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The Roman empire in the time of Hadrian (ruled 117-38 AD), showing, on the upper Danube river, the imperial province of Raetia (Switzerland/Tyrol/Germany S. of Danube)
Coin of the Raeti 1st century BC

The Raeti, Rhaeti, Rheti, or Rhetii, was the collective "ethnic" name used by the ancient Romans to denote a number of Alpine tribes, whose language and culture may have derived, at least in part, from the Etruscans. From not later than ca. 500 BC, they inhabited the central parts of present-day Switzerland and the Alpine regions of north-central Italy.

The etymology of the name "Raeti" is unknown.

Ancient sources characterise the Raeti as Etruscan people who were displaced from the Po valley and took refuge in the valleys of the Alps. But it is more likely that they were predominantly Alpine indigenes who had spoken a tongue related to Etruscan for as long as the Etruscans themselves.

The Raeti were divided into numerous tribes, but only some of these are clearly identified in the ancient sources.

At least some of the Raeti tribes (those in northeastern Italy) probably spoke the Raetian language as late as the 3rd century AD. Others (those in Switzerland) were probably Celtic-speaking by the time of the emperor Augustus (ruled 30 BC - AD 14).

The Raeti tribes, together with those of their neighbours to the North, the Vindelici, were subjugated by Roman forces, and their territories annexed to the Roman empire in 15 BC. The Roman province of Raetia et Vindelicia was named after these two peoples. The Raeti tribes quickly became loyal subjects of the empire who contributed disproportionate numbers of recruits to the imperial Roman army's auxiliary corps.


Name etymology

The origin of the name "Raeti" is unknown. It is not even clear if it derives from an "endonym", a name that the Raeti used to describe themselves or from an "exonym", a name used by outsiders to describe the Raeti. (A parallel is "Greeks". This derives from Graeci, a Roman exonym for this people, whose own name for themselves was "Hellenes").

It has been suggested that the name is an exonym derived from the Celtic root rait, meaning "highland", but this is guesswork, unsupported by any documentary evidence.[1] The similarity of name of the deity Reitia, which is attested in a number of votive inscriptions by the Italic Veneti people, has also been advanced. But there is no evidence that this goddess was revered by the Raeti also, unless the reithus in one "Raetic" inscription refers to her. But reithus, if it refers to a deity at all, is more likely to be an unrelated Raeti god, probably the man-fish figure shown above the inscription's wording.[2]

If the name is an endonym, then it may derive from a non Indo-European root meaning "noble", "superior", "brave" or "strong", common self-attributes of primitive peoples e.g. the "Sarmatians", which may derive from Iranic sar martan ("high - i.e. noble - men") and the Franks, probably from a Germanic root meaning "strong". In this case, it is possible that reithus is that root.


The earliest mention of the Raeti in the classical sources is in the Histories of Polybius, written before 146 BC.[3] The Raeti, according to Pliny the Elder, were Etruscans driven into the Alps from the Po Valley by invading Gauls.[4] This account of Raeti origins is supported by the Augustan-era Roman historian Livy.[5] If this historiography is correct, then the displacement from the Po valley would have taken place in the period 600-400 BC, when major migrations of Celtic tribes from Gaul resulted in the Celtisation of that entire region.[6]

But the traditional "migration theory" of socio-linguistic change espoused by classical authors and, until recently, by most modern scholars, is no longer considered generally valid in modern archaeology and must be treated with caution. It is just as likely that the Raeti, if they spoke an Etruscan-like language, were Alpine indigenes who had spoken it as long as, if not longer, than the Etruscans of Etruria (especially if, as some believe, Etruscan represents the pre Indo-European base language of Italy and the Alps). Alternatively, if the indigenes originally spoke a language not related to Etruscan, they may have adopted "Etruscan" through cultural interchange with the Etruscans of the Po valley and not necessarily as a result of large-scale immigration by the latter.

Ethno-linguistic affiliation

Linguistic map of Italy ca. 600 BC, showing the putative area where the Raetian language was spoken

Because of their reported Etruscan connection, the Raeti are believed by many scholars to have spoken the so-called "Raetian language", an extinct tongue known only from a series of inscriptions, written in a variant of the Etruscan alphabet, discovered in some areas indicated by the ancient sources as inhabited by the Raeti. This tongue is commonly regarded by philologists to be related to, or at least strongly influenced by, Etruscan, a non Indo-European language which originated in the central Italian region of Tuscany. The language has been called "Raetian" by linguists because it is assumed to have been spoken by the Raeti, but this naming convention obviously involves a degree of circularity. It is possible, although unlikely, that the language dubbed "Raetian" by modern scholars had, in reality, no connection whatever to the people known to ancient Romans as the "Raeti".

Even if "Raetian" was the ancestral language of the Raeti, there is considerable doubt as to how widely "Raetian" was spoken among the tribes by the time of Augustus (ruled 30 BC - AD 14). In the Alpine region as a whole, there is evidence that the non-Celtic elements were often assimilated by the influx of Celtic tribes.[7] According to Livy, the "sound" of the Raeti's original Etruscan tongue (sonum linguae) had become corrupted as a result of inhabiting the Alps.[8] This may indicate the loss of their ancestral tongue by at least some of the tribes. Celtisation finds support in the Roman practice of twinning the Raeti with their neighbours to the North, the Vindelici (whose territory was between the river Danube and the Alps - Wurttemberg and southern Bavaria), who are regarded by most historians to have been Celtic- speakers. The two peoples were combined for administrative purposes from an early stage and eventually, under the emperor Claudius (ruled 41-54), their territories formed the province of Raetia et Vindelicia. In addition a pair of joint Raetorum et Vindelicorum auxiliary cohorts were established under Augustus.

Also problematic is the distribution of "Raetian" inscriptions. These are almost all from northeastern Italy: South Tyrol, Trentino, and the Veneto region.[9] Although some of these areas were inhabited by Raeti tribes, according to ancient sources, a number of other Raeti locations such as the sources of the river Rhine area, have not yielded "Raetian" inscriptions. However, in northeastern Italy, inscriptions indicate that "Raetian" survived as late as the 3rd century AD, suggesting that Raeti tribes in this region at least may not have been Celtised.

During the centuries of Roman rule, the Raeti became predominantly Latin speakers. It has been suggested that a surviving relic of Raeti's Latin speech is Romansh, a so-called "Rhaeto-Romance language", which survives today in a few valleys of Swiss canton Grisons (most of which is today German-speaking). However, a Raetian origin for Romansch is uncertain, as Rhaeto-Romance languages appear most closely related to the Gallo-Romance group, strengthening the case for a Celtic origin.


Map showing the Roman district (probably not yet a full province by then) of Raetia et Vindelicia, as it stood in AD 14, with some Raeti tribal names

The evidence suggests that the original Roman district of Raetia et Vindelicia, as established under Augustus, had as its eastern border (with the province of Noricum) the river Aenus (Inn) from its confluence with the Danube as far South as, and then by the river Isarcus (Isarco). Its northern border with the "free" German tribes was defined by the course of the upper Danube. On the West, Raetia et Vindelicia included the whole of Lake Constance and the upper Rhine valley and then a long tract westwards along the upper Rhone valley as far as Lake Leman. To the South its border with the Italian regiones (administrative districts) of Gallia transpadana and Venetia et Histria was roughly similar to the northern border of present-day Italy.[10]

The Vindelici were, according to Ptolemy, confined to the East of the river Licca (Lech), while West of that river, upper Bavaria was inhabited by Raeti. A contrary view is that the whole region between the Danube and the Alps was occupied by Vindelici, with the Raeti confined to the Alps themselves.

The latter view accords with Strabo, who records that the territory occupied by the Raeti tribes stretched from the upper reaches of the river Rhine in northern Switzerland to as far South as the cities of Como and Verona in northern Italy. The Raeti were bounded in the East by the Taurisci of Noricum and in the West by the Helvetii.[11]


Although the ancient sources concur in ascribing an Etruscan origin to the Raeti, there is less clarity as to precisely which tribes attested in the region known as Raetia could be classified as Raeti.In addition, there are considerable discrepancies in the names of tribes given by the sources. Some locations of the tribes recorded are uncertain, although many have been established securely by toponymic and other evidence.

Strabo names the Lepontii, Camunni (who gave their name to the Val Camonica, Lombardy, Italy), Cotuantii and Rucantii as Raeti tribes.[12] Of these, the first two are listed with the same spelling in Augustus' inscription, while the latter two are probably the Cosuanetes and the Rucinates respectively in Augustus.[13] However, the inscription text appears to identify the Rucinates as one of the 4 tribes of the Vindelici recorded as conquered. (But it is possible that the Strabo's Rucantii were actually another tribe, the Rugusci, in Augustus).

Against Strabo, Pliny considers the Lepontii as a Celtic tribe akin to the Taurisci and classifies the Camunni as an Euganean tribe, together with the Trumplini of the neighbouring valley, Val Trompia.[14] However, neither of Pliny's comments is fatal to the identification of the Lepontii and Camunni as Raeti. The Lepontic language has been definitively classified as Celtic, but it contains non Indo-European elements in a similar way to contemporary Celtiberian in Spain. This is consistent with a Raetic origin to the Lepontii and subsequent Celtisation. As for the Euganei, their linguistic classification is uncertain. It is possible that their speech too was related to Etruscan and that they could be considered a sub-group of the Raeti nation. Alternatively they may have been proto-Italic akin to the Veneti.

In addition, it appears that "Raetia et Vindelicia" was inhabited by a number of non-Raetic tribes also. The Breuni and Genauni are classified as Illyrian by Strabo, while a number of tribes in the region such as the Caturiges and Nantuates have plausible Celtic etymologies: from catu- ("fight" or "warriors") and nantu- ("valley") respectively.[15]

In addition to the tribal names supplied by the ancient sources, the Tropaeum Alpium inscription contains a number of other names which have been identified as inhabiting the territory of Raetia et Vindelicia, based on philology and proximity to documented tribes. Eliminating those tribes that are probably Celtic (on personal names) the following list of possible Raeti tribes results:

Tribal name
(as on Tropaeum Alpium)
(main valley/river)[17]
Main town
(Roman era)
BREUNI upper valley of fl. Aenus (r. Inn) Tirol (Austr.) Identified as Illyrian tribe by Strabo
BRIXENETES valley of fl. Atesis (r. Adige) Brixina (Brixen) Bolzano province (Trentino Alto Adige, It.)
CALUCONES Calanda (upper valley of fl. Rhenus - r. Rhine) Curia (Chur) Canton Grisons (Switz.)
CAMUNNI Camuni Val Camonica (river Oglio) Civitas Camunnorum (Cividate Camuno) Brescia Province (Lombardia, It.) A tribe of the Euganei, acc. to Pliny
COSUANETES Cotuantii? upper valley of fl. Isaras (r. Isar) (Bavarian Alps) Turum (Dorfen) Oberbayern (Ger.) Tribe of the Vindelici, acc. to possible interpretation of tropaeum Alpium inscription. Raeti, acc. to Strabo, if his Cotuantii are the same
FOCUNATES Upper valley of fl. Aenus (r. Inn) Tirol (Austr.) Neighbours to Genaunes and Breuni
GENAUNES Genauni upper valley of fl. Aenus (r. Inn) Tirol Identified as Illyrian tribe by Strabo
ISARCI valley of fl. Isarcus (r. Isarco) Bolzano province
LEPONTI Lepontii, Lepontes Val d'Ossola Province of Verbano-Cusio-Ossola (Piemonte, It.) Named as Raeti by Strabo. Celtic, according to Pliny
RUCINATES Runicates, Rucantii? ? between rivers Isaras (Isar) and Danuvius (Danube) Sorviodunum (Straubing) Oberbayern Tribe of the Vindelici, acc. to possible interpretation of Tropaeum Alpium inscription. Named as Raeti by Strabo, if they are same as Rucantii)
RUGUSCI Ruigusci, Rucantii? Alta Engadina (fl. Aenus - r. Inn) Canton Grisons May be Rucantii in Strabo
SUANETES Sarunetes valley of r. Albula Lapidaria (Zillis) Canton Grisons Identified as Raeti by Pliny
TRUMPILINI Trumplini Val Trompia Brescia province A tribe of the Euganei, acc. to Pliny
UBERI upper valley of fl. Rhodanus (r. Rhone) Canton Valais Part of the Leponti, acc. to Pliny
VENNONETES Vennones, Vennonienses upper valley of fl. Rhenus (r. Rhine) Canton Saint Gallen Identified as Raeti by Pliny
VENOSTES Val Venosta (fl. Atesis - r. Adige) Bolzano province

Roman conquest

The Raeti, together with their probably Celtic neighbours to the North, the Vindelici, were subdued by the Roman emperor Augustus' stepsons and senior military commanders Tiberius and Drusus in a two-pronged campaign in 15 BC.[18]

Until ca. AD 100, the region was garrisoned, on its western edge (at Vindonissa from ca. AD 15), by at least one Roman legion (probably legio XIX until AD 9, when it was destroyed in the Battle of the Teutoberg Forest). In addition, Roman auxiliary forces and leves armaturae ("light troops", probably a local militia) were stationed there.[19] But these forces were mainly for security against external threats, not internal unrest. Strabo reports that the Alpine tribes as a whole adapted easily to Roman rule and had not rebelled in the 33 years that had elapsed (by the time of his writing) since the initial conquest.[20]

The Raeti (and the Vindelici) were obliged to pay taxes to Rome.[21] However, their combined territory was not, apparently, organised as a full Roman province initially, but as a military district under a Roman equestrian officer, attested as "praefectus of the Raeti, Vindelici and the Poenine Valley".[22] It was apparently not before emperor Claudius (ruled 41-54), that the district became a full province with the official name of Raetia et Vindelicia (abbreviated to simply Raetia in the later 1st century), while the Poenine Valley (Canton Valais, Switz.) was separated to join the Alpes Graiae.[23] Raetia was governed by an equestrian procurator.[24]

According to the epigraphic record, the early Julio-Claudian period of the Roman empire (30 BC - AD 37) saw the formation of at least 10 auxiliary infantry regiments from the Raeti tribes (the cohortes Raetorum).[25] This represents some 5,000 recruits, an onerous levy from sparsely-populated Alpine valleys. It suggests that the Raeti were strongly attracted to a career in the Roman military. (See Alpine regiments of the Roman army).


  1. ^ Britannica Raetia
  2. ^ Zavaroni San Zeno 1
  3. ^ Polybius XXXIV.10.18
  4. ^ Pliny the Elder III.20.133
  5. ^ Livy V.33
  6. ^ Livy V.34
  7. ^ Alfoldi (1974) 24-5
  8. ^ Livy V.33
  9. ^ Zavaroni 1
  10. ^ Barrington Atlas maps 18, 19, 39
  11. ^ Strabo IV.6.8
  12. ^ Strabo IV.6.8
  13. ^ CAH X 538
  14. ^ Pliny the Elder III.20.134-5
  15. ^ Faliyeyev Dictionary
  16. ^ Strabo IV.6.8-9; Pliny III.20.133-6; Tropaeum Alpium inscription
  17. ^ Barrington Atlas Maps 18,19,39
  18. ^ Dio LIV.22.3-4
  19. ^ CAH X 538-9
  20. ^ Strabo IV.6.9
  21. ^ Strabo IV.6.9
  22. ^ CAH X 539
  23. ^ CAH X 541
  24. ^ CAH X 369
  25. ^ Holder (1980) 223-4





  • Alfoldy, Geza (1974): Noricum
  • Cambridge Ancient History (1996): Vol X, The Augustan Empire
  • 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica (online)
  • Faliyeyev, Alexander (2007): Dictionary of Continental Celtic Placenames (online)
  • Holder, Paul (1980): Studies in the Auxilia of the Roman Army
  • Lejeune, M. (1988). Recueil des inscriptions gauloises: II.1 Textes gallo-étrusques. Textes gallo-latins sur pierre. Paris: CNRS. 
  • Zavaroni, Adolfo (2001): Le Iscrizioni Retiche ("Raetic Inscriptions") (online)

See also

External links


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