Horse fibula (4th century BC) from Asturia
Cismontana, showing a rider carrying
a severed head.

Pelagius, the first king of Asturies who
defeated the Muslim invaders (722 AD),
a sculpture by Gerardo Zaragoza that
you can see at the Asturian King's
Yard in Uviéu.

Asturies is, together with Galicia, one of the regions in Northern Spain with an important Celtic heritage. All through this article I will try to summarize briefly part of its history, beginning from the point when the Romans baptized this region with the name ‘Asturia’

The Romans took the name from one of their most important rivers, the ‘Ástura’ (nowadays known as the Esla, tributary to river Duero); this is a term of Celtic origin which can be easily found in some other regions in Europe by having a quick look at the maps: thus we find the Stör in Germany, there are several other rivers called Stour in Geat Britain, and the same happens in the north of Italy (old Galia Cisalpina) where there are examples by the name Stura.

The region called Asturia by the Romans comprised today’s Spanish provinces of Asturies and León, as well as the north-east of Portugal, and the nation of the Ástures, together with the Cantabrians, the last ones to yield to Rome and Augustus’ power, which they only did after a cruel, long war that lasted from 29 to 19 B.C., and demanded the intervention of seven legions. There is not a trace of doubt about the Celtic character of these tribes; for example, in the north (Asturia Transmontana) the most important ones were the ‘Paésicos’ and ‘Luggones’. About the latter, whose ethnonym means “Lug’s descendants”, we also know the names of a number of clans which share their Celtic origin: ‘Viroménicos’, ‘Penios’, ‘Arganticaenos’, ‘Cilúrnigos’... This clan, the ‘Cilúrnigos’, holds the key to solve one of the mysteries which British archaeologists have been striving with for years: I am referring to the name of the Roman campsite which was the embryo for what we know today as Chesters, in Northumberland, called ‘Cilurnum’, a Celtic word which means “ladle”. This campsite, which used to protect Adrian’s Wall, was the base of the Ala II Asturum from the 3rd century up to the Fall of Rome. Why was this Roman fortress referred to using a Celtic term? The probable reason is that this Ala had been composed by ‘Luggones’ belonging to the ‘Cilúrnigos’(“the coppersmiths”), who could have given the name of their clan to the campsite.

The only legion which remained in Hispania during the Age of the Empire was based in the land of the Ástures; this Legio VII Gemina had its campsite in the Spanish city of León, where Asturia Cismontana used to be. Several historians have pointed out that Rome recreated at a smaller scale the German limes, setting up temporary campsites in order to monitor and suffocate the periodical revolts carried out by Ástures and Cantabrians; those campsites and small fortresses would be eventually occupied by the Visigoths and, later on, by the Muslims with a similar aim. But perhaps there is a more relevant reason: the most important gold seams in Western Europe were located in Asturia, and Roman troops and engineers were in charge of their explotation and shipment protection.

Rather than anything else, it was this military presence what contributed to the romanization of Asturies, a process whose main feature was the adoption of Latin by the Ástures, who would gradually forget their Celtic mother tongue. The only remaining traces of this language can be found in some toponyms and fossilized rests in Asturian.

The Visigoths occupy almost the whole of Hispania during the 5th century A.D.; the Suevians occupy Galicia, where they establish a small kingdom; the Vandals and the Alani move towards Andalusia. During these troubled years, Northern regions – which are less romanized - such as Asturia, Cantabria and Basconia recover some deal of independence, never getting to depend totally on the Visigoth Kingdom of Hispania, which will eventually put an end to the Suevian Kingdom and the settlements of the Vandals and the Alani in the South. A new arrival of people with Celtic origin takes place during these and the following years: Asturies and Galicia receive the coming of the Britons who run away from their lands due to the Saxon advance. The amount of immigrants does not reach the importance of those arriving in French Britania; however, it is important enough so as to create their own bishopric in the border between Galicia and Asturias, a district which will be known as ‘Bretonia’ or ‘Bretoña’. The present Archdiocese of Oviedo is considered an heir of this Celic bishopric, of which we hear by means of a document dating back to 596 A.D. called Pariochale Suevorum or Divisio Theodomiri: “Ad sedem Britonorum ecclesias que sunt intro Britones una cum monasterio Maximi et que in Asturiis sunt”

At the beginning of the 8th century, internal fights within he Visigoth Kingdom of Hispania enable the Muslims to enter the Peninsula; they will not have much difficulty to occupy Hispania almost totally except for the mountainous regions in the north, just like it had happened before with the Romans and, later on, with the Visigoths. Thus, in the year 722, Ástur and Cantabrian tribes will hold a consilium in which they choose a warrior called Pelagius as princeps, who will be in charge of organizing the resistance against these new invaders. These will suffer their first defeat on European soil in the Battle of Covadonga, nearly one hundred years before Poitiers. After that battle, which Portugal and Spain regard as their founding myth, Pelagius became the first King of Asturies. The Kingdom of Asturies first and, later, the Kingdom of Asturies and León remained independent until the 11th century, when it joined the Kingdom of Castilla. Perhaps the most important personality, internationally speaking, that this Kingdom produced in its three-century existence was Beato de Liébana, Queen Adosinda’s confessor, a friend of Alcuino’s from York, and the author of the well-known commentaries on the Apocalypse.

Thus we reach the year 1000, the date we had established as the end of this first approach to one of the most unknown Celtic regions in Europe, Asturies.

- © Vitor González