The Volcae (Latin pronunciation: [ˈwɔɫkae̯]) were a Gallic tribal confederation constituted before the raid of combined Gauls that invaded Macedonia c. 270 BC and fought the assembled Greeks at the Battle of Thermopylae in 279 BC. Tribes known by the name Volcae were found simultaneously in southern Gaul, Moravia, the Ebro valley of the Iberian Peninsula, and Galatia in Anatolia. The Volcae appear to have been part of the late La Tène material culture, and a Celtic identity has been attributed to the Volcae, based on mentions in Greek and Latin sources as well as onomastic evidence. Driven by highly mobile groups operating outside the tribal system and comprising diverse elements, the Volcae were one of the new ethnic entities formed during the Celtic military expansion at the beginning of the 3rd century BC.[1] Collecting in the famous excursion into the Balkans, ostensibly, from the Greek point of view, to raid Delphi, a branch of the Volcae split from the main group on the way into the Balkans and joined two other tribes, the Tolistobogii and the Trocmi, to settle in central Anatolia and establish a new identity as the Galatians.

The Tectosagii were a group of the Volcae who moved through Macedonia into Anatolia c. 277 BC. Strabo says the Tectosagii came originally from the region near modern Toulouse, in France.


They are mentioned as Volcis and Volcarum by Caesar (mid-1st c. BC),[2] as Ou̓ólkai (Οὐόλκαι) by Strabo (early 1st c. AD) and Ptolemy (2nd c. AD),[3] and as Volce on the Tabula Peutingeriana (4–5th c. AD).[4][5]

Most modern Celtologists regard the tribal name Uolcae (sing. Uolcos) as stemming from a Gaulish noun uolcos, uolca ('hawk, falcon'), which can be compared with the Welsh gwalch ('hawk, rascal' > 'fighter'). In particular, the Gaulish personal name Catu-uolcos has an exact parallel in the Welsh cadwalch ('hero, champion, warrior'), itself from an earlier Old Brittonic *katu-wealkos ('battle-hawk'). The Gaulish stem uolc- can also be found in the personal names Uolcius, Uolcenius, Uolcenia, Uolcinius, Uolcacius, Uolciani, and Uolcanus.[6][7][8] The Old English wealc- ('hawk'), which has no known cognate in other Germanic languages, was most likely borrowed from Old Brittonic *wealkos.[9] The etymology of those forms remains obscure. Xavier Delamarre has proposed to derive Gaulish uolcos – alongside Latin falcō ('falcon') and falx, falcis ('hook, sickle') – from a stem *ǵhwol-k-, itself based on the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root *ǵʷhel- ('bend, curve'). In this view, the animal may have been named after the shape of his beak, just like the Ancient Greek harpē designates both a sickle and a bird of prey.[7]

Alternatively, the name Uolcae has been derived by some scholars from the PIE name of the wolf, *wḷkʷos.[10][11] According to Ranko Matasović, however, this is unlikely since the Gaulish form would have preserved the o-grade *wolkʷo-; he argues that descendants of Proto-Celtic *ulkʷos ('bad, evil' < PIE *wḷkʷos 'wolf') rather include Lepontic Ulkos and Old Irish olc ('bad, evil').[12] Delamarre finds it doubtful since *wḷkʷos would have given **flech (rather than olc) in Old Irish and **ulipos in Gaulish (after the P-Celtic sound shift).[7] John T. Koch derives Old Irish olc from a Proto-Celtic form *elko- ~ *olko-, which may be compared with Old Norse illr (from Proto-Germanic *elhja- < Pre-Germanic *elkyo-; cf. the Finnish loanword elkiä 'mean, malicious'); he proposes that reflexes of PIE *wḷkʷos ('wolf') include Old Irish foilc (from a 9th-century poem) and Old Welsh gueilc[h] (from the poem Y Gododdin).[13]

After Volcae Tectosages settled in the Hercynian forest (Central Europe), neighbouring Germanic tribes designated them by the name *walhaz, a loanword from Gaulish uolcos that came to refer more generally to Celtic and Romance speakers in medieval Germanic languages (e.g. Welsh, Waals, Vlachs).[7]

Volcae of the Danube

Caesar's ethnogenesis and migrations of the Volcae.

Julius Caesar was convinced that the Volcae had originally been settled east of the Rhine, for he mentioned the Volcae Tectosages as a Gaulish tribe which still remained in western Germany in his day (Gallic War 6.24):

And there was formerly a time when the Gauls excelled the Germans in prowess, and waged war on them offensively, and, on account of the great number of their people and the insufficiency of their land, sent colonies over the Rhine. Accordingly, the Volcae Tectosages, seized on those parts of Germany which are the most fruitful [and lie] around the Hercynian forest, (which, I perceive, was known by report to Eratosthenes and some other Greeks, and which they call Orcynia), and settled there. Which nation to this time retains its position in those settlements, and has a very high character for justice and military merit; now also they continue in the same scarcity, indigence, hardihood, as the Germans, and use the same food and dress; but their proximity to the Province and knowledge of commodities from countries beyond the sea supplies to the Gauls many things tending to luxury as well as civilization. Accustomed by degrees to be overmatched and worsted in many engagements, they do not now even compare themselves to the Germans in prowess.

Caesar related a tradition associating the Celtic tribe of the Volcae to the vast Hercynian Forest, although they were possibly located in the eastern range of the České Středohoří;[citation needed] yet, Volcae of his time were settled in Moravia, east of the Boii. Their apparent movement may indicate that the Volcae were newcomers to the region. Caesar's remark about the wealth of this region may have referred not only to agriculture but also to the mineral deposits there, while the renown attributed to the Volcae "in peace and in war" resulted from their metallurgical skills and the quality of their weapons, both attracting the attention of their northern neighbors.[14] Together with the Boii in the upper basin of the Elbe river to the west and the Cotini in Slovakia to the east, this area of Celtic settlement in oppida led to the exploitation of natural resources on a grand scale and the concentration of skilled craftsmen under the patronage of strong and wealthy chieftains. This culture flourished from the mid second to the mid-1st century BCE, until it buckled under the combined pressure of the Germanic peoples from the North and the Dacians from the East.

Allowance must be made for Julius Caesar's usual equation of primitive poverty with admirable hardihood and military prowess and his connection of luxurious imports and the proximity of "civilization", meaning his own, with softness and decadence. In fact, long-established trading connections furnished Gaulish elites with Baltic amber and Greek and Etruscan wares.

Caesar took it as a given that the Celts in the Hercynian Forest were emigrant settlers from Gaul who had "seized" the land, but modern archeology identifies the region as part of the La Tène homeland. As Henry Howarth noted a century ago, "The Tectosages reported by Caesar as still being around the Hercynian forest were in fact living in the old homes of their race, whence a portion of them set out on their great expedition against Greece, and eventually settled in Galatia, in Asia Minor, where one of the tribes was called Tectosages."[15]

Volcae of Gaul

Map showing the relative position of the Volcae and Tectosages.

Volcae Arecomici

The Volcae Arecomici (Οὐόλκαι Ἀρικόμιοι of Ptolemy's Geography ii), according to Strabo,[16] dwelt on the western side of the lower Rhône, with their metropolis[17] at Narbo (Narbonne): "Narbo is spoken of as the naval-station of these people alone, though it would be fairer to add 'and of the rest of Celtica', so greatly has it surpassed the others in the number of people who use it as a trade-centre." They were not alone in occupying their territory,[18] with its capital at Nemausus (Nîmes).

The Volcae Arecomici of their own accord surrendered to the Roman Republic in 121 BC. They occupied the district between the Garonne (Garumna), the Cévennes (Cebenna mons),[19] and the Rhône.[20][21] This area covered most of the western part of the Roman province of Gallia Narbonensis. They held their assemblies in the sacred wood of Nemausus, the site of modern Nîmes.

In Gaul they were divided into two tribes in widely separated regions, the Arecomici on the east, living among the Ligures, and the Tectosages (whose territory included that of the Tolosates) on the west, living among the Aquitani; the territories were separated by the Hérault (Arauris) or a line between the Hérault and the Orb (Orbis).[20]

Volcae Tectosages

Tectosages coins, Southern France, 5th-1st century BC.
Coin of the Volcae Tectosages, silver 3.58 g (0.126 oz). Monnaie de Paris.

West of the Arecomici the Volcae Tectosages (whose territory included that of the Tolosates) lived among the Aquitani; the territories were separated by the Hérault (Arauris) or a line between the Hérault River and the Orb (Orbis). Strabo says the Volcae Tectosages came originally from the region near modern Toulouse and were part of the Volcae.[22]

The territory of the Volcae Tectosages (Οὐόλκαι Τεκτόσαγες of Ptolemy's Geography ii) in Gaul lay outside the Roman Republic, to the southwest of the Volcae Arecomici. From the 3rd century BC, the capital city of the Volcae Tectosages was Tolosa (Toulouse). When the Cimbri and Teutones invaded Gaul, the Tectosages allied themselves with them, and their town Tolosa was sacked in retribution by Quintus Servilius Caepio in 106 BC.[23] Tolosa was incorporated into the Roman Republic as part of the province of Gallia Aquitania with the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar in 52 BC. The Roman conquest of Tolosa ended the cultural identity of the Volcae Tectosages.

According to Ptolemy's Geography, their inland towns were Illiberis,[24] Ruscino, Tolosa colonia, Cessero, Carcaso, Baetirae, and Narbo colonia.

The Volcae Tectosages were among the successful raiders of the Delphi expedition and were said to have transported their booty to Tolosa. A significant part of these raiders however did not return and crossed the Bosporus instead. As a result, Tectosages was also the name of one of the three great communities of Gauls who invaded and settled in Anatolia in the country called after them "Galatia".[20]

Venceslas Kruta suggests that their movement into this region was probably motivated by a Carthaginian recruiting post situated close by, a main attraction of the region for Celtic mercenaries eager for more campaigning.[25] Indeed, after crossing the Pyrenees in 218 BC, Hannibal in travelling through southern Gaul was greeted by warlike tribes: the Volcae, the Arverni, the Allobroges, and the Gaesatae of the Rhône Valley, who rose to prominence around the middle of the 3rd century BC. From around that time, this part of Gaul underwent a process of stabilization buttressed by the formation of new and powerful tribal confederations as well as the development of new-style settlements, such as Tolosa and Nemausus (Nîmes), resembling the urban centers of the Mediterranean world.[26]

In 107, the Volcae, allies of the Tigurini, a branch of the Helvetii who belonged to a coalition that formed around the Cimbri and the Teutons, defeated a Roman army at Tolosa.[27] In 106-5, Q. Servilius Caepio was sent with an army to put down the revolt, and as a result, Tolosa was sacked, and thereafter the town and its territory were absorbed into Gallia Narbonensis, thereby establishing firm control over the western Gallic trade corridor along the Carcassonne Gap and the Garonne.[28]

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The Volcae were highly influential in Moravia, and together with the Boii and the Cotini and other Danubian tribes, they controlled a highly active network of trade routes connected to the Mediterranean and the German lands.


  1. ^ Kruta, Venceslas. Celts: History and Civilization. London: Hachette Illustrated, 2004: 204.
  2. ^ Caesar. Commentarii de Bello Gallico, 7:7:4, 1:35:4.
  3. ^ Strabo. Geōgraphiká, 4:1:12; Ptolemy. Geōgraphikḕ Hyphḗgēsis, 2:10:6.
  4. ^ Tabula Peutingeriana, x:x.
  5. ^ Falileyev 2010, s.v. Volcae Arecomici and Volcae Tectosages.
  6. ^ Evans 1967, p. 292.
  7. ^ a b c d Delamarre 2003, p. 327.
  8. ^ de Bernardo Stempel 2008, p. 103.
  9. ^ Koch 2020, p. 151.
  10. ^ Hughes 2012, p. 166.
  11. ^ Koch 2020, pp. 96–98.
  12. ^ Matasović 2009, p. 400.
  13. ^ Koch 2020, pp. 96–98, 140.
  14. ^ Green, D. H. Language and history in the early Germanic world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998: 163.
  15. ^ Howorth 1908:431.
  16. ^ Strabo, IV.1.12
  17. ^ "Capital" applied to Gallic tribes offers misleading expectations.
  18. ^ "Situated alongside the Arecomici as far as the Pyrenees, are other tribes, which are without repute and small" (Strabo, IV.1.12).
  19. ^ The Cévennes "formed a natural boundary between the Volcae Arecomici and the Gabali and Ruteni" to the east (Smith 1854).
  20. ^ a b c  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Volcae". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 28 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 178.
  21. ^ "At the time of Hannibal's invasion of Italy, the Volcae had also possessions east of the Rhône" (Smith 1854); see Livy xxi. 26 and Strabo 203).
  22. ^ "that people of the Volcae who are called Tectosages" (Strabo, IV.1.12 on-line text).
  23. ^ Howorth 1908:432.
  24. ^ In Roman times Illiberis— in Basque, "iri-berri" or "ili-berri", still signifies "new town"— signified more than one place: see Illiberis.
  25. ^ Kruta, Venceslas. Celts: History and Civilization. (London: Hachette Illustrated), 2004: 82-3.
  26. ^ Kruta 2004:99.
  27. ^ Kruta 2004:108.
  28. ^ Cunliffe, Barry. The Ancient Celts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997: 236


  • de Bernardo Stempel, Patrizia (2008). "Linguistically Celtic ethnonyms: towards a classification". In García Alonso, Juan Luis (ed.). Celtic and Other Languages in Ancient Europe. Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca. ISBN 978-8478003358.
  • Delamarre, Xavier (2003). Dictionnaire de la langue gauloise: Une approche linguistique du vieux-celtique continental. Errance. ISBN 9782877723695.
  • Evans, D. Ellis (1967). Gaulish Personal Names: A Study of Some Continental Celtic Formations. Clarendon Press. OCLC 468437906.
  • Falileyev, Alexander (2010). Dictionary of Continental Celtic Place-names: A Celtic Companion to the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World. CMCS. ISBN 978-0955718236.
  • Hughes, A. J. (2012). "On substantiating Indo-European *wḷHos 'wolf' in Celtic, Continental and Insular". Études celtiques. 38 (1): 165–173. doi:10.3406/ecelt.2012.2352.
  • Koch, John T. (2020). Celto-Germanic, Later Prehistory and Post-Proto-Indo-European vocabulary in the North and West. University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies. ISBN 9781907029325.
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Further reading