The ancient Belgae tribes
All across ancient continental Europe during the era of approximately 300 BC a confederation of Celtic tribes inhabited what was called Gaul. Gaul covered what is modern day France, Belgium, parts of the Netherlands and parts of Germany. To the northwest section of Gaul lay the land of the Belgae.
We know this from archaeological findings of inscriptions, pottery, weapons and utensils found at diggings. First hand witness testimony comes from the classic Roman writers and historians that described the tribes of Belgae to us.
Of course, none other than our usual suspect, Julius Caesar, left loads of writings from his personal encounters with the Gauls and the Belgae in his Commentarii De Bello Gallico. But, most of the information we have about the Belgae comes from the years 57 - 51 BC when Caesar was in the personal task of conquering and subduing Gaul.
Caesar thought the Gauls were a formidable foe when he conquered them. But, it took Caesar four years (57-53 BC) to conquer the Belgae his toughest and most difficult tribes to conquer.
They were led by a fierce, brave and loyal Belgae, Ambioriix, who gave Caesar as good as he got. He was prince and leader of the Eburones tribe of the Belgae who put up quite a revolt against Caesar and his subjugation of Gaul. He is pictured above from a statue of him in what is today, Tongeren, Belgium.
He had the large, bushy mustache and long hair which was the 'in vogue' look for Celtic men of that day. But, was he a Celt? And were the Belgae tribes Celts?
That is a question that has been confounding scholars, historians, archaeologists, and researchers from ancient times up to modern day. No one can say for sure exactly who the the ancestry are of the Belgae. Not even the Belgae always knew.
Today, researchers and historians believe the Belgae were either Celtic, Germanic, a mixture of the two, or even a race all of their own. Their language was unidentifiable to Caesar and was not the same as the Gaulish language he understood from the Gauls.
Julius Caesar believed and wrote that the Belgae were influenced by both the Celtic and the Germanic tribes. There is archaeological, place name and textual evidence to support this. And, there is the same evidence suggesting the Belgae were a race of their own.
Since Celtic tribes were loosely tied together by language, that leaves the Belgae out as far as the Celtic world. The Germanic world extended only as far south as the north side of the Rhine River. South of the river belonged to the Belgae. Some of the Belgae seemed to sound like they were speaking Germanic to Caesar, but some did not.
So, this article will not equivocally determine exactly who the Belgae were, but tell you of their history, tribes, migrations and language from the historians' and linguists' standpoint. Most of our information today comes from Julius Caesar from the 50's BC. Before that, much of the Belgae world is still a mystery.
The Belgae Lands
- The Gauls - the Celtc tribes of Continental Europe
The Gauls were the strongest Celtic tribe living in continental Europe and they gave the Romans a tough time.
When it comes to the ancient Belgae tribes of continental Europe there is definitely a conundrum as to whom they really were.
Even Julius Caesar who wrote about them in his Commentarii De Bello Gallico and battled with them for four years before defeating them, was confused about the origin of, race, and lingustic classification of the ancient Belgae.
Interestingly , the Belgae themselves were confused by their own ethnic identity. Some claimed to be Germanic and others claimed to be Celtic, according to Caesar.
What is believed today is that the Belgae were a confederacy of ethnically mixed tribes living between the Celts and the Germans in what is now northern France and Benelux from at least the third century BC. It is the traditional territory bound by the Rhine to the east, the Marne and Seine Rivers to the southwest and the English channel to the north. They are the earliest named inhabitants of what is today the country of Belgium.
What we know of the Belgae we get mostly from Caesar's De Bello Gallico and what he wrote about them in the 50's BC.
Caesar and other classical writers have described them as Gauls but also as distinct from "Celtic" Gauls and also having Germanic ancestry.
Their exact ethnic background is still a source of discussion today. They clearly had affiliations of various types with both other Gauls to their south and Germanic people east of the Rhine River.
Caesar described the Gauls (58-51 BC) as divided into three parts:
- Aquitani - in the southwest region of Gaul
- Gauls - in the biggest central part and were called Celtae by the Romans
- Belgae in the northern most region of Gaul
The Belgae were described by Caesar as also having a Teutonic inter-mixture in the warrior class. It is believed today that the Belgae may have crossed the North Sea and migrated to modern day Norway and vice versa.
Of the three Gaulish confederation of tribes, Caesar believed "the bravest of the three groups were the Belgae because they lived farthest from the developed civilization of Rome."
Pomponius Mela (41 AD) wrote about a sailing route from Gibraltar northwards by the Atlantic Ocean. Further north is Thule and Mela. He wrote:
". . . Thule is situated north of the Belgian coasts. The nights are extremely short here during the summer because of the late sunset. These areas are close to Asia, and the people are almost exclusively of Belgium stock . . ."
And Dio Cassius (200 AD) wrote in his histories:
"The Belgae lives in several tribes by the Rhine and areas by the sea opposite Britain."
So, the origins of the Belgae have remained a mystery even up to today. Historians and lingusts believe they were certainly in their area of Europe by 150 BC. And, the Belgae were the only ones in Gaul who successfully repelled the migrating Teutones from Germania, again according to Caesar.
The best estimate made by historians, according to the archaeology dug up, locate the first Germanic crossings of the Rhine at approximately 350 BC and later. Therefore, the ethnic Belgae are believed to have originated around 300 B
And it is from Caesar that we learn of the Belgae tribes. Caesar lists them as:
In 57 BC, Caesar had conquered Gaul and Belgica, but after a few years of subjugation, the Belgae brought a major revolt against Julius Caesar and his Roman army from 54-53 BC when the Eburones and Nevii tribes of northeastern Gaul rebelled against having Roman soldiers quartered in their homes.
They were led in battle by Ambiorix, one of the tribal leaders or prince of the Eburones. Ambiorix and his tribes killed a whole Roman legion and five cohorts.
Caesar was so furious that he returned to fight the Belgae with 50,000 trained Roman soldiers to annihilate them. The Belgae tribes were crushed, slaughtered, driven out, and their fields burned. It was Caesar's genocide in Gaul.
After conquering the Gauls, Aquitanians and Belgae, Caesar combined the three parts of Gaul into a single province of the Romans Empire and called it Gallia Comata meaning "long haired Gaul."
Brigantia Belgae music
Belgae migration to Britain
During Caesar's conquest of Gaul, anti-Roman factions of the Belgae made their way across the English Channel to south Britain and constructed settlements and cities there. The Romans did not invade Britain until 43 AD. So during this time the Belgae assimilated with the Brythonic or Brittonic Celtic tribes already living in south and southeastern Britain.
Archaeological findings in southern Britain attest to Belgae settlements in southern Britain. Large numbers coins of the Ambiani tribe (Belgae) date to the mid-second century BC. It is believed by the time of the Roman conquest of Britain, some of the tribes of southeastern Britain were ruled by the Belgic nobility and culturally influenced by them.
English researcher and genetic scientist, Stephen Oppenheimer confirms that the history of pre-Roman coins in southeast Britain reveals the influence from Belgic Gaul.
The Belgae centered in Venta Belgarium (so named by the Romans) which today is the modern city of Winchester, England in the county of Hampshire and perhaps also centered in and extended into Somerset and Avon.
The Romans named this area Venta Belgariium because "venta" meant main market or market town and "belgarium" meant 'of the Belgae.' Historians also believe the Belgae formed part of the tribal domains of Atrebates from at least 20 BC. The Belgae may have found odds and ends of various Belgic tribes that had migrated from Gaul to escape the Roman conquest and occupation.
Large amounts of mid-second century BC Gallo-Belgic coinage has been discovered in parts of south Britain according to archaeologists.
When the Romans arrived in Britain in 43 AD, the Belgae tribes did not have a confederation or cohesion of any sort and so it was easy for the Romans to defeat them tribe by tribe.
Ptolomy also confirms the location of the Belgae c 140 AD as inhabiting modern Bath in Somerset and Venta Belgarium. Also, the Romans organized and built civitas that were Belgic in southern Britain and the Atrebates and Regnenes tribes were thought to also be Belgic tribes.
An Iron Age hill-fort of Old Sarum was unearthed in Hampshire and believed to belong to the Belgae. The Aylesford-Swarling pottery found in Britain is also believed to be Belgic.
The Belgic tribes of Britain are believed to be the:
- Atrebates who had a British colonial state of their own
- Ambiani whose coins were found that were Gallo-Belgic
- Suessiones who were the most powerful of the Belgae tribes in south Britain
- Armoriican states
- Morini whose coast lands on continental Europe were closest to Britain
Caesar writes, "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 . . ."
Therefore, we learn from all this that the Belgae had a certain presence in southwestern Britain long before and during the Roman occupation of Britain.
Ancient Belgian language
Because historians and linguists have not been able to pin down the exact language of the Belgae tribes living in Gaul or southeast Britain, only theories of what their language might have been have been put forward.
Gaul at the time had a Germanic/Celtic linguistic boundary with the precursors of modern Dutch and German to the north and east and Gaulish (later supplanted with French) to the south and west. During Roman times, that language boundary hit the coast of the Fretum Gallicum (the English Channel) well to the south of the modern boundary between the Flemish and the French.
In the Benelux region of Gallic Belgae, an ancient language was spoken but it was an unknown independent branch of the Indo-European language on equal footing with the Italic, Celtic, Germanic, Slavic, etc., is today also believed by historians and linguists
Tacitus and Strabo, both classical historians and writers, tell us that the northernly tribes (today modern Luxembourg and Belgium) were Germanic while to the south the inscriptions on stones and coins indicated that Gaulish was a P-Celtic language.
Caesar tells us that the dividing line between Belgae and the Gauls was the River Seine. The Morini tribe (Belgae) inhabited the marshy landscape on the continent near the Netherlands and resisted the Roman army better than the inland tribes.
In fact, until the late Middle Ages the whole territory was part of the county of Flanders and its place names are generally traceable to the Germanic language. Therefore, the vernacular language of the Morini tribe was probably a precursor to the western Flemish dialect of Dutch, which is the surviving modern language closest to Kentish in Old English as the Morini tribes are part of the Belgae that migrated to southern Britain.
This also suggests that some of the Belgae language shifted to speaking Gaulish before they shifted to speaking Latin and/or French.
The Latin speakers, both on the continent and later in Britain, could understand the Celtic Gaulish tongue as both Latin, from Proto-Italic and Gaulish, and from Proto-Celtic.
The leading modern Ghentian linguist Maurits Gysseling (1919-1997), an influential Belgian and researcher into historical linguistics and paleography, has researched into and tried to determine the language of the Belgae living north of Gaul.
He is also well known for the editing and studies of old texts relevant to the history of the Dutch language and analyses of historical place names and probable origins of them.
He has theorized.that before the second century BC, the language of Gallia Belgica was an Indo-European language that was neither Germanic or Celtic. Northern Belgae then became Germanic speaking and had never been fully Celtic-speaking in the centuries before the Roman conquest. In other words, before the Roman conquest the Belgae spoke a language all their own termed Belgian.
Therefore, linguists today believe that the Belgae had previously spoken an Indo-European language intermediate between Celtic and Germanic and prior to the Celtic and Germanic influences.
They believe that a separate Indo-European language was spoken by the Belgae that was distinct from Celtic in pre-history in certain parts of what has become known as Gaul. Traces of it can be found in certain toponyms such as southeastern Flemish Bevere, Eine, Mater and Melden.
However, most of the Belgae tribal and personal names recorded are Gaulish and the surviving inscriptions indicate that Gaulish was spoken at least in part of the Belgic territory and Caesar insists that most of the Belgae had some Germanic ancestry and ethnicity.
He claims the southwestern Belgic tribes in Gaul were the Suessiones, Viromandui and Ambiani and they were the true ethnic Belgae
The tribes of mixed ancestry were the Menapil, Nervii, Morini living in the northwestern Belgic region and neighbors to the Germani.
There are influences in Belgian from the Germanic language. For example Belgian also adopted the German sound-shifts that took place during a first early Germanization in the third century BC:
- p to f
- t to th
- k to h
- o to a
Characteriztion of Belgian are the retaining of the p sound after the sound shifts and settlement names ending in -iom are typically Belgian as well. apa, poel, broek, gaver,drecht, laar and ham are Belgian loanwords to Dutch.
Modern Belgian language
Today, the Kingdom of Belgium (its official name) has three different official languages spoken in its country: Dutch, French and German.
The non-official, and a minority language and dialect, also spoken in Belgium is Flemish. And, English is the second or third language spoken and studied by native Belgians.
The standard form of Dutch spoken in Belgium is almost identical to that spoken in the Netherlands and colloquially is called Flemish. Dutch is the official language of the Flemish Community and Flemish Region (merged to Flanders)
French is the official language of Brussels, the capital city of Belgium and the second most spoken Belgian language. Belgian French is identical in standard to Parisian French, but differs on a few points of vocabulary, pronunciation and semantics.
German is the least prevalent official language of Belgium and is spoken in an area ceded by the former German Empire as part of the treaty of Versailles which concluded WWI.
The Dutch dialects of Brabantian, Western Flemish, Eastern Flemish and Limburgish are also all spoken in the Netherlands. And, Western Flemish is also spoke in French Flanders.
Words that are unique to Belgian Dutch are called belgicisms as are the words used primarily in Belgian French.