Celts: Livy on legends of Gallic migrations south of the Alps into Italy (late first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Celts: Livy on legends of Gallic migrations south of the Alps into Italy (late first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified August 21, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=12294.

Ancient authors: Poseidonios (FGrHist 87 F16), Timagenes (FGrHist 88 F2, 7, 14, 15), or some other Greek author as employed by Livy, Roman History 5.32-35 (link; link to FGrHist).

Comments: Little is known about the life or family of Livy of Patavium (Padua) in northern Italy, but he was among the few early Roman historians to incorporate some Greek approaches to writing history, including the ethnographic digression. Livy’s work on the history of Rome From the Founding of the City (usually just called Roman History) covered the period from origins to his present, finishing in 9 BCE in the edition we have, which places him in the late first century BCE.

In this important passage, Livy is relating historical events at the city of Rome in the early fourth century BCE and the mention of the threat of an invasion of Gauls (or Celts as they would be called in Greek) leads him into a digression on what we would call legends of migration by these peoples from the north down into northern Italy. Livy knows of a tale that says that the whole thing was set in motion by the desire for Italian wine (very Italocentric), but he also goes into an outline of the various subgroups of Celts (transliterating the Greek) or Gauls (transliterating the Latin, Livy’s language) that came down into Italy, according to the sources he is using and / or his own guesses.

As R.M. Ogilvie’s commentary on Livy clarifies, most scholars point to signs of Livy using a Greek ethnographic source for this digression on Celtic migration. Although Livy nowhere states his source, the most common scholarly suggestions are that he used parts of Poseidonios of Apameia’s (link) or Timagenes of Alexandria’s (link) first century BCE works on the Celtic area in this case, but generally speaking in other sections Livy also seems to make use of Polybios (link). As Ogilvie observes, the “detailed account of the migrating tribes which follows is founded not on historical fact but ultimately on the ethnographical rationalizations made, in particular by Greeks, during the second and first centuries at Rome” (Ogilvie 1965, 705). In this case, the Celtic sub-groups mentioned by Livy reflect his own post-Caesarian time more so than some earlier historical era. As we may be used to by now, Greek and Roman ethnographic descriptions are not really valuable for accurate historical information regarding the actual incidents or peoples described as much as they are for understanding postures that particular individuals or groups (in this case a literate Roman author) took in relation to other peoples in particular times and places. This introduction to the Gauls by Livy sets the stage for his extended discussion of specific fourth century BCE incidents involving the Gauls’ relations with Rome, which to Livy all sets the stage for future Roman dominance.

Works consulted: R.M. Ogilvie, A Commentary on Livy: Books 1-5 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), 699-715.

Source of the translation: B.O. Foster, F. Gardner, and E.T. Sage, Livy, volumes 1-11, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1919-1936), public domain (Foster [vols. 1-5] passed away in 1938, Gardner [vols. 6-8] in 1955, and Sage [vols. 9, 11] in 1936), adapted by Harland.


[Threat of invasion by Gauls in 391 BCE as the context for the digression]

32 . . . (6) In the same year [ca. 391 BCE] Marcus Caedicius, a plebeian, reported to the tribunes, that in the Nova Via, where the chapel now stands above the temple of Vesta, he had heard in the silence of the night a voice more distinct than a man’s, which instructed him to tell the magistrates that the Gauls (Galli) were approaching. (7) This sign was neglected, as often happens, because of the informant’s low status, and because that descent group (gens) was remote and therefore not well known. And not only did they reject the warnings of the gods, as their doom drew closer, but they even sent away from the city the only human assistance available with them, in the person of Marcus Furius. (8) He had been indicted by Lucius Apuleius, tribune of the plebs, on account of the spoils of Veii [city in Etruria], just at the time of losing his youthful son. . . [omitted details about Furius].

[Tale about Gaul’s motivations to move south: wine]

33 After the expulsion of that citizen whose presence, if anything in this life is certain, would have made the capture of Rome impossible, disaster approached the ill-fated city with the arrival of envoys from the men of Clusium [modern Chiusi, Tuscany] seeking help against the Gauls. (2) The story runs that this descent group, allured by the delicious fruits and especially the wine – then a novel luxury – had crossed the Alps and possessed lands that had previously been farmed by the Etruscans. (3) Also, wine had been imported into Gaul expressly to entice them, by Arruns of Clusium, in his anger at the seduction of his wife by Lucumo. This youth, Lucumo, whose guardian Arruns had been, was so powerful that Arruns could not have punished him without calling in a foreign force. (4) It was he who is said to have guided the Gauls across the Alps, and to have suggested the attack on Clusium. Now I would not deny that Arruns or some other citizen brought the Gauls to Clusium, but that those who besieged Clusium were not the first who had passed the Alps is generally agreed. (5) In fact, it was two hundred years before the attack on Clusium and the capture of Rome that the Gauls first crossed over into Italy. Furthermore, the Clusinians were not the first of the Etruscans with whom they fought. (6) Rather, long before that, the Gallic armies had often given battle to those who lived between the mountain ranges of the Apennines and the Alps.

[Etruscan inhabitants in north-central Italy]

(7) Until the rise of Roman domination, Tuscan influence stretched over a wide expanse of land and sea. The magnitude of their power on the upper and the lower seas (by which Italy is surrounded like an island) is apparent from the names, since the Italian descent groups have called one of them Tuscan, the general designation of the descent group, and the other Hadriatic, from Hatria, an Etruscan colony. The Greeks know the same seas as Tyrrhenian and Adriatic. (9) In the lands which slope on either side towards one of these seas, they had two sets of twelve cities: First there were the twelve cities on this side the Apennines, towards the lower sea, (10) to which they later added the same number of cities beyond the Apennines. They sent over as many colonies as there were original cities and took possession of all the transpadane region (except the angle belonging to the Venetians who dwell around the gulf) as far as the Alps. (11) The Alpine descent groups have also, no doubt, the same origin, especially the Raetians. They have been made so savage by the very nature of the country as to retain nothing of their ancient character except the sound of their speech, and even that is corrupted.

[Early migrations of the Gauls south of the Alps]

34 Concerning the migration of the Gauls (Galli) into Italy we are told as follows: While Tarquinius Priscus reigned at Rome [imagined by Livy to be in the seventh century BCE], the Celts (Celtae), who make up one of the three divisions of Gaul, were under the domination of the Biturigians (Bituriges), and the Biturigians supplied the Celtic people with a king. (2) Ambigatus was then the man, and his talents, together with his own and the general good fortune, had brought him great distinction. Under his control, Gaul grew so rich in grain and so populous, that it seemed hardly possible to govern so large a population. (3) The king, who was now an old man and wished to relieve his kingdom of a burdensome throng, announced that he meant to send Bellovesus and Segovesus, his sister’s sons, two enterprising young men, to find such homes as the gods might assign to them by divination (augury). (4) The king promised them that they should head as large a number of emigrants as they themselves desired, so that no descent group might be able to prevent their settlement. At this point, the Hercynian highlands were assigned by lot to Segovesus. But to Bellovesus the gods proposed a far more pleasant road into Italy. (5) Taking out with him the surplus population of the Biturigians, Arvernians (Arverni), Senonians (Senones), Haeduians (Haedui), Ambarrians (Ambarri), Carnutians (Carnutes), and Aulercians (Aulerci), he marched with vast numbers of infantry and cavalry into the country of the Tricastinians (Tricastini).

(6) The Alps were positioned opposite them. I for one do not wonder that the Alps seemed insuperable, for as yet no road had led across them, at least as far back as tradition reaches, unless one believes the stories about Herakles. (7) While they were there fenced in as it were by the lofty mountains, and were looking around to discover where they might cross, over heights that reached the sky, into another world, superstition also held them back, because it had been reported to them that some strangers seeking lands were harassed by the Saluians (Salui). (8) These were the Massalians, who had come in ships from Phokaia [Greek city in western Asia Minor / Turkey]. The Gauls, regarding this as a good omen of their own success, gave them assistance so that they fortified, without opposition from the Saluians, the spot which they had first seized after landing [modern Marseille]. (9) They themselves crossed the Alps through the Taurine passes and the pass of the Duria. They defeated the Etruscans in battle not far from the river Ticinus. Learning that they were encamped in what was called the country of the Insubrians (Insubres), who bore the same name as an Haeduan district, they regarded it as a place of good omen and founded a city there which they called Mediolanium [Milan].

35 Presently another band, consisting of Cenomanians (Cenomani) led by Etitovius, followed in the tracks of the earlier emigrants. After crossing the Alps by the same pass with the approval of Bellovesus, they established themselves where the cities of Brixia [Brescia] and Verona are now. (2) After these the Lubuians (Libui) came and settled, and the Salluvians (Salluvii) settling right by the ancient descent group of the Laevian Ligurians (Ligures), on the shores of the river Ticinus [Ticino]. Then, over the Poenine pass, came the Boians (Boii) and Lingonians (Lingones). Finding everything claimed between the Po and the Alps, they crossed the Po on rafts and drove out not only the Etruscans but also the Umbrians from their lands. Nevertheless, they kept on the further side of the Apennine mountains. (3) Then the Senonians, the latest to arrive, had their holdings from the river Utens all the way to the Aesis [Esino] river. This was the descent group, I find, which came to Clusium and from there to Rome, but it is uncertain whether this was alone or assisted by all the peoples of Gaul on this side of the Alps (Cisalpine Gaul).

[Reaction of those at Clusium to the invasion and involvement of the Romans]

(4) The men of Clusium were alarmed by this strange invasion when they saw the size of the invading population, the unfamiliar figures of the men, and their novel weapons and when they heard that on many battle fields on this side the Po river, as well as beyond it, these same people had gotten rid of the levies of Etruria. Although they had no rights of alliance or friendship with the Romans – except that they had refused to defend their kinsmen the Veientians (Veientes) against the Roman People – the men of Clusium nonetheless dispatched envoys to Rome to ask for help from the senate. (5) As for the help, they were unsuccessful.

However, the three sons of Marcus Fabius Ambustus were sent as ambassadors [ca. 391 BCE] to protest with the Gauls, in the name of the senate and the Roman People, against their attack on those who had done them no wrong, and were the Roman People’s allies and friends. (6) The Romans, they said, would be obliged to defend them even to the point of going to war if circumstances should make it necessary. However, it had seemed preferable that the war itself should, if possible, be avoided, and that they should become familiar with the Gauls – a new descent group to them – in a friendly rather than in a hostile manner.

[For Livy’s subsequent discussion  of x peoples, go to this link (coming soon)]

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