29 June 2011

Romans, Alpine Celts and Belgae : close cousins ?

             Published, formatted and images added by Kenneth S. Doig
Recent genetic data suggests that ancient Italic tribes, including the Romans, were closely related to the Alpine Celts who founded the Hallstatt and La Tène cultures. In other words, the Romans conquest of Gaul was more like the final part of the unification process of the Italo-Celtic tribes.

Genetic evidence

The S28/U152 SNP was discovered as a subclade of haplogroup R1b about 2 years ago and tests have become more widespread over the last year. The original trend seem to point at a Celtic origin for this haplogroup, with a possible origin in the Black Forest or Switzerland.

R1b-S28 was found in the area of extension of the La Tene culture, along the Rhine, Moselle and Meuse valleys north to Belgium, around the Alps in Eastern France (Lorraine, Vosges, Jura, and maybe as far as Auvergne), and in northern Italy, known as Cisalpine Gaul by the Romans. The haplogroup was also observed at lower frequency in Britain, which is compatible with the establishment of Belgic tribes there prior to the Roman conquest.

But it now appears that R1b-S28 is also the most common subclade of R1b in Italy, even in the south and in Sardinia. It could indeed be the original haplogroup of the Italic tribes, prior to the arrival of the Etruscans, the Greeks and the Phoenicians.

The coalescence age for R1b-S28 haplotypes is around 3,500 years ago, about 1,000 years before the beginning of the European Bronze Age. This makes it possible for a common origin of the Alpine Celts and Italic tribes. Little is known of the Italics before the mythical foundation of Rome in 753 BCE.

In all likelihood, the ancestor of all/most R1b-S28 people lived in the Western Hallstatt culture, around the Black Forest. This happens to be the place where the highest STR diversity is found for this haplogroup, which usually means that it is the place of origin.

Linguistic evidence

This theory is further corroborated by linguistic evidence. Italic and Celtic languages belonged to the same Italo-Celtic family. It is known that at the time of Julius Caesar Gaulish dialects were still mutually intelligible with Latin, meaning that the two linguistic groups had not split so long ago.

Archeological evidence

Archeological evidence suggest that the Italics may not have colonised the Italian peninsula before 1,000 BCE. The nearest and most probable place of origin of the Italics was the Alps region, where the Hallstatt culture (1,200-475 BCE) flourished.

This would explain why Roman helmets and other military equipment, were directly inspired by Alpine Celtic ones.

The Romans became more technologically and culturally advanced than their northern cousins thanks to the influence of their Near-Eastern neighbours, the Etruscans (immediately north of Rome) and the Greeks (to the south). The Romans combined the best elements of Celtic and Greco-Etruscan culture and technology to become a superpower.

The Celts were said to be fiercer warriors than the Greeks, who were themselves stronger than the Persians (they never let themselves conquered, even in the heyday of Darius and Xerxes). Even Alexander the Great feared the Alpine/Danubian Celts, and made sure to secure peace with them before setting off to conquer the Middle East. The Celts invaded Greece a few decades after Alexander's death, and sacked Delphi in 279 BCE. Those were the same Alpine Celts that had sacked Rome in 390 BCE, and besieged it again in 367 BCE.

Until the 3rd century, the Alpine Celts were the strongest military power in Europe, and the fastest expanding culture. The La Tène culture spread well beyond Gaul and Italy, to Iberia, Britain, the Balkans and Anatolia.

If the Romans were in fact close relatives of those Celts, equipped with the Greek advances in agriculture, ship-building, military strategy, and political structure, it is no wonder that they defeated everybody else so easily.

Roman relations with their Alpine Celtic cousins

Many Eastern Gaulish tribes (e.g. Sequani. Aedui) allied themselves to Julius Caesar during the Conquest of Gaul. In fact they had long had good relations with Rome and were the ones who requested Caesar's assistance to fight other tribes. Before Caesar's time the Aedui had attached themselves to the Romans, and were honoured with the title of brothers and kinsmen of the Roman people. Perhaps it is no wonder that the Romans had the hardest time defeating the tribes closest to them, the Suebi and the Belgae.

This also explains why the Romans called the Suebi and other Celts of modern south-west Germany the "Germani". The Latin Germani comes from germanus (from germen, "seed" or "offshoot"). The term was used to mean that they were the genuine Celts (descendants of the Hallstatt and La Tène Celts), as opposed to the other tribes of Gaul. Or it meant that they, Romans, descended from the same "seed" as these Germani from the Black Forest, or saw each others as offshoots of the same tribe.

The Roman provinces of Germania match exactly the regions where R1b-S28 has the highest frequency, around modern Belgium (Germania Inferior), and around the Baden-Württemberg (Germania Superior).

This may be why the name Germanicus was used in the Rome aristocracy, like for Emperors Caligula (Germanicus Julius Caesar) and Claudius (Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus). It may have been a reference to the Roman's origins in Germania. In any case they didn't think of these Germani as contemptible or inferior, otherwise they would not have named members of the imperial family after them. It was closer to an honorific title.


If this theory is confirmed, it would mean that the original Romans were an offshoot of the Alpine/Black Forest Celts, just like the Belgae, and the Galatians of Anatolia.

Naturally the Romans unified Italy and annexed Greece before conquering Gaul, so by the time of Julius Caesar, being Roman meant being Greco-Roman. It terms of haplogroups of the Y-chromosome, it means an admixture of Italo-Celtic R1b-S28 (and probably also G2a3, which arrived in Europe during the Neolithic) with Greco-Etruscan J2 and E1b1b.

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