The Gallic Wars, Book VI

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53 BC: Operations near the Rhine

Caesar, expecting further Gallic revolts and therefore wishing to demonstrate Roman resources and power, raised three more legions, through three of his generals and Pompey in Rome. Despite the death of Indutiomarus, the Treveri continued to plot against Rome, forming an alliance with other tribes including Ambiorix and the Eburones and the Nervii. Caesar therefore decided to begin campaigning before the end of winter and attacked the Nervii unexpectedly who were forced to surrender and hand over hostages. He then returned to winter quarters until early spring when he summoned the annual Gallic council.

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.

He interpreted the non-attendance of the Senones, Carnutes and Treveri as a sign of revolt and moved the meeting to a town adjacent to Senones’ territory. As he approached, the Senones and Carnutes requested and received pardon and handed over hostages. Caesar then turned his attention to the Treveri and Ambiorix, marching first with five legions against the Menapii, a tribe who had never sued for peace with the Romans and who were potential allies of the Treveri. The Menapii had taken refuge in the forests and marshes but when Caesar burnt their farms and villages and captured many cattle and prisoners, they sued for peace and gave hostages. With a warning they should not allow Ambiorix into their territory, Caesar marched against the Treveri.

The Treveri, having gathered large forces, were preparing to attack T. Labienus and his legion, who were wintering in their territory, but, when they heard that Caesar had sent two legions to Labienus as reinforcements, they postponed this until German reinforcements arrived. Labienus, meanwhile, took advantage of their delay by marching with twenty five cohorts, setting up camp a mile away and then duped the Treveri by making it known to them he was afraid to wait for the German reinforcements and intended to break up camp and withdraw the next morning. The Treveri fell for the subterfuge and were enticed to follow what they thought were retreating Romans. When the Romans turned to attack, the Treveri were quickly routed. Labienus’ cavalry killed many and took a number of prisoners, the German reinforcements returned home when they heard of the defeat, with Indutiomarus’ relatives who had instigated the revolt fleeing with them. Cingetorix, who had remained loyal to Rome, became leader of the tribe.

Modern reconstruction of Treveran dwellings at Altburg. (c) Rossbacher

Caesar decided to cross the Rhine for a second time, firstly because the Germans had sent reinforcements to the Treveri and secondly to prevent Ambiorix finding asylum there. Like previously, they built a bridge across, left guards on the Gallic side to prevent another Treveri uprising, accepted the pleas of the Ubii that they had not helped the Treveri, who then helped him locate the Suebi, who had helped the Treveri and who had retreated to a forest in the interior to await the Romans.

Caesar then gives an informative and lengthy digression on both Gallic and German customs, tribal details, religious beliefs including Druidism among the Gauls and animals that the Germans hunted.

Caesar decided not to follow and march against the Suebi as he was worried about the lack of supplies. Therefore he retreated back into Gaul, destroying part of the bridge on the German side and building on the Gallic side a high tower manned by twelve cohorts under the command of Volacius Tullus to protect it and prevent entry into Gaul by this route. Caesar then marched against Ambiorix. He sent cavalry in advance under the command of L. Minucius Basilus who surprised Ambiorix but he managed to escape. He did not assemble an army but told everyone to flee and fend for themselves: Catuvolcus, king of half of the Eburones, too old to flee or fight, poisoned himself.

Campaign map of 53 BC. The revolting tribes are shown with flame icons. (c) Cristiano64

Having accepted the word of the Segni and Condrusi that they had not helped the Treveri, Caesar sent the baggage to Sabinus’ and Cotta’s winter quarters where the fourteenth legion with two hundred cavalry were to guard it under the command of Q. Tullius Cicero. Having divided his forces into three divisions of three legions each, Labienus went towards Menapii territory on the coast, C. Trebonius was to ravage the frontiers of the Atuatuci and he himself marched to the western end of the Ardennes where he heard Ambiorix was. All were to return within a week for rations and to plan their next move and were not to engage the enemy, who had fled, on Ambiorix’s orders, in small groups in forest terrain unfamiliar to the Romans.

Hearing that the Romans were plundering Eburones’ territory, the German tribe of the Sugambri with two thousand cavalry decided to join in to enrich themselves and crossed the Rhine in boats thirty miles from the Roman bridge. Having taken much booty, and having been told that most Roman forces had left the area where their baggage had been stored, the Sugambri decided to attack the fortress. Unfortunately, Cicero had disregarded Caesar’s instructions to stay in camp and had allowed five cohorts and others recovering from illness to gather corn from the fields. These were attacked by the Sugambri and, although at a disadvantage through panic and inexperience, most, under the leadership of Trebonius, managed to get back to the camp unscathed. Others, who had initially taken a stand on high ground, were caught on low ground and many were killed with just a few reaching the camp. Those inside the fortress, led by a senior centurion, Baculus, repelled the attack on the camp and the Sugambri withdrew back across the Rhine.

The fear of those in the camp, however, was only dispelled with Caesar’s arrival. Caesar pondered on the vagaries of fate which had led a German plundering expedition to attack and kill Romans and then withdraw when they had the upper hand and to provide a service to Ambiorix while their intention had been to to plunder his territory. Caesar continued plundering and burning the Eburones’ territory and taking their crops as supplies but they were unable to capture Ambiorix. Caesar convened a second council of the Gallic tribes that year, holding an enquiry into the conspiracy of the Senones and Carnutes and executing Acco, its instigator. He then sent the legions to their winter quarters and set out for northern Italy.

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