Republication from the VU University of Amsterdam


Hundreds of skulls and other bones, considered to belong to the massacred Germanics were found in the excavated location (credit: VU University of Amsterdam).

VU archaeologists discover location of historic battle fought by Caesar in Dutch river area

Earliest known battle on Dutch soil.

At a press conference held on Friday 11 December in the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam, archaeologist Nico Roymans from the VU Amsterdam announced a discovery that is truly unique for Dutch archaeology: the location where the Roman general and statesman Julius Caesar massacred two Germanic tribes in the year 55 BC. The location of this battle, which Caesar wrote about in detail in Book IV of his De Bello Gallico, was unknown to date. It is the earliest known battle on Dutch soil. The conclusions are based on a combination of historical, archaeological, and geochemical data.

Skeletal remains, swords and spearheads
It is the first time that the presence of Caesar and his troops in Dutch territory has been explicitly proven. The finds from this battle include large numbers of skeletal remains, swords, spearheads, and a helmet. The two Germanic tribes, the Tencteri and the Usipetes, originated in the area east of the Rhine and had explicitly appealed to Caesar for asylum. Caesar rejected this request for asylum and ordered his troops to destroy the tribes by violent means. Nowadays, we would label such action genocide.
During the press conference, Roymans described in detail the discoveries made in Kessel (North Brabant) and their historical significance. He also showed weapons and skeletal remains from this battle.

Movements of the opposing armies and location of the battle (credit: VU University of Amsterdam).


Caesar’s account of the mass destruction of the Tencteri and Usipetes at the confluence of the rivers Meuse and Waal
I arrived at the camp of the enemy before the Germans could perceive what was going on; (…)
suddenly alarmed by all the circumstances, both by the speediness of our arrival and the absence of
their own officers, as time was afforded neither for concerting measures nor for seizing their arms (…)
Their consternation being made apparent by their noise and tumult, our soldiers (…) rushed into
the camp: such of them as could readily get their arms, for a short time withstood our men, and gave battle among their carts and baggage wagons;
the rest of the people, [consisting] of boys and women (for they had left their country and crossed the Rhine with all their families) began to fly in all  directions; in pursuit of whom I sent the cavalry .
The Germans when, upon hearing a noise behind them, [they looked and] saw that their families were being slain, throwing away their arms (…) fled out of the camp, and when they had arrived at the confluence of the Meuse and the Rhine, the
survivors despairing of further escape, as a great number of their countrymen had been killed, threw
themselves into the river and there perished, overcome by fear, fatigue, and the violence of the stream.
(Caesar, De Bello Gallico 4.14-15)
654634598Dental bones of the massacred people (credit: VU University of Amsterdam).
Germanic swords. The Celtic influence on them is obvious (credit: VU University of Amsterdam).
In Book IV of his De Bello Gallico, Caesar describes his extremely violent actions against two Germanic tribes, the Tencteri and Usipetes, in the spring of 55 BC.  Shortly before this, these groups had crossed the Rhine in the Dutch river area en masse
and asked Caesar for permission to settle there.

This request for asylum was rejected, after which Caesar and his entire military force of eight legions and cavalry went to battle against the Germans. After conquering the German camp, the fleeing population was pursued by Caesar’s troops. At the convergence of the rivers Meuse and Rhine (i.e. Waal) around 120 km from the coast, they became trapped and a  mass slaughter took place here. Caesar proudly relates that virtually the entire population, including women and children, was destroyed. This is said to involve a total of 430,000 people, though this number is undoubtedly highly exaggerated.

A more realistic number would be  between 150,000 and 200,000. Based on the historic and historic-geographic data, the
convergence of the Meuse and Waal and the location of the mass slaughter would most likely be  close to today’s settlements
of Kessel (North Brabant) and Heerewaarden (Gelderland).





The number of 430,000 for the two tribes is surely exaggerated, but the number between 150,000 and 200,000 seems to be also inflated: taking into account the usual small numbers of the barbarian migrating tribes and J. Russell’s reasonable estimate (in his work Late Ancient and Medieval Population) that the barbarian lands in the North of the Greco-Roman World had a very low population density, and also Caesar’s tendency on grossly exaggerating the numbers of his enemies,  the most probable total number of the Usipetes and Tencteri must have been between  50,000 and 100,000.

It is worth noting that Vives has estimated the free Visigoth population at 80,000-100,000 (including their women and children) when the Visigoths settled in Spain, while the Ostrogoths numbered approximately 100,000 in AD 489. The Vandals and the Alans who settled in Africa, numbered 80,000 along with their slaves, and only 15,000 of them were warriors.