Celts and Ligurians: Strabo on peoples south of the Alps (early first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Celts and Ligurians: Strabo on peoples south of the Alps (early first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 7, 2024, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=8265.

Ancient author: Strabo, Geography 4.6.1-10 (link to Greek text and full translation)

Comments: Writing in 18 CE and drawing on a variety of sources, including Polybios, Strabo sketches out in quite broad strokes the geographical features and the Celtic, Ligurian and other peoples of regions on the southern side of the Alps (from Albenga, Italy, in the west to Sisak, Croatia, in the east). As usual, Strabo shows considerable interest in Roman subjugation of peoples when he has information about that. Diodoros also gives a brief description of the Ligurians (link).


[For Strabo’s preceding discussion of peoples in Britannia and Ireland, go to this link]

Book 4

[Beginning of the Alps]

6 (1) After Transalpine Celtic region [beyond the Alps to the northwest] and the peoples (ethnē) which hold this country, I must tell about the Alps themselves and the inhabitants, and then about the whole of Italy, keeping the same order in my description as is given me by the nature of the country. The beginning of the Alps is not at the port of Monoecus [Monaco], as some have told us, but at the same districts as the beginning of the Apennine mountains, namely, near Genua [Genoa], the trading-centre of the Ligurians, and near what is called Vada (that is, “Shoals”) Sabatorum [Vada]. For the Apennines begin at Genua, and the Alps have their beginning at Sabata and the distance, in stadia, between Genua and Sabata is two hundred and sixty.

[Ligurian peoples, starting at modern Albenga, Italy]

Then, after three hundred and seventy stadium-lengths from Sabata, comes the town of Albingaunum [Albenga], whose inhabitants are called Ingaunian Ligurians, and from there to the port of Monoecus, four hundred and eighty stadia. Further, in this last interval there is a city of fair size, Albium Intemelium [Ventimiglia], and its occupants are called Intemelians (Intemelii). Indeed it is on the strength of these names that writers advance a proof that the Alps begin at Sabata. For things “Alpian” were formerly called “Albian,” as also things “Alpionian.” In fact, writers add that still today the high mountain among the Iapodes which almost joins mount Ocra and the Alps is called “Albius,” thus implying that the Alps have stretched as far as that mountain.

(2) Since, then, the Ligurians were partly Ingaunians (Ingauni) and partly Intemelians, writers add, it was reasonable for their settlements on the sea to be named, the one, Albium (the equivalent of Alpium) Intemelium, and the other, more concisely, Albingaunum. However, Polybios adds to the two peoples of the Ligurians mentioned above both that of the Oxybians (Oxybii) and that of the Decietians (Decietae). Speaking generally, this whole coastline – from the port of Monoecus as far as Tyrrhenia – is not only exposed to the wind but harbourless as well, except for shallow mooring-places and anchorages.

Lying above it are the enormous overhanging cliffs of the mountains, which leave only a narrow pass next to the sea. This country is occupied by the Ligurians, who live on sheep, for the most part, as well as milk and a drink made of barley. They pasture their flocks in the districts next to the sea, but mainly in the mountains. They have there in very great quantities timber that is suitable for ship-building, with trees so large that the diameter of their thickness is sometimes found to be eight feet. Many of these trees, even in the variegation of the grain, are not inferior to the thyine wood for the purposes of table-making. Accordingly, the people bring these down to the trading-centre of Genua, as well as flocks, hides and honey. In return they receive a cargo of olive oil and Italian wine (the small amount of wine they have in their country is mixed with pitch, and it is harsh). This is the country from which come not only the so-called “ginni” — both horses and mules, — but also the Ligurian tunics and “sagi.” They also have in their country excessive quantities of amber, which by some is called “electrum.” Although, in their campaigns, they are no good at all as cavalrymen, they are excellent heavy-armed soldiers and skirmishers and, from the fact that they use bronze shields, some infer that they are Greeks.

[Sallyians and Celto-Ligurians]

(3) The port of Monoecus [Monaco] affords a mooring-place for no large ships, nor yet for a considerable number and it has a temple of Herakles Monoikos, as he is called. It is reasonable to conjecture from the name that the coastal voyages of the Massalians reach even as far as the port of Monoecus. The distance from the port of Monoecus to Antipolis is a little more than two hundred stadia. As for the stretch of country which begins at Antipolis and extends as far as Massalia or a little farther, the people of the Sallyians (Sallyes) inhabits the Alps that lie above the seaboard and also — indiscriminately with the Greeks — certain parts of the same seaboard. But though the early writers of the Greeks call the Sallyians “Liguians (Ligues),” and the country which the Massalians hold, “Ligustika,” later writers name them “Celto-Ligurians,” and attach to their territory all the level country as far as Luerio and the Rhodanos [Rhône], the country from which the inhabitants, divided into ten parts, used to send forth an army not only of infantry but also of cavalry. These were the first of the Transalpine [beyond the Alps] Celts that the Romans conquered, though they did so only after carrying on war with both them and the Ligurians for a long time, because the latter had barred all the passes leading to Iberia that ran through the seaboard. In fact, they kept making raids both by land and sea, and were so powerful that the road was scarcely passable even for great armies. It was not until the eightieth year of the war that the Romans succeeded, though only with difficulty, in opening up the road for a breadth of only twelve stadium-lengths to those travelling on public business. After this, however, they defeated them all, and, having imposed a tribute upon them, administered the government themselves.

[Various other peoples]

(4) After the Sallyians come the Albensians, the Albioikians and the Vokontians, who occupy the northerly parts of the mountains. But the Vokontians, stretching alongside the others, reach as far as the Allobrogians. They have glens in the depths of their mountainous country that are of considerable size and not inferior to those which the Allobrogians have. Now the Allobrogians and the Ligurians are ranked as subject to the praetors who come to Narbonitis, but the Vokontians (as I said of the Volkians who live round about Nemausus) are ranked as autonomous. Of the Ligurians who live between the Varus [Vara] river and Genua [Genoa], those who live on the sea are the same as the Italiotes [descendants of early Greek colonists], whereas to the mountaineers a praefect of equestrian rank is sent, as is done in the case of other peoples who are complete barbarians.

(5) After the Vokontians come the Ikonians and the Trikorians and after them the Medullians, who hold the loftiest peaks. At any rate, the steepest height of these peaks is said to involve an ascent of a hundred stadia, and an equal number the descent from there to the boundaries of Italy. Up in a certain hollowed-out region stands a large lake, and also two springs which are not far from one another. One of these springs is the source of the Druentia [Durance], a torrential river which dashes down towards the Rhodanus, and also of the Duria [Dora Baltea] river, which takes the opposite direction, since it first courses down through the country of the Salassians into the Cisalpine Celtic region and then mingles with the Padus [Po] river. While from the other spring there issues forth, considerably lower than the region mentioned above, the Padus itself, large and swift, although as it proceeds it becomes larger and more gentle in its flow. For from the time it reaches the plains it is increased from many streams and is thus widened out and so, because of the spreading out of its waters, the force of its current is dispersed and blunted. Then it empties into the Adriatic Sea, becoming the largest of all the rivers in Europe except the Ister [Danube]. The situation of the Medullians is, to put it in a general way, above the confluence of the Isar and the Rhodanus.

(6) Towards the other parts (I mean the parts which slope towards Italy) of the mountainous country mentioned above live both the Taurinians, a Ligurian people (ethnos), and other Ligurians. To these latter belongs what is called the land of Donnos and Kottios. After these peoples and the Padus come the Salassians and above them, on the mountain-crests, the Keutronians, Katorigians, Varagrians, Nantuatians, lake Lemenna (through which the Rhodanos courses), and the source of the Rhodanos. not far from these are also the sources of the Rhenus [Rhine] and mount Adula, from which flows not only, towards the north, the Rhenus, but also, in the opposite direction, the Addua [Adda], emptying into lake Larius, which is near Comum [Como].

[Bandit-like peoples]

Beyond Comum, which is situated near the base of the Alps, lie, on the one side, with its slope towards the east, the land of the Rhaitians and the Vennonians, and, on the other, the land of the Lepontians, Tridentinians, Stonians, and several other small peoples who are inclined to banditry and resourceless, which in former times held the upper hand in Italy. But as it is, some of the peoples have been wholly destroyed, while the others have been so completely subdued that the passes which lead through their territory over the mountain, though formerly few and hard to get through, are now numerous, safe from harm on the part of the people, and easily passable, so far as human device can make them so. For in addition to his putting down the bandits (lēstai) Augustus Caesar built up the roads as much as he possibly could. For it was not everywhere possible to overcome nature by forcing a way through masses of rock and enormous overhanging cliffs, which sometimes lay above the road and sometimes fell away beneath it. Consequently, if one made even a slight misstep out of the road, the peril was one from which there was no escape, since the fall reached to deep chasms. The road there is so narrow at some spots that it brings dizziness to all who travel it by foot, not only to men but also to all beasts of burden that are unfamiliar with it. The native beasts, however, carry the burdens with sureness of foot. Accordingly, these places are beyond remedy and so are the layers of ice that slide down from above, enormous layers capable of intercepting a whole caravan or of thrusting them all together into the chasms that yawn below. For there are numerous layers resting upon another, because there are congelations upon congelations of snow that have become ice-like, and the congelations that are on the surface are from time to time easily released from those beneath before they are completely dissolved in the rays of the sun.

[Salassians and Roman domination]

(7) Most of the country of the Salassians lies in a deep glen, the district being shut in by both mountains, whereas a certain part of their territory stretches up to the mountain-crests that lie above. Accordingly, the road for all who pass over the mountains from Italy runs through the glen mentioned above. Then the road forks and one fork runs through what is called Poininos (a road which, for wagons, is impassable near the summits of the Alps), while the other runs more to the west, through the country of the Keutronians. The country of the Salassians has gold mines also, which in former times, when the Salassians were powerful, they kept possession of, just as they were also masters of the passes. The Duria river was of the greatest aid to them in their mining. I mean in washing the gold and therefore, in making the water branch off to numerous places, they used to empty the common bed completely. But although this was helpful to the Salassians in their hunt for the gold, it distressed the people who farmed the plains below them, because their country was deprived of irrigation. For since its bed was on favourable ground higher up, the river could give the country water. For this reason both peoples were continually at war with each other.

But after the Romans got the mastery, the Salassians were thrown out of their gold-works and country too. However, since they still held possession of the mountains, they sold water to the publicans who had contracted to work the gold mines. But on account of the greediness of the publicans, Salassians were always in disagreement with them too. In this way it resulted that those of the Romans who from time to time wished to lead armies and were sent to the regions in question were well provided with pretexts for war. Until quite recently, indeed, although at one time they were being warred upon by the Romans and at another were trying to bring to an end their war against the Romans, they were still powerful. In accordance with their custom of banditry, they inflicted much damage upon those who passed through their country over the mountains. At any rate, they exacted even from Decimus Brutus [ca. 43 BCE], on his flight from Mutina [about 36km west of Bologna], a toll of one drachma per person. When Messala was wintering near their country, he had to pay for wood, not only for his fire-wood but also for the elm-wood used for javelins and the wood used for gymnastic purposes. Once these men robbed even Caesar of money and threw crags upon his legions under the pretext that they were making roads or bridging rivers. Later on, however, Augustus completely overthrew them, and sold all of them as booty, after carrying them to Eporedia, a Roman colony. Although the Romans had colonised this city because they wished it to be a garrison against the Salassians, the people there were able to offer only slight opposition until the people, as such, was wiped out. Now although the number of the other persons captured proved to be thirty-six thousand and, of the fighting men, eight thousand, Terentius Varro, the general who overthrew them, sold all of them under the spear. Caesar sent three thousand Romans and founded the city of Augusta in the place where Varro had pitched his camp, and at the present time peace is kept by all the neighbouring country as far as the highest parts of the passes which lead over the mountain.

[Peoples in the eastern Alps near where modern Austria, Switzerland and Italy meet]

(8) Next, in order, come those parts of the mountains that are towards the east, and those that bend round towards the south: the Rhaitians and the Vindelikians occupy them, and their territories join those of the Elvetians and the Boians. For their territories overlook the plains of those peoples. Now the Rhaitians reach down as far as that part of Italy which is above Verona and Comum (moreover, the “Rhaitic” wine, which has the reputation of not being inferior to the approved wines of the Italian regions, is made in the foot-hills of the Rhaitic Alps), and also extend as far as the districts through which the Rhenus [Rhine] runs. The Lepontians, also, and Kamounians, belong to this stock. But the Vindelikians and Norikians occupy the greater part of the outer side of the mountain, along with the Breunians and the Genaunians, the two peoples last named being Illyrians. Intermittently, all these peoples used to overrun the neighbouring regions not only of Italy but also of the country of the Elvetians, the Sequanians, the Boians and the Germans. The Likattians, the Klautenatians, and the Vennonians proved to be the boldest warriors of all the Vindelikians, as did the Rukantians and the Kotuantians of all the Rhaitians. The Estiones, also, belong to the Vindelici, and so do the Brigantii, and their cities, Brigantium [Briganze, Austria] and Cambodunum [Kempten, Germany, north of the Alps], and also Damasia, the acropolis, as it were, of the Likattians. The stories of the severity of these bandits towards the Italiotes [early Greek settlers] are to this effect: When they capture a village or city, they not only murder all males from youths up, but they also go on and kill the male infants. They do not stop there either, but also kill all the pregnant women who their seers say are pregnant with male children.

[Peoples and geographical features around Aquileia and the end of the Alps]

(9) Directly after these people come the peoples that live near the recess of the Adriatic and the districts around Aquileia [northwest of Trieste, Italy], namely, the Karnians as well as certain of the Norikians. The Tauriskians, also, belong to the Norikians. But Tiberius and his brother Drusus stopped all of them from their riotous incursions by means of a single summer-campaign [in 15 BCE] so that now [18 CE] for thirty-three years they have been in a state of peace and have been paying their tributes regularly. Now throughout the whole of the mountainous country of the Alps there are, indeed, not only hilly districts which permit good farming, but also glens which have been well built up by settlers. The greater part, however (and, in particular, in the neighbourhood of the mountain-crests, where, as we know, the bandits used to congregate) is wretched and unfruitful, both on account of the frosts and of the ruggedness of the soil. It was because of scarcity, therefore, of both food and other things that they sometimes would spare the people in the plains, in order that they might have people to supply their wants. In exchange they would give resin, pitch, torch-pine, wax, honey, and cheese, because they were well supplied with these things.

Above the Karnians lies the Apennine mountain [perhaps the High Tauern, according to Roller], which has a lake that issues forth into the river Isaras which, after having received another river, the Atagis [Adige], empties into the Adriatic. But there is also another river, called the Atesinos, which flows into the Ister [Danube] from the same lake. In fact, the Ister also begins in these mountains, for they are split into many parts and have many peaks that is, from Liguria, up to this point, the lofty parts of the Alps run in an unbroken stretch and then break up and diminish in height, and in turn rise again, into more and more parts, and more and more crests. Now the first of these is that ridge, on the far side of the Rhenus [Rhine] and the lake, which leans towards the east. This has a ridge only moderately high, in which, near the Suevians and the Herkynian forest, are the sources of the Ister. There are other ridges which bend round towards Illyria and the Adriatic, among which are the Apennine mountain mentioned above and also the Tullus and Phligadia, the mountains which lie above the Vindelikians, from which flow the Douras and Klanis and several other torrential rivers which join the stream of the Ister.

[Iapodians and their subjugation by the Romans]

(10) Further than this, the Iapodians (Iapodes) – we now come to this mixed people of Illyrians and Celts – live round about these regions [modern Slovenia and Croatia]. Mount Okra​ [Nanos plateau, north of Trieste, Italy] is near these people. The Iapodians, then, although formerly they were well supplied with strong men and held as their homeland both sides of the mountain and by their business of sea-banditry held sway over these regions, have been vanquished and completely outdone by Augustus Caesar. Their cities are: Metulum, Arupini, Monetium, and Vendo. After the Iapodes comes Segestike [Sisak, Croatia], a city in the plain, past which flows the Saos [Sava] river, which empties into the Ister. The situation of the city is naturally well-suited for making war against the Dakians (Dacians).

The Okra is the lowest part of the Alps in that region in which the Alps join the country of the Karnians, and through which the merchandise from Aquileia is conveyed in wagons to what is called Nauportos [Vrhnika, Slovenia] (over a road of not much more than four hundred stadia). From here, however, it is carried down by the rivers as far as the Ister and the districts in that part of the country for there is, in fact, a river which flows past Nauportos. It runs out of Illyria, is navigable, and empties into the Saos, so that the merchandise is easily carried down to Segestike and the country of the Pannonians and Tauriskians. The Kolapis [Kupa] river also joins the Saos near the city. Both are navigable and flow from the Alps. The Alps have both cattle and wild horses. Polybios says that there is also produced in the Alps an animal of special form. It is like a deer in shape, except for its neck and growth of hair (in these respects, he says, it resembles a boar), and beneath its chin it has a sac about a span long with hair at the tip, the thickness of a colt’s tail . . . [omitted material].

[For Strabo’s subsequent discussion of Italic peoples, go to this link]


Source of translation: H.L. Jones, Strabo, 8 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1917-28), public domain (passed away in 1932), adapted by Harland.

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