A Celtic Tribe

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Celtic Tribes in Switzerland

History of the Helvetians

From about 500 B.C. to A.D. 400, several Celtic tribes, the most important of them named the Helvetians settled in Switzerland. They belonged to a family of nations that has been designated as Indo-Europeans because of evidently common roots in their languages that distinguish them from Asian, African or Semite (Arab, Hebrew) languages. Among the Indo-Europeans we find the Greeks, the Romans, Germanic and Slawonian tribes but as well parts of the Persian and Indian population. It has been assumed that the Indo-European tribes all came from the prairies of Southern Russia.

Oppidum of the Helvetians, Mount Vully, reconstructed section of ramparts
Helvetian Oppidum on Mount Vully:
reconstructed section of ramparts
  Unlike the prehistoric population of Switzerland the Helvetians preferred towns on hills to the open shore of lakes. Several Oppida [Oppidum = fortified Celtic city] of the Helvetians on hills have been excavated.

Culture of the Helvetians

Ancient Greek and Roman historians described the Celtic tribes as barbaric. Modern archeology has corrected this picture quite a bit. From excavations at La Tène on the shores of Lake Neuchâtel (western Switzerland, 1858) and many more in France, Germany and Austria we know that the Celts in central Europe had a highly developed culture. The Celtic cultural period Latène between 450 B.C. and 50 B.C. has been named after the excavations at La Tène.

Torques (Golden Celtic Collar) The Helvetians were skilled craftsmen, had highly developed technology in metal working and sense of style. They also knew how to organize work in pre-industrial manufactories. Celtic carts and wagons were even superior to Greek and Roman ones.

Were the Celts Barbarians?

Whether the Celtic habits to cry aloud when fighting or to collect cranes of killed enemies are more barbaric than the Roman habits to break treaties, take foreign diplomats as hostages and kill women and children in war (Cesar frankly admits that he often did so during his war against the Celts) and to let gladiators fight against wild animals in amphitheatres remains to be discussed. Other Greek and Roman arguments for Celtic barbarianism are just a matter of taste, not of civilization: the Celts did stiffen their hair with chalked water and they drank wine undiluted (while Greeks and Romans diluted it with water).

Austrian Celts traded with Greece; Swiss, French and Spanish Celts traded with Greek and Roman colonies in Southern France (Massilia = Marseille, Nice and others), Italy and Spain. They used Greek and Roman coins and coined their own later. At least a part of the Celtic population was able to read and write in Greek or Latin, but it seems they were not really interested in literature. So almost everything we know about the Celts (except for archeology) is written by Greek and Roman historians and commanders and insofar filtered through Greek and Roman prejudice.

What is worse: the scarce reports of these foreigners do not give insight into the spiritual world of the Celts. As a German proverb says "A picture tells more than a thousand words" - but it might as well nourish and lead astray the fantasy of those trying to interpret scenes engraved in pottery.

Bibracte: Helvetians vs. Romans

In 58 B.C. the Helvetians attempted to move south to Southern France. But they were stopped by the Roman commander and subsequent emperor C. Iulius Caesar near a Celtic town named Bibracte. Julius Cesar forced the Helvetians to return to Switzerland. Roman military camps and forts were erected at the northern Rhine frontier towards Germany to deter Germanic tribes from infiltration.

HELVETIA = Switzerland

The name of the Helvetians lived on in the Latin name of Switzerland, Helvetia during the Middle Ages, when Latin was used as a common European language for diplomacy and science. The Swiss Revolution of 1798 was first of all a rebellion against the supremacy of the founders of the Old Swiss Confederacy, Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden and the cities of Lucerne, Zurich and Bern over the rest of the country. So it seems quite logical that the revolutionaries preferred the Latin name Helvetia to the colloquial name Schweiz (in German, derived from Schwyz) or Suisse (in French). Consequently they proclaimed the Helvetic Republic. The name was changed back again when the revolutionary experiment failed. In the Latin form it continued to exist, however.

Today, Helvetia is used as a keyword for Switzerland when a short name not depending on one of the four official languages spoken in different parts of Switzerland is needed.

Swiss stamps are labeled HELVETIA

So the label HELVETIA can be found on Swiss coins and postal stamps, while the abbreviation ch stands for Confoederatio Helvetica, the Latin version of "Swiss Confederation" (hence the CH-sticker on Swiss cars and Switzerland's top level internet domain .ch).

CH = Confoederatio Helvetica (country code on cars)

Swiss aircraft are identified by HB-... (H=Helvetia, B=second country code beginning with H) and Swiss radio amateurs by HB9....

Links: Helvetians

  • Latenium: This museum at Neuchâtel, Switzerland, shows the findings of La Tène.
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