Without wasting any time, the legionaries of Legio X crossed again the river Sabis to help Caesar’s men against the Nervii. Reenactment of imperial era legionaries by the Polish Historical Association Legio XXI Rapax, photo by Cezary Wyszynski.
By Periklis Deligiannis
CONTINUED FROM PART I
Caesar marched with his six oldest legions towards the river Sabis sending first a body of cavalry to find a safe location where he would establish his camp. The newly founded XIII and XIV Legions followed at a distance, protecting the Roman supply convoy.
The Roman cavalry corps had crossed the river Sabis to its right bank along with bodies of light infantry and skirmishers in order to oversee the Belgae. However, the Celts suddenly dashed from the forest, screaming war cries and brandishing their swords. Soon they repelled the terrified Caesarian cavalrymen and crossed the river swimming. When they reached its left bank they began ascending speedily the hillside, heading towards the top of the hill where the Roman soldiers were working on the construction of the camp. Caesar found himself in a very difficult situation since he had to act instantly to rescue his unorganized and unarmed legionaries. He had to give orders to sound the bucinae, to raise the red vexillia calling the legionaries to hurry for battle, to gather his men who were cutting trees, etc., all this ‘in just a moment’ as he characteristically writes in his memoirs.
Fortunately for the Romans, Caesar had ordered his officers not to leave their soldiers until the construction was completed; thereby they were able to quickly gather their legionaries. The Romans were additionally helped by the high level of their military training and discipline. When the more isolated legionaries realized the danger of the stormy attack of the Belgians, acted with characteristic collectedness. They did not search for their units; on the contrary they grabbed their arms and armour and ran to the nearest Roman vexillium (war standard) that was lifted up. Thus in an incredibly short time, a battle line was formed. It was a typical manifestation of the robust organization and discipline of the Roman army, one of the many features that made it an unconquerable (invictus) killing machine.
A Gallic battle line, characteristic of the Belgae as well. The heavier infantry is arrayed on the forefront and the lightly armed on the rear, together with a man who sounds the carnyx (Celtic trumpet). A reenactment by the French Historical association Leuki (the name of a Gallic tribe).
The right wing of the Romans consisted of the VII and XII (Victrix) Legions, lined up against the Nervii. The Legions VIII and XI made up the Roman center that would confront the Viromandui. Finally, the X Equestris and the IX Triumphalis Legions, under the command of Caesar himself, formed the left wing opposite to the Atrebates. Concerning the numerical strength of the opposing armies, Caesar quotes that he had earlier received word from some pro-Roman Remi that the various Belgae peoples while preparing for the Roman invasion, had promised to contribute a total of 300,000 warriors. According to Caesar, the Remi estimates of the fighting men promised by the last four tribes who still resisted the Romans were: Nervii 50,000, Atrebates 15,000, Viromandui 10,000 and Aduatuci 19,000. If these figures are reliable, this means that Caesar’s army was immediately attacked by a maximum of 75,000 warriors, because the Aduatuci were still en route. Taking into consideration that estimated numbers of combatants are usually theoretical (on paper) and not realistic, and that promises based on treaties are not always kept, it is probable that the actual figure was smaller. In my point of view, the Belgae would have possibly numbered around 50-60,000 fighting men. Caesar had at his disposal eight legions with a large cavalry force and a number of additional Gallic auxiliaries, thus a figure of at least 45,000 is probable.
When the Belgae had approached within a javelin’s strike distance, Caesar gave the order for attack. The Romans threw their light pilla and then drew their gladia. The Atrebatae of the Belgae right wing could not withstand the fierce Roman counterattack and started to fall back. They again crossed the Sabis persecuted by the Romans who were slaughtering them. Soon the Viromandui as well succumbed to the pressure of the Roman center and broke their ranks. The Caesarian archers and slingers killed many Belgae while they were crossing the river. Only the Nervii managed to reach the top of the hill thus isolating their opponents from the rest of the Roman battle line. Meanwhile the first guards of the Roman supply convoy began to arrive at the foot of the hill. When they saw the Nervii at the hilltop, they were terrified and took cover in the nearby forest.
The situation of the Romans became dangerous risking losing their semi-constructed camp and the battle against the Nervii. The Treveri Gallic cavalrymen of the Roman army considered that they were defeated and fled to their country. Caesar galloped to rescue his isolated legionaries at the hilltop and when he reached them, he took command of the Legio XII which he found in a tragic situation. Many of her centurions had been killed or injured, some legionaries started to desert while those at the frontline against the Nervii had been bunched so much that there was not enough space to use their swords. Caesar acted with his typical composure. He called the names of his centurions one by one, in order to animate them. He grabbed a legionary shield, took his place at the forefront and ordered his legionaries to open their ranks in order to fight freely with their swords. Having rearranged his army, he counterattacked the Nervii.
Meanwhile Labienus, the commander of Legio X, had seized the camp of the Belgae at the right bank of the Sabis and from its high location he saw the bloody fighting in the Roman camp. Without wasting any time, he again crossed the river with his legion and attacked the Nervii from the rear. At the same time, the main bodies of the two legions protecting the supply convoy arrived, and immediately ran to the hilltop to fight the Belgae. Thus the latter were surrounded by three Roman sub-armies: Caesar’s two legions, Labienus’ Legio X and the two legions of the convoy. They fiercely resisted but they were eventually massacred.
According to Caesar, 50,000 Belgae were killed and the Nervii tribe was decimated. Caesar, trying to gain a good reputation in Gaul, did not harm the elders, women and children of the Nervii and allowed them to remain in their country under his protection. When the marching Aduatuci were informed about the destruction of their allies, they retreated and gathered at Aduatuce (Aduatuca), the strongest fortress of their region and their political centre judging by its name. Caesar followed them with his army and soon he began to besiege their fortress. After a few days, the Aduatuci learned that the Belgae tribal confederation asked Caesar for a capitulation. The Aduatuci leaders made the same proposal to him and he promised them that he would not hurt them if they would surrender.
Caesar claims that some Aduatuci abrogated the agreement trying to escape, and for this reason he executed 4,000 of them on the spot and sold the remaining 53,000 as slaves. He probably used as a pretext the escape of a few Aduatuci (a rather usual phenomenon in such cases of surrender) in order to exterminate this powerful people that sooner or later would rebel, but also to cover the expenses of his costly campaign from their sale to the slave-markets. The Romans never forgot the horror they experienced from the invasion of the barbarian Cimbri and Teutones, despite their eventual destruction. For this reason, they took care to destroy their Aduatuci offspring.
The Belgae confederacy was crashed but continued to cause serious problems to the Romans for the next thirty years. Caesar had long ago sent his lieutenant Crassus with a few cohorts in Armorica (between the Loire and Seine rivers) against the local Gauls. Crassus made alliances with their tribes, took hostages and informed his commander that the region had been “pacified.” Caesar now controlled most of Gaul. He left his legions to winter in the north regions of the country, and he came to Rome for the winter. His fellow citizens, excited by the conquest of Gaul, gave him a two-week Triumph, a unique honor until then.
Later Caesar encountered the Belgae in a second war during the Gallic revolution.
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