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leader of the Eburones, a Belgian tribe. In the winter of 54/53 BCE, he
destroyed of one of the legions of Julius
Caesar, which resulted in the annihilation of his tribe.
In the summer of 57 BCE, the Roman general Julius Caesar invaded the country of the rivers Scheldt and Meuse. Proceeding along an ancient road, first defeated the Nervians in the battle of the Sabis in Flanders (text) and continued to the east, where he forced the Aduatuci of eastern Belgium into submission (text). According to his own statistics, almost 60,000 Nervians were killed and 53,000 Atuatuci were sold as slaves. The first number is probably exaggerated, but human misery must have been great.
This show of force marked the beginning of the Roman occupation of the Meuse valley, which was to last for more than four and a half centuries. At first, the Romans were content to dissolve the old political ties. For example, strong tribes were forced to free their client tribes (i.e., dependent tribes). The only truly repressive measure must have been the seizing of hostages, a common instrument to keep subjects subjected.
Among those freed in the autumn of 57, were the Eburones, a tribe living between the rivers Meuse and Rhine. They may have been grateful at first, but this changed in the winter of 55/54, when the Romans for the first time built camped in northern France and Belgium, and the weight of the occupation became heavier. However, the Romans did not notice or ignored their discontent.
Instead, they spent the summer in Britain, where Caesar defeated Casivellaunus, the war leader of the united British tribes. In their absence, the Belgian tribes -even more discontent because of a bad harvest- prepared a rebellion. (Evidence for their cooperation is the 'treasure of Ambiorix', which consists of coins of several tribes.) When the legions returned and spread out to their winter quarters, the rebels were ready to strike. They had timed their attack excellently: in the winter, when Caesar had gone south to visit his province Gallia Cisalpina (northern Italy). Their first target was well-chosen too: the recently recruited Fourteenth legion with five cohorts, stationed among the Eburones.
The leader of the revolt was Indutiomarus, the leader of the Treverians, a tribe that lived in the valley of the Moselle. It is not clear what gave him the right to order the Eburones to attack the Romans, but it is probable that the Eburones had become a Treverian client tribe. However this may be, it is clear that the Treverians used the Eburones as a lightning rod: only when the northern tribe was successful, they would unmask themselves. Otherwise, they would keep themselves out of harm's way.
The rebellion is described by the Greek historian Cassius Dio (164-c.235).
This war was begun by the Eburones, under Ambiorix as chief. They claimed they had been roused to action because they were annoyed at the presence of the Romans, who were commanded by Sabinus and Lucius Cotta, lieutenants. The truth was, however, that they scorned those officers, thinking that they would not prove competent to defend their men and not expecting that Caesar would quickly make an expedition against their tribe. They accordingly came upon the soldiers unawares, expecting to take the camp without striking a blow, and, when they failed of this, had recourse to deceit.The camp of Sabinus and Cotta was called Atuatuca, a name that was later in use for the capital of the Tungrians. This Atuatuca is identical to modern Tongeren in eastern Belgium, and it has been said that this was the place of the Roman defeat. However, there is no archaeological evidence that the site was occupied before c.20 BCE, and Caesar states explicitly that the Eburones lived between the Meuse an Rhine; the battle field must, therefore, have been somewhat further to the east. One is tempted to search in the neighborhood of Aix-la-Chapelle, where the presence of a sanctuary for the Celtic god Grannus proves occupation, or Kanne-Caster (south of Maastricht). Cicero's camp can have been anywhere near modern Brussels, where Binche and Blicquy are plausible candidates.
In the other camps, the winter was not quiet either. Titus Labienus, the commander of the Fourth legion, which was stationed in the southern Ardennes, discovered what Caesar should have discovered ten months before: that Indutiomarus was the real rebel. The Treverian leader sent messages to the tribes on the east bank of the Rhine and to the Senones (who lived along the Seine), and the Fourth legion was besieged, but the soldiers were able to cope with the crisis and Indutiomarus was killed after an unsuccessful attack. His relatives made their escape across the Rhine.
The destruction of the legion of Sabinus and Cotta was a severe blow for Roman prestige, and to Caesar, it was absolutely imperative to restore it. Ambiorix had to be punished. Caesar asked for and received reinforcements: from now on, he possessed no less than ten legions, almost 50,000 heavy armed soldiers. The year 53 was to be decisive for the future of the Low Countries: they were to be Roman, only because the Romans were superior in numbers, organizational skill and arms.
Caesar wanted Ambiorix dead or alive. An all-out attack, however, would be counterproductive: the Eburonian leader could escape to his allies. Therefore, Caesar first attacked Ambiorix allies, forcing them to promise that they would not help the man who had destroyed the Roman legion.
The Nervians were the first victims of the Roman retaliation. It was still winter when a force of four legions, each 4,500 men strong, arrived in Hainault. Caesar writes that the Romans laid waste the fields, 'took a great many cattle and prisoners, which were given to the soldiers as booty' (Commentaries on the war in Gaul 6.3.2): a cynical way to describe the fate of the widows and daughters of the perished Nervian warriors.
The Menapians were next: they were attacked to deprive Ambiorix of potential help. They lived in what is now the Dutch province of Noord-Brabant. According to Caesar's own statistics, they could recruit no more than 7,000 warriors.
Close to the territory of the Eburones, and protected by a continuous line of marshes and forests, were the Menapians, the only Gallic tribe who had never sent envoys to me to ask for peace. I knew that ties of friendship existed between them and Ambiorix, and I had discovered that, with the aid of the Treverians, he had formed an alliance with the Germans. I thought I ought to deprive him of these allies before attacking him directly in war, to prevent him, in desperation, hiding among the Menapians or being forced to join the Germans beyond the Rhine.The Treverians had already been punished by Labienus, but they had invited tribes from the east bank of the Rhine, and they ought to be punished. Therefore, Caesar built a bridge across the Rhine and campaigned in Germania. In his own account, he digresses at great length on the customs of the Germanic tribes and animal life: an excellent disguise of the fact that the campaign was a failure. Cassius Dio is more to the point:
On this occasion likewise he accomplished nothing, but retired rapidly through fear of the Suebians; yet he gained the reputation of having crossed the Rhine again.This is too negative. The Treverians could no longer rely on their eastern neighbors and were forced to keep quiet. Only now, Caesar dared to attack the Eburones. He ordered the cavalry commander Lucius Minucius Basilus to capture Ambiorix by surprise.
Basilus carried out these orders and completed his march more quickly than anyone thought possible. He took the natives by surprise and captured a number of them in the fields; acting on information these people gave him, he marched to the place where Ambiorix himself and a few cavalrymen were said to be.Caesar was not a very pious man, and he mentions the goddess Fortune only to explain why Ambiorix could make his escape. To divert the reader's attention even further, the general mentions the tides, a subject that the Romans found endlessly fascinating. (Besides, he is lying. The nearest islands that fit the description were the Frisian islands in the extreme north; the archipelago of modern Zeeland did not exist in the first century BCE.)
During the next days, the Roman soldiers spread dead and destruction among the Eburones. Caesar sent Labienus with three legions to the west; another commander was to plunder the valleys of the Meuse and Sambre; and he himself seems to have operated in what is now Belgian and Dutch Limburg.
As I have already said, there was no regular enemy force assembled, no town, and no garrison to offer armed resistance. The population was scattered in all directions, and each man had settled wherever a remote valley or a place in the woods or an impenetrable marsh offered some hope of protection or safety.
Considering these difficulties, I took every precaution that could be taken. Even though the troops were burning with desire for revenge, I thought it better to let go the opportunity of inflicting damage on the enemy if it could be done only at the cost of losing some of my own men. I sent messengers out to the neighboring tribes, and by offering them the prospect of booty, called on them to join me in pillaging the Eburones. My intention was to put Gauls rather than Roman legionaries at risk in the forest, and, at the same time, to overwhelm the Eburones with a huge force of men, and so wipe out that tribe and its very name, as a punishment for the great crime it had committed. Large numbers of Gauls quickly assembled from all sides. Every part of the territory of the Eburones was now being plundered.Caesar's campaign was little short of genocide. The name of the Eburones has disappeared from history: they had destroyed one of the Roman legions, and 300 days later they were wiped off the face of the earth. Only their leader Ambiorix, who had ruined his people in a moment's time, escaped and brought himself to safety on the Rhine's east bank.