October 21, 2011

A history of the Basque Wars (I)

On occasion of ongoing political events, I think it is important to remember that the Basque conflict is not something new at all but that its roots lay deep within the layers of history.

This is a short tentative history of the wars that the Basques have held against the Indoeuropean invaders. They may well have extended deeper into the past, as archaeology suggests, but the first historical evidence we have comes from the Romans. In 56 BC the campaigns of Caesar in Transalpine Gaul brought the Roman legions in contact with the Aquitani (of Basque language by all accounts).

War of Aquitania

Caesar sent P. Crassus with 12 cohorts plus cavalry and auxiliary troops to Aquitania, via Tolosa (modern Toulouse), and attacked the Sotiates, besieging their main city. After some fight this tribe, the mightiest of all Aquitani negotiated a surrender (De Bellum Gallicum XX and XXI). 

The capture of Sos alarmed the rest of the Basque tribes that assembled at least 50,000 troops against Crassus, not just from Aquitania but also from those parts of Hispania [Iberian Peninsula] that are nearest to it (the Cantabri are mentioned by name as well as procuring troops). However carelessness on the part of the Aquitanian army, which left the rear of their fortified camp unguarded, allowed a sudden victory to Crassus, whose men slayed 3/4 of the Basque Army.

This caused the surrender of the Aquitani.

Ref.: The Bello Gallico (book III).

Location of likely Basque-speaking tribes (red) in Antiquity

The Cantabrian War

Then, since 29 BCE, took place the conquest of Cantabria. There is much controversy on whether the Cantabri (and by extension the culturally similar Astures) were of Celtic or pre-Celtic (Basque) origin. There is no archaeological evidence supporting Celtization of the area (Urnfields/Hallstatt in Iberia), toponymy is non-Celtic, and the nation always fought with other Basque peoples like the Aquitani or the Autrigones.

In 29 BCE Aquitani and some Gaulish tribes (Treveri, Helvetii) rebelled. A Roman cohort was also massacred in Autrigon territory (Andogoste, in modern Araba) that year, however the Romans consolidated their presence in the Vaccean plains. In 28 BCE several Roman generals claim victories in Hispania and Gaul but it's unclear against whom.

In 27 BCE Gaius Octavianus Thurinus (Octavius) was named Augustus and headed to Iberia with an army of eight legions, arriving the next year. In Summer 26 BCE takes Asturica and Amaia, the capital cities of Astures and Cantabri. The war continued however. In 25 BCE the remnants of the Cantabrian Army took refuge in the high mountains but were besieged there by the Romans, dying in the Winter. In 24 BCE the fortress of Aracillum (Arakil?) was captured.

The war however was far from finished. As soon as Octavius returned to Rome revolt ensued, persisting for several years until it was quelled in 19 BCE, forcing the Cantabri to move their villages to the valleys (instead of the hillsides). Deportations and crucifixions were all part of the brutal Roman repression that ensued. Enslavement failed however, because Cantabrian slaves would murder their masters and run away, so no prisoners were taken in the end.

The last revolt happened in 16 BCE. In order to guarantee the control of the territory three legions remained. Even a century later, in 68 AD, a legion was still permanently located in the area to secure the access to the gold mines and general Roman control, this legion is the origin of the city of León.

The Bagaudae

The Bagaudae was not an ethnic war originally but a class war instead. The decadent late Western Roman Empire had taken a clear path towards Feudalism, implying that many tribal communal lands were being appropriated by landowners and free people were being enslaved (servum = slave) or almost (colonus = serf). As reaction farmers from the Western parts of the Empire revolted. 

The transition between Rome and no Rome happened here in two years: in 407, Basque troops under Roman command were able to prevent that Vandals, Alans and Suebi crossed the Pyrenees into Hispania. In 409, the Roman commanders brought to the imperial capital (Ravenna, not anymore Rome), they were allowed free passage, effectively taking control of all Western and Southern Iberia.

409-17 was also the apogee of the Bagaudae in Gaul.

In 410 the Visigoths sacked Rome. To prevent further damage, the weak Western Roman Emperor Honorius sent them to the West as foederati (allies), so they would combat against Bagaudae and independent barbarians alike in the name of the Empire. Their capital was Tolosa (Toulouse) at the gates of Vasconia. 

The Visigoths were very successful, conquering much of Hispania but they could never submit the Basques apparently.

It is most likely that the Basque aspect of the Bagaudae is the only reason why there is a Basque language and a Basque identity today. It is hard to believe that this ethnic identity could have survived without a de facto political independence as was generated by this revolt.

The destruction of Cantabria City and the rise of Vasconia

As I say, the Visigoths were very successful in Iberia, conquering the Vandal and Alan realms. Later, they also lost the Northern provinces to the Frankish, being forced to move their capital to Toletum (Toledo). 

As marche against the Basques they founded the Duchy of Cantabria, of unclear borders. As part of their campaigns they destroyed in 574 the capital of the Cantabri Amaia (rock of the mother in Basque) and a mystery town known to legend as Cantabria City, allegedly not far from Logroño. 

About that time, c. 602, the Franks created a similar entity in the North: the Duchy of Vasconia.  Since 626 there was a Basque rebellion against which the Franks sent a huge army lead by no less than nine dukes. This army was however defeated at Subola (modern Zuberoa/Xiberue/Soule).

In 643 the revolt extended to the North and in 648 to the South. Pamplona was clearly not under Visigothic control since at least 589.

Duchy of Vasconia in the 8th century

The situation remains unclear for lack of written sources (probably indicating de facto independence) until 660, when Felix, Duke of Aquitaine (in the Middle Ages indicating the lands North of the Garonne and not anymore the Basque Country, would-be Gascony), assumes also the title of Duke of Vasconia. 

He and his heirs ruled these two realms in personal union for more than a century, effectively independent from any other power. However, with the Muslim invasion, the realm began facing hard times.

In 714 the Arabs took Pamplona, in 721 they were defeated by Odo the Great at Toulouse but in 732 he was defeated near Bordeaux. The Duke had only one choice: to accept the claims of sovereignty by the Franks, led then by the Machiavellian Charles Martel, who had remained in the sidelines awaiting for his opportunity, and ask for military help. 

Together the two armies decisively defeated the Muslims at Tours or Poitiers, at the banks of the Loire, the Northern border of Aquitaine then. While the Muslim invaders laid vanquished, the position of the greedy Franks was then one of unprecedented strength. 

The three battles of Orreaga (Roncevaux Pass)

Trapped between two powerful states: the Spanish Emirate of Cordoba and the Frankish Kingdom, both with declared imperial ambitions (Cordoba was ruled by the Ummayads, who would eventually reclaim the title of Caliph, while Charlemagne would soon accept the title of Roman Emperor), the position of the independent Basques became very difficult. 

The ambition of Charlemagne was the major threat in any case, not only he was determined to exert his nominal overlordship on Vasconia but also he was offered once and again cities in Iberia wanting to escape Muslim domination. 

The first one of these was Zaragoza, the capital of the Upper Marche, the governor totally betrayed the Emir and turned the city to the Franks, suddenly arisen to be the most powerful realm of Europe. Charlemagne personally led the invading army, which had to go through Basque territory. However upon arrival, a new governor had been appointed for Zaragoza and Charlemagne had to pull back.

While retreating, he decided to demolish the walls of Pamplona, leaving the city exposed to Muslim invasion, or maybe he destroyed the city altogether. This was one step too far and the Basque militias were summoned, maybe by the Duke Otsoa himself, slaying the Frankish aristocracy in a key ambush, on August 15th 778. 

This was the only major defeat of Charlemagne and one he lamented all his life.

It is unclear if the battle took place at the spot now claimed to be, Roncevaux (too open), but surely not far away, maybe further east near the peak of Urkuilu, where the old Roman road (but not the modern asphalt road) went through.

There was a second battle of Roncevaux in 812, which resulted in stalemate. A third battle in 824 was a clear Basque victory (possibly because of turnover by Count of Vasconia Aznar Sans, who was spared). The leader of this expedition, Duke Eblus of Auvergne was sent to Cordoba where he was decapitated.  

These battles helped to contain the Frankish encroaching and eventually secured the independence of Vasconia, which nevertheless was more and more romanized, becoming Gascony. They also helped to forge a new and most important state: the Kingdom of Pamplona. 

(... to be continued).


  1. Hi, Maju...

    Are you sure the Cantabri are related to the Basques?

    Wikipedia says:
    "A detailed analysis of place-names in ancient Cantabria shows a strong Celtic element along with an almost equally strong "Para-Celtic" element (both Indo-European) and thus disproves the idea of a substantial pre-Indo-European or Basque presence in the region.[2]"


    The paper that refers to is here:

  2. You can't never be certain but of one thing: stubborn Spanish nationalists will not be moved from their Celticist positions. But they have no argument other than repetition of a lie: the Goebbels argument we can call it.

    As for the paper, many of those listed toponyms are obviously Basque (Adur, Amaia, Portus Amanum < Amara (marsh) > modern Abando/Abanto) but anyhow the list is clearly arbitrary AND the interpretation is as well. It's one of those opinion articles that come handy when appealing to authority (I presume this guy, whose name I had never read before, has "some" authority in Canada or some sort) but it's just an opinion.

    The most solid name is Nervion, usually attributed to Celtic Nervii (but no such tribe in the area so it may be IE for nerve or an IE deformation of another root or whatever). He mentions Nervion but not its twin the Ibaizabal for example, of clear Basque etymology.

    Segobriga is consensually accepted to be modern Segovia in Castile, hence a Vaccean town, misattributed to the Vardulians. Similar cases are Flaviobriga, a Roman foundation, etc.

    Aracoeli is modern Uharte-Arakil, which clearly reads in Basque: Between-rivers-End-of-valley (ara-ko-il, similar to aragoi > aragon, etc.) It could still be argued to be Latin but never Celtic.

    Others are just so dubious that amount to fooling ignorants. I could have written this kind of paper if all cared about was money and not truth.

  3. If you have a chance, can you take a look at my blog post related to my y-DNA results, here, and scroll down to generation 23. My direct paternal ancestral line appears to descend from Moors who ended up in Basque Country, and then moved on to Gascony and Scotland. I'm curious what you make of the migration pattern, and if you have any insight on why my family might have chosen the migration path it did.

  4. I'll reply in your blog, Kevin.

  5. Thank you. That gives me quite a few topics to research.

  6. All of this info is false.
    Real roman sources (Plinio,Estrabon, Dinio Casio) only wrote about Cantabri and Cantabri Astur wars. Nothing att all about baseque, why ´re you inventing?
    In fact, roman sources yet, they talk about people living in nowadays Basque country, only to say they were traitors to Cantabri and Astur.
    PLease, rectify your blog

    1. I don't think I invented anything but, in any case, could you be more specific on the exact content you would like to be rectified and the exact reasons why you think it should? I really don't get your point at all.

  7. Great information about my heritage yes I am a URQUIDEZ

    1. Never saw that surname before but it's clearly derived from Urkidi (literally "birch forest"), which I know personally someone.


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