The Gallic Wars, Book II

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57 BC: The Conquest of the Belgic Tribes

When word came to Caesar that the Belgae were conspiring against the Romans, he raised two new legions in Italy and sent them to Gaul in the spring under the command of Q. Pedius. Caesar himself followed once he had secured supplies. He decided to take the offensive once the Senones confirmed the Belgae were mustering troops, arriving on the Belgae frontier within two weeks. Here the Remi confirmed their loyalty to Rome and told him the Germans living on the Gallic side of the Rhine, from whose ancestors the Belgae were descended, had joined the Belgae and were able to give Caesar accurate numbers of troops these had promised the Belgae.

A map of Gaul in the 1st c. BC, showing the relative positions of the Helvetii and the Sequani. (c) US Military Academy, Dept. of History.

Having taken hostages from the Remi as a token of goodwill and having instructed Diviciacus and the Aedui to invade the territory of the Bellovaci, the most powerful of the tribes allied with the Belgae, having heard that the Belgae were approaching, Caesar quickly set up camp beside the river Aisne and placed guards on the bridge spanning it, so that the river could protect one side of his camp and he could secure his rear. The Belgae meanwhile attacked the Remi town of Bibrax, eight miles away, and, when the Belgae seemed likely to capture it, Iccius, the Roman governor, sent for Caesar’s help, which he supplied, and the Belgae withdrew.

They marched to within two miles of Caesar’ camp, burning all the countryside en route, and set up their own camp, which stretched for eight miles, reflecting their large numbers and strength. Initially Caesar engaged in cavalry skirmishes to determine the fighting strength of the Belgae whilst at the same time making plans for the deployment of Roman troops in battle to counter the enemy’s superior numbers. After both sides lined up for battle, neither crossed the marsh separating them. Once Caesar led his troops back to camp after Roman cavalry had proved superior, the Belgae tried to cross the river to destroy the bridge and cut off supplies to the Romans. Caesar and some of his troops, however, attacked and prevented them crossing, killing or taking prisoner a large number.

Running short of supplies themselves, realising the Romans would not fight in a position unfavourable to them and learning that the Aedui were planning to attack Bellovaci territory, where understandably the Bellovaci wished to return to defend it, the Belgae decided to return home and wait to see where the Romans would attack: they could then come to its defence in territory friendly to them. Their retreat was undisciplined as everyone was in a hurry to set off to and reach home first. Caesar sent two generals, Q. Pedius and L. Arunculeius Cotta, with the cavalry and Labienus with three legions to pursue and attack their rear, killing many of them.

On the next day, Caesar began his campaign against the Belgic tribes. The first three tribes he advanced against surrendered unconditionally: the Suessiones, whose fortress, Noviodunum, Caesar had laid siege to before they returned from the campaign against him. After they saw the impressive Roman siege engines, they surrendered and, after granting them their lives after the intercession of the Remi, Caesar took the leading men and two of their king’s sons as hostages after all weapons in the fortress had been handed over; the Bellovaci, who withdrew into the fortress of Bratuspantium, but whose lives Caesar also spared following the intervention of Diviciacus and learning that their leaders had fled to Britain; however, he demanded six hundred hostages and the handing over of all weapons; next the Ambiani.

Less easy to overcome were the Nervii, a fierce, warlike tribe who did not indulge in any luxuries such as wine. They had encamped on the other side of the river Sambre along with the Atrebates and Viromandi tribes. Some Gauls and Belgae, who had surrendered to the Romans, passed on to the Nervii information about Caesar’s army: that each legion was separated by a baggage train and therefore, if one legion was attacked, others would not be close to help. However, Caesar advanced in a different formation with all the baggage at the rear, protected by two legions, and the Roman cavalry did not advance into the woodland where the Gauls were concealed.

The Battle of the Sambre, 57 BC. (c) Cristiano64

The Gauls attacked as the legions constructed camp and when they saw the arrival of the baggage train, the signal to attack, and they easily routed the Roman cavalry. Caesar had little time to address all the troops and issue orders, and so the legions and their commanders had to rely on past experience. The fighting was fierce with minor victories on both sides: the ninth and tenth legions quickly overcame the Atrebates whilst the eleventh and eighth legions attacked and routed the Viromandui; the twelth and seventh legions were under attack from the Nervii, led by their commander, Boduognatus, and the light armed troops and cavalry were once again routed. Auxiliary cavalry of the Treveri, sent to help the Romans, when they saw the Nervi in the Roman camp, they returned home reporting the Romans had been defeated.

Caesar’s intervention certainly helped to give them the final victory: when he saw the twelfth legion so closely packed that they could not fight properly and many of the fourth legion killed or wounded with the enemy closing in on them from two sides, he addressed the centurions by name, shouted encouragement to the troops and led them from the front, giving them fresh hope and slowing down the enemy’s assault. He also joined the seventh legion, which was also being hard pressed, to the twelfth, adopting a square formation so that they could attack the enemy in any direction. Labienus, having captured the enemy camp, sent the tenth legion to rescue the two legions guarding the baggage and their arrival changed the course of the battle; even the non-combatants, who were inspired to stand against the enemy and the cavalry, keen to erase their earlier rout, fought bravely.

The Nervii showed extraordinary courage, as the piles of bodies bore witness to, but they were defeated and almost annihilated. Only five hundred remained out of sixty thousand. Their women, children and old men, who had not fought, surrendered and Caesar allowed them to keep their land and ordered their neighbours to do them no harm. The Atuatuci, who were marching to help the Nervii, returned home when they heard of the defeat, congregating in one fortified town with natural defences of high, precipitous rocks. When the Romans laid siege to this, at first the Atuatuci ridiculed the efficiency of the siege tower, but they later surrendered, asking to be allowed to keep their weapons as defence against their neighbours. Caesar refused this request but said he would order other tribes not to attack them, as he had done with the Nervii.

However, that night the Atuatuci attacked the Romans, using weapons they had held back, but to no avail: four thousand were killed in the attack and the rest, around fifty three thousand, were sold into slavery. Caesar also received news that all the tribes on the Atlantic seaboard had been defeated by P. Licinius Crassus and his legion. There was therefore peace throughout Gaul, and the tribes living beyond the Rhine promised to give hostages and obey him which he said he would accept the following summer. He quartered the legions for the winter and returned to Italy. In Rome, a public thanksgiving of fifteen days was decreed to celebrate Caesar’s achievements, an honour not previously bestowed on anyone.

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