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Caesar and the Nervians

Bust of Caesar. Antikensammlung, Berlin (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering. In 57 BCE, Julius Caesar attacked the Belgian tribes, who lived in the north of France and modern Belgium. They were different from the other tribes of Gaul because they were influenced by the Germanic culture in the east. A swift action against the Remi brought them over to the Roman alliance; and in the summer, Caesar could attack the Nervians, who lived in what is now called Flanders (both Belgian and French). However, the Romans, proceeding along an ancient road to the northeast, were caught off-guard, as Caesar himself almost admits in sections 16-28 of book 2 of his Commentaries on the war in Gaul. The translation is by Anne and Peter Wiseman.
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Map of Gallia Belgica in the age of Caesar. Design Jona Lendering.
When we had marched through their [the Ambianian] territory for three days. I discovered from prisoners that the river Sabis [the modern Selle] was only ten miles away from our camp and that on the far side of it all the Nervian forces had taken up position, waiting for us to arrive. The Atrebates and the Viromandui, neighboring tribes whom they had persuaded to join them in the risks of war, were with them. I was told that they were also waiting for the forces of the Aduatuci, who were already on the way. Their women folk and those considered to be too old or too young to fight had been thrust into a place where marshes made it impossible for an army to approach them.

Coin of the Nervians.
Nervian coin (©**)

On receiving this information, I sent out patrols with some centurions to choose a good site for a camp. A large number of the Belgae who had surrendered and other Gauls were following, marching with us. Some of these, as I later discovered from prisoners, having noted the marching routine of my army during those days, went by night and told the Nervians that between one legion and the next we had a long baggage train, and so when the first legion reached camp, the rest would be a long way behind; it would be quite easy to attack it while the men were still carrying their heavy packs. Once the first legion had been routed and the baggage train plundered, the rest would not dare to make a stand against them.

The battle against the Nervians. Map design Jona Lendering.
Caesar's battle against the Nervians

The plan proposed by these informers was favored by a tactic of the Nervians developed long ago because their cavalry was almost non-existent -indeed to this day they pay no attention to that arm, preferring to rely entirely on their infantry forces - and they had to find a way of thwarting the cavalry forces of neighboring tribes when they made plundering raids on them. They had succeeded in making hedges that were almost like walls, by cutting into saplings, bending them over, and intertwining thorns and brambles among the dense side-branches that grew out. These hedges provided such protection that it was impossible to see through them, let alone penetrate them. Since the march of our column would be hindered by such obstacles, the Nervians thought that the proposed plan should be tried.

We had chosen a site for our camp at a place where a hill sloped down evenly from its summit to the river Sabis, which I have already mentioned. Opposite this, on the other side of the river, there was another hill with the same sort of slope, open for about 300 meters on its lowest slopes, but so thickly wooded higher up that it was not easy to see into it. Inside this wood the main enemy force stayed hidden, while on the open ground by the river, a few cavalry pickets could be seen. The river was about a meter deep.

I had sent the cavalry on in advance and was following with the rest of my troops. However, the marching order of my column was quite different from that which the Belgae had described to the Nervians: because we were approaching the enemy, I followed my usual practice of leading my forces with six legions in light marching order; behind these I had placed the baggage train of the entire army, with the two recently recruited legions [XIII and XIV] bringing up the rear to guard them.

The Sabis today; it is now called Selle. Photo Jona Lendering.
The Sabis today

Our cavalry, with the slingers and archers, crossed the river and engaged the enemy's cavalry in battle [1]. However, they kept on withdrawing to their main force in the wood and then coming out again to charge our men, who did not attempt to pursue them beyond the edge of the open ground. Meanwhile the six legions who had arrived first marked out the ground and began to construct the camp.

The main army of the Nervians, concealed in the wood, had formed up in battle order there, full of confidence. They had agreed that. the appearance of our baggage train should signal the moment for their attack. So as soon as they caught sight of it, they suddenly dashed out in full force and charged our cavalry, easily driving them back and throwing them into confusion. They then ran down to the river with such incredible speed that it seemed to us as if they were at the edge of the wood, in the river, and on top of us almost all in the same moment. Then with the same speed they swarmed up the opposite hill towards our camp and attacked the men who were busy fortifying it.

I had to do everything at once - hoist the flag that was the signal for running to arms, sound the trumpet, recall the men from their work on the fortifications, bring back the men who had gone further afield in search of material for the rampart, get the troops into battle formation, address the men, then give the signal for attack. There was not time to do most of these things because the enemy was almost on us, but in this very difficult situation two things helped us. First, the knowledge and experience of the soldiers; their training in earlier battles meant that they could decide for themselves what had to be done without waiting to be told. Second, the order I had given to all the legionary commanders that they must stay with their legions and not leave the work until the fortification of our camp was completed. Because the enemy was so close and advancing at such speed, the commanders of the legions did not wait for further orders from me, but did what seemed best on their own initiative.

I issued only essential orders, then ran down to speak to the troops where I could first find them; it was the Tenth legion that I came across first. I addressed them keeping my words to a minimum. I said they should remember their traditional valor and not lose their nerve, but meet the enemy's attack bravely. Then as the Nervians were a mere javelin's throw away, I gave the signal for battle. Next I set off for the other wing to address the men there as well, but found them already fighting. There had been so little time, and the enemy had been so keen to fight it out, that our men had had no chance to put on their helmets or take the covers from their shields. let alone put on badges and decorations. To avoid wasting valuable time looking for his own unit, each soldier took up position by the first standards he happened to see wherever he met them, as he came from the work of fortifying the camp.

The formation of my troops was dictated more by the features of the site, the slope of the hill, and the demands of the immediate occasion than by the theories of any military rule book. The legions were isolated and had to fight the enemy in different directions; their view was hampered by the very thick hedges described above; it was impossible to find fixed points at which to position our reserves, or to see ahead what was needed in each part of the field, or indeed for any one man to give all the commands that were necessary.

"Les fossés" near Saulzoir. Photo Marco Prins.
"difficult ground": Les fossés near Saulzoir

And so, since conditions were so unpredictable, fortunes too inevitably fluctuated. The soldiers of the Ninth and the Tenth were on the left of our line, with the Atrebates facing them. They hurled their javelins and wounded many of the enemy, who were already breathless and exhausted with running, and rapidly drove them downhill into the river. My men pursued them as they tried to get across, and with their swords killed great numbers of them as they struggled in the water. The legionaries did not hesitate to cross the river themselves, and once across, they moved forward up the difficult ground. They met with resistance, the battle was renewed and they put the enemy to flight.[2

Similarly in another part of the field, the Eleventh and Eighth legions, facing in a slightly different direction, had engaged the Viromandui, driven them downhill and were fighting right on the river bank. However, our camp was now almost entirely exposed on the left and in front.

The Twelfth and the Seventh legions were drawn up quite close together on the right, and it was on this position that the entire army of the Nervians, led by their commander-in-chief Boduognatus, moved in a solid mass. Some of them began to surround the legions on their right flank; others made for the top of the hill, where the camp was.

At the same time, our cavalry and the light-armed infantry who had been with them and had been routed, as I have described above, by the enemy's first attack, were retreating into the camp when they were confronted by the enemy face to face. They took to flight once more, this time in a different direction. The army servants, watching from the rear gate on the crest of the hill, had seen our victorious troops crossing the river, and so had gone out to plunder. However, on looking back they saw the enemy in our camp, so they too took to their heels in flight. At the same time, there was an uproar as those coming up with the baggage began to rush off in different directions yelling in panic.

Among our cavalry were some sent to assist us by the Treverians. They have a unique reputation for courage among the Gauls, but they were thoroughly alarmed by all that was happening. They saw our camp filled with vast numbers of the enemy, our legions hard pressed and almost surrounded, servants, cavalry, stingers, and Numidians scattered and fleeing in every direction, and so they concluded that our position was hopeless and made off home. There they reported to their tribe that the Romans were utterly defeated and their camp and baggage train fallen into enemy hands.

After addressing the Tenth, I made my way to the right wing, where I found our troops under severe pressure. All the standards of the Twelfth had had been collected into one cramped space so its men were packed close together and getting in each other's way as they fought. All the centurions of the fourth cohort had been killed; so had the standard bearer, and the standard was lost.

In the other cohorts nearly all the centurions had been either killed or wounded, including the very brave senior centurion, Publius Sextius Baculus, who had so many terrible wounds that he could no longer stand. The rest of the men were slowing down, and some in the rear ranks had given up fighting and were intent on getting out of range of the enemy. And all the while, the enemy in front kept pouring up the hill and were pressing us on both flanks.

I recognized that this was a crisis: there were no reserves available. I had no shield with me but I snatched one from a soldier in the rear ranks and went forward to the front line. Once there, I called out to all the centurions by name and shouted encouragement to the rest of the men. I ordered them to advance and to open out their ranks so that they could use their swords more effectively. My arrival gave the troops fresh hope: their determination was restored because, with the commander-in-chief looking on, each man was eager to do his best whatever the risk to himself. As a result the enemy's attack was slowed down a little,

I then saw that the Seventh legion, which stood close to the Twelfth, was also under pressure from the enemy. I told the military tribunes to join the legions together gradually and adopt a square formation so that they could attack the enemy in any direction. This they did, with the result that our men began to offer tougher resistance and to fight more bravely: they could now support one another and were no longer afraid of the enemy moving to their rear and surrounding them.

Meanwhile, the soldiers of the two legions that had been acting as a guard to the baggage train at the rear of the column had quickened their pace an receiving reports of the battle and were now visible on the top of the hill, in full view of the enemy.

Titus Labienus had captured the enemy camp and from the high ground on which it stood, could see what was happening in our camp. He now sent the Tenth legion to our assistance. Just by observing the flight of our cavalry and the army servants, the soldiers of the Tenth could tell how things stood and how great was the danger threatening the camp, the legions and their commander-in-chief. They therefore moved up to join us with the utmost speed.

Their arrival changed things entirely. Even those of our men who had fallen to the ground wounded, began to fight again, propping themselves up on their shields. The servants, seeing the enemy's panic, ran to face them, even though the enemy were armed and they were not. The cavalry too, anxious to wipe out the disgrace of their flight by showing bravery now, were fighting anywhere and everywhere, trying to outdo the legionary soldiers.

But the enemy showed enormous courage even though their hopes of survival were almost gone; when their front lines had fallen, those behind stepped forward onto the bodies and fought from there. They too were brought down and the corpses piled up, but the survivors moved up and, as if from the top of a mound, kept on hurling their spears, intercepting our javelins and flinging them back at us. It is quite right to say that they were men of outstanding courage, having dared to cross a very wide river, clamber up its steep banks, and move on over very difficult ground. Surely only great fighting spirit could have made light of such difficulties.

So ended this battle by which the tribe of the Nervians, and even their name, were virtually wiped out. Their old men had, as I have already said, been sent away with the women and children into the tidal creeks and marshes, and when news of the battle reached them they realized that nothing could stop the victorious Romans or save the defeated Nervians. With the consent of all the survivors they sent envoys to me and surrendered. In describing the disaster their tribe had suffered, they said that from their council of 600, only three men had survived, and barely 500 from their fighting force of 60,000.[3]

Wishing it to be seen that I treated unfortunate suppliants mercifully, I took the greatest care to keep them safe. I told them to keep their lands and oppida, and I gave orders to the neighboring tribes to refrain from doing them any damage or injury and to see that their people did the same.


  • Pierre Turquin, "La Bataille de la Selle (du Sabis) en l' An 57 avant J.-C." in Les Études Classiques 23/2 (1955), 113-156

Note 1:

It seems that the cavalry was in fact operating too much in front of the Roman main force.

Note 2:
At this place, Caesar does not mention the name of the commander of the Tenth, Titus Labienus. However, he was the hero of the hour: his men defeated the Belgians in front of them, attacked them on their own side of the river and returned, attacking the Belgian main force in its rear.

Note 3:
Caesar exaggerates. In another part of his book (2.4), he has said that there were 50,000 Nervians; and under the year 52, he states that they could gather an army of 5,000 men. Nonetheless, it is clear that the Nervians suffered terribly.

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