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 so-called "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.
For Ambiorix, after planting ambuscades in the most suitable spots, came to the Romans after sending a herald to arrange for a parley, and represented that he had taken part in the war against his will and was himself sorry; but against the others he advised them to be on their guard, for his countrymen would not obey him and were intending to attack the garrison at night. Consequently he made the suggestion to them that they should abandon Eburonia, since they would be in danger if they remained, and should move on as quickly as possible to some of their comrades who were wintering near by.
Upon hearing this the Romans believed him, especially as Ambiorix had received many favors from Caesar and seemed to be repaying his kindness in this way. They hastily packed up their belongings, and setting out just after nightfall, fell into the ambush, where they suffered a terrible reverse. Cotta with many others perished immediately. Sabinus was sent for by Ambiorix under the pretext of saving him, for the Gallic leader was not present at the ambush and at that time was still thought to be trustworthy. On his arrival, however, Ambiorix seized him, stripped him of his arms and clothing, and then struck him down with his javelin, uttering boastful words over him, such as these: 'How can such creatures as you wish to rule us who are so great?' This was the fate that these men suffered. The rest managed to break through to the camp from which they had set out, but when the barbarians assailed that, too, and they could neither repel them nor escape, they killed one another.
After this event some others of the neighboring tribes revolted, among them the Nervians, though Quintus [Tullius] Cicero, a brother of [the orator] Marcus [Tullius] Cicero and lieutenant of Caesar, was wintering in their territory. Ambiorix added them to his force and engaged in battle with Cicero. The contest was close, and after capturing some prisoners alive the chieftain tried to deceive him also in some manner, but being unable to do so, besieged him. Thanks to his large force and the experience which he had gained from his service with the Romans, together with information that he obtained from the individual captives, he quickly managed to enclose him with a palisade and ditch.
There were numerous battles, as was natural in such a situation, and far larger numbers of the barbarians perished, because there were more of them. They, however, by reason of the multitude of their army did not feel their loss at all, whereas the Romans, who were not numerous in the first place, kept continually growing fewer and were hemmed in without difficulty. They were unable to care for their wounds through lack of the necessary appliances, and did not have a large supply of food, because they had been besieged unexpectedly. No one came to their aid, though many were wintering at no great distance; for the barbarians guarded the roads with care and caught all who were sent out and slaughtered them before the eyes of their friends. Now when they were in danger of being captured, a Nervian who was friendly to them as the result of kindness shown him and was at this time besieged with Cicero, furnished a slave of his to send as a messenger through the lines. Because of his dress and his speech, which was that of the natives, he was able to mingle with the enemy as one of their number without attracting notice, and afterwards went his way.
In this way Caesar, who had not yet returned to Italy but was still on the way, learned of what was taking place, and turning back, he took with him the soldiers in the winter establishments through which he passed, and pressed rapidly on. Meanwhile, being afraid that Cicero, in despair of assistance, might suffer disaster or even capitulate, he sent a horseman on ahead. For he did not trust the servant of the Nervian, in spite of having received an actual proof of his actual good will, fearing that he might pity his countrymen and work the Romans some great evil; so he sent a horseman of the allies who knew the dialect of Eburones and was dressed in their garb. And in order that even he might not reveal anything, voluntarily or involuntarily, he gave him no verbal message and wrote to Cicero in Greek all that he wished to say, in order that even if the letter were captured, it should even so be meaningless to the barbarians and afford them no information. [...] Now the horseman reached the camp of the Romans, but not being able to come close up to it, he fastened the letter to a javelin, and acting as if he were hurling it against the enemy, fixed it purposely in a tower. Thus Cicero learned of the approach of Caesar, and so took courage and held out more zealously.
But the barbarians for a long time knew nothing of the assistance Caesar was bringing; for he journeyed by night, bivouacking by day in very obscure places, in order that he might fall upon them as unexpectedly as possible. But they finally grew suspicious because of the excessive cheerfulness of the besieged and sent out scouts; and learning from them that Caesar was already drawing near, they set out against him, thinking to attack him while off his guard. He learned of it in time and remained where he was that night, for the purpose of appearing to have only a few followers, to have suffered from the journey, and to fear an attack from them, and so in this manner to draw them to the higher ground. And thus it turned out; for in their contempt of him because of this move they charged up the hill, and met with so severe a defeat that they carried on the war against him no longer.note[Cassius Dio, Roman history 40.5-10; tr. E. Cary.]
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":note[Caesar, 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.
Having decided on this plan, I sent the baggage of the entire army to Labienus in the territory of the Treverians, and ordered two legions to move there as well. I myself set out for the territory of the Menapians with five legions in light marching order. The Menapians did not collect any troops together; they relied instead on the protection given by the terrain, and fled into the forests and marshes, taking their belongings with them.
I divided our forces into three, entrusting detachments to the legate Gaius Fabius and the quaestor Marcus Crassus. Bridges were quickly constructed and the three columns advanced, burning isolated buildings and villages, and carrying off large numbers of cattle and prisoners. This forced the Menapians to send envoys to me to beg for peace. I accepted their hostages, but made it clear that I should regard them as enemies if they allowed Ambiorix or his agents into their territory.note[Caesar, The war in Gaul 6.5.4-6.2; tr. Anne & Peter Wiseman.]
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.note[Cassius Dio, Roman history 40.32.2.]
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.
[The goddess] Fortune plays a great part in all things, but particularly in war. Basilus was very lucky in catching Ambiorix completely off his guard and unprepared, and in appearing on the scene before there was any report or even rumor that he was on his way. But by a great stroke of luck, too, Ambiorix himself escaped with his life, even when he had lost all the military equipment he had with him, including his horses and wheeled vehicles.
But escape he did. For the house where he stayed was in a wood, as is usual with the houses of the Gauls, who generally look for sites near woods and rivers to avoid the heat; because they were fighting in a confined space, his followers and friends managed to hold out against the attack of our cavalry for a short time. While they were fighting, one of Ambiorix's men put him on a horse and so he got away, his flight concealed by the wood. Thus it was largely luck that had put him in danger, and luck that saved him.
Ambiorix did not mobilize his forces, but it is not clear why: either it was part of his policy, because he thought it unwise to fight; or perhaps he thought he had not time, because the sudden arrival of the Roman cavalry had taken him by surprise, and he felt sure the main body of our army was coming up close behind. At any rate, he sent out messengers through the countryside, with orders for every man to look out for himself.
Some of the people fled into the forest of the Ardennes, others into the continuous belt of marshes. Those who lived nearest to the sea hid in islands that are cut off from the mainland by the high tide. Many left their own country and entrusted themselves and all their possessions to utter strangers. Catuvolcus, who was king of half of the Eburones and had joined Ambiorix in the conspiracy, was now old and weak, unable to endure the hardships of war or flight. He solemnly cursed Ambiorix for instigating the conspiracy, and then poisoned himself with yew, a tree which is very common in Gaul and in Germany.note[Caesar, The war in Gaul 6.30.1-31.4.]
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.
These hiding places were known to the people living nearby, and it required great care to ensure the safety of our troops - not in protecting the army as a whole, for when the troops were kept together there was no danger to them from an enemy that was scattered and panic-stricken, but in keeping individual soldiers safe, though this of course was relevant to the security of the army as a whole. Their eagerness to get plunder caused many individual soldiers to venture too far, and the woodland, with its ill-defined and half concealed paths, made it impossible for men to advance in close formation.
If I wanted the business finished off and the criminals rooted out and killed, I had to divide my troops into a number of small detachments and send them out in different directions. If I wanted to follow the established practice of the Roman army and keep the companies in regular formation, then the terrain itself acted as a protection for the enemy, who were, as individuals, quite bold enough to lay an ambush and surround any of our men who strayed from the main body of our army.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.note[Caesar, The war in Gaul 6.34.1-35.1.]
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.