The Celtic Literature Collective

Strabo's Geography

Book IV

Chapter 6: Cispadane Gaul (Northern Italy)

§1. After Transalpine Celtica and the tribes which hold this country, I must tell about the Alps themselves and the people who inhabit them, and then about the whole of Italy, keeping the same order in my description as is given me by the nature of the country. The beginning, then, of the Alps is not at the Port of Monoecus, as some have told us, but at the same districts as the beginning of the Apennine mountains, namely, near Genua, the emporium of the Ligures, and what is called Vada (that is, "Shoals") Sabatorum: for the Apennines begin at Genua, and the Alps have their beginning at Sabata; and the distance, in stadia, between Genua and Sabata is two hundred and sixty; then, after three hundred and seventy stadia from Sabata, comes the town of Albingaunum (its inhabitants are called Ligures Ingauni); and thence, to the Port of Monoecus, four hundred and eighty stadia. Further, in this last interval there is a city of fair size, Albium Intemelium, and its occupants are called Intemelii. And indeed it is on the strength of these names that writers advance a proof that the Alps begin at Sabata; for things "Alpian" were formerly called "Albian," as also things "Alpionian," and, in fact, writers add that still to-day the high mountainLink to the editor's note at the bottom of this page among the Iapodes which almost joins Mount Ocra and the Aps is called "Albius," thus implying that the Alps have stretched as far as that mountain.

§2. Since, then, the Ligures were partly Ingauni and partly Intemelii, writers add, it was reasonable for their settlements on the sea to be named, the one, Albium (the equivalent of Alpium) Intemelium, and the other, more concisely, Albingaunum. Polybius, however, adds to the two aforesaid tribes of the Ligures both that of the Oxybii and that of the Decietae. Speaking generally, this whole coastline, from the Port of Monoecus as far as Tyrrhenia, is not only exposed to the wind but harbourless as well, except for shallow mooring-places and anchorages. And lying above it are the enormous beetling cliffs of the mountains, which leave only a narrow pass next to the sea. This country is occupied by the Ligures, who live on sheep, for the most part, and milk, and a drink made of barley; they pasture their flocks in the districts next to the sea, but mainly in the mountains. They have there in very great quantities timber that is suitable for ship-building, with trees so large that the diameter of their thickness is sometimes found to be eight feet. And many of these trees, even in the variegation of the grain, are not inferior to the thyine wood for the purposes of table-making. These, accordingly, the people bring down to the emporium of Genua, as well as flocks, hides and honey, and receive therefor a return-cargo of olive oil and Italian wine (the little wine they have in their country is mixed with pitch, and harsh). And this is the country from which come not only the so-called "ginni" — both horses and mules, — but also the Ligurian tunics and "sagi."Link to the editor's note at the bottom of this page And they also have in their country excessive quantities of amber, which by some is called "electrum." And although, in their campaigns, they are no good at all as cavalrymen, they are excellent heavy-armed soldiers and skirmishers; and, from the fact that they use bronze shields, some infer that they are Greeks.

§3. The Port of Monoecus affords a mooring-place for no large ships, nor yet for a considerable number; and it has a temple of Heracles "Monoecus," as he is called; and it is reasonable to conjecture from the name that the coastal voyages of the Massiliotes reach even as far as the Port of Monoecus. The distance from the Port of Monoecus to Antipolis is a little more than two hundred stadia. As for the stretch of country which begins at Antipolis and extends as far as Massilia or a little farther, the tribe of the Sallyes inhabits the Alps that lie above the seaboard and also — promiscuously with the Greeks — certain parts of the same seaboard. But though the early writers of the Greeks call the Sallyes "Ligues,"Link to the editor's note at the bottom of this page and the country which the Massiliotes hold, "Ligustica," later writers name them "Celtoligues," and attach to their territory all the level country as far as Luerio and the Rhodanus, the country from which the inhabitants, divided into ten parts, used to send forth an army, not only of infantry, but of cavalry as well. These were the first of the Transalpine Celti that the Romans conquered, though they did so only after carrying on war with both them and the Ligures for a long time — because the latter had barred all the passes leading to Iberia that ran through the seaboard. And, in fact, they kept making raids both by land and sea, and were so powerful that the road was scarcely practicable even for great armies. And it was not until the eightieth year of the war that the Romans succeeded, though only with difficulty, in opening up the road for a breadth of only twelve stadia to those travelling on public business. After this, however, they defeated them all, and, having imposed a tribute upon them, administered the government themselves.

§4. After the Sallyes come the Albienses and the Albioeci and the Vocontii, who occupy the northerly parts of the mountains. But the Vocontii, stretching alongside the others, reach as far as the Allobroges; they have glens in the depths of their mountainous country that are of considerable size and not inferior to those which the Allobroges have. Now the Allobroges and the Ligures are ranked as subject to the praetors who come to Narbonitis, but the Vocontii (as I said of the Volcae who live round about Nemausus) are ranked as autonomous. Of the Ligures who live between the Varus River and Genua, those who live on the sea are the same as the Italiotes, whereas to the mountaineers a praefect of equestrian rank is sent — as is done in the case of other peoples who are perfect barbarians.

§5. After the Vocontii come the Iconii and the Tricorii; and after them the Medulli, who hold the loftiest peaks. At any rate, the steepest height of these peaks is said to involve an ascent of a hundred stadia, and an equal number the descent thence to the boundaries of Italy. And up in a certain hollowed-out region stands a large lake, and also two springs which are not far from one another. One of these springs is the source of the Druentia, a torrential river which dashes down towards the Rhodanus, and also of the Durias, which takes the opposite direction, since it first courses down through the country of the Salassi into Cisalpine Celtica and then mingles with the Padus; while from the other spring there issues forth, considerably lower than the region above-mentioned, the Padus itself, large and swift, although as it proceeds it becomes larger and more gentle in its flow; for from the time it reaches the plains it is increased from many streams and is thus widened out; and so, because of the spreading out of its waters, the force of its current is dispersed and blunted; then it empties into the Adriatic Sea, becoming the largest of all the rivers in Europe except the Ister. The situation of the Medulli is, to put it in a general way, above the confluence of the Isar and the Rhodanus.

§6. Towards the other parts (I mean the parts which slope towards Italy) of the aforesaid mountainous country dwell both the Taurini, a Ligurian tribe, and other Ligures; to these latter belongs what is called the land of DonnusLink to the editor's note at the bottom of this page and Cottius. And after these peoples and the PadusLink to the editor's note at the bottom of this page come the Salassi; and above them, on the mountain-crests, the Ceutrones, Catoriges, Varagri, Nantuates, Lake Lemenna (through which the Rhodanus courses), and the source of the Rhodanus. And not far from these are also the sources of the Rhenus, and Mount Adula, whence flows not only, towards the north, the Rhenus, but also, in the opposite direction, the Addua, emptying into Lake Larius, which is near Comum. And beyond Comum, which is situated near the base of the Alps, lie, on the one side, with its slope towards the east, the land of the Rhaeti and the Vennones, and, on the other, the land of the Lepontii, Tridentini, Stoni, and several other small tribes, brigandish and resourceless, which in former times held the upper hand in Italy; but as it is, some of the tribes have been wholly destroyed, while the others have been so completely subdued that the passes which lead through their territory over the mountain, though formerly few and hard to get through, are now numerous, and safe from harm on the part of the people, and easily passable — so far as human device can make them so. For in addition to his putting down the brigands Augustus Caesar built up the roads as much as he possibly could; for it was not everywhere possible to overcome nature by forcing a way through masses of rock and enormous beetling cliffs, which sometimes lay above the road and sometimes fell away beneath it, and consequently, if one made even a slight misstep out of the road, the peril was one from which there was no escape, since the fall reached to chasms abysmal. And at some places the road there is so narrow that it brings dizziness to all who travel it afoot — not only to men, but also to all beasts of burden that are unfamiliar with it; the native beasts, however, carry the burdens with sureness of foot. Accordingly, these places are beyond remedy; and so are the layers of ice that slide down from above — enormous layers, capable of intercepting a whole caravan or of thrusting them all together into the chasms that yawn below; for there are numerous layers resting upon another, because there are congelations upon congelations of snow that have become ice-like, and the congelations that are on the surface are from time to time easily released from those beneath before they are completely dissolved in the rays of the sun.

§7. Most of the country of the Salassi lies in a deep glen, the district being shut in by both mountains, whereas a certain part of their territory stretches up to the mountain-crests that lie above. Accordingly, the road for all who pass over the mountains from Italy runs through the aforesaid glen. Then the road forks; and one fork runs through what is called PoeninusLink to the editor's note at the bottom of this page (a road which, for wagons, is impassable near the summits of the Alps), while the other runs more to the west, through the country of the Ceutrones. The country of the Salassi has gold mines also, which in former times, when the Salassi were powerful, they kept possession of, just as they were also masters of the passes. The Durias River was of the greatest aid to them in their mining — I mean in washing the gold; and therefore, in making the water branch off to numerous places, they used to empty the common bed completely. But although this was helpful to the Salassi in their hunt for the gold, it distressed the people who farmed the plains below them, because their country was deprived of irrigation; for, since its bed was on favourable ground higher up, the river could give the country water. And for this reason both tribes were continually at war with each other. But after the Romans got the mastery, the Salassi were thrown out of their gold-works and country too; however, since they still held possession of the mountains, they sold water to the publicans who had contracted to work the gold mines; but on account of the greediness of the publicans Salassi were always in disagreement with them too. And in this way it resulted that those of the Romans who from time to time wished to lead armies and were sent to the regions in question were well provided with pretexts for war. Until quite recently, indeed, although at one time they were being warred upon by the Romans and at another were trying to bring to an end their war against the Romans, they were still powerful, and, in accordance with their custom of brigandage, inflicted much damage upon those who passed through their country over the mountains; at any rate, they exacted even from Decimus Brutus, on his flight from Mutina, a toll of a drachma per man; and when Messala was wintering near their country, he had to pay for wood, cash down, not only for his fire-wood but also for the elm-wood used for javelins and the wood used for gymnastic purposes. And once these men robbed even Caesar of money and threw crags upon his legions under the pretext that they were making roads or bridging rivers. Later on, however, Augustus completely overthrew them, and sold all of them as booty, after carrying them to Eporedia, a Roman colony; and although the Romans had colonised this city because they wished it to be a garrison against the Salassi, the people there were able to offer only slight opposition until the tribe, as such, was wiped out. Now although the number of the other persons captured proved to be thirty-six thousand and, of the fighting men, eight thousand, Terentius Varro, the general who overthrew them, sold all of them under the spear. And Caesar sent three thousand Romans and founded the city of Augusta in the place where Varro had pitched his camp, and at the present time peace is kept by all the neighbouring country as far as the highest parts of the passes which lead over the mountain.

§8. Next, in order, come those parts of the mountains that are towards the east, and those that bend round towards the south: the Rhaeti and the Vindelici occupy them, and their territories join those of the Elvetii and the Boii; for their territories overlook the plains of those peoples. Now the Rhaeti reach down as far as that part of Italy which is above Verona and Comum (moreover, the "Rhaetic" wine, which has the repute of not being inferior to the approved wines of the Italic regions, is made in the foot-hills of the Rhaetic Alps), and also extend as far as the districts through which the Rhenus runs; the Lepontii, also, and Camuni, belong to this stock. But the Vindelici and Norici occupy the greater part of the outer side of the mountain, along with the Breuni and the Genauni, the two peoples last named being Illyrians. All these peoples used to overrun, from time to time, the neighbouring parts, not only of Italy, but also of the country of the Elvetii, the Sequani, the Boii and the Germans. The Licattii, the Clautenatii, and the Vennones proved to be the boldest warriors of all the Vindelici, as did the Rucantii and the Cotuantii of all the Rhaeti. The Estiones, also, belong to the Vindelici, and so do the Brigantii, and their cities, Brigantium and Cambodunum, and also Damasia, the acropolis, as it were, of the Licatii. The stories of the severity of these brigands towards the Italiotes are to this effect: When they capture a village or city, they not only murder all males from youths up but they also go on and kill the male infants, and they do not stop there either, but also kill all the pregnant women who their seers say are pregnant with male children.

§9. Directly after these people come the peoples that dwell near the recess of the Adriatic and the districts round about Aquileia, namely, the Carni as well as certain of the Norici; the Taurisci, also, belong to the Norici. But Tiberius and his brother Drusus stopped all of them from their riotous incursions by means of a single summer-campaign; so that now for thirty-three years they have been in a state of tranquillity and have been paying their tributes regularly. Now throughout the whole of the mountainous country of the Alps there are, indeed, not only hilly districts which admit of good farming, but also glens which have been well built up by settlers; the greater part, however (and, in particular, in the neighbourhood of the mountain-crests, where, as we know, the brigands used to congregate) is wretched and unfruitful, both on account of the frosts and of the ruggedness of the soil. It was because of scarcity, therefore, of both food and other things that they sometimes would spare the people in the plains, in order that they might have people to supply their wants; and in exchange they would give resin, pitch, torch-pine, wax, honey, and cheese — for with these things they were well supplied. Above the Carni lies the Apennine Mountain, which has a lake that issues forth into the River Isaras, which, after having received another river, the Atagis, empties into the Adriatic. But there is also another river, called the Atesinus, which flows into the Ister from the same lake. The Ister too, in fact, takes it beginning in these mountains, for they are split into many parts and have many peaks; that is, from Liguria, up to this point, the lofty parts of the Alps run in an unbroken stretch and then break up and diminish in height, and in turn rise again, into more and more parts, and more and more crests. Now the first of these is that ridge, on the far side of the Rhenus and the lake, which leans towards the east — a ridge only moderately high, in which, near the Suevi and the Hercynian Forest, are the sources of the Ister. And there are other ridges which bend round towards Illyria and the Adriatic, among which are the Apennine Mountain above-mentioned and also the Tullum and Phligadia, the mountains which lie above the Vindelici, whence flow the Duras and Clanis and several other torrential rivers which join the stream of the Ister.

§10. And further, the IapodesLink to the editor's note at the bottom of this page (we now come to this mixed tribe of Illyrii and Celti) dwell round about these regions; and Mount Ocra is near these people. The Iapodes, then, although formerly they were well supplied with strong men and held as their homeland both sides of the mountain and by their business of piracy held sway over these regions, have been vanquished and completely outdone by Augustus Caesar. Their cities are: Metulum, Arupini, Monetium, and Vendo. After the Iapodes comes Segestica, a city in the plain, past which flows the River Saüs, which empties into the Ister. The situation of the city is naturally well-suited for making war against the Daci. The Ocra is the lowest part of the Alps in that region in which the Alps join the country of the Carni, and through which the merchandise from Aquileia is conveyed in wagons to what is called Nauportus (over a road of not much more than four hundred stadia); from here, however, it is carried down by the rivers as far as the Ister and the districts in that part of the country; for there is, in fact, a river which flows past Nauportus; it runs out of Illyria, is navigable, and empties into the Saüs, so that the merchandise is easily carried down to Segestica and the country of the Pannonii and Taurisci. And the Colapis too joins the Saüs near the city; both are navigable and flow from the Alps. The Alps have both cattle and wild horses. Polybius says that there is also produced in the Alps an animal of special form; it is like a deer in shape, except for its neck and growth of hair (in these respects, he says, it resembles a boar), and beneath its chin it has a sac about a span long with hair at the tip, the thickness of a colt's tail.

§11. Among the passes which lead over from Italy to the outer — or northerly — Celtica, is the one that leads through the country of the Salassi, to Lugdunum; it is a double pass, one branch, that through the Ceutrones, being practicable for wagons through the greater part of its length, while the other, that through the Poeninus, is steep and narrow, but a short cut. Lugdunum is in the centre of the country — an acropolis, as it were, not only because the rivers meet there, but also because it is near all parts of the country. And it was on this account, also, that Agrippa began at Lugdunum when he cut his roads — that which passes through the Cemmenus Mountains as far as the Santoni and Aquitania, and that which leads to the Rhenus, and, a third, that which leads to the ocean (the one that runs by the Bellovaci and the Ambiani); and, a fourth, that which leads to Narbonitis and the Massilian seaboard. And there is also, again, in the Poeninus itself (if you leave on your left Lugdunum and the country that lies above it), a bye-road which, after you cross the Rhodanus or Lake Lemenna, leads into the plains of the Helvetii; and thence there is a pass through the Jura Mountain over to the country of the Sequani and also to that of the Lingones; moreover, the thoroughfares through these countries branch off both ways — both towards the Rhenus and towards the ocean.

§12. Polybius further says that in his own time there was found, about opposite Aquileia in the country of the Noric Taurisci, a gold mine so well-suited for mining that, if one scraped away the surface-soil for a depth of only two feet, he found forthwith dug-gold, and that the diggings were never deeper than fifteen feet; and he goes on to say that part of the gold is immediately pure, in sizes of a bean or a lupine, when only the eighth part is boiled away, and that although the rest needs more smelting, the smelting is very profitable; and that two months after the Italiotes joined them in working the mine, the price of gold suddenly became a third less throughout the whole of Italy, but when the Taurisci learned this they cast out their fellow-workers and carried on a monopoly. Now, however, all the gold mines are under the control of the Romans. And here, too, just as in Iberia, in addition to the dug-gold, gold-dust is brought down by the rivers — not, however, in such quantities as there. The same man, in telling about the size and the height of the Alps, contrasts with them the greatest mountains among the Greeks: Taygetus, Lycaeus, Parnassus, Olympus, Pelion, Ossa; and in Thrace: Haemus, Rhodope, Dunax; and he says it is possible for people who are unencumbered to ascend any one of them on the same day, whereas one cannot ascend the Alps even in five days; and their length is two thousand two hundred stadia, that is, their length at the side, along the plains. But he only names four passes over the mountains: the pass through the Ligures (the one that is nearest the Tyrrhenian Sea), then that through the Taurini, which Hannibal crossed, then that through the Salassi, and the fourth, that through the Rhaeti,— all of them precipitous passes. And as for lakes, he says that there are several in the mountains, but that only three are large: one of these, Lake Benacus, has a length of five hundred stadia and a breadth of thirty, from which flows the Mincius River; the next, lake Verbanus, four hundred in length, and narrower in breadth than the former, which sends forth the River Addua; and, third, Lake Larius, in length nearly three hundred stadia, and in breadth thirty, which sends forth a large river, the Ticinus; and all three rivers flow into the Padus. This, then, is what I have to say about the Alpine Mountains.


Strabo. The Geography of Strabo English translation by Horace White. Vol. II. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988. Loeb Classical Library.