancient existence of a specific Belgian language, attached to the family of Indo-European languages, but distinct from both Celtic and Germanic, and perhaps maintaining particular relations with the Italic languages. This hypothesis is linked to the supposed existence of an ancient people called “Northwestern block” and located between Celts and Germans, corresponding in archaeology to the Hilversum culture. In this hypothesis, the onomastics of Gallic type of Belgian Gaul would be explained by the Celtization of its elites.

Finally, Bernard Sergent distinguishes among the Belgians both Celts (Atrebates, Bellovaques, Morins, Rèmes, Trevires), Celticized Germans (Aduatuques, Condruses, Nerviens) and peoples belonging to the “north-western block” of Kuhn (Pemanes, Menapiens, Sunuques).

The discoveries of the sanctuary of Ribemont-sur-Ancre (Somme) in the 1960s and of Gournay-sur-Aronde (Oise) allowed us to know more precisely the rites sacralizing the natural spaces around sacred enclosures. The Macquenoise menhir, a polished and sculpted stone preserved in the Archaeological Museum of Charleroi, representing the effigy of the god Iverix, King Yew, is the only anthropomorphic menhir in Wallonia. A human deposit located in Blicquy and dated to 14C between 200 BC and 50 BC, evokes Celtic ritual practices. An ex-voto of the goddess Viradectis was found at Strée-lez-Huy.

Caesar names the following Belgian tribes:

References

Sources

  1. Belges
  2. Belgae