Reenactment of Roman legionaries at English Heritage Festival in 2011 (photo by Lichfield Lore). The picture could very well represent legionaries ready for combat in the dense forest of Belgica, but the problem is that the depicted legionaries are of the Imperial era.
By Periklis Deligiannis
In 58 BC the campaign of Julius Caesar for the subjugation of Gaul was going on. That year he overwhelmingly defeated the Germanic Suebi (Swebi) who also intended to conquer Gaul under their king Ariovistus. In the next year, the Roman general turned against the threatening Belgae. Many Gauls felt relieved by the destruction of the Suebi who had been threatening their homeland. Others understood that Caesar intended to turn their country into a Roman province.
The Belgae were a large conglomerate of Celtisized peoples mainly of the Northwestern pre-Celtic ethno-linguistic group (pre-Teutonic Germani) as it seems, whom the Germans had expelled from their cradle (in the east of the Rhine), thereby they settled in northeastern Gaul, mostly between the rivers Seine, Marne and the Rhine. However the Belgae included some Celtic proper and Germanic tribes and clans.
After their settlement in Gaul they had almost completely adopted La Tene culture (typical Celtic). Caesar in his ‘De Bello Gallico’ describes them as the most warlike and brave among the Gauls. The Belgians were additionally strengthened due to their long wars against the Germans. The majority of them were fanatically anti-Roman and their leaders and nobles supposedly kept their morals intact without succumbing to the Roman bribe attempts. The Belgae tribes were united in a tribal confederation on the basis of their common origins and culture.
The Belgae realized that Caesar would campaign against them and thus their leaders started to exchange hostages in order to further strengthen the bonds of their union.
Labienus, Caesar’s lieutenant commander, informed him on their war preparations while the latter was in the Po Valley during the winter. Caesar had already enlisted in the Po Valley and Narbonensis Gaul (modern Provence and Languedoc) men for the foundation of two new legions, the thirteenth and fourteenth (XIII and XIV). The majority of his legionaries, old and newly enlisted, were still Italians but a large percentage of them were Celtiberians, Gauls and Iberians. Many archers were Cretans who were renowned as the best in the Mediterranean. Caesar arrived with his two new legions at Vesontio (modern Besancon) where he joined Labienus’ army and a numerous Gallic cavalry force, mainly Aeduan under the strongly pro-Roman Aeduan leader Diviciacus (57 BC). The Aeduan aristocrat was additionally Caesar’s main adviser and negotiator.
The Roman general, leading eight Legions and a large cavalry force (of Gauls, Italians and Spaniards) marched immediately to the north, in Belgica. Caesar’s strategy was based on the rapid marches of his army, as did the strategy of other anterior and posterior great commanders (Alexander, Hannibal, Genghis Khan, Napoleon and others). Caesar used to appear in places where the enemy did not expect him to appear and also at an unexpected time. The Remi, the most southern large Belgian tribe, were surprised by the sudden appearance of the Roman army in their territory. They were caught militarily unprepared and were subjugated to Caesar. The Roman army moved at the same speed north and surprised the strong tribes of the Suessiones, the Bellovaci and the Ambiani, managing to subdue them after hard fighting. Then Caesar turned to the west where the local Belgae were informed of his invasion and prepared to confront him.
After a three days’ march, Caesar’s army encamped at a distance of around 17 km far from the river Sabis. The mentioned river (close to which the bloody battle that followed took place) has been identified by several modern scholars with the modern Sambre, Selle or Aisne rivers. In these articles I will follow the most popular version, namely that it was the river Sambre. On the right bank of the river the Nervii, the warriors of the strongest Belgae tribe, were waiting to confront the Roman army, together with the Atrebatae and the Viromandui warriors.
The Nervii were renowned as formidable warriors and Caesar in his Bello Gallico expresses his admiration for them. Their laws were of “Spartan mentality”, for example they avoided trade with other tribes and prohibited the consumption of wine because they believed that it was harmful (the Spartans used to drink wine but only in moderation and never on campaign). The three Belgae peoples were additionally expecting for the military forces of the Aduatuci to join them. The Aduatuci were a neighboring tribe originating from some Teutonic invaders who had settled in Belgium 53 years before Caesar’s invasion. As descendants of the Teutones (the member of the Cimbri-Teutones tribal confederation), the Aduatuci had an equally great martial reputation.
Caesar proceeded with his six oldest legions towards the Sabis River sending first a body of cavalry to find a safe location where he would establish a camp. The newly founded XIII and XIV Legions followed at a distance, protecting the Roman supply convoy. The Belgae were planning to surprise the latter legions under the cover of the dense woods of the region but when they realized that the enemy was marching cautiously, using scouts, they abandoned this plan. However, Caesar fell into the error that the Belgae were waiting for.
When the top of a hill was selected to build the camp, the Roman general ordered his men to cut the trunks of trees needed for its construction. In such cases, the working legionaries were protected by cohorts of armed colleagues of them who were guarding the perimeter. Caesar had taken this measure of protection while confronting the Suebi, but in this case he thought that his numerous cavalry was enough for the protection of his working men. This estimate of his led him very close to the extermination of his army and possibly his death. He surely underestimated the Nervii and this is probably a good reason why a little later, when he wrote his memoirs of the Gallic War, he praised them as formidable warriors in order to cover his own mistake. But he was honest enough to mention it in his narrative (not counting it as an error): Caesar is the sole ancient source on the operations of the Gallic War.
CONTINUE READING IN PART II: THE BATTLE OF THE SABIS (57 BC)