Mont Vully. Photo/Foto: TES.

The Helvetians and Switzerland

The Helvetians (Helvetii in Latin) was the name for some Celtic tribes. They inhabited the Swiss Plateau, hence the format name of the country Confoederatio Helvetica.

Some tribes are known as the Tigurini, Ambrones, Verbigeni and Tugini. The Rauraci and Suebi inhabited the regions of Basel, Southern Alsace and Baden during the same period. The other tribes in present-day Switzerland and neighbouring areas were:

the Nantuates in Chablais, the Veragri in the Martigny region, the Seduni in the central part of Wallis, the Raetii in Graubünden (Grisons) and the area around St. Gallen, the Lepontii in Ticino, the Salassi in the Valley of Aosta and the Allobroges in Geneva (Roman territory from 122 B.C.).

Our sources are Roman and Greek authors and archaeologists. The Celts had no written culture. Their culture, settlements (called oppidum/oppida by Caesar) and societies are much better known nowadays through archaeology.

The Bello Gallico by Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) describes the Helvetians’ history, migration, and defeat in 58 B.C. at Bibracte (near Autun in France).

However, the first testimony about the Helvetians dates back to the end of the 4th century B.C. The first concrete date and the historical Helvetian name is “Divico.”. He is known from the battle of Agen in 107 B.C. as captain of the Tigurini, who defeated the Roman legions. Caeser presented the  Helvetians as the most powerful of the Celtic peoples.

His information provides an insight into their society. Slavery, aristocracy and warlords were the main characteristics. Their priests were called druids.

Today, around fifteen oppida on the Swiss territory have been discovered, most of them in the Swiss Plateau (Mont-Vully, Lausanne, Roggwil, Bern, Basel (murus gallicus), Jensberg, Bois de Châtel, Sermuz, Yverdon, Üetliberg, Windisch, Rheinau, Zürich, Altenburg).

The course of history after the defeat in 58 B.C. is Roman. The centuries of Aventicum as the capital of the Helvetians and Romanisation began, particularly after the Roman conquest in 15-13 B.C.

(Source: G. Kaenel, L’an, -58. Les Helvètes. Archéologie d’un peuple celte, Lausanne 2012).