The Helvetii Tribe was a confederation of four sub tribes or clans. While three of the four are named the fourth is unknown. There are ideas and speculation as to who the fourth tribe was but we’ll get to that later. These clans possibly united during the Cimbrian War when Germanic tribes from the Jutland Peninsula came down and fought against Rome and other Gaulish tribes.
From what we can tell from historical records and accounts, the tribes were equal in status. It’s never mentioned that one held more power or one tribe controlled the actions of the others. Sources usually point that clans were unanimous in their decision making for the Helvetii as a whole.
Each Helvetii clan were lead by a single King or Chieftan but it could be very possible that there were co-rulers. The first question that needs to be asked is, who lead the Helvetii? If there was a single leader they don’t seem to come from the same clan.
By this I mean some of the known Chieftains came from each of the clans. Divico, for example, was the chief of the Tigurini Tribe while Orgetorix was from one of the other three. Caesar’s account list the names a few chiefs but it’s never clear on who was the primary chieftain.
We never hear mention of a “High King” or any title that would suggest one overall leader. The events of the Cimbrian War subtly hint that the Helvetii Chiefs could work and operate independently, possibly with some autonomy from the rest of the tribe. During that time the Tigurini and Tougeni were involved with the battles and raids while the other two did not.
Another possibility is that the Helvetii were organized and led by a counsel. Although Druids are never mentioned in sources, it is possible that a counsel of Druids would come together to make decisions for the collective tribes. We do know that the Druids were paramount in Celtic cultures as teachers, religious practitioners, philosphers, healers, keepers of lore and history, and also as advisors to the cheiftans.
In Julius Caesar’s “The Conquest of Gaul” Orgetorix is brought before a war counsel in chains. In the book, Orgetorix was to stand trial before a tribunal of judges and noblemen. This account could suggest that delegates of high ranking officials formed a tribunal. Most likely this was just a collective meant for trial and not one for any kind of government action.
In “The Conquest of Gaul” a single overall leader is never named but Caesar recalls Helvetii movements and actions being made by the Helvetii themselves which is vague and lacking in important detail but does point to some sort of counsel or tribunal that makes decisions for the clans.
Given all this, it wouldn’t be hard to believe that the Helvetii tribal government was ran by a collective of noblemen, Chieftains, and/or Druids. The individual tribes were under command of their respective Chiefs.
Out of the four tribes, the Tigurini are predominantly featured by Caesar and Posidonius and others who wrote on the Helvetii. As stated earlier, it is possible that the tribes could act on their own accord seeing how two of the tribes joined the Cimbri in their raids and the other two did not.
But this could suggest that each tribe has their own function within the Helvetii. The Tigurini and Tougani would act as the primary warband to engage in wars. Maybe even that the Tigurini was the elite force or maybe as a commanding force while the Tougani were more like auxiliary or a secondary force (we will cover the reasoning later on).
The Verbigeni and the fourth tribe are scarsly mentioned which could mean that they played a role that wasn’t militaristic. They could have been more of a defensive role. Protecting the Helvetian lands in case they were invaded while the main force was gone. They could have been peacekeepers, workforce, artisans, etc.
The Helvetii were said to be “rich in gold” so the Verbigeni and the fourth could have been miners or lead smaller warbands who went on raids in the north away from the eyes of Rome and Greece. Posidonius also attests to the peaceful nature of the Helvetii so raiding might be unlikely.
Trading is another possibility for their wealth. One or both remaining tribes could have been economic focused. Their relationship with some of the Germanic tribes and the Greeks (seeing how they seemed to have a good relationship with some the Greek city states) may hint that the Helvetii could have had sound trading agreements with them.
The story of Helico doesn’t mention a translator which presents the possibility that the clans, or at least the nobility, were multilingual. Their alliance with the Cimbri and Ambrones lasted for a few years and the Helico story had a clear message that the Helvetii were willing to learn from others.
The four clans worked well together and it’s never questioned that their bond was strong. Maybe they knew that the Helvetii survival was relying solely on this alliance or maybe the alliance was forged by forebears that was ironclad and unbreakable.
I personally like to think that the clans were oringinated by four brothers or sisters, by individuals who had that strong of a bond. Regardless of what I think of their origin, the Helvetii had a government system that worked.
There’s no record of a civil war or a separation of the clans. They weren’t under the tight grip of a single monarch and the individual chiefs were given equal power over their own clans. I’m confident in saying that a single group of delegates from all four clans. Who’s judgement wasn’t questioned and seemed to be agreed on unanimously by the whole tribe.
Modern Swiss government slightly reflects this. As of 2018, Switzerland was seen as a full democracy and political power is given to two branches of government made up of elected officials. There is a President and Vice President but they do not have power over the delegates.
The Hevletti may or may not be the influence of how the Swiss Confederacy runs the country but it’s hard to not see a connection between past and present. There is always a good chance that I’m wrong but looking at the accounts, it’s not a farfetched theory.
Out of the four clans, the Tigurini, are featured more than the other three. Famously led by Divico (Divicus) during the Cimbrian War, the Tigurini were the fighting force of the Helvetii. They defeated the Romans until finally withdrawing when Gaius Marius took over the Roman Command.
The name means, “The Lords” from the word, tigurnos. Possibly a name earned from being Lords of the Battlefield. Their most notable victory was the Battle of Burdigala where the Roman forces were decimated by the combined forces of the Tigurini and Tougani.
The Tigurini are first recorded in 113 BC at the start of the Cimbrian War and it’s suggested that they were native to the Alpine region of Switzlerand. After the withdrawal from the Cimbrian War, they resettled in the Jura Mountians.
The Battle of Saône, Bibracte, and the Siege of Alesia reduced the Helvetii population and stripped the clans of their strength. Defeated but not destroyed, the clans were relocated back to the Swiss Plateau. The Helvetii were allowed to maintian the four clan system but they were denied Roman citizenship and like other Romanized cultures had to conscript warriors into the Roman Army.
It’s never mentioned if the Tigurini went back to the Jura Mountians or settled elsewhere. However the city of Zürich is most likely derived from the name Tigurini. The Latin form of Zürich is Turicum. Based on this, the city is sometimes referred to as Tigurum in Modern Latin contexts, such as the legend on coins minted in the city. An example is a Zürich ducat dated 1646, inscribed with DUCATUS NOVUS REIPUBL. TIGURI.
One of the seldomly mentioned tribes, The Verbigeni are mentioned by Caesar in his memoirs. This clan seems to be the polar opposite of the Tigurini as they are never said to have partake in war. This brings up a few questions. Namely, what role did they play in the Helvetii?
Best place to start is to look at the name. There is the Proto-Indo-European *werh₁- (to speak) which is the source of our words “word” and “verb” as well as the Latin “verbum” (word). There are no definite Celtic descendents of *werh₁-.
But consider the similarity between werbā and verbum, Latin v=w. So the Uerbigeni could mean “the tribe/clan of words”. The Verbigeni might have been a clan of Orators, Speakers, Diplomates, Bards, and even Druids.
“The Conquest of Gaul” mentions two leaders or Chieftains that initially acted as diplomats when asking Rome for permission to pass through Provincia Narbonensis. These leaders were Nammeius and Verucloetius. We will discuss their names and accounts another time, but it’s likely that one or both of these men lead the Verbigeni.
Like the Verbigeni themselves, Nammeius and Verucloetius are not mentioned again. Perhaps Caesar was more focused on Divico and his warrior politics than the peaceful attempts of the two diplomatic Chieftains.
Sadly there’s no evidence or connection to any post Roman or modern day city bearing the name Verbigeni but we know they inhabited the areas that are now known as Soleure, Argovie, Lucerne, and parts of the canton of Berne. In the western part of this territory is the Gallo-Roman city of Aventicum which would become the Helvetii capital.
Also known as “Toutonoi” or “Toygeni”, the Tougeni are more obscure like the Verbigeni. They are recorded in the Crimean War along side the Tigurini. While not as renown as warriors like the Tigurini, the Tougeni seem to have filled the role of auxiliary or support or as reinforcements during battles but there’s little information on it.
Their name is interesting for it’s very similar to the Germanic Tuetones Tribe who also participated in the Cimbrian War. Both the Tougeni and the Tuetones names roughly mean “Those of the Tribe” or something similar.
It’s possible they are cognate to one another. Perhaps cousins or at least allied tribes but one being Celtic and the other Germanic. The Greek historian Posidonius does attest to something like this. After the Helvetii are ultimately defeated by Rome, the Tougeni were said to have migrated back north to become or rejoin the Tuetones.
While some historians differentiate between the Tougeni and the Tuetones during the Cimbrian War, it might be likely that they were one tribe but split apart after the Cimbrians lost. The Tuetones would return to Jutland while the Tougeni would settle with the Tigurini and become Helvetii.
There’s different theories and possible scenarios as to their origin but there’s for sure a strong connection to the Tuetones. If they fractured and reformed or if the Tougeni would become Tuetones later on, they are linked in one way or another. If the Helvetii were bilingual or multilingual this would help explain how.
Their name suggests that the Tougeni were protectors of the tribe. While most Gaulish Polytheists don’t recognize Toutatis as a specific God but rather it’s a title or epithet of a tribal or regional God. The names Toutatis and Tougeni both are rooted in “The Tribe” or “Of The Tribe”.
The Tougeni could have played the role of the “backbone” of the tribe. The common folk: farmers, blacksmiths, weavers, potters, etc. Not so say they were lesser or inferior to the other tribes. On the contrary, the Tougeni were no strangers to battle.
Tigurini were the elite fighting force but the Tougeni could have supplemented their ranks with warbands, kept the defense on the home front as a national guard, or maybe even lent aid to allies or used their warbands as mercenaries. All speculation of course but not impossible to believe.
Whether or not they were warriors, craftsmen, or farmers, or if they were Celtic or Germanic or both, the Tougeni were and will always be of the Tribe. The Tougeni will always be of the Helvetii.
The Fourth Tribe
Sadly, this long forgotten fourth clan of the Helvetii are remembered as a vague mention by historians. Neither Caesar, Pliny the Elder, nor Posidonius ever give us a name for this tribe. However history does give clues as to who it could have been.One of the Germanic tribes to have joined the Cimbri during the Cimbrian War was the Ambrones.
The Ambrones are supposedly from Jutland but no source ever clarifies that for sure. It doesn’t help that their name roughly means “everywhere”. Roman historians say that the shattered forced of the Tuetones and Cimbri come together to form a new Belgic Gaulish tribe, the Atuatuci but nothing more is mentioned of the Ambrones.
As we covered in the last subject, the Tougeni maybe a fractured piece of the Tuetones. If that is the case, it could apply to the Ambrones as well. There are etymological, geographical, and even some historical pieces to help support this theory.
First, as always, etymology and while Ambrones can mean “everywhere” we may be able to dig deeper and look at their name from a different angle. Rather than looking for a Proto-Indo-European word, perhaps there’s a geographical element to look at.
The southwestern border of the Helvetii and the Rheatians lies a river known as the Ambri, now known as the Ticino. Ambrones could, in fact, mean “those who live on the Ambri”. Perhaps the Ambrones had a different name prior to the Cimbrian War and adopted the name by settling there.
Another idea that could be plausible is that the Helvetic Ambrones were the result of escaped gladiators during the Third Servile War (surviving Ambrone Warriors from the Cimbrian War were reported among these gladiators). Caesar’s accounts never cover what happened to the Tougeni or the Ambrones so it’s not hard to believe that these two clans joined the Tigurini and Verbigeni to form the Helvetii confederation.
With this theory in mind, we could see that the Ambrones would have made the Ambri river a key location. They could easily act as a border guard from any invaders trying to cross the river. The Ambri could also be used to trade with the neighboring Rheatians or other tribes, making the Ambrones a great economic asset to the Helvetii.
While the river’s name was changed from Ambri to Ticino (possibly from Germanic or Roman influence) the name Ambri lives on in the form of a small town near the river. Ambri is a small Swiss village and could be the descendants of those who live on the Ambri.
Alot of the information given here is speculative but not completely unfounded or invalid. It’s impossible to truly know how the tribes operated or even what their names were. But if anything that has been presented here has any truth to it, an argument could be made that each of the clans played a role in the overall Helvetii government and society.
The Tigurini were the military element, the Verbigeni were the educated, the Tougeni were the common folk, and the Ambrones the economic element. Each clan with a Chieftain offered a representative or representatives to form a grand counsel to run the tribes.
Or perhaps if you reimagine each tribe as a single person. The Tougeni was the King, the Tigurini is the general, the Verbigeni was the diplomat or ambassador or druid, and the Ambrones the financial advisor. Each tribe contributes to the overall well being and progression of the Helvetii. Four equally powerful forces come together to form one powerful tribe.
I want to give a special thanks to my good friend Ûailogenos for all the hard work that he put into research and all the assistance and his thoughts and theories as well.