The Two Heroes and the Belgae: Part 2

The Gallic Wars





On Wednesday 30th June 2010, our Somme Pilgrimage took us from Arras on a full day’s tour into Belgium. On the road to Ieper (Ypres) I had the opportunity to tell our group of the continuation of the Roman Road to the land of the Belgae from whom Belgium gets its name and the tribes who once lived there.

On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, 9th, 10th and 11th January 1963 I played the role of Julius Caesar in William Shakespeare’s play of that name performed in the school hall in Bangor Grammar School. Brutus was played by Gus Hancock, who was to become the Professor of Chemistry at Oxford University The program explained the events leading up to the action of the play. The Roman Republic had long relied for its strength upon a sound citizen body headed by an aristocratic Senate. From just before 100 BC, the balance of power swung towards such successful generals as could control the now great empire. Julius Caesar was perhaps the greatest of these generals. He had out-generalled and defeated the great soldier Pompey; shown more political acumen than the Senators; conquered Gaul and fought in Britain, Spain and North Africa, Greece and Anatolia to assert his predominance and become dictator. He was now transforming the very basis of government throughout the empire.

He was a radical and tended to reform without sufficient concern for others. He was impatient with the reactionary Senate. The final and fatal error was his alleged aspiration to Kingship. This was quite alien to aristocratic sentiment. The play begins in 44 BC when a small group of men, because of the reasons mentioned and through their own private motives have conspired to act against Caesar, and assassinate him.

The last phase of colonisation of Britain before the Roman conquest came with the Belgic settlements in the south east during the first century BC. These Belgic colonies gave rise, according to Julius Caesar, to the different petty states of Britain the name of those from which they came. Caesar’s report was the first and only record from historical sources of Celtic or part Celtic migration to Britain. His famous Gallic Wars gives us a personal account of Gaul and the battles he fought there.

Caesar tells us that the Gaul of his day was divided into three parts, inhabited by three nations; Belgae, Celtae and Acquitani, all of whom different in language institutions and laws. Since the Romans knew all three as Gauls and the leaders and tribes at least have Celtic names, we may assume all were Celtic speaking though of different dialects and ethnic origins, the Belgae having strong Germanic elements.

Caesar limits the Celtae to that country included from north to south between the Seine and the Garonne and from the Ocean on the west to the Rhine in Helvetia, and the Rhone on the east. The Veneti were the most powerful of the Celtae and inhabited the country to the north of the mouth of the Loire, (Liger). We know that the Domnonii of Cornwall and Devon were the most cultivated of their British relatives and that the Veneti traded with them for the tin of Cornwall. The Domnonian Britons reserved the legend that they came from Glas-gwyn, from the country of the Liger. Migrating to Ireland under Roman pressure and displacing the aboriginal pre-Celtic Pretani or Cruthin, they called themselves Lagin or Domnainn maintaining the tradition that they were originally from Armorica. When the Irish Lagin later invaded the Lleyn Peninsula in Wales later from Ireland it took the name of Guined (Gwynedd) which derives directly from Veneti.

The Belgae inhabited what is now north eastern France and the Low Countries. The tribe which never sued for peace from Caesar was the Manapii who were originally seated on the Meuse and on the Lower Rhine. This great tribe was to become known to the later Gaels as the Fir Manaig, Men of the Manapii , who gave their name to Fermanagh and Monaghan. It is probable that they also inhabited the Isle of Man (Monapia) before the Gaelic conquest. It was the Manapii along with the Morini and other Northern tribes who maintained an independent Gaulish area following Caesar’s campaign of 57 BC, when he massacred 50,000 Belgic warriors at the earliest recorded Battle on the Somme.

In 56 BC the Veneti threw off the yoke of Rome and the whole coast from the Loire to the Rhine joined the insurrection. Caesar attacked the powerful Venetian navy and destroyed it, selling the defeated captives into slavery to a man. And it was the help they received from their British relatives which prompted his invasion of Britain in 55 BC.

To be continued

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