Who Were The Helvetii?

The word “Helvetii” is Latin but graffiti on a ship from roughly 300 BC that reads “Eluveitie” in Etruscan letters. This has been interpreted as (The Helvetian). Gaulish language reconstruction points to Eluêtii or Eluêtioi to mean Helvetii. Singular member of the tribe would be Eluêtios/Eluêtiâ/Eluêtion (masc/fem/nuet) and to say “of the Helvetii” would also be Eluêtion as well. Credit for the language contruction goes to Leitonellos (Nellos) Tarvogenos.

The Helvetii tribe are apart of the cultural linguistic group called “Gaul”. Gaul falls under the Celtic umbrella but they were never a united people. Sadly these tribes were always separated and even warred against one another. There were brief alliances and even rumors of attempts to unite Gaul either through diplomacy or through conquest but all these ended with failure and Rome took advantage of the splintered tribes.

The region known as Gaul or “Gallia” is what is now modern day France, Belgium, and Switzerland but these tribes populated most of western Europe. From the Iberian Peninsula (Cetliberians) to as far east as Romania and even parts of Turkey (Galatis).

The Helvetii migrated out of southern Germany and headed south, settling in what is now Switzerland. Helvetii were a confederation of 4 subtribes, clans, or pagi. Caesar names two of these clans as the Verbigeni and the Tigurini. Posidonius also names the Tigurini as well as the Tougeni who possibly migrated back north to go on to become the Tuetones. Sadly the name of the fourth tribe is lost to history.

The Helvetii history is primarily recorded by Julius Caesar in his “Conquest of Gaul” memoirs. This source, however, is most likely heavily biased as Caesar most likely conflated and altered facts. Still there are some truths in his journal to go off of and a half valid source is better than no source at all.

In 58 BC, the Helvetii attempted to migrate from the Swiss plataeu into the southwestern region of Gaul led by the Chieftain Orgetorix. Rome denied them entry and the Helvetian War began. The wars and revolts against Rome earned the Helvetii a name synonymous with rebellion and never backing down from Imperialism that lasts even today. While the Helvetii were the first to fall and suffer subjugation under the rule of Rome, the Helvetian spirit was never snuffed out. Their name was adopted as the Latin equivalant of the designation Switzer and the Swiss Confederacy was given the Latin name of Republica Helvetiorum. The name of the national personification of Switzerland, Helvetia, and the country’s contemporary Neo-Latin name, Confoederatio Helvetica (abbreviated CH), are derived from this tradition.

Sources and further history on the Helvetti will be posted soon but hopefully this gives you a good understanding on who the Helvetii were and, in some ways, still are.